COVID Second Wave For Women Entrepreneurs: Tales Of Survival and Redefining Businesses Despite the many hurdles, women entrepreneurs have always claimed a space for themselves within the business sector and more broadly as contributors to India's economy

By Deepthi Ravula

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India and the world went into an unprecedented closure in 2020. Harsh lockdowns were imposed to limit the spread of COVID-19. The impact on businesses was huge, and there were fears of a recession. It was particularly testing for many small enterprises. Many women entrepreneurs running small businesses had a challenging time the past year.

The second wave of the pandemic that we are unfortunately witnessing has only added to their existing woes.

Today, India has 13.5 to 15.7 million women-owned enterprises, which is less than 20 per cent of all businesses. Single-person businesses provide direct employment to an estimated 22 to 27 million people. A study by Google and Bain & Co. surveyed close to 350 women entrepreneurs and small business owners in urban India.

According to the report, 73 per cent of women were negatively impacted by the pandemic, with 35 per cent experiencing a significant decline in revenue. The revenue of about 20 per cent of women entrepreneurs dwindled to zero. After an abrupt drop in March and April 2020 due to the lockdown, growth in businesses for women entrepreneurs as of October 2020 was about one-third of pre-COVID-19 levels. The data shows that women-owned businesses have seen a devastating impact, such as the hospitality and professional services sectors. For women entrepreneurs, income stability is completely tied to generating business and revenue.

With the second wave at its peak, we have witnessed tales of admirable grit and perseverance among the Indian women entrepreneurs who are looking for opportunities in the chaos and finding a way to survive and thrive. Startups from various sectors are extensively mapping solutions to adjust to the new normal, as the crisis continues.

Re-strategising and reconnecting with the market

Women entrepreneurs don't shy away from the challenges they face. Most startups during the pandemic are working to sustain themselves during this period and make changes in the following areas: organisational management, financial remodelling, financial linkages, including debt and credit linkages, government liaisons, new customer acquisition, product diversification, ideation, including pivot.

A women-led startup, Radius EduTech, which provides end-to-end digital transformation for educational institutions, is one such startup that took a big hit during the pandemic. The hardware they use to build equipment faced severe logistical issues due to the global crisis. The edtech startup quickly pivoted and was able to create and strengthen an alternate video conferencing software platform, OCTA.

The second wave gave enough time for Radius to modify and strengthen the video conferencing tool. They worked on student monitoring where any misuse or tab minimisation of the student would immediately intimate the teacher and the parents that the child has un- joined the session. Keeping in mind the difficulty of students facing interruptions when taking the tests from low connectivity areas, Radius has come up with a new testing platform that works well even without facing a lag in the test experience.

Another woman-owned start-up, Sweetooth, strategised its business plan during the pandemic by focusing on manufacturing only the essential food items (bread and bun).

The second wave in 2021 came as a surprise and made the founder realise that emergencies are bound to happen unexpectedly.

She directed her focus on retail- diversification and connected with firms like Q-Mart. The start-up also started working on increasing the variety of frozen foods and has started R & D to work on the shelf lives. Interestingly, amid the pandemic, she has now started working on chaos models of sweet tooth, which will reduce her dependency on third parties to make the firm more sustainable.

Navigating through the pandemic

Women entrepreneurs have navigated several obstacles, starting from taking on the majority of the household's caregiving duties while they work to facing difficulties in accessing financial linkages, including support from the financial institutions. Women entrepreneurs must be resourceful, flexible and agile to succeed.

These challenges, in turn, have enabled women entrepreneurs to turn to learn, unlearn, grow and survive.

Take Shree Latha Garments and Ladies Tailors from Telangana, for instance. During the pandemic, Latha Nadukuda started getting orders from local Self-Help Groups (SHGs) to make masks and PPE kits for the local government and private hospitals from parts of Telangana.

Through her small business, she, along with her husband, empowered several local women. Not only did the couple purchase a sewing machine for each of them, but they also trained them in various skills pertaining to the business. Some of these women have also gone on to establish their own businesses.

With the growing reputation of the products crafted by Shree Latha Garments, more government orders came in, leading to the growth of the business. During the pandemic, all employees worked from home and had a steady source of income, with some of them earning up to INR 1.5 lakhs per month.

Successful women business leaders give back to society by mentoring potential and early-stage entrepreneurs to create a pipeline of future women entrepreneurs.

It remains to be seen if and how women entrepreneurs will recover after the recession and economic downturn. It is also uncertain how long the recovery process will take. But, despite the many hurdles, women entrepreneurs have always claimed a space for themselves within the business sector and more broadly as contributors to India's economy.

Wavy Line
Deepthi Ravula


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