Venture capital firm Sequoia Capital has picked up its first cohort of 15 women-led companies as part of its Sequoia Spark Fellowship programme.

The $1,00,000 equity-free grant is given to women entrepreneurs in India and Southeast Asia, the firm said. It will offer mentorship to 15 women-led startups and capital to cover some of the early costs of starting up, Sequoia said.

Applications for the programme, announced in July, closed in September. More than 250 women founders had applied, the venture fund said .

Only 12% of venture-backed startups in India and 20% in the Asean region have at least one female founder, as of 2020, according to data sourced from Tracxn and Crunchbase.

Early-stage funds are increasingly making attempts to reach out to women entrepreneurs.

Earlier this year, Kalaari Capital launched CXXO, an initiative where it has set aside $10 million (Rs 74 crore) annually to invest in startups that have women founders as key decision-makers.

“We hope to take a small but meaningful step towards addressing the gender imbalance that exists in the startup ecosystem,” Sequoia said in a statement.

The cohort will take part in monthly mentorship sessions, have access to select Surge (its accelerator programme) sessions, and receive hands-on support from Sequoia India portfolio specialists, across hiring, legal, finance, product, technology, and marketing.

“The founders have each been matched to a senior Sequoia India investment advisor, and to a seasoned startup founder from Sequoia Capital India’s portfolio, who will mentor them over the next 12 months,” it said.

This mentorship will be to help founders with product and go-to-market roadmap which, in turn, will help mobilize their seed and Series A rounds.

The mentors include Ankiti Bose, cofounder and CEO of Zilingo; Ashwini Asokan, founder and CEO, Mad Street Den; Divya Gokulnath, cofounder, Byju’s; Hande Cilinger, cofounder and CEO, Insider; Jitendra Gupta, founder and CEO, Jupiter; Julian Artope, founder and CEO, Zenyum; Kunal Shah, founder, Cred, and Lalit Keshre, cofounder and CEO, Groww.

These startups, seven from India, seven from Southeast Asia and one from the Middle East are led by 20 women founders – building products across fintech, ed-tech, Software as a Service, and consumer internet sectors.

According to the firm, the founders come from India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Singapore, and UAE. Half of the startups in this cohort are already building global companies from Day One.

“We were blown away by the ideas, the intensity and the passion of these applicants. Many have stellar backgrounds with deep industry experience. While some of the ideas were quite raw, the quality of those ideas was very strong,” said Sakshi Chopra, managing director, Sequoia India.

“We even have our first women crypto founders,” she added.

Startups from India include The Nestery, a retailer for curated parenting and childcare products; Linecraft AI, an industrial Internet of Things startup; Loop Panel, which helps convert customer conversations into actionable insights; Jify, which aims to empower employees with complete flexibility and access to their earnings in real-time; Findeed, which enables access to financial services for working class Indians; Early Steps, which offers live online classes; and Nume Crypto, a startup focused on making crypto transactions simple and economical.

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