The State of the South Asian Female Entrepreneurby Joya Dass, NY1 Reporter and LadyDrinks co-founder.
I overheard one of the attendees of my July networking event, exclaiming this statement. I had to laugh. It was as if she was proclaiming her need to do something as banal as “do pushups” or “do laundry.”
This particular member had become famous for designing clever cakes in the shapes of Jimmy Choo heels and violins, and now catered to a celebrity clientele with even more esoteric baking requests. As she overhauls her website for 2015 , someone had counselled her that she needed to “up her SEO.” The counsellor had clearly failed to explain what the term actually meant. So here she was, among a bevy of South Asian women, proclaiming she needed to ‘do SEO.’ They all looked at her with equal parts amusement and bewilderment. I pulled her aside and explained that SEO is a process by which one back-end loads their website or blog content with keywords they want to be associated with. This in effect makes her bakery come up higher in a search if someone was googling ‘custom cakes’ in the NY metro area. It’s not something you ‘do.’
I may have made a breakthrough in that conversation. However, it spoke to a larger issue:
While South Asians were one of the fastest growing populations between 2000 and 2010 (US Census data), second only to the Chinese population, it doesn’t mean the systems for supporting this population grew with them. Especially when it comes to family, many of whom are immigrants.
I’ve known that I wanted to become a journalist since I was 4 years old. But when I announced that ambition to my own immigrant parents, their only answer was ‘figure it out on your own. We don’t have the money for it.’ Through a series of self financed moves through college, grad school, and beyond, I made my dream come true. But, as a recent survey by Asian Women Mean Business points out, 21 percent of Asian women surveyed, said their friends were sources of practical support versus 18% who said it was their family. I leaned heavily on my friends in those formative years before becoming an anchor.
So, the onus is on us, the generation that was born to the first wave of Indian immigrants that came here in 1969, to diffuse the feeling of aloneness and create a support system. We are still finding our way, and in the words of boutique owner Shirin Arenja Vinayak, finding each other. She built her enterprise Shehnaai couture under a decade ago, and recalls a time when she couldn’t find one female counterpart to lean on for information: “Even something as simple as a referral from someone for something as simple as PR, or to be able to market through xyz channel. Who do I connect with? There was nobody that you could talk to.”
Today some of that has changed, given the advent of LadyDrinks networking and the web connecting us all. But the support systems still largely exist in metro areas as large as New York City, which has also seen the largest influx of South Asians over any other part of the country according to US Census data from 2010. South Asian women in other parts of the world are still working to find each other.
Rupinder Kaur and Panna Chauhan, who run Asian women Mean Business in the UK, polled 211 Asian women in an online anonymous survey and conducted focus groups to understand what keeps Asian women who aspire to become entrepreneurs up at night. The results indicated that 88% felt there were not enough role models for Asian women in business. Singer Falu couldn’t agree more. When she first came to the country, she couldn’t find a South Asian woman that faced the same struggles as her.
“Loneliness is something that I didn’t even know existed until I came to America. Because when you come here, people sometimes they have family, some people don’t have family. I was one of those.…….Loneliness was one of the hardest things I faced in America.“ Today she has forged her own path, and hardly wanting for good company. She is has sung on stage with mainstream artists such as Blues Travellers and Yo Yo Ma. She has even sang for the President of the Untied States. But she recalls how tough the first ten years of her life America was. Today as a mother and a wife, she has new struggles to contend with “You know honestly, if you know of a role model, I’m looking for one,” says Falu.
The second most interesting finding of AWMB’s Kaur and Chauhan is that “74 percent of Asian women feel that Asian culture is holding them back from starting a business.” While many women in the US are engaged in conversations about glass ceilings and wage equality, South Asian women admit there are some blaring cultural roadblocks that stand between them and business success. Shobha Tummala, CEO of Shobha threading salons, like me, says, its something as fundamental as a parent being supportive when she started her business.
“I got the support of my mom, but not my dad. He actually didn’t talk to me for a year,” she laughs. Shobha went ahead and did it anyway. Today this Harvard grad boasts of an empire is five salons strong and extends from New York to Washington, D.C.. But she gets it. With parents who emigrated from another country, security was topmost for their offspring. And that security could only be found in occupations like doctor, lawyer engineer. Not as entrepreneurs.
“I always knew I wanted to go into business and that’s non-traditional in the South Asian culture.”
There is the very extreme case of cultural oppression documented in Sarbjit Kaur Athwal’s recent book “Shamed,” available in Amazon. In it, she talks about her sister in law who faced fatal repercussions for getting a job and wanting to socialize with her colleagues, ‘just like everyone else.’
Then there are the cultural mores that dictate women must work harder to prove themselves. Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi famously brought this to light in an interview at the Aspen Ideas Conference. The day she was named CEO of the multibillion dollar company, she could barely utter the news as her mother was ushering her back out the door to get milk. Her mother chided her to leave her ‘crown in the garage’ because regardless of her social standing in the American world, when she entered her Indian home, she was daughter, wife, and mother first.Lakshmi Puri, Assistant Secretary General to the United Nations and deputy executive director of Un Women, got a similar talking to, but she heard it from her six year old daughter. Puri had spent many years, working on postings that meant she and her husband were working in different countries. It also meant late nights and long hours. While working at the Human Rights Commission, she had just logged her third consecutive late night and came home to find her six year old daughter still awake.
“Mommy, you sit down here,” her daughter said urgently. ” I want to have a conversation with you.” Her tone of voice suggested she was quite serious. “I want to ask you Mommy. Why do you have to work?”
Puri admitted, she was speechless for a while and found herself rationalizing this notion even to herself. She didn’t need to be at the commission until the wee hours of the negotiations, taking the lead on finding a resolution. But her passion and commitment was driving her. Puri gave her daughter an answer that night.
“As a woman, you have to do extra to prove yourself. So you’re all the time proving yourself. You’re always trying to be perfect. And in seeking perfection, you will have to do that too.”
Puri smiles as she explains that she eventually succumbed to an ultimatum from her daughter. She not only had to be posted in the same country as her husband, but both had to live under the same roof.With LadyDrinks I have some initiatives underway to make headway on some of these fronts. I’ve shot a series of interviews with South Asian women, similar to the PBS/AOL initiative, Makers.com so the next generation of girl can witness dj’s, musicians, makeup artists engaged successfully in their occupations—— AND who look just like them. I’m hosting retreats and events, designed to create a safe space to have important dialogue, and even ‘DO SEO’ successfully. But in the back of my mind, I’m also hoping to create that support structure that I never had.