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How the female CEO of an Indian
How the female CEO of an Indian startup avoids hiring sexist men

MUMBAI. Being a female CEO comes with its own set of challenges, like raising capital, or being taken seriously. That’s especially true if you’re the young female CEO of a mechanical engineering startup in India, heading up a mostly male staff, and dealing in menstrual hygiene solutions.

That’s Suhani Mohan’s job description. She handles these challenges and more with confidence and creativity. And she makes sure her male employees don’t secretly harbor sexist views.

Mohan founded Saral Designs in 2013, when she was just 23, with her business partner Kartik Mehta to address the staggering lack of access to sanitary pads in India. At the time, reports showed that over 70% of women in the country didn’t practice proper menstrual hygiene because they don’t have the means to buy pads or tampons, they lack the education in good hygiene practices, or both. Though things have improved in recent years, at least 40% of women in India still don’t have access to proper menstrual hygiene supplies.

Unlike other ventures trying to solve this problem in India (and other low-income countries) by making low-cost pads, Mohan spun the business problem on its head. Making cheap pads, she realized, is a difficult business for a specific reason: Producing them on a small scale is too expensive; on a large scale, they’re too expensive to distribute.

Enter Saral Designs. The Bombay-based company does not make pads, but instead makes automatic pad-making machines (the first-ever made in India). The idea is that local entrepreneurs can afford the machines, and then can manufacture a volume of pads that is large enough to offset the production costs, but small enough to be distributed locally. Saral Designs works with companies to customize the machines based on their specific needs.
“It’s the idea of a business in a box,” explains Mohan. The machine allows entrepreneurs to start a small- to medium-size pad business very quickly, without having to do research on how to make the actual products. Saral Designs makes two types of pad-making machines—a semi-automated one, and a fully automated one.

The model has been successful, and Saral Designs has sold its machines to companies in several countries in Asia and Africa. Now five years old, the company employs 28 people—perhaps surprisingly, the majority (19 employees) are men.

While customer-facing roles have high female representation, the team that designs, builds, and tests the machines are predominantly male. “A lot of work is engineering-related,” explains Mohan, “and we find it difficult to recruit women, because very few women [have] a mechanical engineering background.”

As a CEO, Mohan spends much of her time recruiting new employees, and she is very clear about one point: She will not hire sexist men (or women). She is so serious about this that she has developed a hiring tool to detect sexism, even subtly, among hiring candidates.
“We have a questionnaire now that deals with asking them, for instance, what is their opinion about menstruation,” she explains, “and we take [their answers] seriously.”

“The concept actually came up as a result of discussion with Acumen fellows(social entrepreneurs) when I was sharing challenges of building an inclusive culture in an engineering and product focused company,” says Mohan.

Given the nature of the business, Mohan thinks it’s important that all employees have a somewhat comfortable relationship with menstruation. Having employees who, even in the backs of their heads, find it icky can’t possibly be good for the company’s performance.

Culturally, there is still a lot of stigma around menstruation in India. Women may be barred from certain practices (religious or traditional) once they reach an age when they might be menstruating. Many people—men and women alike—won’t as much as mention menstruation. Mohan wants none of that inside Saral Designs.

So prospective employees of Saral Designs, even those whose roles pertain to no more than the literal nuts and bolts of the business, answer interview questions about periods and the reproductive system, on top of more traditional inquiries about work experience or education.

But the questionnaire goes beyond that.

For instance, it asks employees for their take on reproductive rights, the #MeToo movement, and how they feel about women who are higher up than men in the workplace hierarchy. “We have very abstract questions to check for sexism,” says Mohan, who refers to the questionnaire as a “sexism filter.”

To develop it, the core team sat together to list the key values of the company, such as empathy, gender equality, efficiency, transparency and leadership. “With those in mind, we designed specific questions that can test alignment to those values,” Mohani says.

Mohan has found that it’s not effective to ask whether an employee thinks women have the same rights as men because the “correct” answer is too obvious. Instead, more nuanced questions—one, for instance, that presents a scenario of inequality, and asks how the employee would behave in it—are more useful for identifying whether the candidates are indeed feminists, or just playing the part in the interview. The questions also draw from news and current affairs, trying to gauge the candidate’s opinions on socially-divisive issues, such as caste politics or sexist religious practices.

Mohan says she’s found the tool to be effective. The best evidence is in the numbers of unfit candidates it helped identify. “We have actually rejected a lot of technically good candidates because of it,” she says. “When there is a cultural misfit, it creates conflict sooner or later,” she explains. “So, from past experience, we prefer waiting to find the right fit, rather than hiring someone and asking them to leave.”

Mohan says she has shared the concept with some friends who are CEOs of other start-ups, and strongly believes in the importance of expanding the reach of “sexism filters” across businesses. “Companies need to go beyond having compliance tests and having inclusion and diversity mentioned in annual reports only or acting only as a response to a case gone bad,” she says.

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