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Renu Shah: Creating Stepping Stones for Women Entrepreneurs in India

Renu Shah: Creating Stepping Stones for Women Entrepreneurs in India

Namaste friends, it’s Spiffy, your interplanetary journalist with the last few interviews of the year. I’m here in India with Renu Shah, founder of Shakti – The Empathy Project, or STEP for short. Renu is going to offer up her vision for gender equity, and tell us how STEP is impacting thousands of women entrepreneurs.

Spiffy: Renu, thanks a million for talking with me! I’m especially excited for you to tell us what challenge you’re addressing.

Renu: Thanks so much for having me, Spiffy. Well, according to the 2020 World Economic Forum report, India stands at 149 of the 153 countries surveyed in the economic participation and opportunities for women. At STEP we are trying to build a gender equitable world where all women entrepreneurs are empowered. Our purpose is to create a supportive environment for women-led early stage (social) startups to help them survive the initial phase which is the most difficult part of one's entrepreneurial journey. Our mission is to support 1,000 such enterprises over the next ten years.

Spiffy: That’s spectacular!What motivated you to tackle this issue and set this goal?

Renu: I embarked on a journey of social entrepreneurship in 2007 and I still remember it to be a very lonely journey. I had no mentors to guide me through my challenges and no tribe to celebrate my wins. Fast forward to 2018  — conversations with other women social entrepreneurs made me realize that not much had changed and the data around clearly shows that women entrepreneurs are not getting the support they deserve. I felt the time had come for me to do something about it. In 2019, I launched Shakti – The Empathy Project (STEP).

Spiffy: And how is STEP creating a more equitable world for women entrepreneurs?

Renu: Well, Spiffy, the intention of STEP is to build an everlasting community of women entrepreneurs. The six-month program focuses on five pillars of STEP’s ideology: 1) Creating a safe space for women entrepreneurs for open conversations, 2) Building a supportive environment through mentorship, 3) Enhancing capacity through learning sessions, 4) Opening networking & funding opportunities, and 5) Role modeling through candid conversations with other successful women. 

The first STEP Cohort. (Photo courtesy of Renu Shah)

Spiffy: That’s amazing, Renu. Can you tell me about a recent milestone that you have achieved through STEP?

Renu: It’s really exciting, Spiffy. In the first year of our work, we had touched 9,000 lives. Our target for December 2020 was to touch 50,000. But we’ve already impacted more than 70,000 lives by mid-November! For us, this is the only milestone that really matters.

Spiffy: That’s astounding! With this level of success, have you ever encountered failure? 

Renu: Actually, before launching STEP, we ran a small pilot project. The project started on a very high note and success almost seemed guaranteed. But within 3 months of the launch, the program lost its initial sheen and had to be discontinued.  When we reflected on everything, we saw what was missing and went back to the drawing board. The current version of STEP  is an offshoot of that failure. For me, every failure has been a stepping stone to create something more beautiful and more powerful.

Spiffy: It sounds like a beautiful path is being created! You know, Renu, I believe you can learn from anyone. What is something unexpected you’ve learned from someone recently?

Renu: In May of 2020, the world saw the plight of the Indian migrant workers. Everyone in my network stepped forward to support these workers on the move. It was at this time that I came across Rajesh, the owner of a grain processing micro-unit. Even though he was barely able to feed his own family, he offered to sell flour, pulses, and spices at very low prices. He also helped my aging parents make food packets every day and drive with them to the highway to distribute the packets. It was a very difficult time for everyone but people like Rajesh showed the world that selfless service is the only way to make life beautiful.

Spiffy: That’s amazing. Well, our time is just about up. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our audience?

Renu: At STEP we want to change the narrative of women being the beneficiaries to women being the real changemakers in the world — which they actually are! If you believe in our work, please reach out to us and help us make the vision of a gender-equitable world a reality.

Spiffy: Let’s do it folks! It’s been an honor talking to you, Renu. All the best on your journey! Over and out.


Renu Shah, the founder of Shakti — The Empathy Project (STEP), is passionate about change and believes in challenging the status quo. Prior to founding STEP, Renu led Ashoka’s Changemaker Schools Program for South Asia. She also founded two grassroots organizations: Koseli, for slum children in Kathmandu, Nepal, and Project PEHAL, a collaborative education project for primary public-schools in rural Uttar Pradesh, India. Renu holds a Masters of Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School.