In Conversation: Renu Shah, founder of the STEP incubation program for women

Shakti-The Empathy Project (STEP) is an incubation program that provides strategic support to exceptional women entrepreneurs in their early stages. The program was launched in 2019 and has incubated 32 women-led social start-ups till now.

When Renu Shah started her journey as a social entrepreneur, it was only passion and persistence that helped her build her first social start-up – a school for slum kids. The challenges Renu was facing, she found, were unique to women working in the social space.

“The beginning of my journey as a woman entrepreneur trying to create social impact was a lonely one. In addition to the funding challenges, I also didn’t have any role models or mentors to help overcome my challenges. I missed having my tribe where I could have candid discussions about my start-up or celebrate my early wins,” Renu says.

This triggered Renu to start Shakti-The Empathy Project (STEP), an incubation program that provides strategic support to exceptional women entrepreneurs in their early stages. The program was launched in 2019 and aims to fill the gaps that women entrepreneurs face in the social sector, resting on the five pillars of empathy, learning, mentorship, role modelling and networking & funding opportunities. 

How does the STEP incubation program work?

The program is six months long and divided into 3 distinct parts including the ice breaker session and the structured mentorship & capacity building sessions. During this period, community meets are also conducted where incubatees interact with various guests and other ecosystem enablers. The program concludes with a 2-day Pitchfest where they showcase their start-ups and network with various funders and other supporters.

The applicants undergo a rigorous review process, which is contextual and holistic, considering the unique background and stories of the start-ups and includes written applications, team interviews, and business plan reviews by mentors.

How is STEP different from other incubation programmes?

The STEP incubation program is designed especially for women, and mentorship lies at the heart of it. All mentors are either entrepreneurs or leaders of their respective organisations with an average experience of over 20 years and a majority of them are currently women.

This is supplemented with a focus on role models and networking towards creating a safe space where women entrepreneurs can thrive. “Our values are deeply rooted in empathy and diversity. By fostering a sense of community, we engage the cohort members in a way that they feel like an integral part of a group and acknowledge each other’s role with shared faith and commitment,” Renu says.

STEP also extends continuous support to handhold the entrepreneurs and works on cultivating positive mental health with the belief that a better entrepreneur is one who is a better human first, what the program refers to as a “Shaktipreneur”.

What kind of impact has the project already seen?

So far, STEP has incubated 32 women-led social start-ups (social enterprises and non-profits) that have collectively raised Rs. 3cr with the second cohort graduating in March 2021. The program has touched 70,000+ lives through their work. Renu adds, “STEP is not about what we achieve alone but what we achieve collectively as a community of women entrepreneurs. The biggest impact of the program is an empowered, committed and vibrant community of women social entrepreneurs.”

Reach out to us to engage with Renu for advisory and insights on the start-up space and women-led start-ups.