women entrepreneurs

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.

Sairee Chahal- A sea of opportunity for women

About 75-80 percent of women who take a break from work are because of children or childbirth. This is a global phenomenon. At Fleximoms we help women get back to work and go about their job in a flexible manner. Fleximoms evangelizes work flexibility. The primary thinking is work and life needs to come together for women.

After returning from Russia in 2006 I teamed up with Anita Vasudeva to set up SAITA Consulting, a firm which deals with small and medium industries. SAITA as a consultant would help the enterprise in the internal matters of the company so that dealing with customers and clients was the sole focus of the company.

When we were running a consulting business we ended up hiring a lot of women. It was not by design but it so happened. However, the amount of women who wanted to join us far exceeded the numbers we could employ and this got us thinking.
On the other side every client that I worked with had a people issue.

There was no denying the fact that there was a lot of pain around hiring and retention. I soon realized that there is disconnect between what women want and the corporate format that main stream industries have when it came to work.
By 2009 I started toying around with the idea of Fleximoms. I set up the basic website and decided to start work on it. The hunch was correct and there were a lot of women who wanted that career support and a work life that fits them and not a prescribed fit.

Fleximoms provide career destination to women and evangelize work flex, which is not limited to the regular nine-to-five. Such jobs are difficult for someone with multiple primary responsibilities. Multiple primary responsibilities can be for example someone having a job and also studies. Another can be a mother and have a job. When you give your commitment then doing this becomes acute for the people who are parents or care givers because you can never go to a job and you can never say you will not take care the responsibility that comes with parenting.
We are social enterprise meets internet start up. What Fleximoms is doing and will do in the coming years will impact social structures, women at work and work flexibility.
But the way we operate is like an internet startup and we are very sure that we are not building a Facebook but Fleximoms.

Mental Impression
Women should not fall off the professional map by virtue of the fact that the world outside is not really catering to them.
We are not conscious about their needs but they still need to stay within the professional circle, they still need to be financially independent. They need access to the world of opportunities and that is what we want to provide. We provide various options of work whether you are a care giver or have other needs.
Between 2009 and 2011 the concept ran as a part of SAITA Consulting, after which it was decided to hive it into a different unit.

Fleximoms as an independent entity is a flexible employment model for women with skills and expertise seeking professional challenges and place them in organizations who understand the value of an experienced and qualified work force.

Not merely limiting it to help find a job, we also launched a programme called the ‘Second Chance’, which was a back to work programme for women who had been away from the job scene for a significant time.
We also launched various programmes like career guidance, interview preparation, resume guidance, work place coaching amongst others. These programmes were based on the aspirations and the present position of a candidate. No two people have the exact same solution that work for them. Work life choices for women are very heterogeneous and the importance for Fleximoms was to be the source they could come to when they were looking for jobs.

During education women and men are at par, with most women often being toppers of the classes. Then they get married and have kids and with household responsibilities they gradually fall off the career map. That is how workplaces change and as you go senior in workplaces, the number of women gets fewer when compared to men. Women are hugely under numbered at CEO positions, boards, etc.

We have reached to the women around the country, reached out to the corporate, started talking to women about flexible work. We had to put a lot of policies and process that majority of the companies use today. It was all done in one step at a time and now we are building on what we did – adding more women, companies and processes. It is just a big stone which we are continuously carving and fine tuning.

Feminine Power
Women make great managers, they have more integrity, they stay longer with the projects and they give their best shots to every task they do. And companies do prefer women as franchisees as many of them want to build their businesses on the back of women networks.

We do not employ women directly but still we have provided opportunities to 5000 to 6000 women and when we say opportunities, it is just not giving a job. It could be starting up, franchisees or becoming a part of an affiliated network. It is basically finding work that fixes their life and that is how we define a job.

On Franchising
Franchising is a very interesting format to build a business because for a company which does not have the bandwidth to start from a scratch. It is a great model but a lot of franchising is taken for granted, a lot of misuse of franchising happens at various levels and this remains an issue in industry. However, it offers exciting opportunities to many people and moreover, it is a huge push for women to utilize the resources they already have like space and time. They can fantastically build business around that.
Curves, a healthcare community came into India using Fleximoms. Another company, Vocaboom which is an after school program for vocabulary building for kids and it has been hiring and building their franchise network through Fleximoms.

With our support, other companies can use Fleximoms to reach out to women and set up their franchise model. If you want to open a preschool, salon, learning school then you can use Fleximoms to build your network.
Our challenge is to keep adding value to the needs and aspirations of women and that is a tricky place to be. Everybody is welcome to try Fleximoms and we even have men signing up to pick up jobs.
The platform is open to everyone and we are gender agnostic.

This was originally published in Franchise Mart .

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

Work and the Joy of Creation

Work and the Joy of Creation

“It’s all about the work you are willing to do,” said poet and award-winning Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander, at President Obama’s swearing in ceremony in 2009, reading from her poem ‘The Praise Song for the Day’ which highlights the virtue of work. In the context of women and work, nothing could be truer. By definition, work is not only “anything, which is produced as the result of labor” but among other things is as much an “act, deed, service, effect, result, achievement and feat.” There are clearly, two aspects to this definition: work as productivity and work as defining an individual or being an achievement.

Work as productivity

Productivity is linked to remuneration. Overall, there is enough research to prove that work-for pay has been a male domain. Thus it is clear that whether by design or by default traditionally women have been distanced from the ‘world of work’, especially of a remunerative nature.

Yet, it is said a woman’s work is never done. But is it ever valued? Why has the unpaid work done by women at home come to be undermined / ignored? The answer goes back to the advent of modern day commerce which moved the means of production into hands of men. This was a major factor in alienating women from the workforce. Did you know that women form 2/3 of the world’s workforce but occupy only 1 per cent of the assets? In this process, women have become the temp staff (workers with little stake, ownership or rewards) in the global economic engine!

How can this change? Women need to build and display greater ownership of the world of work and perhaps rediscover that work is more than just a means of earning an income. The ownership of the world of work will come through owning accountability, responsibility, as well as the risks and rewards that come with it. I know quite a few mothers who only want to ‘marry daughters up’. It is almost like having very little faith in the ability and ambition of our daughters to think for themselves, to dream and achieve big. Why won’t we tell our children and especially our daughters that they can wish for anything they want, a large wedding, a business, a Tiffany’s stone as long as they work towards those goals? Recent research by Dr Catherine Hakim has thrown up uncomfortable questions about the choices and preferences women make: she says there is proof that women choose to undervalue themselves despite equal opportunities…

Work as a yardstick of self-worth

Which brings us to the second critical aspect of work: as a means of defining self-worth. “Work is an expression of who you are. So who you are is what needs to be worked out,” says spiritual mentor Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev. Work can therefore imply or be:

A sense of purpose: Work has the ability to put purpose into our lives. Thus, for instance, empty-nester moms can find a new raison d’être in work, and housewives can find fulfillment in using and honing their inherent skills.

Ideation: The human brain has the potential to create, envision, and share. Ideation is the biggest joy of work.

Contribution: Work makes us contribute to a larger whole and brings in parts of millions of contributions to us. Not being part of this circle of creation is a sore loss.

Circle of Support: Work creates a circle of support, a network of peers, a range of experts to learn from and an eco-system of interdependence – one that is hugely social in nature and essential to individual development.

Wealth Creation: Work provides that essential access to a system of wealth creation. Wealth is also the single largest factor in determining the access to resources and level of development.

A Change Agent: Work allows each one of us to be our own change agent – to change what we don’t like, build on what we do etc in a continued effort to better the best in us.

A Tool for Sustainability: Global economic development needs women to display greater participation in global socio-economic affairs. One of the objectives of the global sustainability movement is equitable distribution of access and resources and bringing more women into leadership positions across the spectrum.

Enterprise: Entrepreneurship is empowering. Being able to choose a dream, create it, mould it, execute it, risk it is the ultimate path to embracing fearlessness. Not having enough women making this choice not only leaves us as a poorer society in terms of output but also leaves women poorer for not having experienced one of the most significant life changers – the joy of enterprise.

Let us give ourselves the power to create, lead, make, sculpt, change, build, acquire, dispose, envision and grow. There are seeds to be sown, ideas to be propagated, rewards to be harvested and future generations to mentor. Let us get to work!

The original article was featured as an Opinion piece on Accenture’s website here

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.

A Vision For Women Entrepreneurs

While women entrepreneurs are increasingly visible in India, following the Silicon Valley model of entrepreneurship may not work for all.

A lot of time and effort has been spent figuring out the cauldron of entrepreneurship and women. The stats are all too familiar. Less than 5 percent of capital goes to women led companies. One in 40 is the kind of ratio seen at industry forums and start-up events. There are very few scaled up, women owned businesses in the ‘hot sectors’ like mobile and internet.

Look around at the world of accelerators, incubators, angels, VCs – in India, outside India, barring less than a dozen, the landscape models the stereotype. A one size that does not fit all.

At the same time, we all know that more women are taking independent business calls, more and more are setting up and more and more want to scale up. SMBs and certain categories, like publishing, digital, food, education, social have more women owned businesses than ever before.

Some trends are distinctly global and some very Indian. But the overall fact remains that some pieces are missing in how the world of entrepreneurship and women aligns.

Here is a look at a few.

Women, entrepreneurship & semantics

Perhaps because they are wired differently, men and women tend to use a different lexicon to denote their entrepreneurial roles. Think a woman invented the term Hackathon or heard one say that she is building a ‘Kick Ass’ product (though she might be)?

Talk to an average woman on the street and she will tell you she is ‘setting up a business’ or that she wants to ‘start something of her own’. Talk to a young man and he will tell you he is ‘doing a startup’.

Go further a step, he will also tell you that he plans to raise VC funds and build a technology business, whereas a woman may not use the same lexicon even if she is planning to do the same thing. You have a chance to hear the story elements of her venture first – inspiration, aspiration, perspiration. By which time, if the listener belongs to the boxed startup set, he/she has already made up his mind.

Women entrepreneurs: Measuring success

The reasons why women set up businesses also differ from why men set up.  Take over the world, world class product, segment leader, biggest player – the power play of success has gender roles. A majority of women out there are setting up because they have a solution to a problem or they want to find one, they are passionate about something, they have a skill or they are at a place, where an enterprise is a path to their dream.

That also sets the tone for how business and its growth is treated. Though all businesses will be measured on the same parameters of market success, what is internalised and highlighted by the entrepreneur is the DNA of the business.

What success looks like is also defined in variable terms and that is the unsaid truth for women entrepreneurs. One comes across really bright women entrepreneurs, who are not scaling their business beyond a point, because it upsets the cart. Other factors need to align – family roles, availability of a support system, personal health and more.

I met a lady recently, who owns one of the largest fine dining businesses in China and Hong Kong and has done exceptionally well. During my conversation with her, I asked her if she was planning to expand to India or Singapore. Her answer was a categorical no, because she has begun diverting her energy and time into setting up schools and reading programs for the under-served sections of the society and volunteering was high on her personal agenda.

The measure of success as propagated by the Silicon Valley,  male programmer in a hoodie stereotype is very different from what it may look like to many people, especially women.

Conditioning: When women don’t ask

I went to meet a big business guy/VC after a friend introduced us. We started talking about our respective businesses and during the course of the meeting, he stands up and asks me, “Why aren’t you pitching to me? Why didn’t you take out a deck and make a funding presentation?”

And here is what I thought. It is really hard for me to ask for money; that is not what I do and not without a context. That is part of my conditioning. If you grew up in middle class India in the 70s-80s – you were taught to live within your means (they call it bootstrapping now).

I actually said to myself, asking for money is harder than building the business and I won’t be surprised if there are many women who feel the same.

Startup ecosystem: Breeding sameness?

The existing entrepreneurial set ups are programmed to the VC templates: each business into 10x returns.

But there are many profitable businesses, which will provide good returns but never the windfall. Their capital needs are also different and so are their overall objectives. Bringing in different models of capital infusion with a focus on sustainable profit can change things around significantly.

I personally think start up eco-systems worldwide have failed to recognize and make way for differences and diversity. What is the joy in listening to the 100th pitch for another social network or a mobile app?

Every time I get an invite to a start up weekend that says, we are going to park ourself in the building for 48 or 72 hours, my first reaction is, don’t these people have someone back home waiting? Who is looking after things? A woman – a mom, a wife, a partner and that just explains how the eco-system stacks up.

The world of entrepreneurship need not be painted with the brush of sameness. The mistakes of corporate and industrial cultures need not be replicated here.

This is a chance to build from differences and grow from the point of divergence. Do you think it is helping anyone to have a pipeline of businesses which all look like each other?

The solution is in making way and occasionally changing the seats. Move over to the other side of the table to get a view. It might show you something you have never seen before.

Someone out there might have a solution to a pressing problem of the time. Let them in. Hear them out in whatever language they speak!

This was originally published in Women’s web

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