Investors look for the balance, experience, and pedigree that founders bring to the table. That is the most rational way to gauge a founder, overlooking stereotypes and the notions of genders, said Payeli Ghosh, co-founder and Chief People Officer, JIFFY.ai, an enterprise automation startup.
“The standard and values a board looks for in a founder are deeply rooted in the individual’s professional experience and pedigree. Investors look for the novelty of the idea, the commitment, capability and determination to bring it to life, and also the drive to continue to excel among founders. Background and gender do not really matter,” said Ghosh in an interview for DealStreetAsia’s Female Founders report 2022.
According to Ghosh, founders also need to have business acumen and know their math apart from having an idea. Irrespective of being female or male, founders have to be thorough with their business proposal, market and competition details, and execution plan.
JIFFY.ai had raised $53 million as part of its Series B funding round about a year ago led by Eight Roads Ventures. The round was also participated by venture firms Iron Pillar and R-Squared and existing investors Nexus Venture Partners, Reaction, and Rebright Partners.
What led you to become an entrepreneur? How would you describe your entrepreneurial journey so far?
There have been several turning points in my 22-year professional career that led me to my current stature as an entrepreneur. My father, who operated a prosperous business in Rourkela, an industrial city in Odisha, was my initial source of inspiration for breaking the mould and refusing to fit into any preconceived notions. Even before I got my first job in the IT sector after graduating in engineering, I used to have a different perspective on things. I had several questions about the prevalent norms and procedures.
Through my formative years in the industry, I was able to develop essential job skills and competencies. When I look back now, I believe I was preparing myself to solve the “big picture” issue by learning the specifics during those six years. Following my interests, I then decided to jump in and start a company that assisted clients in finding solutions to issues in the supply-chain sector.
Though brief, that stint energised me. However, it did not ‘create a dent’, as they say. Now I know that our approach was unsustainable at that time. I learnt that for my ideas to have a 10x impact, they need to be replicable at a large scale. The next product I helped launch was a novel low-code, no-code solution for the retail sector, which happened 12 years ago. We took delight in bootstrapping it for a while, just like any other fledgling startup, and eventually attracted Fortune 500 clients. Today, as a co-founder of JIFFY.ai, I can see that we are changing the way businesses view transformation. We are enabling enterprises to go from being “automated” to “autonomous” using our no-code intelligent automation platform.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a female founder? What challenges did you encounter while fundraising? How did you overcome them?
As a woman, I believe I haven’t encountered many problems in the workplace. Largely, the IT sector accepts women as leaders as long as they are articulate and can demonstrate value. I have been surrounded by competent male co-founders across all of my entrepreneurial endeavours, and we were able to build on each other’s advantages to achieve our own space. I want to emphasise that everyone values the potential of women leaders to offer a unique perspective during deliberations, decisions, or stalemate situations. I’ve heard this a lot from my female coworkers in the sector about how they can make decisions more quickly. The industry has recognised this benefit, which is why boards must have a strong presence of female executives.
I discuss the idea of work-life “integration” with young female entrepreneurs whenever I have the chance, emphasising the redundancy of work-life “balance”. It is crucial to be able to merge work and life without feeling guilty about any one of them. This goes beyond simply striking a balance between the two. Naturally, this calls for strong support from the family, partners, and company. Most of the obstacles, biases or perceptual misalignments automatically disappear once any female entrepreneur realises this and is able to explain it to peers.
My advice to aspiring female leaders and entrepreneurs is to give this some serious thought before giving up or living in the guilt lane while juggling multiple responsibilities.
Do you think having male co-founders made a difference in your fundraising journey?
Having the right co-founder(s) makes all the difference — male or female doesn’t matter. There are several startups that are led by only women and are well funded too. The key is in making the best core team that believes in just the things you do. This belief transcends barriers like gender or background. When you have a goal to work toward, only the right vision, the right level of perseverance, and dedicated effort will get you there. While fundraising or even otherwise, I don’t think I have faced the necessity of a specific gender to further the initiative.
Do you think that investors tend to have different expectations or standards for female founders versus male founders?
Personally, I have never experienced this difference in expectations. I think the standard and values a board looks for in a founder is deeply rooted in the individual’s professional experience and pedigree. Investors look for balance, experience, and pedigree that founders bring to the table. This, of course, is the most rational way to gauge a founder, overlooking stereotypes and the notions of genders.
What are some of the potential reasons for the gender gap in venture funding, and how do you think these can be addressed?
Women who are in positions of power and are claiming their spaces at the level of corporate leadership is a much recent phenomenon. Much like the other industries, the representation of women in the IT industry is low and needs a careful relook. The mindsets of people and society are evolving slowly, and that seems reassuring. Women are taking charge of their narratives and also the reins of multiple venture funding firms. We are catching up fast and how!
In the current environment, when funding will be more difficult to secure for most startups, could female founders find it tougher to raise capital?
The simple answer is “no”. People these days look beyond the individual and are far more invested in your idea and the power you have to execute. With their vision focused on their goal and objectives, they look beyond the gender of the person who will get them to the finish line. It is your ethics, power of innovation, and ingenuity that will get you across.
How can we work to change the culture and mindset within the venture capital industry to be more inclusive and supportive of female founders?
Do we need to? Venture capitalists with experience know what they are looking for — the idea, the experience, and the sheer grit to execute. If they find these in the founders, there is no stopping. Many times, founders are close to the idea and passionate about the technology, but they also need to have business acumen and know their math. So irrespective of being female or male, founders have to be thorough with their business proposal, market and competition details, and execution plan. These are the key factors that will make investors believe in you.
In your opinion, what are some of the most important factors that investors should consider when evaluating a startup, regardless of the founder’s gender?
As I mentioned, investors look for the novelty of the idea, the commitment, capability and determination to bring it to life, and also the drive to continue to excel among founders. Background and gender do not really matter.
How has being a female entrepreneur influenced your leadership style and approach to running a business?
Every organisation and its leaders should keep looking for gaps that prevent their environment from being one that provides equal opportunity. We can concentrate on macro-level measures, but I think the true change must come from within the people who constitute the organisation. The leadership must eliminate inequality and gaps of lack of opportunity wherever they exist, irrespective of whether they are caused by written policies or unspoken rules. We have formed workgroups among women leaders at JIFFY.ai to listen closely to our employees and to continue raising awareness and sensitivity about gender issues within the company.
The importance of having mentors in their lives and connecting with women’s leadership forums are thoughts that I pass on often to my female coworkers. These aid in both identifying problems and bringing them into proper focus. If there still are any prejudices, I think the industry we work in is mature enough to recognise them and address them as and when they are brought to light.