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Women Aerospace Founders Aim For The Sky

They are overcoming issues like misogyny, lack of representation and diversity as well as difficulty in raising venture capital to keep flying high

Women Aerospace Founders Aim For The Sky
POSTED ON March 08, 2023 11:38 AM

While speaking to ANI recently, Scientific Advisor to Defence Minister and former DRDO chief Dr G Satheesh Reddy proudly stated that the number of start-ups in India's defence and aerospace sector in India now runs into the thousands. "Youngsters are working on various components, spare parts, new technologies required—propulsion systems, new engine-related technologies...It is one of the important changes in the country, which will take India into a new dimension," he said during the interview. 

His pride is not misplaced as India is home to approximately 87,000 start-ups, as per Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT) reports. The burgeoning aerospace sector, which currently has around 104 space start-ups, is gaining much attention from the industry, government and investors, with $300 million expected to be funnelled into the sector in 2023.

Another heartening fact for the nation's start-up ecosystem is the steadily rising presence of women founders and co-founders. According to DPIIT's Start-up India reports, this is currently at 47 per cent, up from 29.5 per cent in 2017. It still remains a male bastion, though some enterprising women leaders are diving into it with gusto.   

One of them is Rithika Agnishwar, co-founder and chief information officer of Garuda Aerospace. She represented Tamil Nadu at the World Economic Forum 2023, where she spoke at a panel discussion on how the start-up community is working towards transforming India into a global drone hub by 2030 by staying ahead of the curve.  

Another woman founder in the aerospace start-up sector is Samriddhi Pandey of Defy Aerospace. The Mumbai-based entrepreneur leveraged her tech background to design large-sized drones that can take heavy payloads for long distances to deliver supplies, yet another field dominated by men. 

Surviving And Thriving In Tech 

Being a woman founder in a room full of male aeronautical engineers and scientists can often be daunting. Existing stereotypes and biases make it harder for them to succeed and feel confident in their abilities.

Agnishwar believes that the trick lies in taking on any challenge confronting them. Her young age notwithstanding, she has confidently interacted with cricketer MS Dhoni during the Droni drone launch and with Union Minister Anurag Thakur, who appreciated the Drone Yatra plan, where she proposed her initiative to skill 1 lakh youth.

Rithika Agnishwar, co-founder and chief information officer of Garuda Aerospace
Rithika Agnishwar, co-founder and chief information officer of Garuda Aerospace

This self-assurance stems from the fact that she is Garuda Aerospace's first woman drone pilot and among the few women drone pilots in India with a DGCA license. "It's important to address the systemic barriers that prevent women from entering and thriving in the aerospace industry," she claims.  

However, she contends there is a long way to go when it comes to diversity and inclusivity in the aerospace field. "I don't think aerospace start-ups in India are yet walking the talk when it comes to creating truly inclusive and equitable workplaces," Agnishwar  admits.  

She feels it is critical to implement diversity and inclusion training programs, create more equitable hiring practices, and establish clear and transparent channels for reporting to address discrimination or harassment. 

Luckily, the industry is taking notice. Melanie Stricklan, CEO and co-founder of Slingshot Aerospace, is championing the Space Workforce 2030 Pledge, an initiative to significantly enhance diversity and equity for underrepresented groups in the aerospace industry.  

Inspired by such examples, companies like Garuda Aerospace are also working towards equitably representing women in its team. Currently, the female workforce participation in the eight-year-old start-up stands at 35 per cent, which it hopes to increase to 50 per cent by 2024.  

Tackling Diversity Lacunae Headlong 

A lack of representation and diversity can make it harder for women professionals to find mentors, role models, and supportive networks. This can create a sense of isolation and discourage women from pursuing careers in aerospace entrepreneurship. 

Moreover, conventional social mores project women as homemakers. While most households subscribe to girls' education, few families support women start-up founders or even women in leadership roles, expecting them to straddle their personal and professional goals with aplomb. 

Shweta Salunkhe, who launched private helicopter services start-up Edge Aviation four years ago, has first-hand experience the barriers that women leaders face—from the lack of representation at the top to unconscious bias and lack of flexibility in the workplace. "It is disheartening that even though the number of women in leadership positions has increased in recent years, the percentage of women in top executive positions is still alarmingly low. It is clear that more needs to be done to address these barriers and create a level playing field for women in leadership," she posted on LinkedIn recently.  

Where's The Money, Honey? 

Globally, a significant hurdle many women start-up founders encounter is raising capital from investors. India's burgeoning start-up ecosystem amassed $136 billion in total funding and continues to multiply. However, the answer would be woeful if one were to ask what percentage of these funds were raised by start-ups led by women founders. 

US companies with at least one female founder raised about $38 billion in venture funding over 3,503 deals in 2022, while start-ups with only female founders have garnered $4.3 billion over 926 deals, according to PitchBook data. While solo female founders raised 2 per cent of all VC capital till December 2022—a 6-year low—female co-founders fared better, garnering 15.4 per cent of capital, the highest share since 2017. 

Melanie Stricklan, CEO and co-founder of Slingshot Aerospace
Melanie Stricklan, CEO and co-founder of Slingshot Aerospace

India's rising start-up ecosystem fared much better than the US. Funding raised by women-led start-ups remained at about $3.9 billion in 2021 and 2022, according to a report by market intelligence platform Tracxn. These entities comprised almost 11 per cent of the total funds raised in 2022 against 8 per cent in 2021. 

Nonetheless, there is no denying that an air of misplaced misogyny surrounds capital raising, which is more systemic than situational. Many investors often ignore women founders, especially in a funding winter, making fundraising difficult for these ladies. Some even tried to launch or scale these companies without venture capital, which was a difficult task. This path becomes very challenging since it requires significant personal investment and a longer timeline for growth.

A female start-up founder said on conditions of anonymity that while no one wants to comment on this issue to stay politically correct, male founders find it relatively easier to raise venture capital than their women counterparts. "To encourage more women to become entrepreneurs, more initiatives are required to increase the number of female investors. Having a kindred soul on the capital raising side is likelier to result in better support for female founders," she claims.  

Meagan Murphy Crawford, co-founder and managing partner of SpaceFund fits this bill perfectly. This venture capital firm invests in space start-ups, and Crawford sits on the board of directors of numerous space companies while hosting the Mission Eve podcast, which aims to increase the number of women in the aerospace industry. 

Agnishwar, however, feels that gender should not determine whether a business receives funding. "Investors should focus on the market potential, unit economics and technology behind a business rather than the gender of the founders. Funding should be gender agnostic," she opined.  

Onus Lies On The Administration  

Women continue to be underrepresented in senior management and executive positions, making it difficult to gain the requisite experience and connections to advance in their careers. This also means that women have fewer role models to look up to with fewer opportunities for mentorship and sponsorship.  

Being a woman founder in a room full of male aeronautical engineers and scientists can often be daunting

The importance of how a role model can impact career choices can't be denied. Diana Trujillo, an aerospace engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, migrated from Columbia to the US when she was 17 with just $300 in her pocket. She worked as a housekeeper to support her studies at Miami Dade Community College.  

During an interview with TV station KCET, she said, "While standing in line to register for the class, I remembered Kalpana Chawla, the female astronaut from India that died in the Space Shuttle Columbia explosion in 2003. It stuck with me because she …was from a different country and still managed to be an astronaut. I thought, maybe I had a shot."  

The government can play a crucial role in bridging the barriers female entrepreneurs face in the aerospace domain by creating policies and programmes that encourage diversity and inclusivity in the aerospace industry. The administration can improve the accessibility of loans for female founders by offering grants, tax breaks, or other incentives to start-ups with female co-founders or leadership teams.  

It can also invest in education and training programs that help women develop the skills they need to succeed in the aerospace industry. Further, companies can be encouraged to set and adhere to targets for the number of women in leadership roles. These measures can give the women waiting in the aisles the wings to soar in the aerospace sky.

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