Excerpts from the book Conversations with the Career Doctor, by Saundarya Rajesh, Founder – President, Avtar Group.

We are on the fifth and topmost floor of the Ramada Raj Park, a humble hotel on TTK Road, one of the oldest localities in Chennai. … It’s a large vacant hall and we have separated it into two parts: a row of interview booths and an area cordoned off for group discussions. … The process is to start at 9.30 a.m. The year is 2006 and it is the humid month of July. ‘We’ are Team Avtar and something historic was about to happen.

Avtar was started in December 2000 as a talent strategy consulting firm with the primary goal of providing India Inc. with exceptional female talent. After five years of intense effort, we had managed a breakthrough. A large multinational bank was ready to experiment with hiring second-career women for the very first time. …

It is 9.30 a.m. and we don’t have a single candidate as yet. … We are getting desperate. … At that moment, the intercom buzzes. I pick it up, my hands clammy. It is from the front desk. ‘Madam, how can we send all these women up in one lift?’ she demands. All of us run to the window. …

A glorious sight awaited us. The road was filled with women — at least 500 of them, standing in a serpentine queue, quietly and intently, but impatient to board the elevator to a second career! … The team from the bank met over 200 women for the final and ended up hiring over 148 of them. … And that was the official launch of India’s first-ever career re-entry programme!

But this chapter is not about that. It is about an amazing conversation that I had with Hema, an MCom graduate and mother of two who taught neighbourhood children how to play the veena. … After brilliant results in her school final, Hema wanted to become a banker. … But her parents had other plans. They found a suitable match for her and convinced her to get married. Life took over. The next two decades sped by. …

When I asked her why she had applied, she replied (in Tamil): ‘Desabhakti, ma’am, patriotism! My family has a sufficient income, so it is not money that makes me want to work. I want to contribute to my nation’s development. I want to build my country!’ … I was thrilled. This was such an incredible reason why Indian women must pursue careers. … More women in the workforce pushes the entire country towards social and economic empowerment. … So, the next time you doubt your decision to pursue a career, remind yourself that you are not being selfish — you are being patriotic!

But if women’s participation in the workforce is a win-win for everyone, why is India still grappling with abysmal women’s workforce participation numbers? … We, as a society, still believe that childcare is the primary responsibility of mothers. … Women are reinforcers of these gender norms too. … And what becomes of these women who pause their careers in their prime years? Childcare and housework consume them. … After an extended break, when they long to get back to work, they find themselves grappling with skill gaps and feelings of isolation and self-doubt. …

But trust me, a starkly different path is possible for second-career women and Avtar’s work in the field of women’s workforce participation clearly proves this point. Avtar has worked with over 500 organizations to help them achieve gender diversity and assist them in fostering a supportive environment for women. … Through myavtar.com, India’s first diversity portal, Avtar has enabled over 1,00,000 women to pursue fulfilling careers. …

While we are incredibly happy with what we have achieved to date, we know that we are still far from our goal. … Until every woman out there is able to dream without bounds and pursue those professional dreams fearlessly and unapologetically, Avtar’s work will continue. And when a woman asks me how she can keep the passion for her career and profession alive, I simply reply, ‘Desabhakti!

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India’

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About the book
Title: Conversations with the Career Doctor: Women Thriving and Winning at Work
Author: Saundarya Rajesh
Publisher: Penguin Business
Price: ₹235