In India, motherhood often forces women out of the workforce and leaves them questioning their skills and choices. But Bengaluru’s Neha Bagaria says it is okay to take a career break for a few years if one feels the need for it.
“But that pause does not need to be a full stop, it can just be a comma,” she says.
A mother of two, the 41-year-old herself questioned her capabilities when she took a career break for nearly four years. In the process, she found herself losing her identity as an ambitious career-driven woman, she says.
In a bid to regain confidence and help other mothers struggling the same, she started HerKey — a career engagement platform — in 2015, with the aim to connect mothers willing to restart their careers. Since then, her startup has partnered with more than 9,000 companies like Amazon, Johnson Controls, Taylor & Francis Group, and helped advance over three million women professionals across the country, she says.
A graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, Neha moved to Bengaluru after her marriage in 2005 and started working at her husband’s biopharmaceutical manufacturing company Kemwell. Working in various roles including human resource, finance, and marketing, she never considered taking a break. She recalls that even when she was pregnant in 2010, she would hardly skip official meetings or work. While leaving for delivery, she did not clear her desk.
“I told our employees that I am going to come back after a 40-day maternity break, but then those 40 days became four years. I was quite unaware of the career break I would go through,” she tells The Better India.
When she would visit her college friends in New York, she was often questioned about her career. “I was pregnant with my second child, and I had gone there with my toddler. They would ask me what I was doing now. I’d point to my toddler and my pregnancy, but they would still ask me what I was ‘doing’. It became difficult for me to answer them, because I had never imagined myself not working,” she says.
“I started getting frustrated at little things. I started putting all my lofty ambitions on the shoulders of my little son. I expected my three-year-old to be perfect. If he would not be perfect in anything, I would end up getting frustrated. When that started happening, I realised that if I want to be a happy mother, I have to be a happy person, and for that, I need to get back to work,” she adds.
Being a career companion
For Neha, it was easy to jump back to family work in 2013. But as soon as she started speaking to more women in her family and friends, she understood the challenges and biases they faced in restarting work.
“The changing mindsets of companies, of society, of women themselves, is challenging even today. Many people discourage women and question their need to restart work when their husbands are earning well. During interviews, such women are questioned if they are serious about their careers. Also, for a woman who is not earning, it becomes difficult to spend on reskilling herself. They feel under confident,” says Neha.
With her company, Neha claims to not charge a penny from women. Explaining how the startup works, she says, “We create job alerts for women seeking jobs on our platform. We help them connect with related groups and expand their network. We help them upskill so that they are updated about their industry and prepare for job interviews. We have 800 learning partners who offer various paid services, like resume writing, etc,” she says.
“Overall, it is like LinkedIn for women willing to get back to work. We also help working women rise in their careers. No matter what stage they are in, we want to be their career companions in their journey,” she adds.
Currently, HerKey has about 4 lakh active monthly users across India from cities like Bengaluru, Delhi, and Hyderabad. Today, the startup has partnered with over 10,000 companies. “It is all about investing in talent. Because if they do not invest, they lose out on the talent pool that is away from the workforce,” says Neha.
Of the 3 million women whom Neha has been able to help is Delhi’s Pooja Sharma, who had to quit her job in 2017 after working for five years. After a maternity break of two-and-a-half years, she wanted to restart work. But it came with a set of challenges, as the engineer was unable to get the right job for her profile.
“The minute you take a break, people expect you to compromise and get into a low pay scale. I decided to hold on till I get the right opportunity. A friend of mine told me about Neha’s company which helped me in getting new opportunities, they also encouraged me to not compromise on pay scale and improve my skills. They helped me negotiate in the market,” the 35-year-old tells The Better India.
“Within three months, I got a job in a Bengaluru company that offered me a 20 percent raise from my previous job. It is good to be back in the workforce,” smiles Pooja, who now works as a business analyst.
Neha says she sees herself in these women. “I hear so many stories of our women who have restarted work. It is so motivating. Women should thoroughly enjoy every phase of their lives. It is never too late to start your career. Life does not end after a maternity break. Also, society and families must not ask women to choose either careers or children,” she says.
Edited by Divya Sethu