Sheryl Sandberg famously said “Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder”. In essence she was saying one’s career is a journey and can grow linearly, laterally or take off on a tangent too! Today we have more women engaged in the workforce than ever before. While workplace gender diversity may not be where we would like it to, it is improving. Part of this is attributable to the scores of women who are actively choosing to return to careers or forge new ones after taking a sabbatical. However, returning to the workplace poses numerous challenges to women. Her Second Innings (HSI), co-founded by Manjula Dharmalingam, is a platform dedicated to helping women return from a break and do so with confidence!
Manjula co-founded HSI after spending close to 16 years in various roles in IT and the bulk of it at IBM. Though each role she took on was new and had its own challenges, Manjula found it gets easier as one becomes more familiar with nuances and adapts by utilising the skills gained. Manjula loves challenging herself with new roles and eventually she decided she needed to explore something outside of the corporate world.
Around this time, she was in Mumbai and became aware of the challenges a number of her women friends and acquaintances were facing in getting back to their careers after a short sabbatical. She says,
The more surprising aspect was that these women had proactive connections and came from a connected city like Mumbai; networking in Mumbai is easier than in tier 2 cities.”
So when she decided to start HSI in 2014 she did so with some of these women. Bhavya Ram, Director, HSI who joined in 2016, herself took a conscious decision to return to work after taking a break to be with her children. Her decision was driven by the fact that continuing careers and maintaining financial independence are as important for women today as being a good mother and wife.
Thus, having set up Her Second Innings in 2014, Manjula and her team spent 2015 reaching out to clients and creating awareness about the platform. But 2016 is when the portal really took off and all the hard work and efforts came to fruition. Now, HSI is in a recognisable position and companies approach them to put up their job and role requirements and hire women for these position via the portal. For example, Cisco who is pro-women’s empowerment and launched their Talent Cloud recently, wants to hire more women via HSI. Similarly, another client is looking to expand their business from Bangalore to Mumbai and wants to do so through HSI.
The platform is free for women looking for jobs. They can upload their CVs, take assessment tests to check their job readiness, seek mentoring and career guidance and participate in discussion forums and webinars like the recent one they hosted – 5 Mantras For Returning Women Professionals To Stay Relevant – which seek to empower women in making decisions. Click on the link to listen to the webinar:
So what are the challenges women face in getting back to work? Manjula’s top three include low confidence, a mismatch in salary expectation vis-a-vis market realities and building relationships. While the first is expected and attributable to the fact that women have been on a break, the second is common to women in urban areas looking to maintain a certain lifestyle. Manjula believes the focus should instead be on the relevant skills and experience that they bring to the job as well as the current market situation and trends.
Building and maintaining relationships however should be proactive and is crucial to women’s professional growth. Keeping open channels of communication and a little give and take is important in relationships, as she has experienced herself. Manjula regularly engages her husband, sons and extended family in communicating her goals and expectations to win their support.
So how does Her Second Innings help returning women professionals? They follow a three pronged method which involves:
- Helping women self-assess their job readiness and showcase their best skill sets on the portal for potential clients
- E-coaching and mentoring as well as
- Knowledge sharing on common pain points women face in coming back to work.
Additionally, while women are on a break, HSI helps them get involved in internship programs and assignments with corporate clients looking to hire women for internships in real-time projects via the portal. This, Manjula believes benefits both sides –
Corporates can fulfil role requirements and women can continue to hone their skills and stay abreast of current trends while working at their convenience. This also showcases women’s commitment and lifts their confidence in returning to the work force.”
Thus women get to stay up to date with industry requirements, constantly upgrade their skills, and stay connected with peers and networks. They also ‘break the breaks’ in their CV and ensure that there are no unemployed gaps.
Why Should Women Choose Entrepreneurship?
So here is the tangent we were talking about! Manjula encourages women to be entrepreneurs instead of settling for jobs with lower incomes or job satisfaction, especially if their financial background is stable and secure. HSI helps connect women who are looking to start something new or branch off into a new career. While this is still in a fledgling state, Manjula is quick to iterate that the scope is huge.
If going it alone seems intimidating, women can always join forces with like-minded people. Platforms like HSI provide the synergies by connecting women looking to start something similar or looking for a co-founder.
Her own life is pretty anecdotal in this aspect. When Manjula decided to start HSI she did so with friends who had similar ideas and aspirations. While she had her share of naysayers, questioning the ability of a career IT woman to start a social enterprise, she believed in herself and her family backed her decision wholeheartedly. Being an entrepreneur means unpredictable hours and work and puts pressure on immediate family as well. She is quick to acknowledge the importance of her family’s support in her own entrepreneurial journey thus far and hence encourages women to be open in their communications and relationships with family members.
Towards the end of our enlightening conversation Manjula shares her guiding principles which include that every woman must make her own choices and decisions and stick by them. This garners more respect from family and friends as well. She is also a huge advocate of the old ‘hard work’ adage rather than the newer ‘smart work’ in achieving career milestones.
This Women’s Day, let each of us women decide on the next course of our careers. Let us not hold back but engage with those who can help us along the journey, because as Manjula also emphasises, we are not alone. If we do not stand up, take risks and make the journey, how can gender diversity improve? The onus is on us, now more than ever!