Last year, around Women’s Day, a team at Zoho approached its founder Sridhar Vembu for a video byte wishing the women employees of the software company. A DJ and a party, a dress parade, and awarding of top women managers, were some of the plans proposed. But the performative gestures just didn’t cut it for Vembu. “He saw through how superficial all of this was. Waking up once a year and celebrating womanhood is not the right way to do it. There has to be a larger impact, a deeper impact he felt,” says Rajendran Dandapani, President, Zoho Schools of Learning, as he chats with businessline over Zoho Meeting from the company’s Chennai office.

Back in the game

That sowed the seeds from which sprang ‘Marupadi’ (which means ‘again’ in Tamil) programme, a Zoho Schools initiative, which works towards getting women in tech back in the game after a career break. It’s been a year since Marupadi was launched and 26 women have passed out so far. Of these, 23 have already joined the company in different roles across departments.

Zoho CEO Sridhar Vembu with the second cohort of Marupadi programme

Zoho CEO Sridhar Vembu with the second cohort of Marupadi programme

With Marupadi, Zoho joins a cohort of tech companies that have returnship programmes for women who have taken a break from work for various reasons. SAP, Accenture, and Cognizant all have career reboot programmes that are seeing win-win benefits.

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Zoho too has started seeing the benefits of hiring more women, says Dandapani. “That women are natural multitaskers is something we have heard people say. Now, we are seeing that at play. They bring a sense of calmness and maturity to the environment that is predominantly filled by a millennial workforce at Zoho, just like in any other company. Beautiful, trans-generational learning is also happening within the office.”

The first recorded instance of a second career programme dates back to 2006, according to Saundarya Rajesh, Founder - President, Avtar Group, a diversity, equity and inclusion consulting firm. “Standard Chartered Bank tied up with Avtar to hire second-career women in a formal manner way back in 2006. When large companies hire returning women, it sends two powerful messages. Breaks are normal and it doesn’t mean the end of the road. While domain skills have to be refurbished, women who return from breaks have acquired new strategic skills that can be put to use,” says Rajesh.

Women have always been pivotal to Zoho’s success story, according to Dandapani. Most women who joined Zoho in the early days were spouses of employees as that’s how the word got around about the new company on the block. So, the company has always had paternity and maternity leave, a working crèche, and experimented with flexible work schedules to support young family builders, especially women.

“Women occupy top positions in the company. When you see more and more women at the top, people understand that if given the right opportunities, women are resilient enough to bounce back and contribute,” he adds.

Women in leadership positions at Zoho routinely counsel and inspire Marupadi trainees

Women in leadership positions at Zoho routinely counsel and inspire Marupadi trainees

Seeing women in leadership positions tells young women that technology is not just guys coding in a dark room, according to Rebecca P Khanna, Head - Marupadi, Zoho Schools of Learning. “The environment teaches them a lot. They are exposed to more women as role models when they come to the office every day. We have dedicated soft skills sessions with these women to help them understand that women have been balancing work and home life for decades now,” she says.

Vernacular teaching

The three-month boot camp in software development, software testing, and technical writing is run in Zoho’s Chennai office. Zoho Schools itself is operational only in Chennai and Tenkasi. But they are not rushing headlong to expand to other states, says Dandapani.

“Vernacular teaching is something we do well. When you teach in one’s mother tongue, it probably gets deeper into the psyche and helps understand concepts better. And traditionally, over the past 18 years, we have been doing Tamil and English as the language of training. So, we are yet to look at similarly capable Hindi-speaking or other languages-speaking faculty to be able to expand.”

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For Kaviya S, Marupadi alumni and now a technical staff at ZLabs - Machine Learning, the outcome has been happy. Quitting her job was an overnight decision because of pregnancy. After a three-year hiatus, joining the workforce and getting back the power of the purse has been truly rewarding. “From buying only diaper bags to now affording my own handbag, it’s been a journey,” she says.