Manufacturing Is a Man's Game? This Female Founder Begs to Differ
Fundraising tends to be an anxiety-inducing affair for startup founders, who fret over whether they can secure much-coveted investment funds from investors. This challenge is possibly even greater for female founders, especially if they seek to tackle problems in traditionally male-dominated industries such as manufacturing.
But Avni Agrawal and her co-founder, Akanksha Jagwani, have done it.
Their startup, AI manufacturing analytics platform, SixSense, has grown from a team of two into a team of 10 since its founding in December 2018, with over S$1.5 million in funding from Strive, SGInnovate, and other leading venture capitalist firms.
Taking a Leap of Faith
Born and raised in India, Agrawal found the decision to start her own company a no-brainer. After all, the “thrill to solve seemingly impossible problems” is something that motivates her to get out of bed every day.
Agrawal graduated from the Motilal Nehru National Institute of Technology with a Bachelor of Technology, Computer Science and Engineering in 2016. But she didn’t make her foray into manufacturing, or entrepreneurship, immediately after. Instead, Agrawal first spent two years cutting her teeth at financial technology giant Visa.
As part of Visa’s data team, Agrawal worked with “petabytes” (that’s 15 zeroes) of data daily. She was also exposed to “brilliant” use cases that the company was solving, in departments such as fraud and finance.
At the same time, Agrawal kept a close eye on how the company was run. She soaked up everything that she was exposed to, from launching products to managing company culture, fostering team growth, and keeping employees engaged.
Agrawal also observed how many innovations were implemented from the ground up and rolled out globally by engineers—like herself.
“I realised that there are many industries that have the potential for digital transformation and that I [myself] could pioneer a transformation if I could just take a leap of faith,” she shares.
Although the go-getter recognised that she still had much to learn at that point, she was confident of her ability to take up new challenges and quickly pick up the skills she needed along the way.
“That’s how I decided that if I wanted to [found a] startup, it had to be then!”
The “Honey Badger Fighter Team”
With the ambition and excitement to build her first company, Agrawal quit her job and moved to Singapore in the summer of 2018 to join the Asia 4 cohort of the Entrepreneur First talent investor programme.
At that time, she was still undecided on what her company was to focus on. With an open mind, she explored many different ideas and partners among the “amazing community of entrepreneurs” in the programme.
Then, she met Akanksha Jagwani. The two of them hit upon the idea of targeting the manufacturing industry and knew that this was it.
Due to the advent of new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and augmented reality, Agrawal believes that the manufacturing sector has “immense potential for digital transformation”.
This was especially the case for Singapore, in which their company was to be based: manufacturing accounts for about 20 to 25% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product.
So their business idea was settled, but the road ahead was not smooth-sailing.
By the time Agrawal and Jagwani decided to work together, their final investment pitch under Entrepreneur First was a mere week away. Undaunted, the duo “scrambled all night” to put together their business plan. Unfortunately, their pitch initially failed to make the cut.
But not all was lost. The pair struck the programme’s founders as a feisty “honey-badger fighter team”, and the founders decided to make an unprecedented exception for them.
Instead of having their pitch accepted or rejected outright, the duo was given a one-month extension to polish their idea. After which, they would pitch again to an investment panel formed especially for them.
Agrawal shares that at the time, they were “curious and nervous yet much more confident and prepared!” And this time, they persuaded, clinching a pre-seed round of $75,000 in December 2018.
With that, SixSense was born.
Defeating Self-Doubt with Optimism and Patience
If there is one thing Agrawal relishes about her role as SixSense’s co-founder and Chief Technology Officer, it is that no two workdays are alike.
Among other responsibilities, most of her days are spent talking to customers, identifying market needs, planning client deliverables, managing the engineering team, and taking initiatives to “ensure competitive advantage”
She also had to deal with many business obstacles along the way. Agrawal recounts days where the startup struggled to make its first hire and heart-aching moments where “months of conversation and hard work with a customer” went down the drain.
“It was tough to keep going with the sentiments of disappointment, self-doubt, frustration, and anxiety clouding our thoughts in such times,” shares Agrawal. “However, one thing that I have learnt is that sometimes, survival is the key. Being able to pull through such phases with optimism and patience, where most would quit, makes all the difference.”
Upending Decade-Old Manufacturing Practices
And SixSense has indeed pulled through—with much aplomb.
In the past year, Agrawal has been motivated by the extent of trust that SixSense’s customers, staff and investors have placed in the startup.
“There are manufacturing companies who are willing to give up their decade-old ways of working because they believe we can make lives better for them!” exclaims Agrawal.
SixSense is not resting on its initial successes either. Having started in the semiconductor manufacturing vertical, Agrawal shares that the startup intends to expand across a variety of use cases, based on different processes and machine types, within this current vertical.
Their sights are also set on entering other manufacturing verticals such as advanced electronics and precision manufacturing, as well as expanding beyond Singapore’s shores into the Malaysian, Japanese, Chinese and European markets.
Be Bold and Lead
Agrawal shares that people have generally been supportive of women who take initiative and work hard towards finding their way.
“In my last one-and-a-half years with SixSense, I can confidently say that we [have] never faced resistance because of gender bias, even though the company is founded by two female founders,” shares Agrawal.
For women who aspire to found their own tech company, Agrawal’s advice is to “be bold and go out there to lead, even if the industry seems dominated by men.”
“It is encouraging to see the respect and appreciation people have for women who bring innovation and novelty, in such a competitive field of technology!”
Along with IMDA, we have a joint initiative called SG Women in Tech, which is a platform to bring the community together to attract, retain and develop women tech talent in Singapore.
SixSense is one of our portfolio companies.
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