There are fewer women in senior leadership positions and few pursue entrepreneurship as women often let their career aspirations take a back seat for family commitments, said Smita Deorah, co-founder & co-CEO of edtech unicorn LEAD, in an interview for DealStreetAsia’s latest report on the gender funding gap in India.
Deorah added that the scenario has changed a lot in the past 10 years, as couples are playing more equitable roles at home, and women are being more vocal about their personal aspirations.
In her advice to aspiring female entrepreneurs, Deorah said, “Don’t feel shy or guilty about your personal aspirations and don’t feel the need to play to stereotypes. Continue to work towards building for the future, towards solving for your customers. And in all of this, continue to invest time and energy in your own learning.”
Mumbai-based LEAD turned unicorn early last year after raising $100 million in its Series E funding at a valuation of $1.1 billion in a Westbridge Capital-led round.
What led you to become an entrepreneur? How would you describe your journey so far?
Prior to co-founding LEAD, I spent nine years at Procter & Gamble in Singapore and India, where I led the finance, treasury and strategy verticals. While this professional journey was enriching and filled with deep learning, I was always interested in working in education. My co-founder Sumeet Mehta and I returned to India with the intent to do something meaningful and give back to our country.
To begin with, I started Sparsh, an NGO for the upliftment of Anganwadis [rural childcare centres in India] in Mumbai, where we implemented a ‘pre-school in a box’ solution in 16 Anganwadis to prepare students for school and to reduce dropouts and boost attendance. In 2012, LEAD was born of our conviction that the heart of India’s education system lies in its schools, especially in the vast majority of affordable private schools (APS) in its small towns and cities; and that excellent education is the prerogative of every child, irrespective of background or location. We began by setting up our own school on the outskirts of Ahmedabad with just 14 students and have grown to 3500+ (APS) schools in 400+ cities across India today.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a female founder? How did you overcome them?
When I started my journey in education in 2010, my children were young (2.5 years and 6 months). Like any parent-founder, I faced challenges in raising my children and taking care of my responsibilities as a founder at the same time. However, there were also a lot of natural synergies. My research on early childhood development helped me do a better job with my students and my children. I taught my older child to become an independent reader by the age of 3 (using phonics and whole-word approaches). I applied the same learnings in the curriculum I developed for my students and saw fantastic results. Everything I learned as an educator helped me be a better parent; and vice versa.
Possibly the biggest challenge I faced was in getting the school system to change inside out – helping teachers to change their deeply ingrained but dated teaching methods; getting parents to understand that just writing numbers or rote learning alphabets was not helping their children; or convincing principals to try new pedagogical approaches. I decided to start my own school so that I could fully and effectively implement the curriculum I had developed. As my students and teachers excelled, word spread about our teaching-learning approach. Today, 1.2 million+ LEAD students in 3500+ schools across India have moved away from rote learning and are building deep conceptual understanding, while developing critical 21st-century skills such as communication, collaboration and critical thinking. We are working towards our mission of providing high-quality, integrated school edtech solutions to over 60,000 schools across India by 2026 and are poised for 2X growth.
My learning has been that when you try to change a system or do something deeply different, you will face both cynicism and criticism. Most people will tell you that what you’re trying to do is not possible. However, I have always enjoyed solving deep problems and taking up such challenges. Anything is possible when you commit and persevere.
Specifically, with respect to fundraising, I have never experienced any gender-based decision-making. In the fund-raising process, I have treated every interaction as a learning opportunity. My experiences as an entrepreneur are in the context of work; they don’t have anything to do with me being a woman.
What are some of the potential reasons for the gender gap in venture funding, and how do you think these can be addressed?
There are fewer women in senior leadership positions and few pursue entrepreneurship. In my experience, I have often seen women let their career aspirations take a back seat to family commitments. However, this has dramatically changed in the past 10 years, as couples are playing more equitable roles at home, and women are being more vocal about their personal aspirations. Hence, one potential reason for the gender gap is that there aren’t enough women founding companies. The normal leadership position ratios are showing up there too. I am confident this will change very rapidly over the next few years.
In the current environment, when funding will be more difficult to secure for most startups, could female founders find it tougher to raise capital?
Funding depends on multiple things – the potential of a product/service to solve an existing problem or challenge; market size and growth potential; business model; financials; and leadership strength. Very importantly, it depends on alignment with an investor’s vision or approach to funding.
However, investors approach funding decisions in different ways. Some investors are committed to including diversity and inclusion in the start-up ecosystem. Yet others are focused on both purpose and the double bottom line (for example, LEAD’s investors). My advice to founders, irrespective of gender, would be to focus on fundamentals such as understanding the customer segment, building a strong business model, ensuring a robust growth strategy and learning the ability to tell their story well.
What advice would you give other female entrepreneurs?
Don’t feel shy or guilty about your personal aspirations and don’t feel the need to play to stereotypes. Continue to work towards building for the future, towards solving for your customers. And in all of this, continue to invest time and energy in your own learning.
In your opinion, what are some of the most important factors that investors should consider when evaluating a startup, regardless of the founder’s gender?
Honestly, I don’t think investors need any advice from founders. They are experts in their area of work. I can comment on what I have seen some of the really good investors do. They make decisions on first principles and bottom-up thinking. They are not swayed by the trends and noise in the market. They go deep in understanding the company, its products, customers and the leadership team to take a view. For founders, such investors are great long-term partners, because they share the founder’s convictions.
Do you think that investors tend to have different expectations or standards for female founders versus male founders?
I really doubt this and haven’t seen this in my experience.
How has being a female entrepreneur influenced your leadership style and approach to running a business?
My gender has not played a role in my leadership style or way of running the business. Like any individual, I have my unique leadership style. I would really encourage the ecosystem to see all entrepreneurs for their uniqueness based on their work and without their gender labels.