India

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.

TRUST IS THE NEW BUSINESS CURRENCY
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.

ABSOLUTISM NO MORE
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.

AGE OF CHOICE
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.

FORMATS AND FITS
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.

VIRTUAL MEETS REAL
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.

DON’T FORGET SBMs
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.

HAPPINESS, AN ADVANTAGE
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.

REDUCED SILOS, MORE SHARING
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

Can India Grow Without Its Women?

Can India Grow Without Its Women?

India: If you grew up in urban India in last three decades or so, chances are that the top achieving students in your class were women. Some of the men might have even passed because the women made all the notes and helped classmates. Most of these women would then go on to some great career opportunities or find interesting things to do. Revisit the same at a reunion few years hence and chances are the men are still managing to run up the ladder, while a significant number of women would have off-ramped.

Universality of marriages, child care, elderly care, spousal duties for traveling spouses, army wives, large traditional families, lesser access, fewer women friendly opportunities, a gender stereotypical society, falling confidence, lack of re-skilling opportunities, changing job market — the list of factors leading to the phenomenon is long.

When you do a little math, given that India produces the largest number of graduates in the world, is home to over a billion people, has a plethora of educational institutions and growing corporate classes and not to mention the over-arching environment that is not particularly great for women — it is easy to guess that something is majorly amiss. Work-life choices for women are rather heterogeneous and somewhere the homogeneity of career ladder and the weight of stereotypes make things tough. Almost 50 percent graduating class and less than 5 percent women CXOs, less than 15 percent women managers tell the tale.

Consider These Facts

113: India’s ranking on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index (out of 135 countries), measuring economic, health care, education and political issues.

24 percent: The percentage of women in India’s workforce –117 million out of 478 million people.

5 percent: The percentage of senior level female employees in India. The global average is about 20 percent.

48 percent: The percentage of women who drop out of the workforce before they reach the middle of their careers. The Asia regional average is 29 percent.

62 percent: The percentage of a male counterpart’s salary that a woman earns in India. In the United States, it’s about 80 percent.

Source – CSIS

How can an aspiring economy be built by letting talent lie latent? Would you run a factory by leaving out your finest hands on deck out?

Women: Women globally shoulder the care-giving economy but in India the weight is doubled — gender stereotypes and patriarchal super-structures make the situation even more complex. There is an inherent distance between women and the world of work — especially, one with a fiduciary nature. In India, there are almost 300 million women who are working moms, housewife moms, housewives and working wives. About 100 million live in urban India. Growth in education, media influence and consumer focus has created an opportunity for women to pursue their ambitions and make active choices.

Organizing Work: The way work is organized for contemporary societies is a reflection of post industrial age but for centuries prior work was either an individual pursuit or organized in guilds. Modularity and integration are two significant aspects of worked, which got overlooked in the industrial age expansion. The industrial age also passed on the means of production and access to financial resources in hands of men worldwide.

One can look at this phenomenon through various lenses — a feminist’s perspective, a job seekers dilemma, a corporate productivity and talent management issue – the fact remains there is a challenge and an equal opportunity to serve the women workforce in urban India. The case for women at work has been illustrated before. What is required is to address the how to and curate the customer experience? That is exactly what Fleximoms set out to do when it rolled out commercial services in 2011. These included coaching services, corporate services for Workflex and a community to connect women making work-life choices.

Fleximoms is a Workflex readiness specialist – which in simple words means being able to use alternate formats to stay connected to work and workforce – for women professionals and corporates. Fleximoms works with women and businesses and helps them connect to opportunities, community, information, network and coaching.

As a team we stand by the credo: “Who we are and what choices we make is going to decide the life we have.” And we want that to be a conscious choice, and one each one of us is ready for. Fleximoms hopes to be that partner when one is making those choices.

The original article was featured as a blog/opinion piece in Huffington Post

Social Business Goes Global

They are small, smart and socially responsible. They are dynamic, growing and profitable too. Most importantly, they are becoming a critical link between developing economies as they increase business links with each other.

These are social entrepreneurs who are now growing rapidly across Asia and Africa. Supported by private and government initiatives, social entrepreneurs are now sharing ideas and business plans with each other to create sustainable and ethical international enterprises. The models by the entrepreneurs are market savvy but also replicable in developing countries.

Indian social entrepreneurs have found an encouraging platform in an initiative supported by the Public Diplomacy Division of the Ministry of External Affairs. As part of “IndiAfrica: A Shared Future” outreach programme run by theIdeaWorks, social entrepreneurs from India are going to different countries in Africa and  sharing business ideas with regional entrepreneurs.

Some of the Indian entreprenuers who are taking their models to Africa include Harminder Sahni, CEO of Wazir Advisors who runs a village factory in Mewat region in Northwest India. In this model, village women are trained to produce garments in a rudimentary facility within the village. The work is structured in a such a way that it creates additional income for them without interfering with their family life. Garment companies get quality products at half the cost.

Another such entrepreneur, Ankit Mathur, is co-founder and COO of Greenway Grameen Infra who has developed an affordable cooking stove for use in villages. He already sells about 1,000 units a month in India for Rs 1,200 and is now working on opportunities in Africa. Ankit won the Businessworld Young Entrepreneur Award, 2011. Similarly, Sairee Chahal co-founder of Fleximoms is helping young mothers in India find jobs that allow them to work from home. As African countries urbanise and the society changes, her model will find a lot of traction. Sairee says that the need to be financially independent  is the same for young mothers across continents.

Many African social entrepreneurs I met are developing opportunities and partnerships in India.

The most celebrated of these is Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, Founder and CEO of soleRebels, a young footwear company based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Bethlehem is walking the talk on being socially responsible and is a business success. She received the Social Entrepreneur of The Year Award at the 2012 World Economic Forum on Africa from The Schwab Foundation. SoleRebels maintains and monitors fair trade standards while manufacturing ecologically safe footwear that is now being sold online across the world.

Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu is a leading Nigerian social entrepreneur and rural natural resources management expert, an Ashoka Fellow, and Rolex Young Laureate 2010. He is committed to promoting sustainable agricultural and environmental management.

Lagos-based Ayodeji Megbope, is the CEO of No Left Overs  a full scale women based catering service. She started with a takeoff capital of N1,000 (GBP 4, USD 6), but now generates employment for hundreds of women. And then there is Niyi Oguntoyinbo who has organised the taxi service in Lagos by launching Metro Taxi. It is a radio taxi service that trains employed youth to become skilled drivers.

Entrepreneurs like these don’t feel limited by the scope of growth in their own countries. They want to learn and share with the best minds from other developing countries. As linkages between African and Indian social entrepreneurs strengthen, they will form the benchmark for more such partnerships.

These will be the foundation for creating the next generation of socially responsible global corporate giants.

This was published in Business World