In India, women constitute 29% of the workers in the junior level, 15% at the middle level and less than 10% at the senior level. One of the main causes of this is a huge drop out of women workforce between junior and middle level, that brought India to be ranked 120th out of 131st for their Labour force participation rate.
India has developed a lot in the last two decades but these numbers still present a shocking scenario. Saundarya Rajesh, founder of FLEXI Careers India, has been through the same phase of life which many working women go through – sacrificing their careers for family. The years 1990 – 93, were very exciting for her as a lot of life-changing events happened to her. She graduated from Business School, joined Citibank as a Management Trainee, got married, had her first child and then quit her job!
“In the 90’s, professional aspirations and desires of women were driven by an either-or solution – family or career. It was as distinct as night and day, black and white – a woman could career primary or home primary. The Career-and-Home stereotype, one that would necessitate visionary development of career paths for a woman who was dual-centric, was not even conceptualised for the next 10-15 years,” says Saundarya.
After a long journey of trying to find out a job that gave her flexibility and an opportunity to exercise her skills, she got into teaching. 6 years later, after teaching a lot of women in MBA classes, she understood that there is a hidden talent pool of women who just need to be pitched to the right audience to find consummation. And so she, together with other 4 team mates, decided to start AVTAR in December 2000. AVTAR was focused on bettering opportunities for marginalised pools of talent – women with breaks in career, elderly folks who still had half a decade of service in them post-retirement etc.
After 5 years, they launched AVTAR I-WIN (Interim Women manager’s Interface Network) which started with the mission of creating sustainable careers for women. Her own experience in her early career days has been the most powerful stimulus for the genesis of AVTAR I-WIN. Today, AVTAR I-WIN has been spun-off as a social enterprise – FLEXI Careers India – an organization which works in the areas of sustainability and diversity. What started off with a humble number of about 200 women in Chennai, has grown to about 27,000 members spread all over India today.
In the initial year itself, FLEXI has created a skill-building initiative – the SEGUE Sessions – for second career women which has impacted over 3500 women till date. A number of organisations have started hiring second career women (Women returnees) and launched focused second career programs for hiring women coming back to career.
In the early stage of FLEXI, companies were not reacting very well to their services, but this is not what could stop Saundarya. “There was an attitude bordering on patronising, a lot of toe-dipping and also throwing some CSR into the whole package,” says Saundarya. In this moment they focused on their customer needs providing them women workforce as a CSR strategy, as a recruitment strategy or as a hedge against attrition.
FLEXI Careers India’s services in Gender Balancing the Indian workplace have ensured that organizations look at women as a long-term investment and are ready to invest in retaining and growing women professionals. They have placed more than 3000 women on part-time, flexi-time and full-time jobs in organisations across India. This includes women who have taken a break in career.They also started educating their market along the way. “This year, in February 2013, when we conducted a study of the diversity & inclusion practices of organizations, we found that this perception had changed and companies today wanted more women in the workplace as a way of mirroring the market place and as a pool of sustainable talent. Today, talent is the need of the hour for India’s growth. And women managerial talent which forms 50% of the human capital at India’s disposal, cannot be ignored,” shares Saundarya.
Saundarya is a proud social entrepreneur who is proud of what she is doing. She believes, “Social enterprises thrive on the aspect of ‘giving’. The social sector needs more inspired men and women who can be givers. If you feel strongly about bringing positive change and can also make a revenue model out of it, then not only do your employees and the country benefit directly, but your audience stands to gain immensely from this.”
Today, Saundarya juggles both her professional and personal life well. She tells us that tomorrow keeps her motivated! She believes that every effort that we put into the purpose of our work will see rich results in the future. “..all the many roles that I play such as wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, mother, entrepreneur, teammate and friend give me new dimensions into what life is all about. Each role defines me and creates new energies in me. My life is a fluid stream with the many avatars which flow in and out, there are no water tight compartments.”