Combating Challenges and Brewing Innovations: Women Entrepreneurs Respond to COVID-19

By Rozita Singh, Sayantani Mukherjee, Swetha Kolluri, Dr. Krishnan S. Raghavan

April 30, 2020

According to research by LeanIn.Org and SurveyMonkey, 77 per cent of mothers have taken on more household work since the pandemic started. This includes both physical (domestic tasks + work tasks) and emotional labour (like child-care and elderly care). While formal workplaces have shifted to work from home modalities and virtual meetings, we wanted to understand how women in the entrepreneurial space are coping and adjusting to this new normal.

We used the tool Mural to virtually brainstorm and rank by priority the most ‘felt’ issues for women entrepreneurs. The platform was also a space to map COVID-19 response solutions from women entrepreneurs across four focus areas: i) Bio-medical waste management solutions; ii) Innovative information & communications solution; iii) Supply chain mapping of essential medical supplies; iv) Innovative sanitation and hygiene solutions. A number of innovative solutions were highlighted by the entrepreneurs, for instance: Solar based bio medical waste incinerators; Blockchain and AI based supply chain solutions; myth busting bots activated on social media; UV curing and hydrogen peroxide based sanitization techniques among others.

As part of UNDP India’s engagement on SDG Finance, over the last year, teams have been working on supporting women entrepreneurs’ access to investors and mentors through the UN-NITI Aayog Investor Consortium for Women Entrepreneurs. Building on those synergies a number of COVID-19 response sessions were organized.

Challenges thrown up by COVID-19 on women-led start-ups are compounded by persisting social and financial barriers that women encounter. The same sentiment was reflected through our discussions where most participants reiterated that the “gendered disadvantage” exacerbates during times of crisis.  This is especially true in the current context of social enterprises.

Daaman Thandi who runs Community of Advocates for Gender Empowerment (CAGE), an initiative on the mission to build gender inclusive cities said, “Given the focus on COVID-19 crisis, everything else including gender-related issues that organizations like us are working on will get pushed back”. Other social entrepreneurs also believed that the sustainability-oriented projects will get the least priority during economic slowdown and reiterated the need to keep the momentum going for sustainability. While a number of issues raised by the entrepreneurs were linked to their daily operations such as supply chain disruptions, cash flow crunch, employee management and safety, a large part of the discussion also emphasized on the need for strategic mentorship especially to tackle the challenges caused by COVID-19.

Nidhi Pant, who leads a fast-growing food technology company, S4S Technologies believes that Strategic and timely mentorship can help entrepreneurs sail through the crisis; what is needed is sector/ function specific mentorship to help entrepreneurs gauge the ecosystem better for making better business decisions”.

While these challenges affect the financial sustainability and viability of enterprises, there is also a lot of political and governance unrest. Entrepreneurs highlighted the need for revised business and scenario planning measures to deal with the evolving crisis. Business issues aside, mental health and psycho-social care through peer support groups also emerged as areas that require attention.  Collaborating with other start-ups to amplify impact was a silver-lining.















In order to address the above, UNDP India and UN Women organized a “COVID-19 Business Response Webinar Series for Women Entrepreneurs” will help women led businesses with the most critical support system. The series focused on the themes starting from business planning, investment to long-term strategies in the context of COVID-19

Each session saw active participation from industry/ sector experts who helped participating women entrepreneurs with useful tips and guidance to survive through the COVID-19 crisis.

Rathish Balakrishnan from Sattva Consulting emphasizes on the “Mitigate: Adapt: Pivot” model to help entrepreneurs understand immediate strategies for risk mitigation and re-alignment in the context of COVID-19.

Similarly, from the investors’ side, Paula Mariwala, Founder & Co-President, Stanford Angels & Entrepreneurs India pointed out to the need for more “hyperlocal solutions” specially coming from women entrepreneurs which can be a game changer given the current trends.

Ananya Chandra from V2, coherently puts across the mantras that entrepreneurs need to swear by to survive through this period: “Be Authentic; Be Transparent; Be Reasonable; Be Adaptive.


Living in COVID times is uncertain, but also signals emergence of a new world order, which throws up important lessons to shape the future of work. The global crisis has led to several challenges for the entrepreneurial world but has also posed a unique opportunity for startups to re-think, re-look and buckle up. As society evaluates the long-term effects of COVID-19 on daily life and work, it is becoming increasingly evident that promoting economic growth in a sustainable manner is imperative. Entrepreneurs who derive learnings and adapt, will shape the future of innovations and sustainable development.

The writers are from UNDP India's Accelerator Labs and Women's entrepreneurship team