The social apathy and a general lack of awareness and communication about infertility in the Indian society pushed blogger and entrepreneur Gitanjali Banerjee to start her platform, Fertility Dost. This tech-enabled startup dedicated to managing fertility was born out of Gitanjali’s own infertility problems, including miscarriages. On Fertility Dost, she helps women suffering through the same turmoil she was once going through, and also talks about her journey from content writing to managing a startup. Aspiring entrepreneurs, especially those looking to venture into social entrepreneurship, can take tips and notes from Gitanjali.
1. What’s your educational & professional background?
Educationally, I am a JNU postgrad. I completed my post-graduation in social sciences from JNU, and then also did my BS from IGNOU. Professionally, I’ve worked with a lot of corporations and started my journey as a content writer. I quickly scaled up the ladder and had the opportunity to work with some great brands like Airtel, Make My Trip, Educom, and my last stint was with Policy Bazaar as their Content Head. I realised I was personally invested in fertility and health, and decided to leave my corporate job to drive a platform that could help women.
2. What prompted you to start Fertility Dost?
My personal journey prompted me to start Fertility Dost. For 10 years, while I was working in corporations, I was also going through my fertility journey which included 5 miscarriages, failed IVFs, and a brush with ovarian cancer. And I was observing all the social apathy, a lot of hush-hush around this subject, and confusion about the treatments. It was a difficult journey in terms of physical pain because treatments are highly invasive. It just plays with your emotional health, psychological health, and relationships.
When my last IVF was successful and I had a child, I was constantly thinking about what I could do to create awareness. I was wondering why God gave me this problem and after some soul searching, I knew I had to help the many women who are going through the same painful journey and struggle that I did.
I was always a blogger and I continue writing my travel blog. So, while I was going through my personal journey, whenever I wanted to vent out, I would just scribble something out of anger, pain, sadness, or joy in my diary. I thought I needed to put it out into the world to let women know they’re not alone; if my story could bring some solace to someone, then I needed to tell it.
That’s when I started with the blog. I was sitting on this idea for about two years because I realised if I want to reach out to people to let them know I’m there if they need help or want to talk, they need to trust me first; this trust could only come out of me sharing my personal journey. I remember even when I was going through fertility problems, only my very close friends knew about my journey and IVF, and everything else. So it was very difficult for me to break out and speak up publicly, letting myself be subjected to judgement. I did so through my blog and website.
My idea was just to reach out to women. After 1.5 years, I had written about 30-40 blogs already but I didn’t have the courage to publish them. I met someone who encouraged me to finally do it. The blog and a closed ‘invite-only’ Facebook group were my mediums and I received an overwhelming response. Within a month, I was having long conversations with women at odd hours, sometimes 12 am, 2 am; they would discuss how their mother-in-law was pressuring them, how they were depressed because of failed IVFs, and also about feeling suicidal. Other women were not afraid to help either. These responses and experiences pushed me to believe that this is a real problem and I have to do something about it. The motivation to ease this pain that’s common among a ton of women pushed me to establish my startup.
I always had goosebumps and tears looking back at the troublesome and sad years, at a point when I was almost suicidal. Now I have the strength to talk about my journey in a consolidated way. I have transformed my life’s biggest pain into my biggest strength.
People ask me when I will have my second child; it’s ridiculous to explain to such people that I was literally dying to have one baby and I have no intentions of having a second child. I simply tell them that Fertility Dost is my second baby.
3. What was your first business milestone & how did you get there?
We had a tough time trying to monetise our business because we started it as an awareness and social impact portal. In fact, Fertility Dost will always, at the heart of operations, be an awareness and community building platform where you get India-specific information. We realised very early that fertility-related information is abundantly available, but all of them were about services, treatments, doctors and patients in other countries.
Indian women were still not open about talking about their fertility journey. We wanted to bring that element through more relatable content for Indian women.
We did a lot of pivoting. Initially, we were working on grants. As two years passed, we had a lot of research under our belt, including first-hand interactions with over 2 lakh+ women and couples. We then started our Fertility Coach Programme and we were finally able to monetise the business. It is a personalised programme that helps couples reach their fertility goals. We are bringing the concept of integrated therapies and integrated treatments in the fertility segment.
So the first milestone was to launch this program and there was a lot of confusion. Some people were mentoring us to go to the tech way, some people were mentoring us to go the advertising route, and some told us to make it a subscription box. After a lot of experimenting and trial and error where we lost some repeat customers, we launched our Fertility Coach Programme. It was our first milestone and we were happy even though we started with a small group of people. Today, we have been able to sell over 500 programmes and had great results.
4. How long did it take you to make money from your venture?
It took us 2.5 years to make money. In June-July 2016, I unofficially started the blog and a closed ‘invite-only’ FB group. The year 2017 was when we got the first grant which came from IIT Delhi under the women entrepreneurship programme for creating social impact. During that mentoring session, I realised we needed to become a private limited company. In December 2017, we finally registered as one.
5. Do you market online/offline? What works better for your platform?
We market completely online – B2C. All our programmes are also delivered online through WhatsApp, phone calls, emails and other online platforms. We are a tech-enabled company. We did offline as well where we used to do events and other awareness activations offline, but due to Covid-19 we have put them on hold. Our programme offerings are completely online.
6. What are your top 3 tips for aspiring entrepreneurs looking to enter the startup space?
- Don’t Fear It; Get Into The Mud: I was sitting in the corner for 1.5 years, I was wasting my time and suffering in self-doubt about whether what I had written was perfect enough to put out there. Will people accept it or not? If someone comments on my personal journey, how will I respond? I kept on thinking but nothing happened. When I published my story, the first responses were empathy. People called me and showed me they care and that they didn’t know I was going through so much. They wished they had known and reached out. They even asked me for advice for family members going through the same thing. The more I started talking about it, the more people started talking about it. Don’t waste time. As women entrepreneurs, we are always trying to be perfectionists and sometimes that can become a roadblock. Don’t try to perfect it, just learn on the go.
- Follow Your Heart And Passion: Don’t overthink. A lot of women entrepreneurs have to balance family and work, and when we start an entrepreneurial journey, it looks more like a freelancing gig for women. For a man, it’s a big deal to have a startup – it feels glamorous and glossy right through to the funding journey. But for women, people almost look at it as a side gig/hobby. I went through a similar struggle, especially when I was not in the monetising phase but my husband was very supportive. But people around would ask why I left a lucrative job for freelancing when I have a child to look after. I would feel very annoyed, but I wasn’t in the position to give it back at that time. This pre-monetising stage is when many women entrepreneurs leave the game as they don’t get the validation. As women, sometimes this validation is more important to us than it should be, especially from our family members and relatives. But, validation comes in its own time. Once Times Of India published my journey, story and picture, I felt acknowledged. Just remember that proving yourself with a startup takes time.
- Try To Make Money: As women entrepreneurs, we obviously make a social impact because it’s so uncommon for women to venture into entrepreneurship in India. Fertility Dost is a social impact startup in more ways than one. The key is to keep pivoting fast to figure out what revenue streams work for you. Don’t be scared and keep trying all avenues. We tried with transactional models, tech, advertising, subscription boxes, and then we figured out that for us, the community works best. It is through the community, word of mouth, and referrals that we are selling our fertility coach programmes. We are selling fewer numbers, but we are providing better quality. That’s how you find your own sweet pace.
7. What’s a basic investment budget one can expect to make when trying to start up his/her own business?
It depends from person to person and from product to product. You can invest millions and crores or you can be happy bootstrapping. We are pretty happy bootstrapping because, at this point of time, we do not want to thin the quality; we still want to work on improving the quality and consolidating the market in a more ethical way.
Starting a business is a little different for women and male entrepreneurs psychologically. In my experience, I’ve seen about 90% of women entrepreneurs get into startups because it’s driven by their personal passion and story. It is not purely a financial startup for them. For men, they think this idea is great, we can make more money, let’s do it! For women even if it’s selling or reselling clothes or making clothes, or something like sustainable fashion, they will do it because it brings them joy.
8. Which networking groups and showcasing events could help an aspirant meet the right people and generate work opportunities as an entrepreneur?
Get on to anything, because there are multiple platforms focusing on women and boosting them. There are many women entrepreneurship mentorship programmes and accelerators. I have been a part of a few – IIT Delhi, WEE (Women Entrepreneurship & Empowerment). This was my first entrepreneurship programme. When I began, I didn’t even know what a private limited company was and how it works. They give you all the practical training and mentoring. You can build the initial network of women. The validation that I was speaking about, well these women give you the validation. I am friends with all of them. It has been 2-2.5 years since the program is over, but these women continue to be my go-to people when I’m feeling low. When something is not working, my network helps me.
I also did a course through Zone Startups in Mumbai. I was a part of their accelerator program called Empower for women entrepreneurs, and they give you seed grants, equity-free. They also train you for 6 months, which benefited me a lot. I gained a lot of industry experience, ideas, and built networks through them. I have been to a few international accelerator programmes for entrepreneurship. These kinds of things help. And network-based events help. The SAI Platform has very good events and activities around women entrepreneurship and promoting women businesses.
You can follow and connect with Gitanjali Banerjee via Fertility Dost on Instagram.
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