Why Women Entrepreneurs Are Still Outliers in India – Qrius

On the Index of Women Entrepreneurs, India ranks 52 out of 57 countries. In the Indian start-up scene, it’s rare to see a woman directing an enterprise. Bhavna Anand Sharma, founder of Cureveda, a dietary supplements company, is one of the few Indian women leading the charge in revolutionizing India’s business world. Sharma has created Cureveda, which offers a range of premium natural supplements for ailments such as thyroid and arthritis, along with beauty and wellness supplements. Sharma’s vision for Cureveda is simple: create an Indian brand that offers world-class herbal supplements.

An alumna of the London School of Economics (LSE) and the Indian School of Business (ISB), Sharma ventured into the dietary supplements space as an entrepreneur following a stint in distributing such products. India is a hub for herbs and Ayurveda — an alternative system of medicine based on plants — and Sharma’s vision is to bring India’s alternative medicinal culture to conscientious consumers.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Bhavna Anand Sharma about Cureveda, her journey as a female entrepreneur and what makes her business different from her competitors.

The text has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ankita Mukhopadhyay: Last year, Cureveda won the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises’ Brand of India award in the health-care category. What does Cureveda do exactly?

Bhavna Anand Sharma: Cureveda produces plant-based products, which are natural remedies manufactured under the Ayurveda license. Cureveda doesn’t make use of any metals, as we are completely herbal and natural. We use herbal extracts, and we go a step ahead by making use of standardized herbal extracts. For example, if you have sugarcane, and you take its juice out, then that’s the herbal extract. If we extract the component that makes the juice sweet, then that’s the standardized herbal extract. This analogy refers to the standardization of the main active ingredient that gives a herb its desired property and which eventually gives results.

We make use of premium herbs which are referred to in Indian markets as “export quality,” that is, they are mostly exported to foreign countries where people are more discerning and understand different qualities of the same herb. Our ingredient choice, along with our focus on research and innovation in formulations, makes Cureveda different from our competitors.

Mukhopadhyay: How did you build your understanding of Ayurveda and herbal supplements without an academic background in it?

Sharma: I started my first company, a dietary supplements firm, when I was 22. For four years, I handled the distribution rights of a portfolio of supplements of some of the leading brands in the world, such as Nature’s Bounty, Osteo Bi-Flex and Solgar. Some of the products from their range were also herbal. But I didn’t know that those herbs are also approved under Ayurveda. When I got married into the Baidyanath family that is a goliath giant in Ayurveda, and I started running a pharma company, then I realized that I was already promoting those herbs in Nature’s Bounty as well.

For a period of about four or five years, I did some more research on herbs that are globally relevant and part of the Indian system of medicine. I discovered that they can be clubbed with the knowledge we already have to create synergistic formulas which are superior to what we find in the market. That is when I decided to start Cureveda.

Mukhopadhyay: Is it safe to assume that you’re trying to revolutionize traditional health supplements and bring healthier versions of them to the market?

Sharma: We like to be seen as a supplements company. Our idea is to be an Indian brand which gives you the quality of product you expect from an international brand but don’t usually get from an Indian brand. We are selling to a discerning customer who is looking for safer alternatives and understands that the herbs we use are of the best quality available on the market. There is so much that we do to assure the customer that we are globally competitive and delivering on that promise, like CTRI-registered [Central Trial Registry of India] clinical trials, international standards of metal toxicity on every batch, meeting accurate dosages, working with the industry’s best for product formulations.

Mukhopadhyay: From where do you source your herbs?

Sharma: We mainly source from India, and we are extremely proud of it. A fact not known by many is that India and China are the biggest exporters of herbs in the world. That’s because the Chinese and Indian medicine systems are the oldest and most recognized herbal systems in the world. India has a great tropical climate to grow herbs. However, most of our top-quality herbs are exported abroad.

My aim is to utilize our home-grown herbs. I buy standardized herbs (for example Brahmi standardized for active ingredient Bacopa) from only a handful of suppliers with a certificate of analysis and HPTLC testing. This process makes the herb even more expensive, but that also assures that the quality of the herb is delivered upon. This is why our products are higher priced than our competitors.

Mukhopadhyay: Very few entrepreneurs venture into health care, and some face challenges such as medical problems following the use of their products. How do you figure out the right ingredients to create a product?

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Sharma: I am running a dietary supplements company, so I am not trying to transact with you one-on-one. I am not a doctor, and I am not writing a prescription. I have a panel of experts to assist me, such as product managers and a scientific team that collaborates extensively with clinical research organizations. My strategy for Cureveda is not to sell to customers something I won’t use myself. We make our products undergo clinical trials to make sure the efficacy is top-notch.

This year, we finished eight or nine clinical trials, even though our products fall under the AYUSH [Ayurveda, yoga and naturopathy, UnaniSiddha and homeopathy] category. Only drugs controlled by the Drug Controller General of India need to undergo trials. Drugs manufactured under the AYUSH tag in India don’t necessarily undergo CTRI-registered clinical trials.

The Baidyanath [Indian pharmaceutical giant specializing in Ayurvedic medicine] lineage also helps us, as it brings credibility — which is everything in the supplements industry. It would have been more difficult to get that credibility without the base of Baidyanath, with its 100 years of research background on herbs, as the synergistic action of herbs is the most difficult to tackle. Our products are manufactured at Baidyanath’s facilities under a loan license agreement.

In short, we follow a three-step process to reach the final product. The product is formulated by the product management team, then clinically validated through trials by internal and independent research agencies before it is finally commercialized.

Mukhopadhyay: Female entrepreneurs are particularly singled out and asked harsh questions when they try to enter a field that requires an understanding of technology or medicine. What challenges have you faced as a female entrepreneur?

Sharma: You’re right. Some challenges are specific to just women, and it’s very difficult for men to understand that. There’s a boys’ club that you have to break into. But, thankfully, there is no limitation to what knowledge and intellect can help achieve. Once you prove that you know your business, and the other person starts recognizing that, several opportunities open up. It is extremely important for women to know their subject more than men — and this is a sad reality. Often, my first challenge in meetings is to break stereotypes rather than get straight to business.

I also have to emulate what are known as “men traits” to be taken seriously, as I deal with people from the manufacturing side to the shop floor. I have to become one of the men, but that’s just how it is.

I find it less challenging in the business scenario, because in business there is a context to the conversation. You know I am running a company, and you know what I have done in the past. I find it more difficult to work in a social setting — that’s where the real problem is for women. We are not more accepting of women entrepreneurs at a dinner event or a social gathering, and we don’t give them the respect they deserve. When I meet someone, I won’t have my qualifications from ISB and LSE printed on my head. Because of social and cultural barriers or preexisting notions, I might never even be asked if I work, while that’s an obvious conversation that men are expected to have! 

The challenges likely compound once you move from an urban to a suburban setting. Now I am more in the news, as my brand is becoming bigger, but I have been working insanely for the last 10 years — largely unnoticed! This must be true for so many women. They work hard for years, but people think they are not doing anything because no one’s bothered to have a relevant conversation! A fundamental shift is needed in people’s mindsets and conversations in the living room — not just at the workplace.

Mukhopadhyay: It’s more difficult for women entrepreneurs as their challenges are neither discussed nor tackled.

Sharma: Women entrepreneurship is a vast subject in itself, and, being given a platform, I should highlight [it] as much as I can to educate others. Women are outliers in entrepreneurship. So many other women can do better, but the environment is not encouraging enough. I am lucky, as I have supportive in-laws and spouse, and I am a type- A person. I can’t be told what to prioritize or not. I feel that it’s my birthright to do what I want, at the risk of sounding entitled!Embed from Getty Images

I have a supportive ecosystem around me. This is not the case with many other women. So many women succumb to the pressures of daily life. For example, some women can’t travel for work that often. I can only wonder about the endless nature of the challenges women entrepreneurs need to overcome.

Another issue for female entrepreneurs is the lack of female representation. We don’t see many female faces as we should in entrepreneurship, so there are limited role models to emulate. In addition, certain industries have been singled out for women, such as fashion or cosmetics. If women do well there, then they will be saluted because that’s the industry they “belong” in. Many women gravitate toward certain industries owing to self-selection. In off-beat industries, you face difficulties as you often don’t meet many women in your journey, and the industry stakeholders have also not worked with or for women. Hopefully, the numbers of outliers will increase soon, and there will come a time when you won’t be an outlier anymore.

Mukhopadhyay: What’s your future plan for Cureveda?

Sharma: As of now, we are available digitally through our website and on Amazon, along with offline presence in Delhi and Mumbai. We launched in January and inked partnerships with companies and people I have worked with before. For example, we partnered with Apollo, Holland & Barrett, Noble Pharmacy. We are available at about 500 stores in Delhi and Bombay. Our focus is mainly on modern retail and category-A stores.

Our growth story is quite aggressive. We are one of the top 10,000 websites in the country. We currently process around 150 orders a day and we are growing at a rate of 25% month on month. We just launched our first beauty and wellness supplement, which falls in the category of want-based products. We have products in three categories: One is therapeutics, second is the beauty and wellness formulas, and the third is multivitamins. We will be expanding our range in these three categories over the coming year.

Mukhopadhyay: How do you differentiate your brand from others?

Sharma: There are not many premium brands in supplements offering herbal formulas which are well researched. However, customer preferences for safe alternatives are rapidly increasing, which has created opportunity in this market. We differentiate our product through its sample size and packaging.

Traditional herbal formulas are usually offered in a smaller pack size. Companies offer this trial pack size for seven days. But customers see little result, as herbal products have to be taken for a longer period of time to produce results because they go to the root cause of the problem. I don’t want to get into trial packs which don’t show results and create dissent in the mind of the customer. I give customers a pack size which will give results. Most of our products have a one-month pack size. We also highlight instructions clearly on the front label so that the person doesn’t self-prescribe. This allows compliance. You will be more compliant if the instructions are given on the pack, in large letters, rather than inside the pack or in a corner in a small box.

This model sets us apart from the competitor. Our packaging also complies with our point of view. If I tell you my product is herbal and it doesn’t use metals, but I sell it to you in a plastic or a PET bottle — which isn’t recyclable, which destroys the environment and is probably leaking into the product — that is half a promise. We offer our products in glass bottles, even though there is a logistics cost attached to this.

But then that’s where the commitment comes in. You have to walk the talk. Our intent is that every single product we launch isn’t just recyclable but, as far as possible, biodegradable as well. As a consumer, you wouldn’t have realized this if I hadn’t specified it to you this clearly. But as a conscientious customer, we enlighten you that our ingredient choice and packaging choice is a part of our commitment to environment and sustainability.


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