Season 2, Episode 7: Creating Digital Safe Spaces for Women featuring Sairee Chahal

December 7, 2021
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IFC speaks with Sairee Chahal, the CEO and founder of Sheroes, a women’s only social network.

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In this episode of Creating Markets, IFC speaks with Sairee Chahal, the CEO and founder of Sheroes, a women’s only social network. Born out of a legacy of women-only spaces in India, with the Sheroes platform, Sairee’s goal is to create peer-to-peer networking across a range of topics from financial literacy to health and wellbeing. She tackles the challenge of making a safe space for women in the digital age, and notes that when women are included financially, economies perform better.

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Jasmin Bauomy [JB]: Hello and welcome to Creating Markets, I'm your host Jasmin Bauomy. On today's episode, we're talking about building a social network in India, which is also a safe space for women!

Sairee Chahal [SC]: Building great consumer products can change markets. I mean, Uber and Tesla and Airbnb. They were all ideas that were very alien at one point in time. So women-only communities, women-only social network, women-only banks. It may sound alien, but when it starts rolling, then it starts rolling fast.

JB: Meet the the CEO and founder of Sheroes, a women's only social network, Sairee Chahal.

SC: So officially my name is Sairee Chahal, but unofficially I call myself the universe girl. So it's hashtag universe girl.

JB: Why? What do you mean?

SC: The whole world's a playground. And it's also, it's a little bit of a Zen philosophy. So it's, it's got to do with living life a certain way.

JB: I love it. I'm big on universe things too. I've recently discovered the philosophy that you have to make an order with the universe.

JB: As if the universe is your waiter at a restaurant because otherwise, yeah, nothing's going to happen.
SC: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

JB: I spoke to Sairee at the beginning of May 2021, that’s when the Delta variant had become dominant in India and the country was seeing a very brutal second wave of the pandemic.

JB: You are in Delhi right now, which probably I don't know if by the time this episode goes out, it will be as critical. But if you just want to tell me, what's the, what's the mood there right now?

SC: It's actually, Delhi's really bad right now and this is a severe strain.

JB: That's, that's horrifying. And so you were locked in, sealed into your house?

SC: Yes. Actually, this is my studio.

SC: All my life I have gotten up in the morning, showered, and gotten out of the house. So now I have built this little studio, which is a little close to home. So, so I work out of here the whole day.

JB: Okay. That does help. I'm sure that does help. You've been, trying to be confined working out of the home office. In this entire time, what's the main thing that you couldn't survive the home office without?

SC: Internet. High-speed internet.

JB: How's that working out?

SC: It's still one of my blessings, I count, like, because a lot gets done. I run an internet company. I think it's impossible to survive without the internet.

JB: And in terms of little comfort, what's the, what's the thing you rely on?

SC: So I have a yoga mat wherever, like in every room and then I buy these bottles of plain soda water, which I sip all day because it has no sugar and Delhi's very hot right now. And I love tea, all sorts of chai and all sorts of herbal tea. I have an assorted selection? So I'm always making one for myself all day. So yeah, small things, but they help.

JB: Yeah. All right. So let's get into the actual interview. So in part one, I want to talk to you about what got you here. How did you get to where you are right now and what triggered it? And what's at stake? Why did you even start this?

SC: It's been a long windy road. It's not been this straight on the highway, kind of a road so look, I'm a small town girl and I didn't come from any form of privilege. I mean, maybe some privilege.

JB: When Sairee finished high school, she got into a good university. And maybe not what you might expect for a girl from small town India, she decided to study Russian. And that's because, working in the steel industry, her dad had had a lot of Russian colleagues, and they kind of left an impression.

SC: When I was growing up, the Soviet Union existed and we used to get a lot of these books, science books, and comics books from, from the Soviet Union. So there's just a fascination. Nothing else.

JB: What ended up setting Sairee on her path to Sheroes came right when she was about to finish university. It had nothing to do with Russian language and literature, but it had everything to do with technology.

SC: India was just about getting into this whole internet 1.0. This was the time when companies like Yahoo and Lycos existed and Google, hadn't been found and Facebook hadn't been found.

JB: I remember Lycos with the dog. with the Labrador.

JB: It was a good search engine.

SC: Yes. So \around that time I got lucky and I got to build a company. I was still in college, but I became part of a founding team of a startup. And that's where I learned my chops. That's that's really my school.

SC: But building a startup in India in ‘99. One, there were no startups back then, this whole culture of building tech companies didn't exist. And guess what? I got to build one, I got to build one from day zero and I was the first person on the team. It was somebody else's idea, but I got to execute all of it. I got to hire a team. I got to build the tech product. I got to learn how to build server rooms and hire engineers. So it was really exciting.

SC: We're also the country with potentially the second largest internet population in the world. Eight hundred million people going online is quite something and Sheroes is really a company that talks to almost 50 percent of a population in India. Out of 1.3 billion people, 49 percent are women.

JB: Women in India are a huge potential number of customers or users of her tech products. But more than anything, India's gender equality statistics are Sairee's greatest motivation.

SC: We're always on the lowest list of gender indexes. We have one of the lowest women in workforce number. We have very poor financial inclusion numbers for women. We have a growing population of women who are aspirational because they've been left out one way or the other.

JB: For Sairee, all of this spelt untapped potential. And that’s because with so many doors shutting out so many women, Sairee had spent years being the exception. She was the only woman in the room so many times. The position of women in India was just something she felt she couldn't ignore any more.

SC: A lot of things in my own career led me here, right? So building a startup was one of them. I had a daughter, I got married. I came from literally a lot of women we serve today. So that, it's, it's empathy that got collected over a period of time. I know what it is like to walk in those shoes.

SC: The moment that that triggered this was it was literally like a fork in the road before Sheroes, I used to run another company. There was a consulting business. It was a nice stable business; the kind of business where your company will be, it'll never be more than 50 people and you all make cash. And unlike tech startups who burn money and take a long time to build scale, it was a nice business, but it came to a point where I had to really asked myself, what do I want to do with this time I have, or what do I want out of my own life?

SC: And also, here I am in a place where I can see this gender gap. I can see the life I have led. I can see the life of, let's say, women I went to school with or women I grew up with and then it's like take a call now. Do you want to stay in your comfort zone or do you want to really do something about it because these are recurring thoughts in your head and you're always thinking about it? And it's something that bothers you. And also you identify with it. So this moment happened to me in December 2013.

JB: And so how did you get even started? What did you just do it by yourself? So you just sit down and I mean, create a website?

SC: So actually I called a friend of mine who's also an early investor in the company now, but I called him to say, this is what I'm thinking. So he's like, hey, why don't you just bring your laptop and come sit in my office from tomorrow. And then I called one or two people and shared the idea. And then we certainly, we were a team of two, three people, and then we became a team of five people, and then we started working on this, we hired a first coder. We incubated this thing called the Sheroes summit, which is now our flagship conference. But the first version was set only to raise money. So that we could get some sponsorships and seed ourselves. And then a year later we raised an angel round and launched the version one of the platform. And now of course it's gone on like many, many changes. But yeah, that's how it got started.

JB: So with a little bit help from your friends, like the Beatles song.

SC: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.

JB: That is so, so great to hear. So when you say it's a platform for women, it's a safe space. I don't think everybody understands exactly what it's like. People think of Twitter these days or LinkedIn. And they're like, why does it, what, why, why do you need something that's just for women? So walk me through what this platform exactly is. Once I sign up, what do I see and what opportunities do I have as a woman?

SC: Right. So, first of all, I think in India women-only space culturally matters a lot. I think it matters everywhere. Safety is a big one for women on the internet, but the context is that almost 200 to 300 million women came online for the first time in last three years. They've not experienced internet like we have. So safety continues to be a big one. And interestingly, India has a cultural legacy of women-only spaces. we have in every village there are women-only groups in towns, you have women-only parties, you have women-only mom groups. We have this wonderful network of health workers called Aasha workers.

SC: They literally are village health workers and they're all women. Okay. So women-only communities have existed forever. They've all existed offline, but that culture of women in our safe space exists.

SC: So what is Sheroes? What can you do here? First of all, you can be you. And I think culturally, a lot of women's space as in not just their physical space, but their emotional space is kind of taken. You're always seen through the lens of being a mom or a wife or a daughter. You always have a patriarchal tag attached to you. I think as India grows and as progress happens, a lot more women are looking for their own identity. Right. They're looking for a me space. So Sheroes is a me space because here you're you, we don't really care about anything else outside of that.

SC: And then you can come here, you can share whatever you want to share, whether it's a poem or it's a quote or it's a song or whatever, but you can also talk to other women who are like you. Moms can talk to moms and coders can talk to coders and entrepreneurs can talk to entrepreneurs. The third thing that we really invest in is supporting the community through things like, we run a counseling helpline that offers free counseling. So you can come and talk to a counselor. If you, if you're looking to sort of get some support, they just want to vent or you’re just looking for a listening space. You can ask a health question. You can ask a legal question. You can ask a parenting question. You can get career advice. All of that is available on the platform. Then the other thing you could do is look for work. Or if you're an entrepreneur, you could set up your shop on sheroes. So it also becomes a peer to peer community marketplace.

SC: Then there are some interesting fun use cases. You can track your periods. You can publish your recipes in a community recipe book. So it's really a network of communities and you can build your own community. So that's the construct of the platform.

JB: So it sounds like a mix between Facebook and LinkedIn, but it's for women only. And it's kind of about everything, plus a big focus on entrepreneurship, business, financial literacy, et cetera.

SC: Right. So actually we do not like to be compared to Facebook at all.

JB: Okay.

SC: Actually, the platform that we really think we are like is Reddit, everybody can find their own subreddit. Right?

JB: You said there is a big gender gap in India, that was the problem you were trying to solve, right? You were creating a safe space. What's it like now since you started this in comparison to, yeah, when you started? What's this environment like now?

SC: Right. So change is like, it doesn't happen for a long time and then it happens overnight. So for example, we were the first company to talk about remote work in India, flexible work, women going back to work, sexual harassment at the workplace. Five, six years ago, this conversation was almost not there. We are the first company to come and talk about women in mainstream consumer space. And obviously I think here we are, the whole world is working from remote. Similarly women entrepreneurs, whether it was the number of women who, who raise venture capital. I mean, obviously it's still much less than what we would like it to be, but that number has grown rapidly.

SC: India has done many leapfrogs as a country. We never got the phone landlines and then everybody got a mobile phone. And I think something similar is happening. We’re the country with the largest number of graduate women in the world, actually more than China. Okay.

SC: But the number of women who are in the formal workforce is really abysmal.

JB: It’s true that India is number one in the world for producing women graduates in STEM subjects. STEM, that in science, technology, engineering and math. But yeah, when it comes to hiring women in those fields, India ranks 19th.

SC: Okay. So now you have all these smart people. You have internet. You have a great thing called the India stack and you have a great digital payments stack in India.

JB: The India stack is this nation-wide software interface that connects start-ups, developers, the government, and businesses. And it basically links biometric data and bank accounts, which means that it allows for cashless payments and fingerprinting. And that’s quickly making India a digital, cashless society.

SC: Now, every one of these women has become an entrepreneur because her market access has changed. Internet has become her market. She can do a lot more.

JB: When you started this, you were often the only woman at the table. What's the ecosystem like now for women entrepreneurs to get funding, to sit at the table to yeah find investors to start a company. Is that, has that gotten better? Where are we now?

SC: It's definitely gotten better. It's definitely gotten better. There's also more money flowing to women founders. I also now sit on a couple of boards. And when I joined this board actually I was the only woman in the room and now because I've been there for a little while we actually getting somebody as a co-board member, who's also a woman, right? I think the optics are important here because when I see a woman in the boardroom chances are, I think that, hey, I can also be one and I can take that position. And I think there is value to having women share their worldview with companies because it's not linear then. You're bringing in a multitude of perspectives. Especially if you're the only woman in the room who doesn't look like the rest of the guys, your perspective is always very, very different from them.

SC: And I think the other thing is, it's really a chance to speak up and build any change you would like to see.

JB: Yeah. And also I think, yeah, as a woman on board, you do get to raise issues and make it a more, a friendly place for women employees. Right. You can think about childcare or make it a safer space in terms of I don't know, sexual harassment or whatever it is.

JB: So how has, since we're in the second part of the interview, we're at the heart of what it's like today. How has corona affected your platform? The work that you do, the people that use your platform right now? What has it done for women in the digital space, particularly on Sheroes?

SC: So I think corona has had two aspects. One is, I think it's just brought a lot more pressure on women. So now families are at home, children are at home. They're at home all the time. The emotional weight women are carrying, it's gone up many times. There's a lot more to deal with. And there is obviously a lot more emotional labor women are having to do. But they're also having to do a lot more housework, and that's not a happy place, but the other part of this is a little bit of a silver lining. Corona's kind of pushed everything one to digital, right?

SC: Your life is online now. We all can't survive without, without that. So we see two major themes emerging in the women who are part of our community. I call it learning and yearning. So this whole need for self-growth, self learning, learning new skills, digital skills, financial skills, that's one aspect. And second is to say, ”Oh my God, times are scary, so let me also work faster towards becoming financially independent.” The number of women who are taking on entrepreneurial opportunities, the number of women who are really putting themselves out there. The number of women who are setting up digital stores . It has triggered change. it's quite undoubted that India will stand at the forefront of digital economies. That's something we're set up for and it can't get there without women being a fairly large and equal participant in it.

JB: Hmm. Well, that's really great. And I'd like to move on to the third part of the interview, where we talk about, on the one hand, the challenges that you and the people who use your platform are still facing in this, in this digital space and in this entrepreneurial space. What are some of the challenges and what are some of the solutions that you are working on or that you wish existed?

SC: So look, I think there are still a lot of challenges. I mean, we're still a small company. We're still a very small hustling startup trying to put something together. Yeah. But I think as more and more women want to be entrepreneurial, more and more women want to be business owners. The corresponding need for access to capital, whether it's revenue based financing or business loans or access to let's say equipment financing or whatever that be is not there.

SC: So we know that financial inclusion is a very, very big space and it's also a space you'll see booming in India. FinTech is perhaps the most funded sector in this country. But women are not, and that's something we've been seeing for a long time. And when, when COVID happened, we actually started doing experiments around this. And one of the solutions we are working for is to set up a digital bank for women.

SC: So we are setting up Sheroes Money as a neobanking community platform for women entrepreneurs. And the idea is to help millions of these women whose capital needs are actually in relative terms very small because they're, they're largely digital. They're all starting small. But the system is not set up to solve them either in terms of just the paperwork they have to do, or if they go to a bank offline, there'll be asked to bring their husband and their family papers, and then it kind of complicates everything and the project dies. So we're setting up a digital-only, women's only bank which is again, one of these India-first kind of products.

JB: In terms of policy is there, are there certain changes you wished for?

SC: Oh, absolutely. I think there's a lot that we can do from a policy perspective. For example, in India, we don't have a ministry that looks at women in workforce. Women's participation in the economy can do with a bigger policy filter and therefore, access filter. I think increasing access to capital for women needs to be on our national agenda.

JB: So from what I read and what I hear from you and from other guests I get the impression that it's women helping themselves. Right? It's like, here we are, we're creating this network for us. For our male listeners, how do we bring males into the fold or, is it a problem that we should solve as women? Why would a guy care? Men investors, why would they invest in women led businesses or businesses that really cater to gender, societal, gender issues or financial gender issues?

SC: Right. One is that some of our best allies are men because you can't build a business without allies and without sponsors and partners, but at the same time, I think businesses are gender neutral. It’s by chance a woman's running them, but the truth is women are better borrowers, women are and look at data. Don't talk to us, just go and look at data. Go look at Harvard, go look at IFC, go look at Financial Alliance for Women. I think there's enough data to prove that women-owned enterprises are better performers. Women are building more profitable companies with much lesser capital. Women's participation in the economy leads to a higher GDP creation.

SC: So look at, look at it from that lens, but also look at it from the lens of what is the kind of world you want to build? What is it that you want to be your footprint? As a generation, do we want our footprint to be this planet destroying, patriarchal footprint? Or do we want this to be a more equal world that's sustainable and also is building an equal world or is building a world that's also fundamentally strong? This is inevitable, right? This is laws of physics and it's not even laws of social gain or it's not even do it because it's good for women. Do it because it's good for you, do it because if you don't do it, you will have to do it.

JB: No, that's absolutely true. And the thing is, yes, there's a societal impact, but there's, it pays off, doesn’t it? So if you were to look ahead 10, 20 years and you'd be sitting with a bunch of people, a bunch of, I don't know, big investors, who are thinking about investing in, into social, societal impact ventures in India, but they're like, they just need that extra push. What's your winning argument? What would you tell them?

SC: There is a cohort of 300 million people who are on an upward mobility circle who are aspirational, who need healthcare, who need education, who need consumer products, who need platforms, who need internet, who need mobile phones. You can fight everything. You can't fight markets. This is a large market by all measures. The truth is what may look like social impact is actually a large opportunity. I mean, this is a train that's not going to stop. Right. I mean, in a country that's full of aspiration that's also now discovered technology, what are the odds that this train won't move faster? Right? So it's only a question of who's going to be on that train.

JB: Yeah. You better get on board. Thank you so much. I learned so much.

SC: Thank you so much. Thank you.

JB: And that's it for this episode of Creating Markets! If you enjoyed my chat with Sairee please like or subscribe to our podcast, tell your friends about us, go back and listen to our other episodes. We really appreciate your support. Many thanks to Sairee Chahal for taking the time to chat and share her story.

JB: In our next episode, I'll be speaking with the remarkable Soula Proxenos on executive and non-executive leadership and dig into what it means to sit on boards as a woman.

Soula Proxenos: It's obvious if you're sitting in a room and everybody's like minded, then if you've got the wrong idea, it is going to reinforce the wrong idea. But if you've got different opinions in a room, they will start to infuse a discussion and a debate.

JB: Once again, I'm your host, Jasmin Bauomy. This podcast is produced by Aida Holly-Nambi, Maeve Frances and me, for the IFC communications team. I'll talk to you again really soon.