Womentum | Don’t Let Statistics Define You
A senior at Babson College and a founder of her company Womentum, Prabha is disrupting the micro-financing industry. Being lucky enough to attend business school with endless resources and surrounded by dozens of entrepreneurs, Prabha was curious to see what entrepreneurs living elsewhere looked like in a context where they didn’t have the same access to opportunities and resources like she did. What started as a research project is now a successful non-profit, Prabha is making an impact with women globally.
What inspired Womentum?
I travelled to Northern India, (right outside of Delhi - where my family is actually from) and I got to meet with a lot of women entrepreneurs that had started these small scale ventures in these villages. From the get go it was primarily a research project, I wasn't really trying to convert it into anything, I was just interested in learning more.
It was really clear to me that context entrepreneurship is an incredible driver of change. But on the same point, getting to entrepreneurship is very, very difficult. I saw many women who had to hide from their husbands the fact that they wanted to take businesses classes, they had to hide their cell phones, or even sneak away at night to work on their business. There were so many stories of communities and families not supporting these entrepreneurs and their journeys. And on the flip side, there was this whole funding aspect, with many women not being able to read or write, and not having an income source, they couldn't just go into a bank and get a loan. So taking all that into account, I realized there is a really big need here to fill these aspects which I identified to be funding and community support. That trip to india was really the inspiration behind Womentum and the opportunity to meet and talk to these entrepreneurs helped me set that foundation for Womentum.
What is Womentum?
For me, Womentum at its core level is empowering women entrepreneurs. And the way that we do that is through this funding and community support. We crowdfund donations for women entrepreneurs to start businesses. The critical part of that is the donation aspect. A lot of the micro financing models that are out there, involve loans. We are very different from that and operate on a donation model - which means all funds raised on the platform are donations and when the women entrepreneurs become profitable, they then pay it forward. This means they give it to someone else in their community who wants to start a business. So because of that model, we not only raise the funds for the women entrepreneurs to start business, but we are trying to create these communities of women supporting women.
One of our long term initiatives, is actually going into communities where they don’t have a non-profit that provides classes or support and actually be that organization for women entrepreneurs.
How do you find these women entrepreneurs?
We form partnerships with organizations that work on the ground - called growth partners - who help us find the women entrepreneurs in the countries that we are looking for entrepreneurs. They provide us with the information and vet these entrepreneurs. We also have corporate sponsors. Some primarily only want to support women entrepreneurs with big donations and some give money to Womentum itself for its operations. All the sponsors we’ve has so far been acquired via word of mouth or they have reached out to us.
When you thought of this idea, what was your first step?
When I came back from India, I spent about 3 months just thinking about the idea and not exactly sure what I wanted to do with it, but knowing that this was a very powerful source of inspiration for me. It was actually one of my good friends, who is now a co-founder, who believed in the mission, encouraged me to look into it more. Then we brought on our third co-founder, our technical founder, who built the platform for us and made it more real. It was really the people that were around me, who encouraged me to have faith in myself but also had faith in the idea itself.
How did you advertise the platform?
Primarily it was word of mouth. We actually send individual emails to all our donors, every single time they donate, and I ask why they donated or how they heard about us, and the most common is word of mouth or some other personal connection. Now we do a lot of blogging and podcasting which is another source of donations. But initially word of mouth and family and friends was a huge push for us.
What do you like about the industry you are in?
One of the most beautiful parts of the social impact industry to me is that there isn’t really a ton of competition. In general, people might have a similar model, but a lot of the times, there are just so many people that need help that you can find a unique population or a unique take on it or whatever it is. In general, it’s all about helping people.
How did you come up with the donation based model?
When I was in India, I asked the women entrepreneurs why they weren’t doing micro loans, given how popular it is. They didn’t really understand the idea of sending their hard earned money back to the United States, which they perceived as wealthy. Instead they were doing this model on an informal basis - they would give money to other women in their community, those women would then turn and give someone else in their community and start a business. I realized that this was a very innovative take on this financing model. And it probably would only work primarily only with women because once women experiences success and confidence, she wanted other women in her community to have the same experience. So I thought to myself what would this look like on a bigger scale model.
It’s been interesting to learn too because it's not a proven model. And it takes about a year to do the pay it forward. The really interesting part is that it hasn’t only been funding - we’ve seen other women sit down and actually mentor other women in their communities. So it's been interesting to see it develop and adapt.
What has been your biggest obstacle/challenge?
Organizational: Marketing. Our biggest driver is word of mouth, which ends up being very time consuming for us - with the need to go to a lot of events, telling the story, hoping that someone will tell someone else and that converts to a donation. It’s a hard to scale model. Getting out there in a very low-cost way, when you have a limited budget is difficult.
Personally: Being a young female founder in the non-profit space. You don’t hear a lot of college students deciding to start a new tech non-profit. The nonprofit industry tends to be a traditional one. When you think about the non-profits that have really succeeded, they have been around for 20+ years, their donors have been donating to them on a yearly basis, and so because of that breaking into the industry has been difficult. And often times I feel like I’m looked at as a college student that doesn’t know what she is doing, in comparison to other people who are running non-profits that are significantly older and have more experience. So just who I am and the role I am trying to play in the industry itself, is something that I struggle with.
Being a non-profit, how do you measure success?
Our impact measurements are focused on women entrepreneurs. The number of women that we can fund is amazing, but I look at figuring out how many of those women are still running those businesses or how many of them are able to pay it forward.
Since starting the business, I’ve had a ton of people come ask me for support in their ventures, and that's incredible for me, because I never expected it to be a by-product of what I was doing. I think especially being at Babson and so many people wanting to start something, I’ve just seen an incredible increase of women who want to start non-profits. Personally that’s a big win that I measure success. Even though helping women in other countries is amazing, being able to witness and see women in your own community, wanting to start something and take on issues, is really exciting for me too.
What does social entrepreneurship mean to you?
For me, it’s about developing a really strong understanding of the problem - and creating a positive impact. It’s knowing that you are creating more good than bad.
If you had to give one piece of advice to another woman starting out on her own, what would you say?
Don’t let statistics define you. In the sense, you hear all the time 3% of venture capital goes to women entrepreneurs, the actual number of female founders is so little - but you aren’t that statistic in the end. It doesn't matter what has happened in the past. You have the ability to change that number. You can’t let the majority get you discouraged. In the end, even though your path might be harder with obstacles, it doesn’t mean you can’t overcome them.