“Growing up, I saw women in my family, all super educated [and] full of potential, but no agency. They were invisible in their families.”
In an interview with MIT, Sairee Chahal speaks of her journey as an entrepreneur and what led her to create a platform to support women.
Sairee Chahal is a serial entrepreneur, angel investor, and advocate for women’s internet initiatives. As the founder of SHEROES, an online platform providing support, entrepreneurial opportunities, and employment resources for women, she has been empowering women since 1999.
Chahal is also associated with Mahila Money, a community neobank catering to women’s financial needs. In terms of what they do, Sairee says,
“Mahila Money is fuelling the growth of women entrepreneurs by reimagining their engagement as consumers of financial services.”
Her influence extends to the boardrooms of organizations like the Milaan Foundation and Paytm Payments Bank.
Globally recognized for her achievements, Chahal is an Aspen Leadership Fellow and a Braddock Scholar, with accolades including the Devi Award, Femina Achievers Award, and the Cartier Award.
She has been featured in Business Today’s Most Powerful Women in Indian Business and is an Editor’s choice for L’Oreal Femina Women’s Award. MIT SPR recently interviewed Ms. Chahal, delving into topics such as female entrepreneurship and relevant policies.
In a candid interview, Sairee once shared that her foray into entrepreneurship was quite unexpected. Moreover, what set the stage for her career was her experience working with a company from concept to exit.
What inspired her?
“My work at SHEROES is built on two core insights: first, technology is a massive enabler and second, women are not getting seats on the table.”
Inspired by successful social movements like Amul and cooperative microfinance institutions, she envisioned SHEROES as a technology-backed platform for women, leveraging the existing social network.
As shared by her, SHEROES’ initial focus was supposed to focus on a jobs and careers community for women seeking flexible work opportunities. Eventually, it turned into a broader women-exclusive platform.
Today, SHEROES is a high-trust online space catering to the cultural preference for “women-only” environments prevalent in India, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.
With the #TakeCharge campaign, SHEROES has expanded to a community of 25 million women over the past ten years, enabling them to use the internet for both personal and professional development.
Sairee Chahal’s profound insight into the challenges faced by women offline led her to leverage technology as a means of empowerment. In India, where women often face scrutiny in various aspects of life, Chahal recognized the transformative potential of a mobile device. For women with a mobile device, agency multiplies, offering them a space where they have control over their lives.
This shift in agency is evident in the 25 million women strong SHEROES community, characterized by a desire to connect, aspirational mindsets, creativity, and a strong entrepreneurial spirit. Sairee highlights,
“The need for safety is a very big ask. A lot of people told us ‘you are shrinking your market size by limiting it to women,’ but that fundamentally dilutes the value we offer to this user. One of the most unique things we do is we run a free counseling helpline. It doesn’t make business sense rationally, but it is our way to tell our community, ‘We care. This is a safe space. This is a place of trust. And these are things that are important to us.’”
Chahal identifies a shared aspiration cutting across demographics, age, and class divisions in India—a collective desire to do something, encapsulated in the line “मैंकुछ करना चाहती हूं” (“I want to do something”). This hunger for recognition, independence, and participation in new technologies unites women in their pursuit of personal and professional growth. In the context of India’s evolving landscape, Sairee Chahal’s work aligns with the wave of aspiration sweeping the nation.
The user base
SHEROES predominantly caters to a user base residing in rural and peri-urban areas, with 20-30% in metros. The platform’s users, aged between 21 to 45, are predominantly educated graduates, married, and often mothers.
Operating in small towns where job opportunities are limited and safety is a concern, these women view having children as a form of newfound freedom. Many married women with children seek additional avenues for personal and professional growth, often applying for loans to acquire smartphones or laptops. Sairee notes,
“We are actually an entrepreneurial country, more women are entrepreneurial than men because there’s still more men in the informal workforce than women. Within SHEROES, beauty and related sectors are massive, they are the biggest forms of micro-entrepreneurship. They’ve gone mobile thanks to salon-in-a-box kind of things.”
Who can join?
At SHEROES, career and entrepreneurship remain significant areas of interest, and specific communities, such as “love, sex, relationships” and “legal rights,” garner widespread engagement. Discussions within the legal rights community focus on women’s rights in marriages, inheritance, and safety. The platform also serves as a space for creative expression, surprising many with the prevalence of writing, singing, and other forms of artistic creation as coping mechanisms for the challenges women face in the country.
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