‘Be comfortable with the uncomfortable. Don’t let others define you’: Kinara Capital founder Hardika Shah
Entrepreneurship is no longer alien to women in India. Today, women are doing exceptional work, despite cultural and social norms that hinder their journey.
Anushruti Singh March 2, 2020
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Few years ago, only 3% of venture capital went to women entrepreneurs, and the statistics hasn’t changed much even in 2020. Despite social and cultural challenges, women entrepreneurs are scripting a success story in their own way. Finance – one field where women are far less likely than men – is also witnessing a change. Today, women in fintech are exceptional in their work; and one such example is Hardika Shah.
Shah is the founder of a profitable fintech lending company, Kinara Capital. It should be noted that profitability is rare in the fintech space in India. Till now, the firm has disbursed Rs. 1,703 crore across 50,000 loans to small businesses. Today, the company is qualified as systematically important by the RBI and has impacted over half a million lives in India.
She has been recognized for her innovative and pioneering work with Kinara. Shah was honored as an Ashoka Fellow by the Ashoka Foundation; received the Financial Inclusion award from Sankalp Foundation; won the people’s choice Live Audience award at the Wall Street Journal Financial Inclusion event; and received support from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.
In a tête-à-tête with SMEFutures, Shah narrates her real-life experiences and her entrepreneurial journey. “I feel empowered because as a leader, you can effectuate changes. Some had “advised” me to not take a gamble by adding women CXOs as I am already a woman trying to build something new.”
Tell us about your initial life journey.
I grew up in a middle-class family in Bombay to a very determined set of parents. My father, who is blind and was born in a small village in Gujarat, became an accomplished professor of political science at the University of Bombay. Today, he continues to teach in the US. My mother always had entrepreneurial leanings and was very active with volunteer groups and ran a couple of small businesses while I was growing up. I think the best thing my parents did for my sister and me was to remove the laundry list of barriers that are culturally placed on a girl.
From early on, the importance of hard work and education was stressed. They made a lot of sacrifices to send me for college education in the US. It was unheard of in the late 1980s for a middle-class Gujarati family to sell their one home and move into a one-bedroom flat so that their daughter could study abroad. Their sacrifices gave me an incredible opportunity and access to the then emerging field of computer science. I studied at Knox College in Illinois, a small liberal arts college in the beautiful town of Galesburg. From there, I built my career in management consulting with Accenture and the work took me around the globe from Australia to Japan to Singapore to even to India.
In fact, in the early 2000s my work brought me to India which was going through a massive transformation, and I set up Accenture’s first delivery centre in Hyderabad. Later on, I pursued an MBA from a joint programme with Columbia Business School and UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
What led you set up Kinara Capital in India, when you could have executed this idea anywhere else you wanted?
My inspiration comes from the real-life struggles that I witnessed during my formative years in Bombay. I saw a lot of jugaad from early on in my life with my mother who was running a small business, and with other relatives and neighbors who were trying hard to build their businesses. Many people with entrepreneurial leanings were stuck with no access to capital to either start or grow their business. Despite India embracing an open economy years ago, I still saw the same jugaad by small business entrepreneurs who were piecing personal loans together to somehow catch a break. I noticed the gap between commercial capital and micro finance capital. Small businesses are the real economic drivers and they have the power to transform their communities with income generation and job creation. I was motivated to resolve this in some way. While in business school, I had the opportunity to explore this further, and I started building new risk-assessment methodologies and ran a pilot in India. The learnings and success of that pilot became the genesis of Kinara Capital. In 2011, I wrapped up my whole life and moved to India after having lived abroad for more than 20 years.
With its cultural and economic diversity, India is the right place for this concept. India has a strong spirit of entrepreneurialism; it is one of the world’s largest economies with nearly 60 million micro-small-medium-enterprises (MSMEs). The opportunity to make an impact in India by driving financial inclusion is immense. As a result of the small business loans provided by Kinara Capital, more than 60,000 new jobs have been created positively impacting nearly a million lives.
How does it feel to be a woman leading a fintech company? Do you think the glass ceiling still exists in the financial world?
I feel empowered because as a leader you can effectuate changes. Some had “advised” me to not take a gamble by adding women CXOs as I am already a woman trying to build something new. This is where it helped to have autonomy as I did not deter from hiring women as CXOs. At Kinara Capital, the CEO, CFO, CTO and majority of our management team are all women. And, I am very proud that we have demonstrated growth and profitability in a heavily male-dominated field. An S&P report last year proved that companies with both CEO and CFO as women performed better. Yet, even with Fortune 500 companies, there are less than five companies that have women in both CEO and CFO roles. Of course, the glass ceiling extends beyond finance. Few years ago, less than 3 per cent of all women-led companies accessed VC-funding around the world. And stepping into 2020, that statistic still hasn’t changed much.
As a woman entrepreneur in the financial gig, what were the challenges that you faced and how did you cope up?
Well, hopefully you will consider Kinara Capital as more than a ‘gig’ for me! There have been many challenges in building a company that disrupted traditional lending practices. I coped with it by leading by example. Building a dependable team has been the most important. Giving thoughtful and progressive women and men opportunities to collaborate intelligently creates a rewarding work culture. One of the practices that have served me well is to have an open culture. I don’t have an assistant and neither does any of the other CXOs. Anyone in the organization is welcome to speak directly with me or anyone else in the management team. This means that we are opening the lines of communication and making it okay for people to share positive or critical feedback even with the management. By reducing layers of bureaucratic processes, we can learn and implement changes quickly if something is not working.
In 2020, what does it mean to be empowered? How would you define women empowerment in today’s scenario? How are you encouraging women in your sphere?
In today’s world, being self-empowered means going beyond yourself and empowering others to become the best versions of themselves. If you are an entrepreneur, you are inherently self-empowered. As a woman entrepreneur, to me, this means staying true to your values because you will be questioned and challenged every day.
There is so much ambitious young talent in this country, but they frequently are not taught to speak up and voice their opinions. I take the time to mentor and encourage young women to voice their opinion. Here the women-majority management team in itself is empowering for others. I also believe that men and women need to be involved in the dialogue around gender parity, so we include all perspectives in our discussion.
There is certainly more emphasis on women in leadership and women’s contributions today. Having an open dialogue is an important step, and I believe that we are moving in a positive direction for the next generation.
This year’s theme for Women’s day is ‘Equality’ – where Indian workplaces still lack. Your views?
There are many ways in which we can play a role in building gender parity. In fact, my hope is to see inclusivity in more places in India that go beyond the cisgender norms. At Kinara, we are nearing an equal split at our corporate office between men and women. We continuously work towards eliminating gender-based biases to build a fair and equitable treatment.
A significant change that other workplaces can easily make is to stop themselves from asking women about their personal lives, in a professional setting. It is shockingly a common practice in many companies to interrogate women about their marital status and children, even as part of a job interview. Or, to ask women business owners if they have permission from their husbands when applying for a business loan even if she is the sole owner.
These are some practices that we have consciously eliminated at Kinara Capital. Whether it is a job interview, or a potential customer verification process, we treat women with respect and do not ask about their relationship status or any personal information that has no bearing on their capabilities. We also use psychometric testing for both employees and customers to remove personal biases from the process.
International Women’s Day is a good time to remind ourselves that we all stand to gain by pushing for an equitable workforce. Women’s participation in the formal workforce in India is lower than the global average and if this shifts even by 10%, then India’s GDP can increase by $700 billion in the next five years. That’s a goal that we can all agree on achieving and each one of us can play a part in making this change possible.
How is Kinara Capital addressing the gaps that banks are missing out? Are women the centre of your focus?
Kinara Capital provides fast and flexible small business loans in the range of Rs. 2-25 lakhs without property collateral within 5-7 days. We provide a variety of business loans on a reducing rate basis including asset purchase, working capital, line of credit, bill discounting, and more.
In understanding the needs of small business entrepreneurs in India, I recognized two important factors to address, if one is serious about driving financial inclusion. Firstly, remove the burden of requiring property collateral, and second is to improve the turnaround time of loan disbursement so that small business owners can make a timely decision for their business growth.
To make this possible, we have combined technology with a human touch. Our doorstep customer service means that our field officers visit the small business owners at their place of business. We communicate in our customer’s preferred language and help them with the application process and with understanding their loan options.
With end-to-end digital and data-driven processes, we are able to move quickly through all the steps, including decision-making, business verification, psychometric testing and final loan disbursement in less than one week from the point of the first inquiry.
The typical lending process with banks requires collateral for business loans. And even with collateral, the responsibility is on the borrower to figure out the multiple requirements, gather the paperwork and make multiple trips to the bank in order to get a loan.
This limits most business owners who need help with the process and need access to capital quickly. Therefore, at Kinara Capital, we shoulder the risk alongside the entrepreneurs.
We envision a financially inclusive world where every entrepreneur has access to capital. Our social impact mission of driving financial inclusion is equally important to us as building a sustainable business. Less than 14% of all businesses in India are owned by women.
In the last decade, the number of women entrepreneurs has been declining in India. To encourage women entrepreneurs, Kinara Capital has launched the HerVikas programme that offers an upfront discount to the business owners. We have committed to Rs 100 crore disbursement for women entrepreneurs under the HerVikas programme for FY20-21. We also are in the process of rolling out our Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programme where we have committed to supporting 500,000 women entrepreneurs in this decade.
How do manage the work-life balance, which is considered as myth – especially for working women?
As entrepreneurs, you are pursuing your passion, so your work is also your life and they are uniquely intertwined in this digital age. My husband and I make time to spend Sundays together and travel together a couple of times every year. We make time for friends and family by inviting them to stay with us. I make time for what matters, however, there is no one magic formula here. Running a fast-growing company of 1300+ employees is a priority for me. Every day you get to make a choice on how to prioritize your passion and your personal endeavours.
What will be your message to all the women out there especially budding women entrepreneurs?
Be comfortable with the uncomfortable. You will be constantly questioned and judged no matter who you are and what you do – so, stay focused on your entrepreneurial mission and lead with your values. Even after building a profitable fintech, I have been told that I am “too aggressive” or “too soft”. So, don’t let others define you.
Learn to decipher between constructive criticism and negative bias. Listen carefully to what someone might be sharing with you, but do not become a people pleaser, which is a tendency that I have noticed in many women entrepreneurs.
Don’t let other’s biased judgments that don’t add any helpful value bother you or your work, even if that means walking away from a partnership or an investment. Focus on your goals and seek out like-minded people to add to your team.
Lastly, remember that as an entrepreneur, you have power over your choices and an immense opportunity to lead by example.