Helping women manage different avatars

N Ramakrishnan | Updated on June 30, 2014

SAUNDARYA RAJESH, Founder - President, Avtar Career Creators


Avtar Career Creators guides companies in hiring strategies

Saundarya Rajesh credits her growing up in a joint family for some lessons it taught her and which are helping her now as an entrepreneur.

She attributes trips she made to the US and the UK on fellowships for giving her valuable insights into a working woman’s life which helped her tweak her business.

“Those of us who have grown up in a joint family know what it adds to you. It teaches you hierarchy. It teaches you the ability to manage upwards and downwards,” she says, sitting in her comfortable office in a quiet residential neighbourhood off Chennai’s East Coast Road. These lessons are invaluable in running a venture that started off as a career consulting firm and now has branched out into helping women manage flexible careers and organisations in diversity and inclusion.

Change in hiring strategies

The overseas trips opened her eyes to “think and look for opportunities where none exist.” These trips enabled her to tweak her venture from one of hiring consulting to looking at flexible careers for women and at inclusive hiring strategies for organisations.

A gold medallist in English literature from Madras University, Saundarya wanted to do a Master’s in comparative literature. She was, however, persuaded by her father, a first-generation entrepreneur himself, to pursue an MBA, which she did at the Pondicherry School of Management.

It was during her MBA programme that she met her future husband – a batch-mate. Both of them were recruited on campus by Citibank.

Saundarya quit her job after she had her first child, a boy. A few years later a second child, a daughter, followed.

She recalls that she would constantly tell her husband and in-laws that she wanted to do something and that she did not want to be idle at home.

After a break, Saundarya joined the management faculty at MOP Vaishnav College for Women in Chennai. She realised that nothing much had changed since the time she quit her corporate job to the time she took up teaching – girls were still not sure of what they wanted to do after completing studies although opportunities for them had increased tremendously.

They were still worried about the disadvantages they faced and how to manage those, rather than trying to build life around their strengths. She would constantly vent her feelings to husband and it was he who suggested that she do something about it rather than merely talk about the problems.

Thus was born Avtar Career Creators, a talent strategy consulting firm, in 2000, of which she is the Founder-President. The idea was to help companies identify the target group they need as employees.

Business model

Avtar got its money from the actual recruitment itself, but carried out a number of activities before the recruitment to help these firms identify the pool of talent they would like to focus on.

She recalls an instance when Chennai Container Terminal Ltd wanted operators for its quay cranes. It had advertised for male engineers. Short of giving the physical dimension for the applicants, the company had detailed specifications. Avtar told the company that it could look at female candidates too since the job required operating a crane that did not require much physical effort. Avtar convinced Chennai Container Terminal that it would identify appropriate female candidates, brief them and send them over for interviews.

Similarly, it told another client – multinational bank HSBC – that it could look at hiring persons with mobility problems if the job involved working in a branch. Avtar’s focus was on helping its clients look at people from non-traditional backgrounds.

This helped set apart Avtar as a firm that looked at viable, long-term inclusive solutions rather than do, what Saundarya describes, the post office task of merely forwarding applications. “That helped us carve a niche for ourselves,” she adds.

The turning point came in 2005, by which time Avtar, Saundarya says, had established itself in the recruiting consulting space as an organisation that provided inclusive talent strategy solutions. She was selected for two overseas fellowships – a Chevening scholarship to the UK on women and leadership, and an international visitors’ leadership programme to the US. These two programmes convinced her that she should look at non-conventional and flexible career options for women in India, giving birth to Avtar I-WIN (Interim Women Manager’s Interface Network).

I-WIN enables women look for sustainable careers of their choice rather than be constrained by circumstances. The first project it did was for Scope International, which wanted to hire only second-career women to fill about 450 vacancies. “We were able to find 450 women. It was a truly amazing experience,” says Saundarya, who has undergone training in diversity and inclusion at Cornell University.

Next step

The next logical step for her was to get into diversity and inclusion consulting, which includes working with organisations to map out gender diversity plans. Apart from Avtar Career Creators and I-WIN, there is Flexi Careers India, which focuses on flexible careers for women who have taken a break from work.

“There were many organisations where we realised the whole environment needs to be sensitised,” says Saundarya, who has so far shunned any outside funding to grow her venture, even as she wants to expand beyond the South. Venture capital firms, she says, come in with an exit plan in mind.

“We went through several rounds of discussions over the last couple of years. I still haven’t found a VC who shares the same concept of this is the way the project has to run.

“That is every entrepreneur’s challenge, where you don’t want to compromise on the freedom of how the idea can be conceived and rolled out,” says the 46-year-old Saundarya.

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Published on June 30, 2014
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