“If all the educated women of India were working, our GDP would go up by a minimum of 25 percent!” Rani recalls from a recent report she had read. “Tamil Nadu has one of the highest percent of women enrolled in higher education. Nearly 50 percent enrolled in tertiary education are women,” adds Rajani. Why is this not being reflected in our GDP?
The dynamic duo, Rajani Seshadri and Rani Muralidharan launched indePenn Connections in December 2019 with a vision to raise the GDP of India through gender parity. Rajani climbed the ladders of TCS, built profitable businesses in Europe and currently chairs IWN (Indian Women Network) while Rani is a charted accountant turned entrepreneur who worked majorly in the male-dominated manufacturing sector in Trichy. The friends of 10 years (though in different industries) started to notice that as years went by and their careers progressed, the number of female colleagues around them began to diminish. “Most women quit at middle management,” observes Rajani, “It could be because of marriage, a difficult pregnancy, childcare or even eldercare. We understood that because we experienced those circumstances as well.” The duo sat down with Gowri Kailasam, who invested in the young company with a shared passion for the cause and asked themselves two questions—What do women need to get back to work? Is corporate India ready to think about how they can best use available talent (as opposed to going by guidelines that make it difficult for women to re-enter the workforce)?
“These are low-hanging fruits,” smiles Rani, “Bringing experienced and educated women who want to come back to the workforce is not the most difficult task because these women have it in them, they just need someone to show them where to start.”
Thus the framework was made. The first step is to instill confidence. “In fact, I began working full time only after my children started going to school, so I understand the kind of mental toll it could take,” explains Rani. The candidate is given four sessions to talk about whatever they want—to get the ball rolling with the difficult conversations. After the initial coaching session is the enabling workshops which involve bringing eight to twelve women together to discuss issues that are standing in between them and their careers and how they could face these challenges.
“At this point, she is empowered to make a decision about how she wants her life to be,” adds Rajani. Based on whether the candidate wants to resume working in the same field or pivot to a different field (taking into account her desired lifestyle or interest), she is connected to subject matter experts from the industry. “Besides connecting them with people from the same domain, the widespread availability of online training today makes this process easier,” says Rani, “The candidate acquires more confidence than they came with, however, most of these women have had close to ten years of break from their careers. That’s why we came up with the returnship!” she laughs. The returnship enables the candidate to test the waters at a company for two to three months while also allowing the prospective employer to understand whether the candidate is suitable for the position. “Granted it isn’t possible for someone to catch up on all the information required by this time, but the essence is that she learns how to learn and that is what makes it easier for her to restart her career,” elucidates Rajani.
A successful returnship (which is most of the time) results in the candidate landing a full-time job. It doesn’t end there. “A full-time job after a long break comes with its own complications which are mostly easy to solve but also easily derail the woman from her path,” she explains, “So we stay with her for two months after her employment begins to ensure that all the effort that the candidate has put to get to where she is doesn’t go to waste.”
indePenn kickstarted its first workshop at Gowri’s house in February 2020. “We arranged all the furniture in the living room and set it up,” Rani describes with excitement, “And with March came the pandemic so we had to pivot.” To the founders’ dismay, things were beginning to slow down that month. “We were like an express train with excitement when we started and the pandemic forced us to move like a goods train!” they joke. The shift nevertheless, was a blessing in disguise. More women were open to engaging through the virtual format given the flexibility it offered and companies were forced to make jobs remote giving more women the opportunity to work while also taking care of their homes.
The founders practiced what they preached. “That’s another reason why Rani and I got along!” grins Rajani, “We have no feeling of embarrassment learning from people around us. Most of the time we go to people much younger than us and ask them to teach us how to do things.” While indePenn had to pivot to accommodate the pandemic, the founders (who were senior professionals at their respective workplaces before this) had to adapt to run their new start-up. “I was so used to asking people why a task wasn’t done on time back at TCS,” recalls Rajani with a smile “And here we were spending days trying to figure out different types of seals and where to get them made!” adds Rani. “That’s why I’d like to believe that we are bootstrapped in every way,” concludes Rajani as the duo break into nostalgic anecdotes with intermittent laughter.
“Both of us come from a B2B background so figuring out B2C was an exciting challenge for us,” says Rajani. “I had only used Facebook to post about my personal life every now and then, so when we made a page I started spending a lot of time experimenting with my interest in art while making posts for indePenn,” narrates Rani as Rajani jokes about the hours her partner would put into the ‘details’. The startup now has six core members between the age of thirty and forty who work pro bono and specialise in everything from social media marketing to finance. “Since they are about the same age as our targeted client-base they give us great insight into what kind of outreach works and what doesn’t,” explain the duo.
“We’re proud to be a Tamil Nadu startup—as our name suggests,” says Rani with delight. indePenn is currently targeting women from across South India and directing them to a more independent life by showing them the way to financial freedom. “That is where the real problem is. Women do much so much of work at home and most of the time they feel like they do not deserve to spend money on themselves,” addresses Rajani, “ It is sad but true, the only way to empower these women is by giving them financial freedom.”
Rani and Rajani have successfully mentored and helped women with their framework. As indePenn grows the duo are constantly motivated and inspired by the women they see around them in their daily lives, be it their mothers and grandmothers or the women who attend their workshops. Leading by example, they prove that it is never too late to follow your dreams.