Exclusive Interview with Dr.Saundarya Rajesh - Founder & President of AVTAR Group
April 05, 2017, Chennai
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Saundarya Rajesh is an entrepreneur from Pondicherry, India. She is the founder-president of AVTAR Career Creators, FLEXI Careers India, and is the managing-trustee of AVTAR Human Capital Trust. She is best known for her work in the area of flexible working, second careers for women, and increasing women’s workforce participation in India.
 She has a PhD in human resources and is based in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India.
What motivated you to launch AVTAR?
About 25 years ago with a new-born, an increasingly demanding job at a leading multi-national bank and a husband with his own fast-paced work schedule, I realised I was burning both ends against the middle. With a lot of hestitation, I went to my manager and proposed a flexible working arrangement that would ensure I finished my job while also managing my home-care and child-care duties. My manager’s reaction made me realise that it was a long way before a woman can aspire for both a career and personal life.
Soon after, I took the decision of quitting my job. Within just a few weeks, I realised I wanted my career back. Not that same job in that same bank, but my career. And that’s code for, I wanted my economic freedom, time with people other than my kids or mother-in-law, the adrenalin surge that came with completing a project, the acclaim and appreciation from peers – the whole package. I wanted my identity back. I wondered if it was a fundamental human right to desire to be intellectually and economically liberated and if so, was there some organization, some impassioned evangelist who would fight for that right for me.
No company and I repeat, no company was ready to employ a woman with my credentials on a flexi-time basis. It was either full-time or bugger-off! And on full-time, it was equal opportunity, the way the fox offered the crane equal opportunity to drink soup in a bowl. I decided to take the more scenic route and embarked upon a circuitous journey into HR consulting, Teaching, Radio production, Face-painting (yes I did that!) that finally led to my own entrepreneurial adventure - AVTAR. I realise today, that, I was the change I was waiting for. Today, AVTAR is India’s Number One evangelist for Working Women – on the areas of Flexible Working, Career Enablers, Specific Career Opportunities for Returning Women et al!
What do you think is the role of women in Indian economy?
In my opinion, Women Power is thsae answer and solution to India’s metamorphosis into a developed nation. In the years 2007-10, when the rest of the world was reeling under the impact of recession, India was able to hold its head high, due to the large amount of savings that Indian banks held. These were household savings accounts – held to the maximum extent by women! Thus, Indian women were an important reason for India to maintain its balance during the recession. Women impact in a very strong way since she spends more for the family. Women who not only save, but also earn translates to the following:
1) Doubling in household incomes – The Income level of urban Indian women has doubled in the decade 2001-2010. This has led to the average urban household income doubling – from up from Rs 8,242 to Rs 16,509
2) Even greater increase in savings - The Urban Indian woman who earned Rs 4,492 per month in 2001 was taking home as much as Rs 9,457 as of 2010. This in turn led to a huge increase in savings.
3) Increased participation in buying process - While 34% of women participated in the actual buying process in 2003, by 2010 that number had gone up to 43%.
4) Increased financial independence - There has been a 33% jump in the number of women who have a savings bank account in the last decade.
5) According to the 2015 McKinsey Report, India could add $700 billion of additional GDP in 2025, upping the country’s annual GDP growth by 1.4 percentage points, by advancing women’s workforce participation.
Just imagine women being able to work to the same extent and numbers as men! All the statistics mentioned above will be doubled and trebled. This means that within a short span of time, India will be a FULLY DEVELOPED nation, with a GDP that will be the highest in the world.
Please tell us about AVTAR I-WIN which provides flexi-careers for women.
AVTAR I-WIN expands to read AVTAR Indian Women professionals Interface Network. It was conceptualized and launched in December 2005. When it was launched, AVTAR I-WIN was India’s very first career service for women. We specialize in creating and providing opportunities for women who have taken a break in their careers and are now intent on getting back to the mainstream. This is for the woman who has her career aspirations as high as her family priorities and is now ready to balance both. We are probably India’s largest creator of career re-entries for women.
AVTAR I-WIN was a path breaking initiative which revolutionized how the industry worked – a true blue-ocean idea. After creating thousands of careers and improving thousands of lives in the process, we have evolved AVTAR I-WIN into more than just a recruitment service. Today, we are India’s best when it comes to women’s careers and a 40,000-strong network of women professionals across India. Our recruitment service is still as strong as ever (over 8000 placements and counting) but we now cater to every aspect of a woman’s career.
What are the present activities of The AVTAR Human Capital Trust?
At AVTAR Human Capital Trust, we have been working in the space of economically empowering women for the past 8 years. Our work has been in the areas of Girl children life skills enhancement programs, employability workshops for women in various colleges in Tamil Nadu, Prevention of Sexual Harassment training and education support. As of now our work has primarily been in the states of Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, we are hoping to spread our impact to other parts of the Indian geography too.
Did you know? Almost one in two women across India cannot read or write - this means 165 million females in India are illiterate. The returns on investment in girls’ education are higher than for boys; educated women can increase earning potential and eventually economic growth rates. The national average female illiteracy rates (age 15 and older) to men is 45.5%: 23.1% (UNFPC, 2009). The health of future generations is directly linked to the physical condition of females. Only one in 100 girls reach the final standard of school. Women with higher levels of schooling have a lower risk of physical or sexual violence with their partner. An extra year of education boosts their eventual wages by 10–20%; for boys, the returns are 5–15%. Infant mortality decreases by 8%, for each year a girl stays in school. Schooling and social inclusion empowers young women to actively participate in civic life, take informed decisions, exercise their rights, and advocate for community improvements.
Thus, our new initiative – Project PUTHRI! Our new project ‘PUTHRI’ is aimed at skill-building of girl students from Government run corporation schools to prevent drop-outs and to ensure economic empowerment by way of sustainable careers. The end-goal of this project is to make 10,000 corporation school girls career intentional EACH YEAR and ensure that they pursue white-collar jobs upon graduation. As such this is a longitudinal project and one that requires investment of time, volunteers, efforts and cost.
For Project PUTHRI, we seek volunteers, mentors, corporate sponsors and training spaces. Organization and individuals who are keen and passionate about building a future India that is built on a strong foundation of empowered and intentional girls. Via your article we would like to reach out and request discerning organizations to partner with AVTAR Human Capital Trust on Project PUTHRI.
Can you share an inspiring moment in your journey as a woman entrepreneur?
I have two: One is the growth of my team from a set of non-descript yet talented people to become a cohesive, powerful team that has risen up the socio-economic scale through their efforts at the workplace. The second is the fact that I have challenged organizations to seriously consider women as a sustainable talent source without whose presence, an organization is never complete.