When Sairee Chahal attended a high-school reunion in Muzaffarnagar, India, several years ago, she found that most of the women she had studied with, despite being highly qualified, were no longer working. She’d heard the statistics, but was nevertheless surprised to see them borne out in real life: According to a 2013 report by Catalyst, nearly half of the women in India’s workforce typically quit by mid-career, in part due to the difficulty of balancing careers and family responsibilities.
As a mother of a nine-year-old and an entrepreneur, Chahal understood that difficulty. After founding a startup during India’s dot-com wave, Chahal had largely been working for herself since 2006—the flexibility she got from running her own company made a huge difference to her. She wondered if the growing number of new companies in India could result in increased opportunities for women to both pursue a fulfilling career and manage their families.
This was the root of Sheroes, a digital platform for women community founded by Chahal two years ago, which aims to connect women seeking flexibility in their careers with companies that are open to the idea. Based out of New Delhi, Chahal leads a team of 40 people at Sheroes, and true to form, many of the employees work flexible hours or remotely. The platform, which evolved from a previous incarnation called Fleximoms, boasts a user base of about 600,000 women from 6,000 places in India, with almost 9,000 companies signed on as potential employers.
I recently spoke to Chahal about her work, women’s careers, and why they need to be allowed to define leadership on their own terms. This is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
Sharmilla Ganesan: How did Sheroes begin?
Sairee Chahal: A few years ago, I had set up a boutique consulting firm. We noticed we got lots of applications from women, highly accomplished ones, despite being a fairly small company that didn’t have many positions to fill.
Then we realized that it was our workplace flexibility that was attracting them. From here, the cognizance grew for me of a disconnect between women and the workplace, particularly as women became older and started balancing family life and work. Despite the fact that in India, women are encouraged to seek out highly qualified professions like medicine or engineering, many of them are unable to continue progressing in their careers once they get married or start families.
So Fleximoms was a small hack of an experiment, an online service that connected women who wanted to return to work in a flexible format, with companies willing to hire them. This threw us into something much bigger, and the more we worked on it, the bigger it became.
Soon, though, we realized that we were fixing the problem after it had happened, without learning why it happened or what it meant. So SHEROES evolved out of that, a platform with a lot more learning thrown in: career resources, success stories, a place to for women to talk shop. And we also added a community arm, a career helpline where women can reach out via phone, chat, or an app to talk about their careers.
Sheroes’s aim is to put women’s careers on the map, which means both creating conversations with those who are still building their careers, and helping them custom-fit their careers as they navigate the working world.
A career is a result of the networks, resources, skills, opportunities and mentorships you have. While men seem to often have immediate access to these, women tend not to. If you look online at the content that is geared towards women, it tends to be of the “pink” variety: fashion, recipes, entertainment, childcare, and so on, but very little on building a career.
We’re trying to put all those things in one place, where women can access them, especially women in small-town India, where careers don’t actually exist because of either distance or a lack of opportunity.
We’re saying, irrespective of whether you’re a graduate with no work experience from Gauravpur, a home baker in Banares, or a creative writer in Pune, you have your own version of success and you deserve to find it.
Ganesan: What is your day-to-day role at Sheroes?
Chahal: My heart lies in staying engaged with our community of users, figuring out how we can keep helping women. So my role is coming up with new ideas and conversations, by making sure we keep talking to the women in the community. As founder, I also do other things like fundraising, talking to companies, and so on, but community engagement is my favorite role.
Ganesan: And who are the women who make up your community of users?
Chahal: Right now, it is largely an urban, middle-class group, the majority of whom have at least a bachelor’s degree and can speak some English. The largest group of users come from the 25-to-34 age category, but what surprised us was that the fastest-growing is 18-to-24. More and more young women are engaging in the career conversation and taking charge early on.
We would eventually like to be able to reach every woman in India who wants to work, or at least wants to talk about her work. And that does include women who don’t speak English or those who work in blue-collar positions.
Ganesan: What was the driving force for you in this endeavor?
Chahal: It comes from a deep, personal place. I grew up in small-town India. And in most Indian families, in conversations, men always discuss work with each other, “talk shop” if you will, and women never do. Even as a child, I noticed this, but I didn’t know what to make of it.
I come from a very traditional Punjabi family. The women in my family, most of them don’t work. It’s a template: You graduate from a good college, then get married into a family well-off enough that you don’t have to work. But I’ve always felt very agitated about that, and always wanted to get away from that concept to do my own thing.
Then, when my daughter was born, I was building my first company. I realized I was working doubly hard as most men because both required my attention. These stereotypes keep reinforcing themselves: that women ultimately don’t have a permanent position in the workplace, that women cannot have a career and fulfill their responsibilities at home.
India has among the highest number of female graduates in the world; maybe the reason for that is more matrimonial prospects than career, but there is so much potential there. If this isn’t the group that is going to break stereotypes and get financial freedom, then who is?
And this is just the right time to do it. The technology works well; business models are changing, with modular work, remote work, and entrepreneurship all on an up trend. I think women are the biggest beneficiaries of these changes. But where I come from, women are still not playing in the big leagues, because a lot of work needs to be done to fit in those circles.
Ganesan: How much of that is due to women still not being associated with holding higher positions? What is the perception in India of women in leadership?
Chahal: Leadership is a very territorial thing here. People will say women run homes—they have complete authority on so many things. But the moment they start transcending that space into one that is not traditionally associated with women, such as the workplace, there is a flutter. The sense I get from talking to women is that we’ve been given a zone to operate in and we should stay there.
There is a lot of subconscious bias about what women in leadership look like, whether in politics, business, or the workplace. It is like they are saying, “You can be a leader as long as you follow our template.” This means to dress a certain way, to behave a certain way, and to operate in specific zones. For example, even now, when I walk into a meeting and the client is a male CEO, he is very likely to say “Talk to my wife.” It happens all the time! These spaces in which many workplaces operate, it is a walled garden, and it seems like the people within don’t even realize it is.
Ganesan: So what can be done to empower women to be leaders?
Chahal: I strongly believe leadership can’t be taught. Instead, I see what we do at Sheroes as being driven by ownership, purpose, and a sense of self. We shouldn’t tell people what their success should look like. We should work on catalyzing that success instead of prescribing it.
By creating opportunities for women to define their careers for themselves, we hope to break down the stereotypes of what leadership looks like. A woman can absolutely be a leader in the workplace while also managing a family at home; she just needs to be given the flexibility to do it.
Ganesan: Do you think of yourself as a leader?
Chahal: Yes. I’ve always thought that, even when I was in school and didn’t have a name for it. I was always the person in the group who had an opinion, who had something to say. To me, it is about how you view yourself, who you want to be in the world.
Ganesan: Who were your role models? Who gave you an idea of what it meant to be a leader?
Chahal: My parents. Even though the family was traditional, my mom and dad were very clear that this was not for us. I was given a lot of space to navigate.
My mom was the first leader I saw, the first take-charge woman I knew. And my dad, I get my curiosity from him; a lot of what I’ve managed to do comes from a place of curiosity, and a hunger to do something. My idea of leadership is to ride against the wind and do it my own way.
This article was originally published in The Atlantic