Lessons for Entrepreneurship by Women in HealthTech
“From the beginning I had a strong love for science. I got selected in top engineering and medical colleges after high school. Back then, we did not have many girls studying engineering, and many told me to study medicine. But I chose to study computer science instead. At that time, there were only ten girls in our batch”, what Geetha Majumnath, Founder, CEO & CTO of NIRAMAI describes, is not atypical to the journey of a multitude of women in STEM all around the world, and especially in India. This would also not be the only time that Geetha and countless other women scientists looking to enter the health tech entrepreneurship space, will encounter a domain that is heavily populated with men and chart their own untraversed paths towards success. A recent RBI survey found that only 6 percent of startups surveyed have “only female founders”. Underrepresentation of women however is not just restricted to when women venture out to start something of their own, rather also found in workplaces, especially when we look at research and innovation. “At IISC, I was one of the only two women in my cohort”, said Geetha, describing her experiences in further studies that paved her way for a career in research. For Geetha however, this was always a learning experience and challenge. “Coming from a conservative background, my time at IISC broadened my horizons, so that I was able to interact with everybody confidently”. Recounting other incidents at the workplace where her ideas would not be taken as seriously as a consequence of being one of the few women researchers in the room Geetha said, “ I had to slog it out, build prototypes overnight… I would not be wrong in saying that a woman has to do twice the amount of work in order to gain the confidence or trust of someone [in comparison to a man.].”
The health tech industry has always been one of the fastest growing sectors in India. With easily available talent and low costs of production and innovation, it is no surprise that we are seeing women researchers leave to start ventures of their own. For them, the inequitable startup landscape for women is nothing new. Having previously dealt with gender inequality in a heavily male dominated industry like STEM, taking on the role of an entrepreneur is akin to trading on a set of hurdles for another. Women entrepreneurs have to overcome a wide variety of obstacles such as conscious or unconscious gender bias, smaller networks in comparison to men, or even personal insecurities and poor confidence that plague men to a lesser extent.
“The main problem is the networking ability of the woman”, described Geetha when discussing the hurdles that emerge for a woman entrepreneur looking to raise funds for her venture. “Reaching out to investors on your own [in a networking event or a conference] to get your pitch heard, can be a little difficult for the female entrepreneur… because of the sheer numbers… there are 10 of us [women] in comparison to 100 [men] making it hard to gather the confidence to make our case, even though a lot of them are extremely welcoming. How we project ourselves is also an issue. We need to do double the work to feel confident with ourselves [in comparison to a man]”. Indeed, evidence suggests that women are less self-assured than men, and confidence is paramount to succeed in entrepreneurship.
However, the obstacles are not merely internal, as Shilpa Malik, founder of Bioscan Research Ltd. recounted, “While people are generally open to interacting with a female entrepreneur, there are certain places where I will take my male colleague along with me to deal with them [business partners, stakeholders etc.] ”. Garnering the confidence of investors can also be difficult at times, as Geetha recalled, “Our idea was ambitious and complex, so our investors had to place an immense amount of trust in us, especially given that our word might not be taken as seriously being a female entrepreneur”.
What these women possessed in order to overcome these challenges was, “Perseverance to solve the problem.”, stated Geetha almost immediately, “I really believe in the idea, and am extremely passionate about it. This is something bigger than myself, I believe that this solution is going to save so many women. That is what drives me every day”. Perseverance is what ultimately provided Geetha with the confidence to overcome her own inhibitions and advocated for her venture.
For Shilpa the journey to create her own venture has also been transformative. “This journey has been extremely empowering. I have become extremely resilient as I have overcome my self doubts in order to create this venture”. When asked about what advice she would give a younger version of herself, Shilpa said, “It is very important, especially for young girls to believe in themselves, find out what is unique about you and hone it to become a strength”. In her case it was “Sensitivity. I always considered it to be my weakness. However, I have incorporated this personality trait into my business, and I really empathise with my employees, my doctors, and use it as my strength”. Thus proving that there indeed is an important place for feminine characteristics and personality traits which are normally considered to be a burden in the business world.
Despite poor representation of women in the startup space, the winds of change have begun to sweep the ecosystem. For Shilpa, the gender discrimination at incubation centres and accelerators was not a major obstacle and she was welcomed with open arms. Both women received immense family support and societal acceptance for their ambitions but more work still needs to be done. “ While I find more and more women entering the health tech ecosystem than before, women need to dream big”, Geetha observes, “Women are still underrepresented when we look at bigger health tech companies, where most of the founders are still men. It is because we are still not ambitious enough to set bigger goals. Some of the most invaluable advice that I have received is to believe in myself more to have a more ambitious vision about NIRAMAI, which has aided me to achieve those goals and even more!”
About the Women:
Geetha Majumnath is the Founder, CEO and CTO of NIRAMAI, which aims to develop a novel software to detect breast cancer at a much earlier stage. Low cost, automated, portable cancer screening tool that can be operated by a simple clinician. Uses artificial intelligence, machine learning, thermal image processing.
Shilpa Malik is the Co-Founder and CTO of Bioscan Research Ltd. which is leveraging deep tech in optics, electronics, mechanics and software to develop, test, manufacture and commercialise affordable medical devices for early detection of life threatening diseases non invasively.