Neha Bagaria, Founder and CEO, HerKey
Bengaluru, May 2015. Neha Bagaria toiled hard to highlight a window of opportunity. In one of her early business pitches to a bunch of corporates, the Wharton grad underscored the advantages of hiring women returnees. “They are qualified, and experienced,” stressed the second-time founder who took a career break in January 2010, joined back Kemwell Biopharma in 2013, and two years later, started her second venture JobsForHer, a platform to enable women to restart their careers after a break. “They have the fire in the belly to prove themselves again,” reckoned Bagaria, who confidently highlighted in her LinkedIn profile that from January 2010 to January 2013 she took a career break. The reason is a no-brainer for most women in India: Motherhood. “And if you're looking for flexible talent,” the finance and marketing professional continued with her passionate plea to a pack of corporate heavyweights, “then nothing works better than this.” Bagaria was confident that all the men in the room—and there were only men—would open the door.
The door, though, remained firmly shut. Bagaria, interestingly, was shown how tiny the ‘window’ of opportunity was. “I have figured out the right age at which one should hire a woman,” one of the bigwigs among the spectators took the liberty to share his enlightened views. “The best time is to hire her right out of college,” he reckoned, explaining his logic. As long as she is not getting married, she is married to the work, and you can get the best out of her. Once you hire her after her marriage, he pointed out, she might soon go the family way. So, no point.
Now the high-ranking executive pointed out the second scenario. If she has a child and you give her a job, then she might go for a second child. “So again no point,” he said with a self-satisfied smirk on his face. Hiring somebody with two kids, he continued with his diatribe, will haunt after a few years. “As kids grow, mother has to take care of studies and family,” he said, adding that usually women take a break when the kids appear for board exams. “Obviously, I am not talking about women taking frequent and short breaks to take care of old in-laws or parents,” he grinned. “Now you see, the window to hire a woman is so small,” he beamed.
Bagaria felt outraged. “Are you serious,” she exclaimed.
Over the next few months, Bagaria’s serious pitches were peppered with exclamation marks. “We don't want to hire mothers,” insisted another senior official of a company, declining to hire returnees. “But why,” asked Bagaria. The reason was revolting. “We hired a mother, and she left after a month,” reasoned the executive from the HR department. “But have you not had cases where men would have joined and left after a few months,” Bagaria countered, but there was silence. Also read: Why ApnaKlub Shruti doesn't mind being an angry young woman
In yet another meeting—and this time it was with a large company—the talent acquisition head was kind enough to let Bagaria outline the business model and explain the need to tap into a vast talent pool of labour which has been in the blind spot of India Inc for decades. “The way I see it,” he summed up his point of view, “there are three reasons to hire women who are returning to the job market.” The first is the most compelling. “It ticks from a CSR point of view,” he said. The second reason to have returnees is to lower the cost of hiring. “They would come at a much lower cost than other lateral hires,” he reckoned. And lastly, from a goodwill and PR point of view, it makes absolute sense.
To Bagaria, however, nothing made any sense. “I mean how could these be the reasons for hiring returnees,” she wondered. The career space for women trying to come back after a break, she adds, looked like an oxymoron.
What, though, shook her to the core was the reason offered by one of the top-ranking women officials in another company. “I don't want to hire kitty party women,” she said. “If they are taking a break, then it means they have means to survive. So why should I hire them,” she asked. Bagaria, who always wanted to be an impact entrepreneur and rolled out her first venture Paragon—an advance placement platform for students seeking admission to US colleges—knew that the decisive ingredient for the success of JobsForHer was nothing but a radical change in the mindset of employers.
The problem, though, was not confined to employers; employees too needed a mental reboot. Bagaria explains: Most women returnees were low on confidence. Those making a comeback were told to mask the gap year in their resumes. A sizeable portion of them would also deal with immense self-doubt. “Though I did in the past, I don’t know if I could do it again,” was the common, and oft-repeated, sentence that Bagaria would hear during her interactions with the job seekers. “Gap,” the entrepreneur would stress to an army of women seeking to re-enter the job market, “is a good thing.” Most of the women take a career break to start a family. Apart from invaluable life lessons learned during the break, one also masters the art of multitasking. “Sell whatever you have picked up to the employers. What you learnt is immensely valuable,” she exhorted during her sessions. “My biggest challenge so far has been tackling mental demons,” she reiterates. Also read: Progcap's Pallavi Shrivastava is on a mission to change the gender narrative
Back in early 2015, Bagaria was dealing with a tricky demon. And this time, the devil resided inside her head. Though her decision to quit Kemwell Biopharma—a company founded by her father-in-law Subhash Bagaria—and start JobsForHer was shocking to many, the mother of two was adamant to make a dent as a social and impact entrepreneur. What, though, was impacting her most was a nagging thought. Her life so far had been a lopsided seesaw. She explains. On one end was her family. Bagaria added a comma to her professional career in 2010 so that she could take care of her family. After five years, she was starting from scratch, shunning the comfort of her family business, and adding more weight to the other end of the seesaw—work. “My fear was of becoming a bad wife or a bad mother,” she recalls, adding that she never feared failure of the venture. “I feared its success,” she adds. The question was what if it succeeded, and she would end up spending more time away from her family.
If family happened to be a question mark, then it also came up with a reassuring answer. Bagaria’s brother pushed her to take the plunge, her husband encouraged her to live her dream, and everybody rallied around the founder. “It took me years to deal with my fear, doubt and guilt,” she says.
Fast forward to April 2023. After eight years of toil, patience and a bootstrapped journey, Bagaria has raised her first institutional funding round of $4 million from Kalaari Capital, 360 ONE Asset, and a bunch of angels such as Zia Mody, Puneet Dalmia, Pramit Jhaveri, Ranjan Pai, Neeraj Bajaj and Akash Bhansali. JobsForHer, which is now rebranded as HerKey to denote a change in the positioning of the company which has emerged as a career-engagement platform for women and is not just confined to the ones returning to the job market, has added enough heft as well. HerKey, claims Bagaria, caters to over 3.5 million women, has over 10,000 companies on the platform, and has roped in over 2,000 mentors and 800 learning partners. Though she declines to share the financials of the company, data shared by Tofler says the venture had an operating revenue of Rs 8.87 crore and a profit of Rs 2.66 crore in FY22.
But why wait for eight years to raise venture capital? Bagaria has a convincing answer. “The only reason I waited so long is that so far I have been swimming against the tide,” she says, alluding to a battery of obstacles that hampered the growth and scale of the women returnee job market in India. The pandemic, though, has changed headwinds into tailwinds. “For the first time, the tide has turned, and we are on top of it,” she says. “Flexibility at the workplace is no longer a dirty word,” she adds. Also read: Return to Office: Will women continue to pay a price for flexibility?
Anil Joshi explains why HerKey has suddenly found backers, and believers. “Just look at the opportunity now,” says the founder of Unicorn India Ventures, a venture fund backing early-stage startups. There are millions of women in India who drop out of work, and struggle to make a comeback. “For decades, flexibility has been the ‘F’ word for corporates,” he reckons, adding that work from home or a hybrid working culture was never envisioned or encouraged.
The backers too point towards a new and encouraging ground reality. Women, points out Nidhi Ghuman, need flexibility and support to script their unique career journey. “There is a need for a platform that provides them avenues for learning, networking, and career opportunities,” reckons the senior executive vice president of 360 ONE Asset, which was earlier known as IIFL Asset Management. Today, over 10,000 companies, she claims, are using the services of HerKey to build a diverse and inclusive workforce. Given India’s low women workforce participation of just 20 percent, there is a strong need for a platform like HerKey.
Bagaria, for her part, talks about the larger picture. From 2015 till 2019, her venture focussed sharply on women returning after a break. “We had enough critical mass going and companies were launching special returnee programmes as well,” she says. But to change the game, there was again a need to change the mindset and look beyond getting women back. “If we really want to move the diversity needle, then we just can't focus on getting women back,” she says. One also needs to get women to stay and rise in the workplace. With a tagline of ‘Start, restart, rise,’ HerKey now focuses on three pillars: Opportunities, learning and community. “We can create a more inclusive and equitable workforce, which will benefit all,” says Bagaria as she gets back to widen the window of opportunity.
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