Gauri Kuchhal on mentoring female founders
Gauri is Principal at Artha Venture Fund, a micro-Venture Capital company investing in early-stage startups that solve the challenges of Indian consumers and businesses. Artha Venture Fund is also active with incubators and accelerators.
Gauri has mentored startups for Rise Mumbai.
When I started my career in investment banking, nearly 12 years ago, it was a male-dominated industry. I was the only female analyst in the firm and, although I received guidance from some quarters, I struggled finding a really good mentor and getting that ace advice to really help me get better at my job, and in turn grow and succeed on my career path.
On the plus side, I was able to recognise what I was missing out on, and did something about it. I became more independent in my thinking by researching other people’s opinions and ideas and did lots of reading to gain the knowledge and experience I had sought but failed to get from others. Leveraging a network of old school friends was also invaluable. Even though they were in completely different industries like fashion or teaching, they were also experiencing similar difficulties to me, and the glass ceiling loomed over their careers too. Connecting with those school mates to discuss and ideate professional advancement was a real boost and helped get me to where I am today.
In later years, I realised that I hadn’t been alone and things hadn’t changed much for women. Others were struggling with the problems I’d experienced earlier in my career, so I decided to give something back to the community, helping women in general, specifically female founders of the startups I was dealing with at work. This is how I got involved in mentoring women across several ecosystems, including Rise.
What mentoring means to me
Mentoring is not a methodical process, and a mentor is not someone who has all the answers: they’re someone who can help others find a right way to get the answers. It’s more about support and often all that’s required is giving a gentle push in the right direction. It’s also a two-way process. I learn so much from the two to three startups I typically talk with on a daily basis.
For similarly minded women wanting to make progress in male-dominated industries, I would recommend seeking out individuals, teams and environments where you can develop your projects, almost like a sandbox where you and your ideas can’t be broken and where your mistakes (there will be plenty) are positive learning experiences. We need safe spaces like this because let’s face it, Indian women in some industries are constantly being compared and contrasted with their male colleagues, and that can be tiring at best and, at worst, derail career ambitions. Don’t let it!
I get asked a lot by women whether they will get discounted as a female founder when they pitch to investors and whether corporates have a preference for male founders. I tell them they should be themselves and remain confident. That, along with a great value proposition, market fit, business plan and passion, is what ultimately will sell you and your company. Also, don’t over-apologise – I see that a lot. For example, when an investor spots a shortcoming in your pitch deck, it’s no big deal. Say sorry and move on. Contrition could be interpreted as a sign of weakness – which it isn’t – and it’s something many male founders would never dream of doing, so you shouldn’t either.
When comparing men and women at Artha Venture Fund, we don’t differentiate males from female founders. We’re gender-agnostic when it comes to funding, and capital is available to all. We’ve invested in nine companies to date, four of which have female founders or cofounders. That goes for our hiring policy too. We’re recruiting analysts at the moment, and ideally, I’d like to see a 50:50 split between the sexes – such a change from my investment banking days! – though we will be selecting based solely on merit and what the incumbent brings to the table to add value.
I’m so glad when the female founders I encounter remain motivated and persevere. It’s how they continue to think big – something I encourage more women to do. I like to compare Durga (a goddess of strength and Shakti, energy) and Sita (a goddess of self-sacrifice and patience). Both are right, but business requires one of these, and that’s Durga.
Startups thrive on feedback
The fledgling companies I meet are often young, just out of university, and need lots of coaching on the basics like product-market fit, business planning, revenue/cost assumptions and their company’s trajectory. Even if we choose not to invest, we always give feedback. As an industry, we owe startups that. Who else can they approach for funding? How can they perfect their presentations? And, not least, how can they handle rejection? Maybe that’s not something they learn after a typical pitch, but I encounter their disappointments frequently in my mentoring capacity. As a startup, there’s a lot of rejection. 99 out of 100 potential investors will say no. So get feedback at every opportunity – from anyone and everyone you present to. Use the feedback to refine your value proposition, your funding approach, your business plan or your pitch.
- Bust the myth that women can’t succeed as founders
- Don’t perpetuate the falsehood that, to be a leader, women have to be ball-breakers
- Think big, think Shakti, be Durga