It’s no secret that female representation in the Indian sporting landscape still has a long way to go. Whether it’s the mindset, the apprehension of sports being a viable career option or good old fashioned patriarchy, women are underrepresented in the Indian sports industry as professionals and by the media as well. ENGN co-founder Megha Desai is on a mission to change that very problem, giving not just athletes the support they need to make it as professionals but also working towards inspiring women to take up fitness as a lifestyle.
In this exclusive interview, ENGN co-founder Megha Desai speaks about her journey so far, her various responsibilities as co-founder, COO and CMO, ENGN’s impact on female athletes, biggest hurdles for women entering the sports industry, her short and long term goals for the future!
Q 1) As co-founder of ENGN, what motivated you to form this company? Is there a specific problem that you wanted to solve?
ENGN is a part of a company called Varanium Lifestyle which is already in the fashion and lifestyle business. Performance wear for women as a category is something I was looking at. The more we delved into it there were two things that stood out very strongly. One was that female athletes in India are so under-represented. Thankfully now there is much more awareness and there are conversations happening about how female athletes or even women in general need better representation.
With ENGN we wanted to see how we can help and back female athletes in India. Then from a business perspective we wanted to have a category of performance wear for women which were of good quality for affordable prices. That was important because there were a lot of brands in the market but affordability was a problem. Post covid I think people are aware of their health so that was the market we wanted to get into.
Q 2) As COO of ENGN what are your various responsibilities in your role? What are some of the biggest challenges that you have faced?
We are a bootstrap company so I’m the COO and the CMO. As a co-founder I’m involved in multiple roles. As a COO the primary challenge is to get the right quality of product at the price point we’re looking at. There is the whole operational challenge that comes with it in manufacturing and sourcing. We are very particular about the kind of fabric we want, the kind of cuts we want for the bodies of Indian women. That is an exciting but challenging journey. As far as female athletes are concerned, I wouldn’t call it a challenge but it is an eye opener despite knowing a lot that some of our athletes come from such humble backgrounds.
From there on the fact that they have still reached the national level without much support is incredible. Then the progress they show after getting the backing from ENGN is amazing. We’re trying to create a full ecosystem by investing in their training, nutritional requirements, mental coaching and not just back them financially. Overall just stitching the story of ENGN and presenting it to the people has been the challenging yet exciting part.
Q 3) How big of an impact do you think ENGN has had for Indian female athletes? What more do you think needs to be done?
ENGN was established in 2021 and in this short period the kind of progress our athletes have shown has been great. We started with 2 athletes but now we have 7 athletes. We back athletes from a range of sports and not just from popular sports because there are so many other sports that don’t have the visibility and popularity that they deserve. Today we have representation from a number of sports. We have Katya Coelho who is a windsurfer, Anoli Shah who is a speed skater and then of course there is Maana Patel who is an Olympic swimmer. There is Shivani Soam and Nithyashree Ananda who are hurdle and long track athletes.
Personally, just seeing our athletes progress in training and giving them support is a big achievement. The sense of stability that we have given the athletes is our biggest achievement because a lot of these girls come from financially humble backgrounds. They would’ve probably not been able to pursue their sport if they didn’t receive the backing that we have given them and they would’ve probably quit their sporting career. That is a big win for us and now a lot of them are training for the Asian Games.
We’ll hopefully see some good results but more than that just backing them and to say that you can pursue a career in sports is a massive achievement. That in turn will inspire young girls to take up sports as a career. If more organisations and more companies back female athletes then it will be a massive step forward. That is one area where a lot more work needs to be done not just by ENGN but from the society as a whole.
Q 4) What are the biggest hurdles aspiring female athletes in India face? How can they be overcome?
The biggest hurdle for female athletes is the bias towards male athletes even though one would think that we are in 2023 and things would be different. Unfortunately there is still a deep rooted gender bias which exists and something we need to challenge. The second problem is the gulf of difference in the pay scale even after big athletes like Sania Mirza have spoken against this and the fact that they don’t get equal pay despite achieving the same level of success.
A lot of female athletes drop out because they don’t have financial backing or they are not able to get sponsors compared to their male counterparts. The third hurdle we face are the parents, who think that sports are a waste of time and money. I do believe that a change is happening but a lot more work needs to be done.
Q 5) ENGN’s product line includes high quality performance wear at affordable prices for women. Do you plan to expand your products for men in the future?
Currently we want to focus on women’s wear because I believe that’s where expertise lies but I am someone that believes in a never say attitude and maybe in the future we can include some men’s sportswear.
Q 6) What are your short and long term goals for ENGN? How are you working towards achieving them?
I think the short term goal is to take over the athlete roster to 12 athletes because ENGN believes and wants to back our female athletes. From product wise we opened our first offline store in Mumbai and we want to open 5 more. The long term goal is to inspire women to take up fitness as a lifestyle rather than a one-off thing. ENGN believes in inclusion and our brand ambassador Esha Deol inspires a lot of people in this country.