India is ranked 123rd in the female-male ratio with one of the lowest female labour force participation in the world (World Economic Forum – Gender Gap Report). India has also one of the highest rates of women quitting the workplace because of work-life related issues. World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index (2011) reports that 48% of Indian women abort their careers mid-way which is almost 20% more than the global average. Many of these women (almost 18 lakh in number) desire to make career comebacks once their responsibilities of child/elder or household care have been well attended to. Besides, the 2.8 crores Indian women who are currently working, also face multiple challenges while trying to remain employed, productive and contribute economically to our country.
Every single one of these18 lakh women on a break and the 2.8crores of working women has a reason to thank Dr. Saundarya Rajesh. But for her unstinting efforts, women’s careers and workforce participation would still be languishing as a nice-to-have, but not a critically important imperative in the priorities of talent managers of India.
In 2005, when Saundarya first embarked upon the idea of creating a community of women who had taken breaks in career, little did she know that it would be a game-changer for women’s careers in India. Her first brush with corporates who summarily rejected the CV’s of women on career breaks, taught her that the problem had to be approached differently. Saundarya did exactly that – she turned the challenge on its head and convinced corporates that women who had taken breaks were more likely to stay on the career track longer and were also a source of highly skilled personnel.
The idea worked. Corporates that were hungry for good talent, decided to try out Saundarya’s suggestion – engaging “Returning” women professionals. The very first recorded instance of a ‘second career’ program in Indian industry, took place in July 2006, under the stewardship of Saundarya. Over 400 women re-entered the workplace for the first time.
Realising that corporates needed a sustainable strategy to engage not just returning women professionals but all women in their workplace, Saundarya began coaching and counselling organizations to develop a Gender Inclusion plan. Using research and analytics, she proved the rupee-value that organizations would accrue if they invested in women’s careers.
Not stopping with merely pitching this talent pool to companies, Saundarya went one step further and ensured that the women who got in touch with her also benefited out of the interaction. Creating an online platform called www.avtariwin.com in 2005, Saundarya developed a simple profiling method which helped the women assess their own employability and also their readiness to re-enter the workplace. She devised a Career-Enabler system that women could easily implement in their own homes and work-places that would prevent them from aborting their careers.
Saundarya travels extensively speaking in various conferences and forums on the benefits and importance of engaging with women on career breaks. She has conceptualized and designed several programs and training interventions to bring women back into the workplace. One such program is SEGUE Sessions, India’s largest networking and career creation program for women returnees in India. More than 11 SEGUE Sessions events have so far been conducted in cities such as Chennai, Mumbai, Bangalore, Gurgaon, Hyderabad, Pune and Jaipur, benefiting over 10,000 women. Turning the attention of every corporate recruiter to this pool of immense talent was achieved by Saundarya through the medium of SEGUE Sessions.
Today, thousands of women have benefited out of the free counselling, career strategy creation and mentoring that Saundarya and her team give women everyday. The AVTAR I-WIN network has grown to about 40,000 women professionals and is today a destination not only for women professionals who take breaks and then decide to re-create their careers, but also for organizations that want to leverage this gender inclusive talent strategy.
The benefit accrued for India, as a country, via this effort, is significant. More than 8000 women have re-entered the workforce thanks to the untiring efforts of Saundarya and her team. These ‘second career women’ have contributed an estimated Rs. 250 crores by way of economic participation. Several hundred organizations have filled critical roles with women – second career women. Many organizations such as Hindustan Unilever, Axis Bank, Godrej, Goldman Sachs, Axis Bank, Fidelity, HCL, Godrej, Philips and Microsoft have started their exclusive second career programs to welcome back women into the workplace.
The Indian Woman’s contribution to the national GDP is at 17 per cent, much lower than the global average of 37 per cent, and the lowest among all 10 regions in the world. If India's women’s workforce participation rate can be increased to 41 per cent by 2025, add an estimated Rs 46 lakh crore ($700 billion) to India's GDP. One of the key requisites for this is to create an environment that respects and understands women and actively engages and encourages them to pursue their careers. This is the focus that Saundarya aims to create.
A woman entrepreneur with a vision, Saundarya believes that women’s careers will be one of the foremost success factors contributing towards India’s development in the coming years. Her work has ensured that corporates, educational institutions, families and the women themselves are educated about the unique nature of women’s careers and the steps to be taken to engage women professionals, in order to deliver all-round benefit.
For relentlessly championing the cause of career re-entry opportunities for women who have taken breaks after marriage, childbirth or relocation, and for her indefatigable focus on women’s workforce participation, Dr. Saundarya Rajesh was selected for the #100 Women Achiever’s initiative by Government of India (Ministry of Women and Child Development) and met the Hon. President of India and the Minister for W&CD at Delhi in January 2016.