Saundarya Rajesh has helped more than 8,000 women get back to work.
Her inspiring story, and advice to women who want to take a mid-career break:
First, a few startling statistics.
- India is ranked 123 when it comes to the female-male ratio at the work place.
- 48% per cent of women in India abort their careers midway; this is 20% more than the global average.
- The Indian woman's contribution to the national GDP is 17%, which is much lower than the global average of 37%.
- If the participation of women in the Indian workforce can be increased to 41% by 2025, it can add an estimated Rs 46 lakh crore ($700 billion) to the GDP.
No wonder then when someone like Dr Saundarya Rajesh helps women restart their career after a break, the effort is considered significant.
Saundarya was recently selected for the #100Women Initiative started by the Union ministry of women and child development, in collaboration with Facebook, to recognise and acknowledge women who are making a difference in their communities across the country.
These 100 women will meet President Pranab Mukherjee and Union Minister for Women & Child Development Maneka Gandhi in Delhi on January 22.
Saundarya's journey as an entrepreneur began in 2000 when she co-founded Avtar with K Umasankar. Avatar then had five employees.
In 2005, she started Avtar I-Win to help women find a second career after a break. Ten years later, they have 42,000 women professionals in their network.
More than 8,000 women have re-entered the workforce because of Saundarya and her team.
In the meantime, she completed her PhD on women's work force participation. In her own words, Saundarya shares her story of how she decided to help women find a career after a break.
I never wanted to be an entrepreneur as a student though my father, a successful entrepreneur in the pharmaceutical industry, was my inspiration.
After I studied English literature, my father saw an entrepreneur in me and asked me to do an MBA. I met my husband there and both of us joined CitiBank.
When I had my first baby, I had to take a career break from 1993 to 1996.
The next step: Becoming an entrepreneur
After this break, I began working as guest faculty in the management department of a city college. I also did projects for corporates like planning training, creating business plans, etc.
I believe I had no other option, but to become an entrepreneur!
It was the only answer to all the problems I faced at the work place. Necessity made me an entrepreneur.
After doing projects for various recruiting agencies, in December 2000, I decided to start an enterprise in the HR field with my friend Umasankar (seen above with Saundarya). He became co-founder of Avtar.
We named our company Avtar as it means incarnation or metamorphosis. We take different avatars all the time, personally, professionally and spiritually. That is why our byline is: The power of change.
Avtar has many meanings, both for corporates and for women. The butterfly in our logo depicts Nature's yearning to constantly reinvent and improve and become a different version of itself.
My mother-in-law became my first investor when she gave me a cheque for Rs 60,000. It helped us rent a flat on rent for our office. Till date, we are not funded by any external agency.
We grew into three units in the course of time. In 2008, we started Avtar Human Capital Trust and in 2011, we started Avtar Flexi Career India.
Learning from the corporate culture in the US and the UK
In 2005, I got the Chevening Scholarship in the UK and also the International Visitor Leadership Programme in the US sponsored by the American consulate.
My visits to these two countries were an eye opener. I saw how these developed economies leveraged the power of women to their advantage.
From my interactions with successful women there, I found women face the same problems the world over. The woman who has a baby in the US also goes through the same problems as a woman in India.
The difference, I found, was that corporates there actively engaged with these women to find solutions by offering them flexi time, part time and many other such support systems.
This kind of involvement of corporates in the lives of their employees was laudable. It was gender agnostic and did not concentrate on women alone.
It made me wonder why Indian corporates didn't follow the same path.
Women and careers after a break
When I returned, I did a study on the employment of women after they take a career break by talking to as many as 25 corporates. I asked them why they didn't leverage the huge group of talented women workforce to their advantage.
Even today, a break in your resume is a cardinal, unpardonable sin.
I tried to make corporates realise that women returning to work are more energetic, reliable and hard working. Moreover, they are familiar with the corporate world.
First second career programme in the country
In December 2005, we decided to conduct a second career programme for women. It was the first of its kind in India. We started our initiative by launching the portal www.avtariwin.com
Within days, 4,000 women registered. Today, we have 42,000 women on the network.
We didn't want this to be another job site. Our aim was to help those women who had taken a break and wanted to restart their career. We decided to profile the women who had registered and set up a small team to speak to them.
What started off as a profiling exercise became a counselling venue for women who wanted to restart their lives as working professionals.
Most of them, we found, were confused and suffering from depression. So all of us got trained in counselling.
8,000 women find a second career through Avtar I-Win
The corporate sector is still very apprehensive about women taking a break.
They think women are not capable of returning to work after their pregnancy. Even though we are so advanced technologically, the mindset is still the same.
It is very tough to make them think differently. We have to ask questions like what if your daughter has to take a break...
I tell the corporate sector it makes phenomenal business sense to engage women after a break.
They stand to benefit more than the talented woman as she has more opportunities and she will flourish wherever she goes.
Today, we are the largest providers of second careers for women. Eight thousand women found jobs for a second time through us.
Winning the #100Women Initiative contest
I am happy about the #100Women Initiative to acknowledge women who are making a difference in their communities across the country.
It was a contest to select 100 women achievers in India through public nominations via social media. I was selected for my initiative to help women find a second career.
I am sure this contest and my selection will make the industry and the country aware of this issue and our initiative.
50:50 gender balance at the work place
We are driven by our vision to achieve a 50:50 gender balance in all workplaces.
A United Nations report says how a country's GDP can increase significantly through the presence of women in the work place. This can be early career women, mid-career women or women coming after a break.
Brazil has shown that it has gone up several notches up in the human development index, GDP index and gender balance index by including women.
Message to the government
The government should give incentives to small and medium enterprises to employ women.
Large enterprises generally look for talent and, by default, employ women, but not SMEs.
While 25 per cent of employees in large enterprises are women, it is just less than 10 per cent in SMEs.
I feel the six-month maternity leave policy will further alienate SMEs from employing women. I don't blame them.
The government should give incentives like a tax rebate or exemption under some category to the SME sector for employing women.
Advice to women who want to restart their career
Let me be quite frank. It is not easy to get a second break in your career.
If possible, try not to take a break; instead negotiate for flexibility or part time work so that you have the job even when you are away on a break.
If you have taken a break, then keep yourselves skilled. Update your knowledge and skills. Women tend to stop skilling themselves once they become a wife and a mother.
You should not to be obstinate about the kind of job you want to do after your break.
There are so many women who have become professionals and entrepreneurs and chosen unconventional areas. You should have an open mind and be flexible in your choice.
Dr Saundarya Rajesh spoke to Shobha Warrier/Rediff.com
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj