Saundarya Rajesh: The Miracle Worker For Women

Saundarya Rajesh, believes that every entrepreneur must have a passion to see his vision become a reality. Read on to find out how she changed a personal setback into an opportunity for working women.

By Leena Ghosh

Saundarya Rajesh: The Miracle Worker For Women

There are people who wait for the system to change, the roads to get better or for good opportunities to come their way before they contemplate switching jobs or careers. Saundarya Rajesh, Founder of AVTAR Career Creators, decided to become the change she wanted and create career opportunities for working women and mothers, when she was refused jobs herself.

She shares her inspirational journey of becoming a successful entrepreneur and talks about how the attitude toward women who want to resume their careers after a break has changed for the better, with many organisations now following diversity and inclusion as part of their agenda for growth.

Excerpts from an exclusive interview:

How difficult or easy was it for you to resume your career after becoming a mother?

The decision to quit during my pregnancy and the initiative to start my own company after the break, were both based on the same reason – no company was willing to give me a flexi-time job! Flexibility, like I always say, is the oxygen to a woman’s career. But then no company was ready to employ a woman with my credentials on a flexi-time basis. It was either full-time or nothing. And in a full-time role, it was equal opportunity, the way the fox offered the crane equal opportunity to drink soup from a bowl. I decided to take the more scenic route and embarked upon a circuitous journey into HR consulting, teaching, radio production and even face painting. All this finally led to my own entrepreneurial adventure - AVTAR. I realise today, that I was the change I was waiting for.

What prompted you to start AVTAR?

I realised that corporates did not even give a chance to women who had a career-break reflecting on their resumes. They just did not consider them employable, which was ridiculous, given that women who had taken a break and were looking to get back to work were more likely to stay on the career track longer, and were also highly skilled personnel. So, I turned the challenge on its head and convinced the corporates to look at it from that angle. It proved to be a game-changer. Corporates that were hungry for good talent decided to try out the suggestion by engaging ‘returning’ women professionals. The very first recorded instance of a ‘second career’ programme in the Indian industry, took place in July 2006, under AVTAR’s stewardship. Over 400 women re-entered the workplace for the first time under that programme.

Realising that corporates needed a sustainable strategy to engage not just returning women professionals but all women in their workplace, we began coaching and counselling organisations to develop a Gender Inclusion plan. Using research and analytics we were able to prove the rupee-value that organisations would accrue if they invested in women’s careers.

We also went one step further and ensured that the women who got in touch with us also benefitted from the interaction. I devised a Career-Enabler system that women could easily implement in their own homes and work-places that would prevent them from aborting their careers.

What would you say is the current scenario for working women in India? What measures, in your opinion, need to be taken to improve the situation?

The situation now is definitely much better. Companies have diversity and inclusion as part of their agenda for growth. In fact, the 2017 Working Mother and AVTAR Best Companies for Women in India study showed that all of the 2017-100 Best Companies provide Flexible Working Arrangements (as also the 2016-100 Best); 34 per cent of the 2017-100 Best Companies provide day care services for employee children; 63 per cent provide tuition reimbursement for employees to pursue professional enhancement programmes.

Interestingly, the attrition rate of women steadily declined as they progressed along the talent pipeline in 2017-100 Best Companies. The attrition rate came down from 23 per cent at non-managerial level to 15 per cent at managerial level, 13 per cent at senior managerial level to 9 per cent at corporate executive levels. However, for men the non-managerial attrition rate is similar to that of women at 22 per cent, but as the levels go higher, the attrition rate stays at 14 per cent. This is an indication that if companies are able to invest in retention and advancement of women, healthy gender ratios are bound to follow.

How flexible is the Indian services sector for working mothers now? What measures need to be taken?

Well, the services sector has always been more inclusive about women. It is the others – like manufacturing, engineering and pharmaceuticals, that have been the male bastions. The nature of work in these sectors makes it difficult to allow flexibility at work, remote working or work-from-home options. We definitely need to see how to fix this issue.

Compared to the West, would you say working mothers in India face more hurdles in going back to work and making adjustments?

Every society has its own hurdles. Social practices and belief systems play a major role. It is this that makes it difficult for women in India when compared to their western counterparts. We need to take inspiration from societies that have been successful in structuring an equal platform for its people. And, that should be the way to go forward.

You have taken many initiatives to re-start the careers of women. Is this cause personal to you; why and what more initiatives do you plan to take?

Yes, the cause is very close to me. And it is very important for our country. The women’s workforce participation rate at entry levels is very encouraging and yet as they approach the mid-career stage, almost 48 per cent of women drop out for reasons such as marriage, maternity, motherhood or elder care. It is to address this issue that we want to bring back women through a second career.

In 2016, we started our partnership with Working Mother in the US, to bring the prestigious 33-year old Best Companies for Women study to India. This is a huge effort to create a larger eco system for companies to come and share their best practices. Last year, we launched Project PUTHRI, a cause that is also personal to me. PUTHRI is India’s first ever developmental project that seeks to create career intentionality among underprivileged girl students. It is my vision to have 10,000 PUTHRI scholars every year, coming out of these schools in Tamil Nadu and Pondichery.

Since the time you started AVTAR, do you feel that the attitude toward women who resume work after a break, has changed?

A million times! Today, we at AVTAR are working with more than a hundred organisations for the second career programs for recruiting women who are coming back to their careers.

According to you, what is the secret of achieving a work-life balance for parents?

The concept of a work-life balance is a misconception. It is not practical to keep playing the circus of balancing work and life, as if they were mutually exclusive from each other. People everywhere, men and women, who have been trying to do it, will tell you how tiring it can be – to the point that you want to give up on one just to keep your sanity intact. Instead, we should look at how to integrate work and personal life. When you look at it from the perspective of work-life integration, then one flows into the other and it becomes easier to handle. It then becomes a question of which part needs your attention more in that given moment and accordingly you prioritise.

Now more and more women entrepreneurs, like you, are coming to the fore. What advice will you give to the ones looking to start their own venture?

A passion to see your vision become a reality is a must-have. You should be ready to throw in everything that you have by way of dedication, commitment, energy and focus. Then, you can surely be a successful entrepreneur. A powerful communication skill is a must-have for a first-generation entrepreneur. Read extensively and make sure that you are always on top of your craft.

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