“You can’t do it because you are a girl,” those were the words that Dr. Somdutta Singh had to hear often. But she was determined to change it all. Since the age of 15 she knew what she wanted to do and her journey while pursuing that has been phenomenal.
With 16 and more years of experience, today she has many accolades to her credit. She is a serial entrepreneur, angel investor, author and motivational speaker. Dr. Som is enabling and scaling brands across digital platforms and global e-commerce marketplaces in nutraceuticals, health & beauty, fashion and houseware & kitchenware. She is the Former Vice-Chairperson, NASSCOM Product Council and a Core Committee Member of WEP – NITI Aayog. She is also an angel investor having invested in some of the most innovative and ingenious start-up ideas and serves as a Board Member at Kotler Impact. Dr Som is currently the Founder and CEO of Assiduus Global, a unified platform for global marketplaces that includes Amazon, Walmart, Noon, eBay and the like.
SME Futures caught up with her in a conversation where she expressed her views on women and their changing roles and the opportunities that they might or might not have in the world we are living in right now. Read on as she tells us how empowering and investing in women is a prerequisite for the realisation of the vision of an equitable and enabling society for us all.
You wear multiple hats, how did that come to be and how do you balance everything at the same time? What’s your secret to multitasking?
One of the key attributes of being a serial entrepreneur or donning several hats is the ability to take a risk and not let the fear of the unknown bother you!
Entrepreneurship is not about gender equality and leadership skills alone, it’s about the passion, the attitude with which a person pursues their dreams to achieve the unthinkable. Sustaining yourself on one hand and your dream on the other is how life balances itself. The idea of entrepreneurship is also similar. You have to juggle between sustenance, perseverance, ideology and the balance of evolution.
Your dream keeps evolving every day, every moment…what doesn’t change is your attitude, your perspective and your frame of mind that motivates you to achieve that dream.
The importance of entrepreneurship goes beyond the immediate, individual achievement. If a proper supportive environment exists to productively channel the entrepreneurial spirit, such individual efforts add up to a systemic impact. As demonstrated by successful examples from Ireland to Chile and right now India, entrepreneurship has the power of driving economies to new stages of development and helping societies become more participatory and inclusive.
Why is it important for women to start their own businesses?
There are three simple reasons…
- She wants to be her own boss
- She is brimming over with tons of splendid ideas that can change the world
- She can engender massive economic and social impact
What barriers have you faced, as a woman, in becoming successful in your field? How did you overcome them?
I come from an influential Bengali family of some of the best doctors that Calcutta had ever had until then. Growing up, there was one sentence that I heard far too often; “you can’t do it because you are a girl.”
When I was 15, I knew I did not want to be a doctor. I wanted to become an economist, a management professional, which in those days was unheard of for a woman. When I came to Bangalore to pursue my dreams, I recognised that surviving against all odds and sustaining yourself on one hand along with pursuing your undying dream on the other is how life truly balances itself out. At 17, I wanted to break the stereotype that women could never be good at business.
At 19, I wanted to show the world that no job was small. I was surviving on three different jobs and evolving to become someone I was not at 15. By the time I was 21, I was in the US, not just studying hard and simultaneously earning a salary to take care of my bills, but I was also working incessantly to achieve my dream. At 24, I had to take the final step. All that I had worked towards since I’d been 15, 17, 19 and 21, was finally going to bear fruit. I decided I was going to become an entrepreneur, a businesswoman.
I soon realised I would need more skills. I would need to work with industry stalwarts, I would need to work with the best minds in the business, I would need to work with the sassiest of technologists and innovative minds and to this end I pursued my PhD.
My journey has been phenomenal. What matters more than the skills you possess is your attitude, your mind-set, your fundamentals and ethics with which you build companies and teams. For starters, like any other person, I wanted to make my family proud, but not by doing what society thought that I should have done, but by pursuing my own goals and making myself a great success.
Be different, dream big and be the best at what you do, no matter how miniscule the job may look to the world because the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. It gives me great satisfaction to see that mine and my team’s work is enabling deployment of disruptive businesses and fresh ideas of the kind that have never been seen before.
When I started out, nobody told me what direction to take. I had to make my own path. I believe that to venture on to a new journey, what a person needs most is self-confidence. Sure, we may get inspired or influenced by the people we meet, or the stories we read but nothing pushes you forward like the voice that comes from within. Ultimately, if you have to create something new, you must work from the bottom up with a strong vision. I believe each one of us needs to look and probe within ourselves. Everybody is capable — it’s their confidence that decides the path ahead.
What is the most challenging thing about your job? What is the most rewarding?
Being an entrepreneur brings its own set of challenges — reaching out to investors and consumers, scaling up, compliances and finding the right talent to make your dream profitable is always a challenge. The only way for me to overcome such barriers was to follow the rule of two Cs, that is conviction and concentration. Conviction, to have faith and believe in my idea; and concentration, to follow the rule of methodological delegation.
Entrepreneurship doesn’t have an end destination because businesses are constantly moving on and off the radar and the world is rapidly changing. My mother always told me, “Never settle for less than your best.” So, I plan to claw my way to the top! I am always resilient in my quest to create and sustain momentum for the organisation and the people we serve. When it comes to problem solving, my most effective approach is viewing problems through the lens of opportunity.
As a leader of the businesses I have built, I never view a problem as a distraction but rather as a strategic enabler of continuous improvement and the seizing of opportunities previously unseen and unheard of. Rather than viewing a problem as a hurdle that could potentially lose us the client, I take proactive measures to show them that we are capable of not only solving the problem – but earning their trust by responding promptly.
What does International Women’s Day mean to you?
The work that needs to be done for women empowerment and development is actually very basic and that angers me. There shouldn’t be institutionalized celebrations for women. For me, International Women’s Day is about distinguishing and congratulating the impressive work that women across genres and across the world are accomplishing every day. It is about being equal in the real world and not just in the slogans and mass movements that stir the world up for a few days. I am hopeful and confident that my daughter is growing up in a world which will believe and have faith in everyone, irrespective of their sex or colour, for their qualities and potential without stooping down to and resorting to the stereotypes that I have grown up seeing.
This year’s IWD theme is #ChooseToChallenge. What is the one thing that you want to challenge and change?
Failures do not exist; challenges do…
We all experience challenges and setbacks, but triumphs can only be experienced after overcoming and rising above these low moments. Here’s something I keep saying to myself, “You are worth so much more than the ways you’ve been treated!” But, while I have been constantly climbing the ladder to success, I have had to make huge sacrifices on my way up here.
Are there any assumptions about women that you would like to change? And why?
I don’t see how being a woman is a barrier. I would rather take it as a compliment. Usually, when we talk about success in terms of how it’s defined and experienced by men versus how it is by women, we call out the differences, which tend to fall along stereotypical gender lines.
I think the best way to taste success is to surround yourself with people who have overcome challenges, triumphed and have been constantly gnawing their way to the top. People who are simply amazing at life and who will encourage you to be amazing at it, too! I have had such people around me all my life.
Women are constantly battling male egos and mental barriers. The very idea of women walking shoulder to shoulder with men may not always sit well with many. My motto here is - Don’t get sucked into fighting the bias. Find your niches, set up a solid support system that works for you and let your work, rather than your gender be the focal point. Tap into your core strengths, patience and perseverance and develop a no-nonsense attitude towards biases.
The pandemic has disproportionately affected women. As a result of the strain caused by the balancing act between work and home life, women are dropping out of the labour market in droves, threatening to set back women’s gains in the workplace by decades. What can women do to get back into the post-pandemic work game?
Support each other by increasing their business competitiveness through capacity-building training in entrepreneurial skills and business management. We also need to collectively ensure women’s representation and inclusion in all planning and decision-making processes because more diverse teams take better, more sustainable decisions. We should support women across the value chain and in communities where such businesses operate and safety nets ought to be expanded with various insurance products, pension schemes, leasing arrangements, agricultural finance, low-value equity investments, government-to-person e-payment options and conditional digital cash transfers.
What is the role that women can play in determining what the world looks like after the pandemic?
Empowering and investing in women is a prerequisite to fulfil the world’s vision of the Sustainable Development Goals that aim to end poverty and hunger, protect the environment, improve health parameters and empower all women. Their voices need to be heard at both the policy and implementation levels if we are to realize the dream of creating progressive nations and by extension a progressive world. Closing the gender gap is essential in order to accelerate the pace of growth across sectors worldwide.
And not just women alone, India’s overall competitive edge will be determined by its citizens’ ability to create, share and use knowledge effectively in a global economy which is experiencing a broad-based cyclical upturn. An increasing proportion of a skilled and enabled population will provide a window of opportunity to improve labour productivity, increase domestic production, enhance revenue from services, increase savings and reduce the burden of older residents on the working population.