Brindha Selvadurai CEO & Co-Founder of Hatch spoke to Echelon about the challenges confronting women-led startups, and how Hatch is creating more opportunities and levelling the playing field for women. Its initiatives include KickAss, an incubation program created by women to support and empower women in business.
What is your experience working with female founders, and what are some of their challenges?
In my experience of working with female founders, I have realised that women have the personality that allows them to rise to every challenge. I’ve seen this very evidently during the pandemic when some women became the breadwinners of their families. This strength has been infectious. However, while historically women have played such a strong role in the dynamic of our communities, we still see less female led startups. The issues faced by female entrepreneurs are multifaceted.
The lack of self-assurance has always been a big one. For years women have kept their head down and followed the rules and this has resulted in a lot of women not being confident in their own abilities. I do see a number of women who are female founders in their own right, running smaller home businesses but you don’t come across many of them who want to take their business to the next level. This could be because locally women are more risk averse; our own experience via our programs show that men take risks and are unafraid to share this with peers and friends. Women still require validation that their business ideas are good enough. We’ve noticed that often they are less willing to take the risk to apply for accelerators or incubators to test out their ideas even if there is a 10% probability it may work out. In general, many female founders have inhibitions when it comes to scaling their businesses. They often find the process of raising money difficult and prefer to shy away from the risk of failure. Managing the challenges of a growing business and family demands has also meant that many of them are more comfortable in keeping things small.
This coupled with the lack of community and family support has left women feeling less empowered and supported to pursue their goals, even if they are willing to do so. A large number of women are not just entrepreneurs or career people—they have families, spouses, and other responsibilities. The perception is that demands from personal and professional commitments can pressure a woman to abandon either her business or family. It becomes more difficult for those who lack social support because they have to carry the entire burden by themselves. Some women can balance these two spheres of their lives, while others are overwhelmed.
Another challenge confronting women is the lack of allyship and a lack of long term sustainable support. There are some great initiatives that support female founders, however they are often one-off or short-term programs. How we can change that is by ensuring female founders get periodical longterm support via networks, peer networks and long-term access to mature players in the industry so that they can navigate these challenges throughout their journey as entrepreneurs.
The startup ecosystem is still male dominant. However, there is opportunity here to leverage this and create true allies of men for women by mentoring and support networks. I’ve seen this work and help women amplify their voices in boardrooms, funding calls, and improve partner outreach.
Tell us about the work Hatch is doing to level the playing field for women and empowering them to build their own startup ventures?
Since its inception, Hatch has been helping women realise their entrepreneurial potential by creating a platform for them to gain theoretical knowledge, practical business insights and skills, as well as connecting them to a larger pool of women who are going through a similar journey.
We encourage women to explore our many programs and be risk-takers and entrepreneurs with us at Hatch. We are here to be your ally; see you grow and celebrate your success!
You have a special incubator for startups founded by women. Can you tell us about this program and share some of its success stories?
We have a program called KickAss Bootcamp for Female Entrepreneurs. This is an incubation program to support and empower women in business. Hatch initiated this program in March 2020 and completed five series benefiting over 50 participants. What would have been physical meetings between participants and mentors had to be switched online due to the pandemic. This gave women from all across Sri Lanka, including Colombo, Jaffna, Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Kandy and Negombo, the opportunity to take part. Participants were female business owners with products or services in over ten industries including food & beverage, fashion, health, art, e-commerce, and sustainability. By including different industries, KickAss exposes the founders to divergent thinking.
KickAss is curated for women by women. We’ve had eight female mentors across two different time zones representing various industries, contributing their expertise to the program. The curriculum includes financial literacy, branding, pitching, marketing, operations, legal and most importantly, negotiations which is an area that we’ve identified a lot of women in business need support with. Mentors represented companies such as KPMG, McKinsey & Company, London Stock Exchange, D.L. & F De Saram, Legal Counsel for Capital Alliance Group, GoodLife X, P.R, House of Lonali and Quality Control. The curriculum for each series is specifically curated to meet the demands of their participants’ business. For example, season five which concluded in April 2021 had more service providers and the curriculum was curated to include subjects that would help them meet their needs.
Naomi Gunnels Program Facilitator heads the KickAss bootcamp from Florida, US and is extremely passionate about giving women the tools and resources to help them achieve their wildest dreams. She not only prepares the coursework for each series but spends time mentoring the women after they complete their syllabus. She is accessible to all 52 participants and consistently shares insights and encourages them to keep learning and sharing knowledge with each other.
Community support is core to KickAss: Not only do the participants learn theoretical principles coupled with practical experience from successful business owners; but the KickAss alumni network has long lasting effects. There is a unique set of challenges that a female founder has. So it is important to have this on-going support system. The participants are also in different stages of their business and can learn through each other’s experiences. If you get stuck and need advice, you have a network of women thinking about that particular challenge or opportunity in a slightly different way. This helps women build confidence in their capabilities and feel empowered to embrace their skills. We see it as women building up a tool kit of skills that they can then take on the journey to achieve their goals; this is the true value of KickAss.
We’ve observed that the female entrepreneurs have also become better at identifying problems, communicating them better and seeking support. They also changed their mindset and perspectives in terms of their strengths and capabilities. Most of the female entrepreneurs were underselling themselves and were not confident enough to say that they were really good at what they were doing. Towards the end, we noticed a drastic difference in how they perceived themselves and owned up to their own success.
Additionally, being with KickAss had paved the way for many partnerships and collaborations between the 50+ participants who had gone on to build on top of each other’s businesses such as Krémeux done by Sivahaamy Vithyathara who collaborated with PlatteritUp’s Nima Faiz to offer their clients diverse products and upgrade each other’s service offerings.
We are blessed with inspiring success stories: Upcycled and sustainable jewellery brand ALKE, founded by Sara Nazoor, was able to exhibit it’s collection at PR concept store; a luxury lifestyle store located in Horton Place. Safiya Sideek, owner of Elements by Safiya built her prototype artists’ supply package during her four weeks with KickAss and now sells her products online with international customers reaching out to her as well. Shameema Shajahan who joined the KickAss boot camp to sell a product, identified a different set of skills and interests within her to be a motivational coach and pivoted completely to online coaching to overseas clients.
One of Hatch’s founding missions was to enable women in business. It was important for us to understand the extrinsic and intrinsic needs of female founders and then build an environment that supported them in a meaningful way.
What are your plans for the future?
We are excited to launch our second Colombo location later this year with a focus on education and communities that support mothers returning to the workplace.
Building on the success of KickAss, we are launching Sri Lanka’s first Female Accelerator – ‘AccelerateHer’. This will focus on enabling women to scale their business and move to regional markets.
Knowing when and how to ask for help, when it comes to fundraising, can be overwhelming for any first-time founder, especially female founder. Therefore, to provide the full cycle of support for female founders, Hatch is launching HerCapital – a seed-stage venture fund that invests exclusively in female-founded companies. We believe in investing in the power of exceptional female talent.
We are at an inflexion point in the venture for female empowerment. The conversation on gender parity is at its prime, but the numbers still show a significant gap in financing. We’re helping to change that!
Women entrepreneurs face all kinds of challenges each day, but the number of businesses owned by females slowly continue to increase. It means that women are defying norms and succeeding at managing their own companies, providing jobs for the community, and contributing to the economic growth of the country. And there is no better time to make it happen than now.
We are at an inflexion point in the venture for female empowerment. The conversation of gender parity is at its prime, but the numbers still show a significant gap in financing. Let’s change that!