By Nigar Sultana
Hailing from a middle class family in Puducherry, Dr. Saundarya Rajesh was faced with the usual questions of whether she should choose home or career.
Leveraging the power of a woman workforce was unheard of in the 90s, and having taken a career break herself, Dr Saundarya Rajesh knew it isn’t to get back into the corporate system.
This prompted her to start her company AVTAR in December 2000 with a partner. Avtar started creating better opportunities for women on a career break and for senior citizens- post retirement, AVTAR has since grown from strength to strength over the years.
Over the years, AVTAR and other related projects impacted hundreds of women, no surprise then that Saundarya Rajesh was chosen as one of the Top 100 Women Achievers of India for this year.
She was awarded the 100 Women Achievers Scroll by President Pranab Mukherjee and by the Minister of State for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi on January 22, 2016 at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
In an interview to Rediff before receiving the award, Saundarya had described Avtar as a venture that helped people to re-invent. “We named our company Avtar as it means incarnation or metamorphosis. We take different avatars all the time, personally, professionally and spiritually,” she said.
After being conferred with the award, Saundarya put forward some recommendations to Maneka Gandhi, and hopes that even if 3 of the over 100 suggestions she has provided are implemented, then one could see a huge jump in women’s participation in the workforce.
“We seek a 50-50 gender balance at workplaces across the country. This means a lot of work and involves educating companies on what it means to have more women in your workplace. We need to also educate families and the woman herself,” she says.
In an interview to Women’s Web two years ago, Saundarya Rajesh had said, “Out of every 10 organizations that we meet to evangelize the concept of second careers and returning women, at least 4 are uncomfortable with the concept – and we need to provide empirical evidence to show that second career women are able to do it.”
In the list of suggestions handed over to Maneka Gandhi, she asserts that convincing companies about the woman work-force through proper data is necessary.
“We need to prove to organizations through primary research, turn-key projects and other formats that the Indian woman professional is indeed keen on a career identity,” she says.
“This whole gamut of work can be really easy, if the Government of India incentivises women’s workforce participation. That was the point that we wanted to drive home,” she adds.
Avtar runs counselling sessions, career-entry programs, skill-building sessions, networking sessions, early career recruitment and role model creation. It is tough, demanding work, because the need for gender diversity is still a very isolated occurrence that only a few companies invest in.
She says it’s fulfilling when they receive an email or a call from even one woman who has benefited from the work that they do, and makes the effort totally worthwhile.
She was also delighted about Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg posting about the awards on his wall.
When asked whether she dreamt as a youth that she would reach this stage, she says no, and tells us that her entire path is one of discovery and creativity like a sculptor who has chiseled her own image.