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Mumbai's female entrepreneurs
02:34 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Female entrepreneurs are on the rise in Mumbai, but still face social barriers

Challenges are twofold -- being young and female are the main obstacles to success

Culinary entrepreneur Pooja Dhingra makes a paan macaron - inspired by the betel leaf Indian dessert

Mumbai, India CNN  — 

If you’re setting up a business – and you’re a woman – there are easier places to do so than Mumbai.

Ostensibly, it might seem the perfect base. India’s financial center and bustling second city is imbued with a can-do attitude.

But in reality, it’s a daunting prospect. Mumbai rents are agonizingly high, and for a young woman in this city – as in much of India – there’s social pressure to sacrifice career prospects to start a family.

Yet, an increasing number of start-ups are being helmed by young, female Mumbaikars, with a sharp nose for a deal and forward-thinking attitude.

A decade of beauty

Sneha Daftary has been on the front line of entrepreneurship for over a decade, after taking the plunge as a callow 21-year-old.

After training at Toni & Guy – one of the beauty industry’s biggest names – in Singapore, she returned to Mumbai, and soon established her own salon, in the heart of the upmarket Kemps Corner neighborhood.

“(My parents) were a bit apprehensive in the beginning, because this is not a mainstream career,” Daftary tells CNN at her salon, Vous. “At that point in time it was like, ‘Oh god, you’re not doing a mainstream job,’ but then they realized, you’ve got to love what you do.

“They said, ‘Let’s see where this goes.’”

It’s gone plenty of places. Daftary’s been in the same spot for a decade, and is about to launch a range of organic haircare products using traditional Indian ingredients, which will be sold in her salon and online.

Across town, in the southern district of Colaba – home to the colonial Gateway of India monument and the Taj Palace hotel, two of the city’s most famous landmarks – Pooja Dhingra is taking stock of her recently-outfitted café Le 15 Colaba.

Pooja Dhingra's cupcakes at her Le 15 Colaba cafe in Mumbai, India.

The 29-year-old graduate of prestigious culinary school Le Cordomn Bleu, in Paris, and owner of the Le 15 brand, already has four shops around the city, as well as a culinary studio where she teaches baking.

She’s made her name introducing Indian-flavor-inspired macarons – such as the sweet paan variety – and cupcakes to an ever-growing fanbase.

This latest venture, in one of the city’s most expensive locations, is by far her biggest outlay.

“For me, I had two main challenges that I had to overcome when I started,” she says. “One was that I was really young. But also, I was a woman entering a male-dominated industry – the food industry in India is largely (populated by) men.

“So that was kind of difficult … you’re trying to make your mark and you want people to take you seriously but they’re not sure what your calibre is … So I felt like I always had to prove myself to everyone.”

Social standards

There are almost 30 million micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) in India, according to the most recent report from the International Finance Corporation, and 10% of these are owned by women.

Businesses of this kind account for 11.5% of India’s GDP and employ nearly 70 million people, with female entrepreneurs employing over 8 million.

Sneha Daftary at her hair salon Vous in Mumbai, India

However, despite a growing presence in the country, Daftary says that female entrepreneurs in India face more scrutiny than men, as well as cultural pressures to be housewives.

“Socially, it’s difficult to be a career woman. Indian society has a typical mold that it wants to fit its women into,” she says.

“It’s changing now, thankfully, but this is something that is inherent to us as a culture where you know the woman is looked upon as, you know, be a wife, be a mother. Initially, it was very difficult – people didn’t take you seriously: [they] were like, ‘She doesn’t know what she’s talking about?’”

Bright future

Still, both women are confident that female entrepreneurship in Mumbai is on a positive trajectory.

“I think there’s been a big change from my parents’ generation to my generation,” Dhingra says. “We take bigger risks and I think the mindset is changing. Everyone wants to go out there and do their own thing – set up their own businesses.

“I don’t think in my parents’ generation that would be considered the right way to live your life: [they thought] if you’re not a doctor or engineer or lawyer it’s probably not a respectable profession.

“Now, if if you’re a good photographer and you’re making money, I don’t see it to be a bad thing.”