When Sujata Reumade, 45, moved from Ratnagiri to Mumbai in her early 20s, she was determined to build a career. Even as her professional accomplishments - anchoring, compeering and TV roles - grew, she married a software engineer, as per her parents' wishes. Children followed, combined with stints in foreign countries where her husband was posted. Before she knew it, Reumade was caught up in a maze of familial responsibilities.
Reumade's is a common enough story among women, working and otherwise, who become primary caregivers for their families. In a society that expects women to faultlessly perform the roles of wife, daughter, daughter-in-law and, most of all, mother, professional success - or even the possibility of it - falls by the wayside.
But gradually, many women are taking a stand - striking a different kind of deal. Yes, family is priority, but once the kids are old enough to not need constant attention, a growing number are rejoining the workforce on their own terms. These women do so by starting their own enterprises, pursuing specific interests, while simultaneously maintaining flexibility and freedom of choice, which helps balance their personal lives.
"I wasn't meant to only raise my kids and tend to my husband's needs. There was so much I wanted to do," says Reumade. Thus, 10 years after she had stopped working, Reumade decided to start a voice-training institute. "I had done a voice culture course in the US and, combined with my background in Hindustani music, I had already begun helping out people who wanted to improve their voices," she says.
Reumade opened shop in a little office space owned by her father-in-law, with stationery and a computer from home. She and her partner dipped into their savings and put up the initial Rs 200,000 (US$1=Rs39.23) needed for equipment.
This kind of minimal initial investment is a feature of many of the women's ventures. Ranjini Manian, 47, who runs Chennai-based Global Adjustments, started out 12 years ago, pooling in Rs 10,000 with her partner. "I had an extra apartment which became our office, and we used that money to buy stationery," she says. "It was not capital-intensive; our success depended more on developing a concept." Today, Global Adjustments, an India destination services company, has 50 employees; has worked with hundreds of clients, 72 nationalities; and has a presence in five cities.
Manian, too, talks of a feeling of "not doing enough", especially because she had a working mother. "Though my son was 13, my daughter was only three when we started. But living in a joint family helped tremendously," she says.
Family support, then, is key. When Saundarya Rajesh, 39, started Avtar Career Creators, in Chennai, a recruitment consulting firm, seven years ago, her husband provided the money, and her mother-in-law the moral support. Her daughter was four, and her son, eight. "I had been working with Citibank for three years, but being a young mother, it was not easy," she says.
Saundarya eventually quit her job to be with her family when her father-in-law passed away, but says "there was an urge to stay connected". She took up teaching - the only job with flexible hours. Even as she began networking to find placements for her students, the idea of starting her own company grew. With four other founder members, Avtar was born.
The company today has 250-odd clients in the banking, IT, ITES, FMCG and retail industries. Drawing from her own experience, Saundarya also launched a subsidiary two years ago, called Avtar IWIN (Interim Women Manager Interface Network), dedicated to re-channelling women back to the workforce.
"There is a huge group of women, who have sacrificed their careers at the altar of motherhood and who are not able to find jobs that suit their needs," she says. "We found that 15 to 18 per cent of women professionals with three to seven years of experience have opted out of the workforce because of this. They are trained professionals but have constraints."
And so, Avtar seeks to give the 4,000-odd women registered with it that rare profile: flexible hours and part-time work as that remains the biggest hurdle for a working mother.
When Pune-based Sarika Kubavat, 29, went looking for work because she didn't want to be stuck at home, timings were the problem. Kubavat did not want to be away from her four-year-old son for long hours every day.
So, after five years of being a stay-at-home mom, she has ventured into the event management business. "I needed my independence, and I had a gut feeling I would be good at this," she says. For four months now, Kubavat has been organizing events for banks, and hopes to extend her reach in the coming year. "The best part is it does not occupy all my time; I ensure that I go out when my son is out, or even take him with me at times," she says.
Saundarya, too, always ensures that she works between 10am and 3pm. "The industry lends itself to flexibility and I've set up strong systems to keep things going," she says. Even Reumade, who works all seven days, says that she schedules sessions between 3.30pm and 9.30pm, when her kids are otherwise occupied.
Mumbai-resident Priya Srinivasan, who quit journalism to start The Pomegranate Workshop, which introduces the arts to children, has a different take. Although Srinivasan, 36, never left the workforce to care for her eight-year-old daughter, she says, "The only advantage I currently have is greater flexibility. But every bit of work that is postponed to make way for my daughter's needs (school meetings, homework, and so on) simply comes back with a vengeance."
Breaking the mould to strike out on your own is, naturally, not easy. As Reumade says, "It was very easy to slip into a laid-back mode, with that attitude of 'You have all the comforts, enjoy them'," she says. It was through sheer determination that she built her base. From one student seven years ago, the institute has trained 800-odd singers, radio jockeys, anchors, actors, sales people and compeers, to improve the quality of their voices. "I have become a much stronger person for it. I have a sense of purpose now," she says.
"You really need to go back to every last experience you have garnered. It's a constant process of dipping into your own knowledge pool even as you grow," says Srinivasan.
Manian puts success down to passion. "I never thought I would run a business one day. You learn to manage people and costs, and make decisions. You learn that you can't make everyone love you and, most importantly, you have to give yourself permission to be imperfect."