It has given me a good boost in confidence, and made me believe I have what it takes to be a good leader, to inspire people, and motivate them.”

A seemingly simple line, packed with so much triumph. This was a remark by Supriya Ghurye, who is the founder of Fuel for Fashion, and one of the participants of the second SHELeads program.

In November 2021, GIZ’s Her&Now project and Unlock Impact, wrapped up their second round of the SHELeads program. The program that ran for a duration of 8 weeks hosted a total of 86 women entrepreneurs from all over India, with ventures ranging from a year to over 10 years old. As the program was sector agnostic, entrepreneurs came from various industries such as F&B, wellness and health, real estate, fashion, agriculture, education, and homecare, among others. The SHELeads pilot program was launched on the International Women's Day last year and ran until April 2021.

How did the program come about?

A significant gap continues to exist in the world of entrepreneurship, with women entrepreneurs having less access to sources of funding as well as mentoring and coaching opportunities, making it more difficult for them to find their voice and a space within the male dominated and challenging ecosystem. Women make up only 13.76% of entrepreneurs in India, and in addition to this, 1 in 3 women-led businesses will have shut down due to the pandemic.

With this in mind, the SHELeads program was created by Unlock Impact, with funding from GIZ Her&Now project, to unleash each woman entrepreneur’s personal style of leadership, and empower her to run a successful and sustainable business. It’s not only about having a sound business model, but having the confidence to see it through. The program was not designed with the notion of levelling the playing field, but of creating a new one for women entrepreneurs to thrive in.

The program catered specifically towards women entrepreneurs. With the knowledge that there are inequalities in the ecosystem, they cannot be given the same tips and tricks as their male counterparts as they have different hurdles to overcome, and different ways of doing so. It is also very flexible, being a completely virtual, learn at your own pace curriculum, taking into consideration that women wear different hats throughout the day. Because of this, they may not be able to follow the stricter schedule that live online classes would require.

It’s an honest and realistic program that helped me be honest and reflect on my reality. The videos helped me get over my fear of public speaking.” - Vidya Nair founder of Svabhiman Healthful Living

What exactly is this program and how does it work?

The SHELeads program is an 8-week virtual leadership program for women entrepreneurs. It covers themes on gender, business, and leadership. Seven relevant topics were chosen in relation to common challenges that women entrepreneurs face along their entrepreneurial journey. The included topics were 1) Mindrames: Playing to win or to lose, 2) Conquering your imposter syndrome, 3) Building your personal brand, 4) Getting investment ready, 5) Effective leadership, 6) Building a strong company culture, and finally 7) Navigating your unconscious bias. This curated curriculum was delivered through a series of interconnected online video lessons released each week, along with a reflection exercise that participants were required to complete.

In addition to the lessons, networking events were held for the women to be able to get to know each other better and form a community within SHELeads. This aspect of the program was designed to promote further discussions on the lessons given. At the same time, the aim was to create a support system and safe space for the women, as the entrepreneurial journey is oftentimes a challenging and lonely one.  Now these women are part of a larger community that includes participants from both SHELeads cohorts.

The success of the program is seen most in the thriving community that has grown from it, because the learning never stops. These women have taken it upon themselves to further the conversation, remaining active in learning sessions, and networking events offered to them. They continue to be open about their experiences, their triumphs, and the challenges they face, sharing them on their respective group chats, showing up for themselves, and for one another.

One of the observations at the beginning of the program was how the participants seemed to shy away from remarks about wanting financial success, and were always down playing what they thought they deserved. So why was that remark about confidence at the beginning so impactful? Because as cliché as it sounds, it all comes down to believing in yourself, and sometimes you need to find your tribe to show you that you can do it. It was never about telling them how to be a leader, but empowering the already existing leader in each woman.

So, what’s next?

The work doesn’t stop here, and while attendance of these leadership programs demonstrate a shift in women taking initiative to better themselves as leaders, and thriving in the space, there is still a lot more to do.

Numbers also tell a story, with only 2% of venture capital funding being allocated towards women entrepreneurs. In Asia women entrepreneurs are 17% less likely to have borrowed formally from institutions. With this in mind, Unlock Impact launched its newest initiative, Nüshu Network, a platform that aims to empower women entrepreneurs to succeed on their own terms. With the help and generosity of GIZ, the platform is able to offer its members access to the SHELeads program. They also have the opportunity to attend monthly learning sessions, networking events, and be part of a thriving community of women entrepreneurs from South and Southeast Asia.

No doubt there is still a long way to go, but as long as these women continue to show up for themselves, so will those who support them.

Author Profile-

Beatriz Galvez is a program associate at Unlock Impact. She managed the SHELeads programme, and continues to handle program management as well as community engagement at Unlock Impact’s new platform, Nüshu Network. Beatriz has always been an advocate of women empowerment, and strongly believes in the change that each individual has the capacity to ignite.