Introducing Sequoia Spark, our platform for women entrepreneurs in India & ASEAN

A diverse ecosystem is a robust ecosystem – and the start-up world is no exception. Different perspectives, experiences and points of view help drive innovation. We look back over the first year of Sequoia Spark, a platform we launched for women entrepreneurs in India and SEA last year as part of our efforts to support the region’s ecosystem, and talk about what’s next.

Team Sequoia India & Southeast Asia (now known as Peak XV)

Published January 15, 2019

At Sequoia India, we’ve had the privilege of partnering with a number of exceptional women in India and ASEAN, including Appier co-founder Winnie Tan, Insider co-founder Hande Cilinger, MadStreetDen’s Ashwini Asokan, Mobikwik’s Upasana Taku, Vymo’s Yamini Bhat, Flyrobe’s Shreya Mishra, Manjiri Bakre at OncoStem Diagnostics, Anju Srivastava from Wingreens Farms, Nicki Ramsay at CardUp, and more.

These ambitious entrepreneurs are challenging incumbents – and the status quo. Just 17% of startups with venture funding are founded by women, according to Crunchbase.

A diverse ecosystem is a robust ecosystem – and the start-up world is no exception. Different perspectives, experiences and points of view help drive innovation. It is an issue close to our hearts, so last year we launched Sequoia Spark, a platform for women entrepreneurs in India and Southeast Asia, as part of our efforts to support the region’s ecosystem.

The journey so far has been exciting, inspiring and eye-opening.

What we’re doing, and what we’re hearing

The Spark team started off by talking to female founders to find out what we could do to help. Women talked about working in isolation; getting so busy working on their business that they wound up going down ‘a rabbit hole’. They also asked for access, and advice. Women entrepreneurs without strong networks felt shut out of the start-up ecosystem.

We kicked off last year with four Spark events in Mumbai, Bangalore and Singapore. They were open to founders outside of our portfolio and included talks by Sequoia partners, panels with some of our most prominent female founders, one-on-one office hours with our entire senior India & SEA leadership team, and networking sessions where women could connect with each other.

Some of the personal experiences shared during these sessions gave us all pause.

Like the woman who ran a large consumer company who conceded that certain suppliers, and even some front-line staff, deferred more to the male CFO that she herself had hired; and that she now looped him into critical email chains – knowing specific recipients would reply first to him – just to move things faster. And the female founder who mentioned, almost apologetically, that she didn’t face the same business challenges some of the other participants has discussed because she had a male co-founder. And the 30-something founder who described how a venture investor asked during her intro pitch if she planned to start a family and if so, how she planned to keep her start-up going once kids were on the scene. (Her response: “My company is my baby…. you don’t give up your first baby when the second one comes along.”). As a mother, venture capitalist and spouse of a start-up founder, her answer makes complete sense to me!

What the Spark delegates spent the most time sharing, however, is support and advice for each other.

Magic happens when we all ‘lean in’

There is something in all of us that loves to put like-minded people together and watch the sparks fly. It’s been inspiring to watch how quickly friendships and partnerships form when entrepreneurial women lean in.

Collectabillia founder, Anjana Reddy, hit it off big-time with Ashwini from Mad Street Den after meeting at a Spark panel in Bangalore.

It’s been equally inspiring to see participants really open up in their quest for insight and advice. Women talked about how they’re great at pitching their product but tend to undersell themselves in meetings with investors. It’s not something you see as often with men. We’ve had frank conversations in all our sessions about how to pitch the dream.

Another recurring theme: how much role models matter.

Hande, who raised a Series B in 2018, spoke on a range of topics from fundraising to managing tricky meeting situations to attracting and retaining staff during our Singapore panel; one young woman who raised several questions during the Q&A told me afterward how thrilled she was to have had the chance to pick their brains. “I’ve met other early-stage female founders before, but you don’t often see women who are this far along in their start-up journey. There just aren’t that many,” she said.

Her comment really struck me. Making more of these connections, more often, is really key. As the saying goes: “If she can see it, she can be it”.

Next steps forward

Our objective through Spark is to build an ecosystem in the region for women to form deeper connections with their peers, provide quality time with seasoned founders in the Sequoia network, as well as with our investment advisory team, and to help, where we can, with input on everything from fund raising to hiring to company building.

There are many wonderful organizations and passionate advocates in our region who are doing amazing things in this space – including SonderConnect, in India, and Female Founders, in Singapore, and many more. We look forward to working alongside other members of the ecosystem to support the region’s women entrepreneurs.

In 2018, we also became a founding sponsor for Generation Girl, a non-profit set up by a visionary group of young Indonesian women working in technology companies to encourage more school-aged girls to enter STEM careers. Some of our female founders have already volunteered to help as mentors, and we’d like to do more to help connect any interested Spark delegates with this exciting organization to help foster the next generation of tech innovators and future entrepreneurs.

As we plan for phase two of Sequoia Spark, we’d love to hear more from women on what kind of support, input and guidance they need from the venture community.

To share your thoughts, and to register your interest in future Spark events, please click here. We are listening – and we look forward to hearing from you.

Anjana Sasidharan is a Principal at Sequoia Capital India Advisors and focuses on investments in consumer and healthcare. She sits on the boards of Vini Cosmetics, Medgenome, Mitra biotech, La Renon Healthcare and K12 Technoservices among others.