Opening new doors for women in India

Sairee Chahal is co-founder of Fleximoms, a diversity solutions provider based in Delhi which connects women seeking to enter or re-enter the workplace with job opportunities, information, and mentoring.

Sairee Chahal 640 x 480

Although women outnumber men on many higher education courses in India, just 22 percent of all female graduates go on to enter the workforce – and nearly half of those drop out mid-career. These discouraging figures are a result, Chahal believes, of the social pressure on women to be involved only in domestic matters such as caring for the extended family and the home. At the same time, the country is in desperate need of educated, qualified professional and managerial staff.

For Chahal, the answer is flexibility: the ability to use alternate formats in the working world. By means of community, information, networking, and coaching, Fleximoms works with women who are making work-life choices and help them prepare for and connect with professional opportunities.  As many women in India do not have access to the internet, the company uses both online and offline approaches and works with a network of partners and service providers such as care-givers, childcare organisations, and remote-work-enabling technology specialists. Job opportunities posted on the Fleximoms board are carefully screened to ensure they offer flexible working hours or conditions.

Fleximoms itself employs twelve people – seven fulltime and five on a flexible basis – to manage the 250 companies who now use the job board and the over 2 000 job connections that have been made since the company launched in 2011.

Chahal has had a varied career, having worked in research, translation, PR, leadership consulting and the media before setting up SAITA Consulting in 2006 to work with businesses reinventing themselves. Fleximoms was a natural development from that.

“I always knew I had to be an entrepreneur”, Chahal tells thehatch.in. “When you can’t stick in a job long enough, have too many questions and have trouble following rules without reason – that’s where you head. I dabbled a lot, and the process of creating a business and seeing it grow was the one that stuck”.

If she were able to do it all over again, she says, she would start earlier and say ‘no’ more often. “Being responsive is important, but you can only chase one goal at a time. Figure out which one”.

And the single most important characteristic for success? “Personal clarity – who you are and what drives you is important before anything else. Your own response to situations and things that drive you are the foundation you build your business on. In every business the entrepreneur is the biggest asset and the biggest liability”.

“Just don’t park yourself – for success, failure or perfection. Go on!”

This article was originally published in emerging stars.

Yes, I can – Flexing Muscle

It was after becoming a mother that Sairee Chahal realised the gaping need for flexible work options in corporate India. She could have been one of those numerous women who, after having children, opt out of lucrative, fulfilling careers because of rigid work formats of organisations. But she had different plans. “I often think I could have been a statistic had I not pushed back,” she says.

Chahal co-founded Fleximoms, a New Delhi-based company that helps women find flexible work options. “You don’t realise the need until it hits you in the face,” she says. Fleximoms, whose other founder is Anita Vasudeva, helps find flexible work options for women who have fallen off the career ladder and also provides them training to bridge any skill gaps.

Fleximoms rolled out as an independent company only last year. Chahal incubated it for nearly two years under Saita Consulting, a consulting firm that she and Vasudeva founded in 2006 to advise on small and medium businesses.

Fleximoms works with 300 companies. “There are a lot of companies that want to connect with this demographic,” says Chahal.

This Business Today piece appeared as part of a larger series of profiles with five unusual women entrepreneurs. 

Fleximoms is the largest aggregation of flexible jobs for women in the country

Fleximoms is the largest aggregation of flexible jobs for women in the country

Sairee Chahal seamlessly weaves her world between her business, her four-year old child, a household and varied other interests. As the co-founder of Fleximoms, Chahal, 36, is a pro when it comes to juggling work and personal life.

Chahal comes across as a person who is in control of things, a quality she has acquired in a career graph that is as varied as it is interesting.

Right after her Masters in the Russian language from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Chahal worked for Central Asian countries that were opening their embassies in the capital. She then joined a magazine.

After a while, Chahal decided to venture out on her own as she was not happy being an employee any longer. In 1999, she set up NewsLink Services along with a couple of friends.

This was the country’s first magazine for mariners and had operations in India, Philippines and Cyprus. Chahal was in charge for three years and during that period, the workforce was expanded to 130 members.

Chahal then moved out to set up Russian outposts for the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), and the executive search firm, Heidrick & Struggles.

Homeward bound
It was in 2006 that Chahal teamed up with Anita Vasudeva, Co-Founder, Fleximoms to set up SAITA Consulting Pvt. Ltd., a firm which deals with small and medium businesses. SAITA is a Japanese word for excellence, explains Chahal. It is also a combination of the first names of Chahal and Vasudeva. SAITA began operations by helping in the internal matters of organizations so that the management was free to deal with customers and clients.

“When we were running the consulting business, we ended up hiring a lot of women. It was not intentional. However, the number of women who wanted to join us far exceeded the numbers we could employ. This got us thinking,” says Chahal.

At SAITA, every client that Chahal worked with had a people issue—there was a lot of pain around hiring and retention. “We soon realized that there was a gap between what women want and what mainstream industries seek when it comes to work,” says Chahal.

By 2009, she started toying around with the idea that fleshed into Fleximoms. Between 2009-2011, the concept was part of SAITA Consulting, after which it was hived off into a different unit.

Fleximoms today is an independent entity offering a flexible employment model for mothers and placing them in organizations which understand the value of an experienced and qualified workforce. In fact, it is considered the largest aggregator for genuine flexible jobs in the country.

Step forward
Fleximoms has now expanded its scope to find jobs for women who have taken a break from work. The back-to-work programme, Second Chance, offers an opportunity for women who have been away for a significant time from the work force.

“We have also launched various programs like career guidance, interview preparation, resumé guidance, workplace coaching among others. These programmes are based on the aspirations and the present position of a candidate,” says Chahal.

The founder understood that work-life choices for women are heterogeneous and hence, it was important for Fleximoms to be the top resource for women while seeking employment.

Chahal also worked intensively with corporate entities. “We wanted them to hire women because it made business sense. A lot of work that we do with companies is to get them to accept flexible working hours as a business case and use it as part of their workday and not because it is something
good to do.”

Fleximoms currently reaches out to about 30 cities in India, and allows its customers to access the entire ecosystem for finding the right job— a prospective candidate can find a suitable job in a city other than the one she is living in.

Fleximoms also conducts online teaching, coaching and classroom training for long-term interventions in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Pune. “A lot of women are also starting up and we have tied up with a number of incubators and accelerators to provide support,” says Chahal.

Robin Hood and the moms
Fleximoms is bootstrapped with an initial investment of about `2 crore. “We had the consulting business, so we call it the ‘Robin Hood approach’ of moving money from one to the other,” says Chahal.

The response to Fleximoms has been phenomenal—what started out as a small project has become highly successful, informs Chahal.

“We knew [from our experience] getting a job was a problem for women, but never imagined it was a problem of such magnitude. It has grown through word-of-mouth and we feel we are only scratching the surface. Clients, who have worked with Fleximoms, refer us to others and this has helped a lot in our growth.”

Chahal says that in April 2011, the first month of operations, Fleximoms had 16,000 members. Today, the company has local chapters and the community is 2 lakh strong. “We have consistently grown month-on-month and we have reached this number in practically a year and half.”

When a company, which is their client, wants to access Fleximoms’ database, it has the option of taking a subscription. These subscriptions form the primary source of revenue for Fleximoms.

“We also do a lot of custom work for companies with specific needs,” says Chahal. However, information and membership is free for women. Fees are only charged if they join a coaching intervention.

Chahal reveals that the firm’s current revenues are a little less than `1 crore and by the end of 2013, they are expected to grow three times over.

Fleximoms has now evolved into a site where any woman can search for a job opportunity—the website is not merely limited to a mother. “The ‘Mom’ aspect is symbolic for a care-giving economy. About 75-80 percent of women who take a break from work do it because they have to take care of their children. This is not restricted to India and is a global phenomenon,” says Chahal.

More to follow
With changing times and needs, Chahal feels that a number of firms now realize the value of what Fleximoms offers. “A lot of companies realize that this demographic can be a game changer for them,” says Chahal.

During the first month of its operation, Fleximoms had about 22 companies on its rolls, a number that has since grown to 400. Chahal says in the same month the firm found placements for 12 women. Since then, it has found jobs for over 5,000 women across the country.

Archit Gupta, Co-Founder and Director at ClearTax, a tax filing provider, says that he heard about Fleximoms through a friend. “We were looking to hire people remotely, so that we do not have to expand our office. We wanted self-motivated people. Three months ago, I sought Fleximoms’ services to hire for two positions: a support role and for content writing .”

Though Gupta was able to fill the positions he was looking for, he feels a lot more could be done with regard to filtering resumés. “Most of the leads [given by Fleximoms] were good but there were some which were outside our mentioned criteria. This is one area where Fleximoms can improve upon—[put in place] a better filtering system,” says Gupta.

Chahal points to another challenge—to keep adding value to the needs and aspirations of women. “That is a tricky place to be,” she says. To do this, Fleximoms will be looking at Series A funding in the next six months to add scale, she adds.

This interview by Pranbihanga Borpuzari appeared in Entrepreneur Magazine in March 2013

Thank you! Marissa Mayer

Thank you! Marissa Mayer

Yahoo jolted everyone this week by banning remote work for its employees. The story has not stopped making headlines since then. The great thing that emerged was that the seemingly global majority undecided on workflex turned out to be its supporters. We have to thank Marissa Mayer for spotlighting the issue.

Traditionally, it is not new for businesses to deem workflex as ‘not for us’. For years, businesses have left un-extracted value on the table. For the fence-sitters and cynics, it might be interesting to go over key work-life trends in this context.

In case you haven’t noticed, businesses need to acquire, retain and grow trust from all their stakeholders, more than ever before. The open information network, the rise of global citizenship, the younger workforce have all meant that trust is the core around which businesses need to maneuver themselves. The trust economy lends itself to what is termed as the rise of creative collaboration – multitude of skills, backgrounds and energies combining to solve common problems.

There is no absolutism in business anymore. Blended business models, complex eco-systems, shorter business life cycles – have reduced the island approach in business. Never say never was never truer. Collaboration, blended models, constant reevaluation, fast change, constant communication – are some trends businesses have to live with now.

Isn’t 21st century an age of choice? The choice to be able to marry who you want, live where you want, learn what you want, have the world’s information at your disposal? And that applies to corporations too. Variety and variation in everything – from products we buy, to services we choose, to lives we lead. Workplaces need to acknowledge that needs and aspirations vary from individual to individual, from geography to geography and that workforce is not a lump of homogenous large group with no individuality. It includes everyone – global migrants, the natives, the digital citizens, the DINK couples, the single moms, gay families, elderly, veterans, the Gen X, Y and more.

Remote work, telecommuting, work from home is just one page out of the workflex formats. There are over a dozen other formats that fit various business and strategic needs. These include flex work day, flex work week, job share, part time, core team flex roles etc. Carving out flex formats to suit an organisation’s growing needs is a function of business needs and needs to be thought through as part of the core planning process. However, many business teams find them at a loss when it comes to curating these engagements. Workflex formats are not one size fit all but. Workflex formats are not one size fit all but when applied in business contexts, will be key to business results. Businesses, which commit time and resources to plan these as part of their core, yield better long-term gains – of productivity, cost saving and engagement.

Virtualisation of work and life is a real thing. For every 100 texts, IMs, Skype calls, there are perhaps five meetings. It is only going to grow, as we raise of children with smartphones in their hands from day one. They know no other reality and it simplifies things to enhance adaptability for us, who came in with a different version of work-life fit. Work will never be fully virtual or fully cubicle. Both will stay but the trend is weighing towards higher virtualisation.

The uncertainty surrounding global economic conditions, the fall of the big global corporation, the result of the industrial age environment fatalism have shifted the pointer towards Small and Medium Businesses (SMBs). Anyone who follows the changing workplace trends will be able to tell you that SMBs are the big adopters and drivers of workflex. They are agile, adoptive, extract business value and are ready to make that investment. They are the ones who employ a large percentage of the workflex employees and build flexibility as a core business value. Home based work is only going to grow as technology gets better, work more knowledge driven and work-life choices more diverse. In fact, teleworkers is the fastest growing category of workers globally.

The central resource in a knowledge led organization is the disposition and discretion of the worker. A CEO’s task before the balance sheet is to tilt the mindset of the knowledge worker in favor of the organisation and its mission. Leadership today is less about whom you lead and more about who wants to be lead by you. Physical, mental, cognitive well-being is the most valuable unwritten column in the P&L statement of a company and its impact is only set to grow.

No organisation of today is built on industrial age principal of silos. Flow, fluidity, constant change leading to increased sharing is the form of new age business. One thing leads to another, the world is a networked place, we want to share more, participate in the open sharing economy, learn through open streams of shared knowledge and align ourselves with communities that catch our interest, irrespective of their global locations. Businesses need to be cognizant of this fact and respond to the fact. The future is now.

The original article was featured as a opinion piece in The Times of India, Crest Edition

Woman’s Initiative Awards

Woman’s Initiative Awards

India’s GDP may have slowed in 2012, but the country is still growing: its middle classes, labour needs and higher education levels are on the rise, with women students now outnumbering men on certain courses. Yet a mere 22% of all female graduates go on to enter the workforce. ‘Women in India experience a lot of social pressure,’ says Sairee Chahal, 36, an entrepreneur who wants to help change these figures. ‘They are expected to look after all domestic matters, from the extended family to the home and the pets, and frequently end up blunting their ambition.’

Yet educated and qualified women could fill India’s burgeoning need for professional and managerial staff – a shortage of which is restricting the country’s growth, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently declared. Overall, women make up just a quarter to a third of the nation’s workforce, and nearly half have dropped out of work by mid-career. Take Sairee’s own experience, when she recently attended her high school reunion: ‘we were a class of 60 with 35 girls, only five of whom are working today. And nobody found that odd!’

Back to work
For Sairee, the key ticket is flexibility. ‘I want to help relieve the burden many women feel returning to work would involve – be it through the stress of social responsibilities or their reticence about going back to work after starting a family.’ Her company, Fleximoms, a workflex website for women and mothers, is ample testament that women are eager to join the fray: ‘technology has brought about a revolution in the way we work that fits perfectly with flexible solutions for work-life balance. Just because society wants them to stay at home doesn’t mean women don’t feel left out of intellectual pursuits – just like anywhere else in the world!’

To help them get back in the saddle, Fleximoms has created a thriving community sharing advice and information. ‘Joining Fleximoms opens up a whole support network,’ Sairee explains. First there’s the job board, which posts opportunities from SMEs and corporations, 80% of which have flexible hours or conditions. ‘We screen jobs to make sure they’re not “reverse flexibility” i.e., full of unfeasible conditions! They have to offer a basic salary and decent working hours.’

Services catering to women
Fleximoms markets a series of coaching services, from basic CV-writing to full-blown seminars. ‘The very first service we launched was our Second Chance Back to Work programme, for women who have been out of the job market for a long time and are looking for a life change. It covers current work trends and draws up a personal roadmap to establish what steps need taking.’ Career advice sessions target those who have been out of the market for lesser periods; women in work looking for new options are also catered for, with an in-depth skills review.

Revenue comes from subscription to the coaching services and a commission on each job offer, plus a finder’s fees to headhunt the right applicant on request. Further streams range from specialist consultancy to programmes on gender policy that aim to help women feel more confident about tackling sectors dominated by men. Fleximoms itself employs 12 people – seven full time and five on a flexible basis – to manage the 250 companies who now use the job board and the 2,000+ job connections that have been made since its launch in 2011.

Boost the economy and morale
You could say that Sairee is a bit of a trailblazer: ‘I’m the only woman in my family who has ever worked! ’ When she became a mother six years ago, she was in the midst of setting up a consultancy venture: ‘I realised how lucky I was to have a network of people to help on all fronts. It inspired me to seek ways to help other women break through and avoid being denied opportunities and choices.’

With an estimated 30 million women between the ages of 30 and 55 in India, Sairee intends to get her message across to as many as possible and can serve as a vibrant role model. In many aspects, Indian society is still driven by tradition for women: the divorce rate is among the world’s lowest, single mothers are rare and women have not generally been seen as an economic power. ‘Women have only recently won the right to an equal share of assets if divorce does occur,’ notes Sairee, ‘we weren’t seen as needing access to economic resources! Yet more women in work would boost the economy, income and consumption.’ Not to mention morale and personal fulfillment.

Sairee is a 2012 Cartier Woman’s Achievement Awards finalist. Her profile appeared on the Awards website.

Meet the back-to-work moms!

Founders Sairee Chahal and Anita Vasudeva describe their company Fleximoms as ‘India’s first workflex readiness specialist’.

In lay (wo)man’s terms, what they offer is a second chance for women looking to re-enter the workplace, and a vast, under-used talent pool for corporates to tap into! Fleximoms does this through a host of solutions, like job boards that connect employers with prospective employees, and ‘readiness’ workshops and advisory services for women.  Founded in 2009, the company had partnered with over 200 corporates and reached out to 1 lakh women, with a presence in 25 cities by August last year. (Source: CNBC TV18).

“We used to run a management consulting firm and because we were a women heavy, workflex ready team, we would get resumes from other women who wanted to join us. We obviously couldn’t hire most of them for our needs,” says Sairee. That’s when Chahal, along with her associate, Anita, decided to start Fleximoms.  “The first lot of resumes uploaded on the portal were from our inboxes!” she says.  Over a period of time, they realised they could offer far more than just job boards and devised a host of programs that prepare women to find jobs and careers that suit them – second time around.

Fleximoms’ programs, like ‘2nd Chance Back-to-Work‘, are  scheduled across multiple cities and offer women not just training but also a chance to connect with others like them.  The program, according to the company’s website, “helps you achieve Balance, align your Approach, assess Realities, and finally make Appropriate Choices to take your next steps in reaching your professional and personal Goals. “

Others are tailored to help fulfill specific aspirations, like Seal the Deal and Setting up Shop, for building a sales career and becoming an entrepreneur respectively.
One-to-one advisory services are also popular.

Do they work?
We talk to two women who’ve used their services and discover what they gained.

Anu Singh Choudhary
Fleximoms Career Advisory alumna, Delhi.


Anu Singh and her twins.

I started working when I was 21. I had a very active life. I used to work well into the night, often clocking in 20 hours at a stretch. My last job was with a news organization, and you can imagine what the newsroom set-up must have been like. It was a big change, when I got pregnant and faced medical complications that hit the brakes on my professional growth. This was 5 years ago. During this time, I would take up the odd project that came my way, without striving for any particular assignment or planning my work.

But I don’t regret taking the break. Spending time to have and bring up your kids is important too. But when they began to go to school, I realised that I had to be more productive. I was working, but in a very unstructured manner. I heard about Fleximoms through a friend and started following them on Facebook. I even went for a couple of informal meetings and became friends with a few women who were part of the network. In many ways, that was a reward in itself.  I come from a family, where none of the women from the previous generations have worked.  So, I have no role models or access to experienced women who’ve been in this position before. I could always talk to my husband, but I knew his advice wouldn’t be entirely objective.

A few months later, I decided to sign up for their career advisory services. I sort of  knew what I wanted. It’s just that I needed to sit down and talk about it to someone who would be objective and had experience in these matters. In fact, during my session, I was told that I didn’t need the counselling because I was asking all the right questions. But, I guess, it was good to have someone to sit and talk to. There hasn’t been a huge change in my career trajectory or anything, but I am trying to imbibe some of the more tangible tips, like not cluttering my schedule with too much work, being realistic about how much I can handle and so on.

Am I a happier, more hopeful ‘fleximom’ today? I guess, you could say so.


Saumya Dahake
2nd Chance Back-to-Work alumna, Pune  


Saumya with her daughter Swara

I have had a very emotional journey with Fleximoms. When I first heard of them, I was the mother of a 2 month-old daughter, and I didn’t want to go back to the same ‘back office’ job I had. You can understand the kind of trauma I was going through. A first-time mom, with sleepless nights and a crying baby, trying to figure out her career! My maternity leave was running out and I was feeling extremely uncertain. That’s when I signed up for ‘2nd Chance Back-to-Work’ and also the Career Advisory program. I was desperately hoping they would say, ‘just quit your job’. But, thankfully, they were more honest. I realised that running away from a difficult situation was not the solution. Also, I realised it’s far too easy to fall into the trap of ‘I am a care giver and I also hate my job, so let me just give up.’

So I stuck on with my job and continue to retain the position I had before my pregnancy.  My daughter is now 13 months old. Fleximoms is not just a service for women who wish to work from home. In fact, it helps streamline your professional thinking, offers you a great network of people and guidance. I have made the most of it, I cannot tell you how many times I have called up Anita (Vasudeva)!  I have set goals, re-organised my priorities and have also been encouraged to pursue my other interests like writing. So, let’s see what happens.

 This article first appeared in Money Chat 

Mommy matters

Walk into any Mom&Me store, and you will find mothers. No, not just shopping. At work. The chain, run by Mahindra Retail, began by intuitively tapping into the “Mother knows best” philosophy, says CEO K. Venkataraman. “We do encourage more recruitment among mothers because they add value to our customers. We find their understanding is high, and though all our employees receive empathy training, obviously when you are a mother yourself, the empathy levels are naturally higher.” Labelled Supermoms (the store also recruits a few Superdads and Supergrandparents, just to be fair), the job profile involves hanging out at their stores and doing what a mom does best—counsel, advise, lend an ear, recommend solutions and listen to what a worried mother or mother-to-be has to say. “One of the greatest indicators of our success has been seeing the instant faith parents develop in us. I was at our first store in Koramangala, Bangalore, one day when a lady handed her infant over to a Supergrandad while needing to take out her cash. She said to him, “Here Dad, hold her for a while.” The Supergrandad was so touched because it is such a gesture of trust.”

A large percentage of women drop out of work in urban India alone, with an average work experience of four years and average education, a post-graduate degree, according to Sairee Chahal, co-founder of Fleximoms, a Delhi-based consultancy that helps mothers reconnect with the workspace. The mother of a four-year-old herself, Chahal says the channelling works both ways. “Not only do companies need to accept the flexi-culture, because a workplace is essentially gender-neutral, but women also need to invest in getting back to being professional. Work is work, and at the end of the day, it’s a business case study irrespective of gender.”

Companies like Johnson&Johnson (J&J) periodically recruit mothers for focus groups and in-depth interviews for feedback on their products. “We engage with mothers to understand their lives post motherhood and discover their emotions as mothers. Spending a day in the life of a mom helps us identify gaps, needs, product preferences and routines,” says Anil Nayak, director, communications, J&J. There are other companies also which have an eye out for mothers. Future Group gathered together housewives and mothers in Mumbai recently for feedback on their high-end food mall FoodLand, as also to understand consumption patterns on their indigenous brand of noodles.
Apart from focus groups, programmes like Tata Second Career Initiative Programme and the Godrej Revival of Opportunities for Women encourage mothers to return to work after childbirth, often offering workshops and training to allow them to rejoin fields like accounting, finance or human resources which they exited to tend to their children.
There is a definite increasing workplace momentum that recognizes mothers as responsible, mellowed, patient, capable of handling a team, working with values such as loyalty, commitment and integrity, say recruitment experts. Companies are beginning to put a numerical value to the loss of talent and the ability to regain it. Such recruitment stances are a far cry from the traditional practice of believing a woman’s career is over the minute she becomes pregnant. “IT companies are ahead of the rest in this. Infosys and IBM, in particular, are very open to what a mother brings to the table. If a mother is given a work-life balance, she is less likely to jump jobs in today’s hugely competitive environment for merely a raise, where other unknowns can throw her off gear,” says Aruna Sampat, director and founder of Career Catalysts, a Mumbai-based software specialist recruitment consultancy. Thanks to the widespread availability of technology like Skype and conference facilities, the mindset that one needs to be physically present to accomplish the job, is changing. “As long as the goals are clear and the delivery is prompt, the world can be your office,” Sampat explains. The burgeoning of Indian businesses has also meant that there is an acute shortage of experienced talent, and corporates are unwilling to waste hard-to-come-by experience.
At the end of the day, it’s about drawing on your strengths as a mother. At Mom&Me, sometimes, mothers with grown-up children, are seen as people best equipped to hand out advice—for everything from an earache to organic vitamin supplements safe for consumption during pregnancy. Sometimes, mothers with small children, who are only able to take on a part-time position, come in for a few hours a day. “We find mothers have the time to spend with customers and understand why they need guidance in practical terms. Mothers are very valuable to us because they perform a transfer of knowledge to a next generation of mothers who come in to shop,” says Venkataraman. One product the store plans to introduce after Supermoms gave them feedback is Indian wellness products. They’ve already started a line of stretch maternity wear based on their inputs. It’s not a short-term gain for Mahindra Retail either. They’re looking at it as a process where mothers “begin to own this space”.
Whaddya know, supermoms can do it all!

This piece originally appeared in Livemint

Rise of the Fleximoms

‘Balance’ is the new buzzword for career women who refuse to choose between work and children.

‘Balance’ is the new buzzword for career women who refuse to choose between work and children. They want to be around when their kids need them, and they also want meaningful careers. And now there’s finally some hope they can expect to have their cake and eat it too, as Indian companies, according to a new business survey, show an increasing readiness to recruit mothers on ‘flexitime’.

If you are on a call with Anika Parashar Puri, business head of services at Mahindra Retail, you’ll have to put up with the din of children screaming in the background. Her colleagues are by now quite used to her telling them to ‘stop crying’ and ‘get off the bed’ during an important discussion. “I work full-time from home and my kids are always around me,” says Puri unapologetically. Once, her four-year-old son Nirvann walked in with soiled hands while she was on a call with her boss. “Wash your hands,” ordered Puri, to which her boss curtly replied that his hands were already clean.

On the job, at home Puri isn’t willing to change any of this, not for the world. She refused to give up on the grind after she became a mother. “I am nothing without my kids, but I am also nothing without my work.” Today, she is responsible for everything, right from the fragrance that will greet her customers at Mom & Me, Mahindra’s chain of stores that sell baby products, to training child birth educators, and she does it all from a tiny cubicle she has built for herself at home. Working from home, however, does not make it easier, claims Puri. Her routine can leave a 9 to 5 professional panting. Apart from being at the beck and call of two children and stressful deadlines, there are constant interruptions to pay bills, change diapers and handle homework. Plus she is required to travel to another city at least once a month.

The first time she flew to Bangalore for a meeting she felt very guilty about leaving her kids alone, despite her husband staying back to take care of the kids. In fact, she cried all the way in her flight.

Thankfully, her children are growing up, and they now understand when mom is busy and leave her alone.

“I keep telling myself it can’t get worse than this. It will only get better.” These days Puri is busy with a new project — she regulary writes about her daily struggle on her blog she aptly calls, ‘The diary of a burnt out supermom’.

Working with a baby Rama Bishnoi, an advertising consultant, can identify with Puri. Bishnoi has been a stay-at-home professional for the last 15 years. She quit her 9 to 5 job for a simple reason — she enjoyed her son’s company way too much. “It wasn’t a tough choice. I couldn’t rely on nannies. I loved my work and I loved my son. I decided to give both my time,” says Bishnoi.

She took Sooraj everywhere — to client meetings, presentations and advertising pitches. Often Sooraj would be snoozing in her kangaroo pack while she was busy finalising a business deal. Her career never took a back seat and yet she was always around for her son.

Last month, Bishnoi took a trip with her son to Trivandrum to watch the solar eclipse. She still goes cycling with him every once in a while, and bird watching trails is a regular event on weekends. “I can do it only because I don’t have a job that ties me down. When I started consulting from home, it was a rare thing. But these days, with video conferences and everything done over the email, it is a lot easier.” No wonder mothers believe they can find that much sought-after work-life balance.changing work culture

Indeed “balance” is the new buzzword for newly-turned mothers. They don’t necessarily want to be on the “mommy track”. They are ambitious and want promotions and meaningful careers. But they don’t want to deal with the guilt of leaving their children alone either. The good news is that some companies are changing to keep them around.

In The Regus Business Tracker survey, 64 per cent of Indian business leaders said they will recruit more mothers on a flexible-time basis over the next 24 months. The finding indicates that Indian work culture is, overall, keen to help employees achieve a balance between work and family responsibilities.

Mothers have another reason to cheer as well. The last two years have seen the birth of three internet portals that seek to help women find employers who offer work that can be done either from home or on a flexible schedule.

“Gone are the days when productivity meant your workforce coming in the morning and sitting at their desks all day long. Plenty of well-qualified mothers will give you the same quality by working from home or on a flexible schedule. These are intelligent women who have taken a break to take care of their children. It does not mean they are incapable,” says Sairee Chahal, co-founder of Fleximoms, an online portal that connects women with employers who are looking to hire on a flexi-time basis. Soon enough, Chahal realised that simply setting up a portal wasn’t enough. “The unfortunate part is that after a five to six-year-long break, many of these women don’t have the confidence to get back to the professional sphere. There were women who called up Fleximoms to find out if resumes are written differently now, or if they should take a computer course to brush up on their skills,” says Chahal.

Making a comeback A flexible work schedule has been top of the working woman’s wish list the world over. Now it is finally becoming an option in India and women are making most of it. Take Sangeeta Navalkar’s example for instance.

Navalkar, an MBA, continued to work as a full-time marketing executive with a media company after she had her first son, Akash. She soon realised what she was missing out on. “I heard the mother of Akash’s classmate talking about how yoga at school was helping her child. And it struck me that I wasn’t even aware my son was doing yoga in school. I was stunned when I discovered that the classes had been going on for over a month.” When she asked Akash, then four, he innocently replied, “But you are just not there when I come home. And by the time you come back, I forget.” When Navalkar got pregnant with her second child, Amar, she decided to quit her job and do it right this time.

After taking a six-year-long break, and raising her two children, she decided it was time to get back to work. “The world had changed by then and I wasn’t confident of my skills,” she says.

That is when Navalkar applied for the Tata Second Careers Internship Programme, an initiative that trains women who have been out of the workforce for two years or more. The key requirement is that applicants are required to have at least four years of work experience and a graduation degree. The programme involves the women in a project with Tata Services, and also helps them hone their computer and presentation skills. “By the time they are done with the 6-month programme, they are confident enough to take on another job. In the first 15 days of advertising our initiative, we got over 5,000 applications. There are plenty of women who are waiting to come on board. They just need an opportunity,” says Hitesh Chugh, sourcing manager for Tata group HR.

Navalkar currently works on a flexible arrangement with Tata Services, where she is allowed to work from home on certain days and can return early on most days.

Ashutosh Navalkar, her husband, says his wife has changed after she started working. “She is happier and more confident after getting back to work. My wife took take care of the family for six years. Now it’s her turn to go after her career.” Overall, things have become better after his wife started working, says Navalkar. He had to share the PTA meetings and open houses with her. As a result, he got to know his sons better. “I consciously spend more time with my children. My younger son loves astronomy, so we take our telescope and organise a BNO (Boys Night Out) without the mom. It has helped us bond.”

Companies bat for moms Companies, too, are slowly realising the need to make work schedules flexible for their women professionals. Apart from Tata Services, big players like Godrej, Accenture, and Pepsico have also introduced flexible working programmes. GE introduced a programme called Restart, in 2008, which was implemented at their technology centre in Bangalore. It was aimed at attracting women technologists who had taken a break from their career for personal reasons.

Accenture India, went a step further. Their Maternity Returners Program helped ease new parents back into the workforce by providing career guidance, so that they could tap into ideal re-entry roles. Along with flexible timing for women, it has also tied up with creches to make life easier for the mothers.

“These programmes help us retain our employees for longer periods of time, and also increase productivity. It makes sense to bring back good performers who understand the company and have worked with us. The flexible work arrangement is not just applicable to mothers but also women who take a break to study, take care of elders or any other personal reasons,” says Prithvi Shergill, head, human resources, Accenture India.

Still a long way to go Chahal, however believes that it is too soon to celebrate. “Unlike in the West, organisations in India do not have creches for women within the office space. The concept of flexible work schedules is only beginning to catch on. It is still very difficult for women to stick to their jobs after pregnancy. It also means a pay cut — the women on flexible schedules don’t get paid as much as other employees do,” she says.

More than 90 per cent of companies in Germany and Sweden have women working on flexible timing. Rajesh AR, vice-president, TeamLease Services, a staffing company that provides human resource solutions, believes that we still have a long way to go. “Companies often set up these initiatives to earn goodwill. Women who are on flexible timing arrangement are not put on important projects. Larger projects need dedication and longer working hours,” he says.

But most women aren’t complaining. The only grouse is that while juggling work, family and children, their social life takes a backseat. “My friends are cross with me. I don’t meet them for months.” says Puri. “I tell them to hang on. I’ll probably catch up with them when I’m 60 and then we’ll all play bridge together.”

This was originally published in DNA