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The tale of two cinderellas

The differential experiences of women entrepreneurs in the formal and informal sector

Not so long ago:

As is the case in developing countries, there exists the seen but not accounted landscape of informal economy. The landscape is rife with blessings and curses. It’s a blessing for the forgotten people, it’s their last chance to dignified living, because they lie outside the system but still live off the system, their parasitic relations earns them reprimand and the curse that they don’t cross over. In India, post liberalization, brought in the equity era for business, which until then was monopolized by family – owned businesses. With liberalization, Family-businesses were soon jostling for survival with larger multinational brands. The IT boom further created many pockets of possibilities in the market, this along with the online (resource) boom, created an open platform for many players despite their economic bracket to compete together and continue to stand alone. It is in this multituidinal context the author presents the personal narratives of the two Cinderellas, strangely similar yet starkly different (end).

To do or perish

The tale of the two Cinderellas unfolds on either side of necessity/opportunity dichotomy as outlined by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor. The Cinderella born on one side of the wall in a middle-class household, where educational achievement is followed with religious fervour, the value system of “a rupee saved is a rupee earned” is the basis of all ‘economic’ common sense. Here the hardships are more figurative than literal. The struggle that such a Cinderella forges is with ideologies, trying to carve a niche for her identity, in exercising her right to construct an identity, she makes a CHOICE to fight. The paradigm of her struggles are unravelling at the top two segments of Maslow’s hierarchy, her stake in the fight is her self-esteem and her right to actualize her potential. Her business venture is her assertive step in this direction.

To be better able to appreciate her idealogical struggles, one would need a sneak peek into the cultural ethos that is still true of contemporary India. In India, parents still are formidable stakeholders in an individual’s career decision. They fund their eager wards into careers and want to ensure there is a formidable payback (read paycheck). The insured payback means their wards more often than not (advised to) tread on the beaten path. Add to this the gender related specifications of marriage, motherhood and pursuit of the illusive work-life balance. Are the formidable road blocks that WOMEN entrepreneurs as Drucker mentioned need to put away to embrace their potential and reach out to opportunity. Cinderellas of the Formal world (would be referred to as CF henceforth) continuously weigh in the back of their minds the, pros and cons of their hard earned independence that entrepreneurship brought to them.

She learns, thanks to her education that there are resources that are fairly available to the seekers, be it capital for investment, be it a market for what she has to offer. Her magic wand is her educated exposure to a wide of world of possibilities. She realizes that across the threshold lies a literal world of opportunities. Her struggle though is to convince her more often than not conservative family of origin of such possibilities. Who have never known the expansive and still expanding length and breadth of business. Her certainty lies in her ability as Drucker prophesized in seeing and creating opportunity. The opportunity is as obvious to her as its oblivion is to her family. Cinderellas of this side of the wall take pride in being the authors of their lives. They carry the label of entrepreneur as a flagship of all their trials and tribulations. They become the inspiring tales of their generation. Simply put they make entrepreneurship look good.

The story of the Cinderella in the informal sector (hence forth referred to as CI) is quite literal though, she is born in deprivation. Poverty is an effective equalizer of social or cultural norms, not withstanding differential gender expectations. Cinderellas of this world often feel that they are living borrowed story lines. They did not seek equity, it was thrust on them, they do not get the privileged preparation time as the Cinderellas of the other world. They simply start towing the line of the role models around them. They enter the oblivious space of the overstuffed informal economy. They don’t identify themselves with the weighted word of ‘entrepreneur’ they are more at ease to slip under the label of street vendors or the more quaint term of self-employed. Though the informal work sector comprises 93% of the national economy, they successfully remain invisible to the larger (formal) economic system all of their lives. In short her tale is not told, her example is not set, had she failed everyone concerned would have understood and pitied her validated her suffering and cursed fate with her and if she fought and learnt to ma

The victim or the survivor

Drucker defined Entrepreneurs as restless beings, who craved for their own space and jostled with existing system to construct on the outside that, which they dreamed in their fertile mindscapes. Entrepreneurship then becomes the expression of an (self- anointed) ecclectic group of people who no longer wish to survive but flourish. They are dreamers, creators and the harbingers of change.

Opportunity driven: Formal Sector

Necessity driven: Informal sector





While the above definition is tailor suited for people who
are born into a thriving culture both economically and socially. They could be
imagined to belong to the zenith of the entrepreneurial pyramid. In the essay I
present the idea that entrepreneurship could be envisaged as a pyramid with a
hierarchical arrangement, to capture the distinct fertility of formal and
informal entrepreneurial landscape. As a trained psychologist and
psychotherapist, I present in this essay the inner journey of these women trail
blazers, that I have been privy to professionally, personally and in media
spaces. The entrepreneurship spirit more or less remains nascent to both the
groups who embark upon this journey, however the difference lies as this
journey pans out, its challenges and rewards for the path breaker.

The home is where the motivation lies

Behind every successful women entrepreneur there is an undeniable presence of a family that either is the necessity behind the endeavour or the life force that sustains the endeavour or both. The narratives begin to differ once the invitation to the ball arrives. The Cinderellas in the formal sector labors hopefully, await their rightful place among the royalty. The fairy godmother often played by a forceful family member, who with wise consul helps them realize the gift of their untapped potential. The ‘godmother’ dresses them up in searing ambition, and bids them adieu from societal mores in the carriage of dreams to find and charm Princely success. As in the case of the CF, who now features on the Forbes list of 100 most powerful women and among the 100 of India’s richest[1]. She went where no women went, became a brewster, then foresaw business where no native business man envisioned – biotechnology. Her father released her from social and cultural obligations and she realized that she was not indebted to anyone but only to her ambition.

The other Cinderella simply accepts that the invite was never meant for her, she never desires to go, She believes that she is living on a borrowed story line. She is mostly filing the gap of a male-breadwinner or supplementing the income of one. Unlike her counterpart on the formal side, whose dreams fire her reality, her dream is simply to keep the fire in the hearth real. As goes the story of another CI[2], who found herself rudely awakened into a newer role, the presence of a young infant and the absence of an engaged father, redefined motherhood. She was now the nurturer and the provider for her child. For this Cinderella, the fairy godmothers were sporadic helpful gestures from kith and kin and strangers alike, an uncle who gave her an interest free loan, a fellow street vendor who empathized with her situation and moved to another spot after advising her to change her strategy. Unlike the presence of a constant stable support, who mentored talent the benefactors provided pockets of relief and did not fuel searing ambition.

People vs. product orientation

In spite of differences in the motivations behind the entrepreneurial venture, the Cinderellas, often cater to a niche market, owing to their personalized services to their loyal and ‘word of mouth’ growing clientele and vendors. They create loyalists in their wake. Both groups of entrepreneurs believe in the value of investing in relationships as opposed to ‘result/number – orientation’, they often work with a sense of community. They take pride in knowing their customers and keeping their market reputation consistent with good vendor relationships as well. While Ms CI[3], a flower vendor for the past three decades makes it a point to know all the special days of each of her 500 odd customers, so she can now on memory deliver their special order without reminders to their door step. Ms CF[4] and interior decorator, in her fresh business of over half decade makes sure she knows her clientele personally to be better able to foretell, whether they would continue to like the lavender wall paint, or it is more a passing impulsive need to, simply be different.

Made their own boxes or not

They both enjoy the freedom to express their creativity, demonstrating the spirit for innovation. As seen in another Ms CI[5], who spent hours doling out the south Indian delicacy of Dosa, decided to go the gourmet way, by wondering if she could maybe add cheese or pizza like toppings to her simple fare to keep her mostly ‘college – kids’ customers interested in her simple fare. Or the other Ms. CF[6] while doing up her café saw potential in diversifying the menu to cater to the general Indian palate of ‘nice, spicy and filling’ , capitalizing on the already popular street-food with a little tweaking and including them in her menu rather than adhering to a specific cuisine. Also chose old-school quirky cutlery and no- nonsense concrete park styled benches as the perfect settee to set the tone for the homely ambience the café now stands for.

Both the Cinderellas peacefully co-exist with uncertainty. Owing to the hardships in their professional and personal lives, they have learnt to take for granted that change is a constant, and the best changes are those that you initiate. As exemplified by another CF[7], a dancer who wanted to establish an exclusive dance school, was initially distraught at the shortened shelf life of her eclectic services, then chose to diversify and brought on board a larger palette of services related to much larger concern of physical and mental health related services, all under one roof. She was able to combine the diversity of all available talent and package it exclusively under a unique brand. The story is similar across the wall, where another CI found that most of her wares, displayed on a cart that originally sold prepared food, would lose lustre within a few months, as the crowd that she catered to found something new within a few steps. So she began to sell her fare that is processed from seasonal produce instead, she currently uses fewer processing steps, thus providing a more healthier and refreshed menu every season.

To lead or let go

When it comes to passing the baton or combining forces as well, Cinderellas on the formal side take pride in their endeavour and would not necessarily impinge on their kith and kin’s dreams owing to their individualistic sparks. Just as the mother-daughter duo[8], who joined forces to begin India’s first digital marketing social network. The duo break another stereotype related to age as well. Both are retired teachers. The septuagenarian mother and her middle-aged daughter embarked upon the idea only a year ago and already boast of a database of 50 million devices and have successfully employed 20 full timers in their venture. But the story differs starkly on the informal side of the wall. Most Cinderella’s for the need may join forces with their kith and kin but would rather look at it as a stop gap arrangement. They would prefer for them to migrate to the other side of the wall, where they suppose lies security, stability and more ‘dignified’ societal status. As another C[9]I a fruit vendor for the last two decades mentions, that though her son has been pitching in since his adolescent days, she insists that he has been firmly advised to seriously consider his educational options as his future vocation. Though, he seems to handle the business with ease, especially the aggressive negotiations with customers and good credit reputation in the market. He needs to aim at crossing over, the son agrees with his mother, stating that the now elusive land of formal economy promised a better life.

Where we come from and where we go

One might deduce that the reason for not being ambitious, in spite of having shouldered responsibility as lack of self – confidence, or exhaustion from unending hardships, maybe even low self-esteem, but it is more symptomatic understanding of the problem than the aetiology of it. As one CI[10] reveals that she is sure if born in circumstances, where going to school and getting an education was a norm, she would have had a very different life. Reinforcing Peter Drucker, the management guru’s thoughts on the central importance of education, being a passport to better income, and next a better life. In the seminal article titled ‘The Social transformation’, he notes the plight of Afro-Americans, who similarly find themselves stubbornly on the unfavourable side of the economy due their lack of education. This as well holds true for any section of the society that is unable to afford quality education. While the age of the Blue-collar worker is considered over, it still seems to be alive in the experiences of a woman entrepreneur in the informal work sector. Their hard work still does not all, convert into better living.

In the paper ‘The Social transformation’ Drucker also talks about how the college educated ‘knowledge worker’ dictates the world of the formal economy. He further elaborates the perception of impermeableness of the formal economy to a displaced industrial worker who cannot easily move into knowledge work world, not just because of a want of the required skill set. But, a lack of the prerequisite mindset, involving a different set of attitudes, values and beliefs, scaffolding the culture of the formal economy. A displaced industrial worker does not just feel like an unskilled labour but as an outsider. A similar gorge lies between the entrepreneurs of the formal and informal sector.

The author proposes that the unknown values, attitudes and beliefs that accompany formative life experiences can create either a sense of entitlement or alienation in relation to the entrepreneur’s work world and eventual success, thereby dictating the ambition they harbour. While Cinderalla of the formal world equipped with her education, prior successes and exposure feels empowered to expand her horizons. The other does not consider growth in exponential terms but logarithmically. The pace of her growth is weighed down by the survivor – paradigm that her enterprise exists in. Her venture is labour intensive and often requires her to assay a wide array of roles, leaving her exhausted at the end of the day. Her precarious position in the socio-economic parameter, makes her grateful for having met basic requirements and save-up for a rainy day. She aims for and is grateful for the security of routine.

Ambition in formal sector driven by: Sense of entitlement to success

Ambition in informal sector driven by feeling of alienation to work world









The Entrepreneurs of the formal sector are the progeny of the previous generation of knowledge workers, hailing from the formidable middle-class backgrounds. They have witnessed their parents’ experiences and have imbibed the adaptability instilled by formal education, in this regard entrepreneurs resemble the quintessential knowledge worker as defined by Drucker as “ somebody who has learned how to learn, and who continues learning, especially by formal education, throughout his or her lifetime..” But the Entrepreneurs began to digress from their parents’ path, because formal education steers predictably towards ending up as yet another academic milestone. The straitjacketed approach of one size fits all education, defines ‘quality’ learning and teaching along the lines of simplistic and dwarfing lone parameter of academic performance. This objective has also percolated its way through to the key institution of knowledge society – school.

Drucker’s knowledge worker is an amalgamation of theoretical skills and analytical skills. With formal education getting almost uni-dimensionally measured by academic performance, theoretical skills are pitted against analytical skills in the arena of academia/knowledge society. Considering that an entrepreneur is a path breaker not a follower, they are restless on the plateau of stability. And thus the Cinderellas (women Entrepreneurs) of the formal sector) break free from the stifling socio-cultural and educational ideologies. In comparison the Cinderellas of the informal sector, look at their independence as a forced or sometimes as the only choice and so aim only to survive and not thrive.

Do we or need we care?

While, Drucker prophesized that, tomorrow’s economy belonged to people, who didn’t look for opportunities, but created them for themselves and others. By, choosing to, go down the innovation and entrepreneurial route. We need to accept the caveat that with regard to women entrepreneurs, the playing field may be levelled in spite and despite gender differentiation, as captured in Kiran Mazumdar Shaw’[11]s words, when asked to respond to whether gender posed a problem for her to navigate around. She rubbished gender bias and said what mattered was a good business plan and not the gender of the planner. Yet the differential growth curves of the Entrepreneurs, brings to light a hidden (yet never missed) piece of the puzzle, i.e the unspoken feelings of entitlement or alienation with which an individual relates to the work world, especially success in the work world. It comes down to the question, whether or not Cinderella comes forward to simply try on the glass slippers.



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