Through the lens of two women from India and Pakistan, the authors trace just how Instagram, Facebook and others are helping women entrepreneurs in South Asia build successful businesses.
Thirty-one-year-old Kriti Gupta has a busy morning ahead.
She needs to get her daughter ready for school, while her toddler demands her attention. Amid all this hustling, Gupta’s phone chimes. It’s an Instagram notification.
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One of her clients has left a ‘thank you’ for the timely delivery and premium quality of soap she sold on the social networking app. Gupta is a social media entrepreneur who has built a credible brand of customised soaps and toiletries.
Nearly 500 miles away in Karachi, Pakistan, Sara Zafar Mir is busy making her own money. Like Gupta, she, too, is running her own little online empire. She specialises in premium baby products and Facebook is her social media platform of choice. Every day, she reaches more than 1,50,000 followers, bringing to them customised baby clothes and postpartum care packages at the click of a button. She leads this while also raising two young preteens.
Mir says, “I am blessed to have a supportive husband and in-laws, who go out of their way to help me in my work. Both my kids help me in my business. It is great to be able to lean on family when needed.”
Gupta and Mir may be separated by the border, but their similarities far outweigh their differences. Both belong to a new generation of South Asian women who are taking social media by storm and creating unique online businesses.
They use Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook not just to post selfies or share pictures, but also to earn a livelihood, chase their dreams, and be financially independent.
Over 4.26 billion people use social media worldwide, a number projected to increase to almost six billion in 2027. That’s where a new, dynamic market is emerging, and South Asian women entrepreneurs are here to reach that whole new world of consumers. They are breaking stereotypes and patriarchal norms, which have long been dominant in our communities.
A whole new world
Gupta says, “My Insta-shop never shuts down. It is open 24×7. Living in a joint family I have realised that everything is manageable if you have a good mother-in-law. And I am blessed in that department.”
Living in a three-storey home in Jaipur in northwestern India, she cradles her toddler in one arm, while updating her Instagram business account with the other.
Born and brought up in Bangkok, Gupta was 21 years old when she moved to India to get married. Initially, it was a culture shock to settle down in a rich but conservative Marwari (an Indian ethnic group from Rajasthan) family. She dropped out of journalism school to have her dream wedding.
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Soon she had her first child and her career took a back seat. It was on her daughter’s fifth birthday in 2020 that she kickstarted her entrepreneurial journey by starting Bath and Bubble Co, a brand that sells handmade, natural, artisan soaps and bath products.
On the other side of the border, Mir, a Kashmiri, was married off at a very young age, moving to Karachi with her new husband. As a young mother in Karachi in 2013, she found herself searching for premium baby products and felt that there was a void to be filled. That led her to start Mummy and MiniMe, which is almost like her third baby.
Mir was a teacher before she got married. She left her job when she moved to Karachi. After her son was born, she was ready to start something, but didn’t quite know the ‘what’ and ‘how’.
“At the time, my son was young, so I would always be looking for baby clothes, shoes and products,” Mir says. “So I had some experience [laughs]. I realised that Karachi has some very good quality products, which you don’t find in other cities.”
She explored the internet and found that there were not a lot of people in Pakistan who offered quality products at affordable prices. “We began with PKR 25,000 at the time, which is not a lot of investment,” she adds.
And so, Mother and MiniMe was born on Facebook, and then expanded to Instagram. After the launch of her business, Mir was joined by her sister-in-law Nauwarah, who was studying at the time. Mummy and MiniMe currently has 157,673 followers on Facebook and 4,782 followers on Instagram.
“My goal as a young mother was to provide affordability and uniqueness. When I used to shop for my son, I realised there were so many options and I thought to help mothers get quality stuff in one place,” Mir notes.
With time, the online space started becoming saturated. Many new businesses popped up online and the online market became competitive.
“In 2017, I realised that we need a new strategy. So, we began offering baby gift baskets for newborns. This is now a favourite among our customers. Mostly grandmothers, aunts, and friends are ordering these.” Mir also started collaborating with bloggers on social media to promote her products.
“I sent a basket with panjeeri (nutritious mixture) to this blogger who had lost her mother and had just had a baby. When I sent her a PR basket, she called me crying saying that her mother used to send her this.”
The business model
Gupta exclusively uses Instagram to sell her products. Despite her humble 760 followers on Instagram, she has already found some dedicated and returning customers.
She offers over 25 varieties of exclusive, natural soaps. Currently shipping across India, her products are a favourite among children due to their quirky and colourful designs. Her personalised hampers are also a huge hit and are often ordered in bulk through Instagram and WhatsApp for special occasions. Since creating a website or an offline store would require a huge investment of money and time, she decided to stick to Instagram in the beginning.
“My business started right in the middle of the pandemic. And I think because people were spending so much time online, it added to my advantage,” Gupta says.
She manages to get four-to-five queries each day through Instagram, though not every query converts to a sale. “The Indian festival of Rakhi in August is the busiest month for me, where I make somewhere around INR 50,000 in a month by selling customised bath hampers.”
A majority of her buyers use Instagram DMs and WhatsApp to place orders and use online modes of payments like Google Pay or Paytm. Gupta says that using the right hashtags and trending reels has helped her reach her target audience. Moreover, the visual format on Instagram has helped business owners like her connect better with customers. She claims it is easier to track her customers on a real-time basis on social media and immediately find out what is working for them. Instagram trends also help in boosting the sales.
“You never know what clicks. You have to constantly keep thinking of new ideas. I am currently manufacturing the soaps myself at home after I send my daughter off to school. I soon plan to set up a separate space for my business. The first person I plan to hire is someone who can handle our social media,” she says.
Meanwhile, Mir’s business has now reached a stage where she earns a decent living since she first began in 2013. The revenue spikes during Eid, and she receives around 10-15 queries a week. A good 80% of these convert to sales, she notes.
“It is hard work. You have to be consistent and patient. With time, we can get an idea who is going to continue ordering products and who is there just to window shop, just like a regular retail shop,” Mir says.
The rise and rise of social media
Economies worldwide have been disrupted by the pandemic, but it has also created new opportunities to do business through social media. Women-owned businesses have received a big boost in recent years. And with a second income coming in, the standard of living of most families has improved. This means the women are not only being empowered financially, but are also getting family support and acceptance for their role as working women.
Sairee Chahal, founder of Sheroes, India’s first women-only social media network, says, “When I started Sheroes, there were maybe 10 million women online in India. Today, there are 350 million, and there’s an increasing number of women who are using this to their advantage.”
For women in a patriarchal setup, running a business requires much more than entrepreneurial skills. There are many family dynamics they are expected to navigate and balance.
Chahal, who started her first company in 1999 as a first-generation entrepreneur, says, “Women are invisible in their societal setups, whether it’s families or the work that they do both at home and outside. It’s this recognition that is driving them online.”
Nighat Dad from Lahore, Pakistan, founder and executive director of Digital Rights Foundation, has also closely tracked the trend of women using social media for their growing businesses in recent years.
“I have so many examples of women who started online businesses and they have grown over the years. They started to have an online presence. A couple of years back, women were really not confident about using these platforms for their businesses, not only in terms of how to use them, but also not having knowledge of financial gains and opportunities,” Dad says.
In 2019 in Pakistan, Facebook signed a Memorandum of Understanding of its #SheMeansBusiness with Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry to provide support in hands on training, skills enhancement and resources to women. This was a major step towards empowering women to become entrepreneurs. It is estimated that women’s earnings in Pakistan have increased by 4% compared to previous year. One of the reasons is startups owned by women, and social media has played a pivotal role in helping them grow.
“I spent 10 years building this thesis, and I have seen the adoption in the last two years in a post-pandemic world that I didn’t see in the last decade. We went from 16 to 25 million users in like a matter of a few months, during the pandemic,” Chahal notes.
But not all’s well in the digital universe
While social media has played a pivotal role in helping women become financially independent, it also has its share of challenges. The major issue that entrepreneurs like Gupta and Mir face is developing a sense of trust among customers, since it is difficult to showcase the quality of products through just pictures and videos. Another concern was the easy imitation of handcrafted products at lower prices.
The digital world can also be intimidating for entrepreneurs who belong to a different generation. So while it is a blessing for some women who have grown up with technology, it might not work for others who are still trying to get used to it.
“Social media can be very demanding and takes a toll on one’s life. We have to constantly think of the next reel, next trend, and next viral post,” Gupta says. At the same time, there is a serious threat to cyber security. Several entrepreneurs have found their accounts hacked, causing them not just financial, but also immense emotional loss.
“Sometimes I feel it is easier to make soaps as compared to making an Instagram reel,” Gupta says.
Dad believes there are serious challenges and risks associated with online entrepreneurship.
“All kinds of challenges these women face in terms of harassment, finances, and stumbling upon bad actors online and trusting them. In offline spaces, sometimes they are earning, but sometimes they don’t own what they are earning due to having a patriarchal society. Even if you are earning, you really don’t have ownership of your income,” she adds.
She also emphasises how women who work online should be aware of their rights. “How safe their devices are, how safe their platforms are, how much women know about digital security, and how strong are their passwords,” she explains. Dad’s foundation has a toll-free number on its website to help women entrepreneurs in need.
While Dad is providing much-needed help to the women entrepreneurs of Pakistan, Chahal is filling this gap in India. She uses Sheroes to not only provide livelihood and financial support to women, but also offer crucial mental support. Over three million women have benefited from Sheroes’ counselling services.
During the pandemic, Sheroes launched a digital bank called Mahila Money. The platform exclusively serves women who are not served by microfinance. Sheroes also acts as a marketplace for women where they can sell a range of items online.
Is this the beginning of a new revolution?
This rise of women entrepreneurs on social media is not just restricted to South Asia. It is a global phenomenon attracting millions of dollars of investment.
In 2020 Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg announced that the social media giant is investing $100 million to help 30,000 small businesses in over 30 countries. According to the latest statistics, there are 252 million female business owners in the world.
In 2021, Instamojo saw a 14.83% spike in new female users in comparison to a 5% drop in male new users. This shows that women are more eager to start their own businesses now and want to go online. Social media has enabled women to connect across boundaries, cultures, and genders, and many are comfortable establishing their businesses in a male-dominated society.
Meanwhile, Gupta says, “I never got a chance to look back and see how far I have come. I can’t believe that something that was just an idea or a dream is now a fully functional business. It has not just made me financially independent, but has also given my life a new purpose.”
Written By: Anum Hanif, Lubna Jerar Naqvi, Shreya Pareek, Zeba Warsi
Edited by: Divya Sethu