I had the privilege of attending the International Finance Corporation’s (IFC) recent conference, celebrating women in entrepreneurship as change makers and leaders, and it got me thinking about my own experiences and about women in business in India. IFC’s #beboldforchange initiative is more than just a hashtag for me; it is a call to action, asking men and women across India to work together to reduce gender disparity in the workforce.
Beyond that, it is a beacon for many women in India, for it requires courage, planning and ongoing commitment to join or re-join the workforce.
Like so many women, I have many identities – I am an entrepreneur, mother, wife, daughter, daughter-in-law and sister. Each of these identities is important and, over the years, I have learned to juggle the different priorities each role demands. From being a successful Wall Street investment banker to a Silicon Valley media executive, and eventually taking a career break to prioritize family when we moved to India, and then starting an educational consultancy, there have been many daunting challenges along my path but nothing seemed impossible.
What felt like a given for me – working, starting a business, balancing parenting and marriage with my professional and personal interests – feels like an impossible task for so many women. When considering the barriers that exist for so many highly-educated women, who have so much to contribute to the workforce and to society, I reflected on the factors in my life that have helped me succeed, and how other women might be able to access greater opportunities and be bold to drive change.
Courage to pick and choose
‘The buck stops here’ is a phrase popularized in the US and it is apt because responsibility for your professional development cannot or should not be passed to someone else. Whether you decide to work part time or full time, you need to start by evaluating your own life and making choices yourself.
This is also true of the parenting and work balance. You just can’t do it all, and trying to do so will drive you crazy. I want to spend quality time with my children and I love photography, so I involve myself in my children’s school activities by volunteering to be the class photographer. My enthusiasm for football is a bit more muted, so I don’t necessarily attend most of my daughters’ matches, but my husband does, because he loves all kinds of sports. Our children recognize our effort, but it took focused coordination with my husband to make it happen.
Playing to your strengths
It is important to play to your strengths. At my children’s school, I made a point of highlighting what I’m best at, and what I’m terrible at. Sell your strengths and that will define your commitments. This is applicable at work, at school, with your family – essentially everything. You can’t be all things to all people, and stop trying to be. It will better serve your own needs and those of others.
Seek support from your family/extended family
Almost everything in India is about the collective, and women need to use that collective in strategic, balanced ways. If you want to work, one of the early things you have to do is explain to your family exactly the kind of help you need; define your work schedule as separate from the schedule of the household. Think about it like convincing a company to invest; get your family to buy in, and then empower them. I am fortunate to have extended family who rally around and support me in many ways, from attending school events to traveling with the kids to helping out on Marathi language projects.
Network, network, network
Over the years, I’ve learned the value of building and nurturing my network, whether from my work, community or educational experiences. I regularly connect people with common interests, provide updates to contacts in my current industry and lend a helping hand whenever I can. Living in four countries and just as many cities, my network has helped with professional opportunities, childcare options, housing leads and many, many other things required to establish a productive and happy life.
Be the kind of employer you would like to HAVE
For women who have started their own businesses, or work in positions of power, my best advice is to be the kind of employer you would like to have. Many people, even when they have learned best practices, don’t offer flexibility in work style or empower women to shine. But by doing so, it instills confidence, coaxes the best work out of your colleagues, and engenders loyalty and commitment. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s worth it, and the more of us who forge ahead, the better the Indian business environment will be.
As the conversation about women in the workforce continues to evolve, I would love to hear from all of you. How do you deal with the work/life balance? What was your empowering moment? What one piece of advice would you offer a young woman just embarking on her career?
Kavita Mehta, CEO & Co-Founder, The Red Pen
MBA, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania; BS in Business, Wake Forest University
An enthusiastic mentor, Kavita has advised students and parents in the US, Singapore and India on MBA and undergraduate admissions for over a decade. Since her time at Wharton, Kavita worked in financial services with PaineWebber (acquired by UBS) on Wall Street, Yahoo! in Silicon Valley and GroupM (a division of WPP) in Singapore. She also served as VP of Strategic Planning for a Softbank-funded startup, and was a member of the core team that raised $25 million for international expansion. Kavita co-founded The Red Pen in 2011 along with her business partner, Kimberly Dixit. She also serves on the Executive Committee of the Wharton Alumni Association of India.