“A diverse team leads to better problem-solving outcomes”

Founder of Avaana Capital, Anjali Bansal, talks about the importance of diversity at workplaces

Faisal Magray

Having held several leadership positions throughout her career before founding Avaana Capital, Anjali Bansal knows the importance of promoting diversity and inclusivity in an organisation. Currently, she also chairs Niti Aayog, Women Entrepreneurship Platform and serves as the non-executive chairperson on the board of Dena Bank. In an exclusive interview with Outlook Business, she shares her insights on why it is important to ensure a progressive work environment for women to thrive

What is your idea of a great place to work?

The workplace has to be for all, not for some. A great place to work is where all people are welcomed. It has to be respectful; not just of people, but the opinions that they bring; their perspectives, wants and needs. It should also be a place of learning. We are in a world now where whatever we learned in school and college is rapidly getting obsolete. The workplace should be a place for life-long learning, therefore at my workplace, I expect to learn and impart learning.

Given the largely conservative mindset in India and discrimination on the basis of gender, religion and race, how is the country placed in terms of inclusivity and diversity at workplace?

The challenge of inclusivity is a global issue and is not just restricted to India. I think India is much more positive than we generally see and believe in the public discourse. India has had equal employment rights, wages and voting rights for women right from the beginning, which many countries did not. Bringing gender or more diversity in the workforce is not a matter of hardware, which constitutes the policies, laws and regulations. The important thing is the software, which is the culture of the place, the values by which a company or a country wants to live.

Fundamentally, half the world is female. There cannot be a situation where half of the population is not respected, welcomed or unheard. Not just recognising but celebrating differences is what leads to richer outcomes. Researchers show that teams, diverse on the grounds of gender, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation lead to much better problem-solving outcomes. If you want robust sustainable solutions, one must engage different types of point of views.

How has the scenario of women taking up leadership positions evolved over the past two decades? How can one create more inclusion to ensure better participation of women?

When I started, in my freshman year there were 15 women at my engineering college in a batch of 315, that's about 5%. Now, I have heard, it has gone up to 30%. Similarly, 10-15 years ago, women on boards constituted only 4% and as of 2020, that number has gone close to 20%. So the slope of the curve is going right, we are making progress. Is it enough? No, a lot more can be done until we really get to mirror the population and have more than 50% female participation at workforces of every company.

To answer the second part, inclusion has to be both top-down and bottom-up. We have seen the grassroots level of inclusion of women: today, girls are getting better treatment by their families and societies. School dropout rates have reduced; they are staying for longer periods. They are being encouraged to study and work. Even most good institutions and companies want to promote diversity. We are seeing the right kind of action on both the sides.

Could you share a few instances when you tweaked HR policies to help women colleagues?

There are phases in a woman’s life and career, where her personal and family needs become paramount. Typically, for young women, the early years of building careers, overlaps with the time they are building their families. What I had to do and a lot of institutions can do is provide them flexibility. Flexibility doesn’t mean taking away something from performance or output. It just means genuinely letting people work in different ways; sometimes from home, sometimes for shorter hours. Giving them a path to come back to work as and how it works for them and the organisation. 

Moving on to your career as a venture capitalist, what do you look for in a start-up?

In addition to robust business models, we are specifically looking for start-ups using technology for innovation — in their products or even business models. They should be using technology to solve large-scale problems in India that will lead to eventual social and economic impact. So it’s not just about money, the start-ups need to create an impact. Business that are built responsibly, scale up and are actually profitable, sustainable and successful in creating employment, market linkages and formalisation. Of course, in addition, the investor makes great returns. We look at entrepreneurs and teams that are passionate for learning and hungry for growth.

What do you think of the story building around valuation bubble? How can an investor be wary of such risks and hypes?

Valuation is both a financial exercise and exercise of judgement. So what I may value a start-up at, will be different for another investor or a third investor putting in money. I think we have to leave that decision on the investor who is betting on a business model and the entrepreneur and how they value them.

Have you noticed any differences in the way women entrepreneurs approach a start-up idea while pitching? How has the start-up ecosystem been for women?

I tend to not notice those differences. But the number of women entrepreneurs coming in and pitching is very low. The percentage of VC money going to women is dismal, in single digit. I would like to see that grow. It’s the same reasons we see lower participation of women in the workforce. It’s both on the supply and demand side. There are subconscious biases in the allocators of capital. While it is easy to say there aren’t enough women entrepreneurs, actually in the MSME ecosystem there are a lot of women entrepreneurs. They might not be your venture capital investible businesses, but there are plenty of women there. We have to find different ways of reaching them and different types of capital that will support them.