As Gigi Mathews, Enviu India’s Country Director, has joined ANDE India’s Steering Committee, we ask her about the collaboration with ANDE, her experiences as a woman entrepreneur, and the learnings from the Reweave program.
Gigi Mathews’ ambition to be an entrepreneur started when she was as young as five. “My mom tells me that as a child, I used to talk about building an office or a bank. I asked everybody for ways to build it and was always given candy by surprised relatives and visitors. It was probably an early inspiration and happiness that one always receives when building an office. My mom did not know where the idea was coming from, but I have always been bold and ambitious,” she says.
Gigi always knew she wanted to be an entrepreneur but, more specifically, build companies from the ground up with a purpose. This ambition aligned with Enviu’s own mission of building world-changing companies, and so she joined Enviu India in 2018.
Today, Gigi spearheads the agenda of Enviu in India as its Country Director. She builds world-changing companies in India under the Enviu Reweave program, ensuring the organization grows in partnerships and drives systemic change for problems, especially in textiles. The years of collaborative work recently had the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE) extend her an invitation to join the Steering Committee of their India chapter.
For the past five years, Enviu India has been collaborating with ANDE, contributing to their global network of organizations that advance entrepreneurship in developing economies. They enable collaborations and apply learnings on a local level and accelerate progress. Being part of a network of organizations has brought together like-minded and equally driven members to help solve problems that are key to Enviu’s vision, too.
“The Steering Committee’s invitation comes from the value they see in Enviu — in knowledge sharing, what we do to build impact ventures, and our thought leadership. Enviu also sees the value that ANDE contributes,” says Gigi.
Gigi is also a spirited and fiery woman entrepreneur who believes in uplifting other women along the way. Years ago, she started a MakeHer Movement project to empower women entrepreneurs and innovators.
As an ANDE member, Gigi is also part of a group that came together to close the gap in investing in women-owned businesses. “We got leaders in reputed investment firms to work through the problem with us,” she says with pride.
This prompted us to sit down with Gigi to share her entrepreneurial lessons with Enviu, and, more importantly, the lessons she learned and shared with other women entrepreneurs as well as the women workers of Reweave’s Uptex textile waste sorting venture.
Excerpts from the interview.
Congratulations on being a member of ANDE India’s Steering Committee. What will this mean for Gigi as a woman entrepreneur and Enviu India?
The Steering Committee comprises senior management from ANDE member organizations responsible for setting the strategic direction of the chapter. The members know the sector at a regional level and understand local opportunities and challenges. The advice from the Steering Committee is intended to advise the organization to be a long-term sustainable entity working to address ecosystem-wide issues. This is an excellent opportunity to be involved in contributing towards growing and strengthening Enviu’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
As ANDE India Chapter’s head, Sucharita Kamath, shared, Enviu has the expertise to guide networks to build small and growing business ecosystems in India holistically.
Failure is one of the inevitable characteristics of the impact venture sector. What have been your experiences with failures at Enviu?
Enviu considers failures a significant and valid part of its venture-building work. In fact, the greatest opportunities to learn and grow have come in response to failure.
That said, since Enviu builds impact-first and financially sustainable ventures, we ensure the two siloed worlds of impact and financial goals align. However, we build companies that are people-inclusive, too. For example, we work with disadvantaged communities, such as weavers and waste workers. And so, emotions are tied into such processes.
This could prompt venture builders to extend the longevity of a venture involving such communities while being mindful of the latter’s emotions. This is where balancing the two worlds is vital in making the right decision.
In such scenarios, asking uncomfortable questions early on can help identify potential challenges and opportunities that may impact the venture’s success. This means learning things faster, moving faster, and making decisions faster. Ask questions like, “Is this the right market?” “Is this the right portfolio etc.?” “If things are not going well, how fast can you act?” This could also spare the already disadvantaged communities from taking the fall.
I believe in the method of ‘intelligent failure.’ This helps us take a deliberate approach to failure that involves analyzing the causes and outcomes of the failure, learning from the experience, and applying those lessons to future endeavors. This also ensures a systematic effort to study our failures and knowledge sharing across the organization. Some failures are inevitable, some are good, and some are bad. That is “intelligent failure,” where we decide what success and failure look like. This helps limit the number of uncertainties.
These have been extensive learnings for us at Enviu.
Could you walk us through your journey as a female social entrepreneur? What are the ground realities in terms of the challenges women in the entrepreneurial space face?
I have been fortunate to be in an environment where there has not been inequality. I was empowered, mentored, and coached to be ambitious and bold. When I built my own tech company, it was not about being a woman or man, but united by common interests and like-minded people.
However, although I have not seen that inequality for myself, it does exist. Most of the women entrepreneurs whom I mentor have often shared their experiences with me. When they have tried raising funds or bringing about a business idea particularly, they were often met with the response, “Isn’t there a male co-founder?”
Women also feel less confident when it comes to scaling a business and raising investments. Of course, it does not help when most of the members of an investment committee are men, and women entrepreneurs are specifically asked questions about their ability to balance work and family. Women entrepreneurs are also often asked more questions about their financial management and the ability to access funding, while men are more likely to be asked about their long-term vision and business strategy.
Some ways in which I think we can create a more inclusive funding environment are by increasing awareness of the gender gap in funding, providing women entrepreneurs access to networks and mentorship, offering targeted funding and support, and encouraging diversity in the investor pool.
As part of Enviu’s Uptex venture, you have interacted with women weavers and textile waste workers. What are some of the lessons you have drawn from them, and those you have shared with them?
Women who believe in each other can survive anything. This is something I observed during my interactions with the women who sort textile waste under the Enviu Reweave program. Almost all the women in our facility are sole earners for the family. These women have a yearning to learn, and it starts with the opportunities they have, to make a difference in their lives that is marred by abusive husbands, struggles of trying to get their children educated, and the urgency to put two-three meals on the table. They strongly believe that they are the ones who can make a positive change happen for their families. You can always tell who the strong women are – they are the ones building each other up, and the women at our sorting facility in Chennai do just that.
The greatest lesson I learned from them is to not give up on each other and celebrate even the smallest victories. They are constantly celebrating each other. During one of many interactions with the textile waste workers, one of them called Jency achieved a milestone when she sorted 50 kgs of textile waste per hour from her earlier record of 17 kgs per hour. The entire team was so excited, and they celebrated her achievement by buying her and others ice cream.
I am proud to say that the women at the sorting center have equipped themselves with efficient methods of textile waste sorting and are continuously improvising and skilling themselves with better techniques. If the center is capable of collecting and sorting large commercial volumes of textile waste, it is because of these women. They are contributing significantly towards bringing value to waste, and I am proud to say they are doing the industry proud by helping to build an efficient one-stop hub for textile waste sorting, using methods, techniques, and equipment that can bring more value to waste.
Who is Gigi outside Enviu?
I am passionate about new ideas and experiences, so much so that even the conversations at our dinner table are all about innovation. My husband and I mentor early-stage innovations/ideas of students from tier-two and three engineering colleges in India, who do not have much access to mentorship, industry resources, and funding. I also take inspiration from TED talks, and love what Jacqueline Novogratz and Chris Anderson have done as a couple together.