What would you do if you weren't afraid?" Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg asks in her international bestselling book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. This powerful question struck a chord with 21-year-old Sanya Khurana. She was just out of college and, in her innocent enthusiasm, wrote to Lean In Foundation about how she felt strongly about bringing more women in the workforce.
"I didn't have the confidence but still wrote. I wasn't sure how, but I wanted to contribute," she says. That was in 2014. She not only got a reply from Lean In, the team also guided her through the entire process of joining the foundation. In 2016, she became the founder of Lean In India, and started supporting other women to dream big and fulfill their ambition. Today, Lean In India has 5,578 members in 100 circles, divided into groups based on different interests, professions, etc.
There has been a mushrooming of women-only platforms of late. While each has a different profile, the overarching ambition is the same: to help the likes of Khurana in the workplace. Some broad-based platforms such as SHEROES and Lean In have several smaller communities based on different interests, locations and professions. Then there are others that serve niche segments. Leap.Club focuses on rising women leaders and helps them make the next big leap in their career, WiT India aims to have more women in leadership roles in STEM while Women on Wealth encourages women to take charge of financial planning. There is also the Women in Investing Network.
There are two reasons for the rise of 'women-only' networks. One is that social connections are important for professional growth. These networks offer information about job openings, salary trends, upcoming job profiles and advice on navigating workplace challenges. Another is based on scientific findings that women network differently than men. For instance, meeting buddies in the evening for beer doesn't work for women. Research shows that since brains of men and women are wired differently, men are fine with having larger connections and are forthright in helping friends reach professional goals. Women prefer fewer but long-lasting relationships and, hence, do well in close-knit groups.
Also, what a woman needs from her support group is different at each stage of the career, says Apurva Purohit, President of the Jagran Group. "Earlier, when I used to mentor women with five-seven years of experience, they used to seek emotional support, career advice and guidance on navigating home and work." It is different with women in senior positions. "Senior women, deputy managing directors and CXOs have figured out the confidence and emotional bit. At this stage, they are looking for a female business role model to navigate workplace issues," she says. A senior leadership position can be lonely as men outnumber women in most companies. Purohit currently has eight-nine senior women as mentees and is associated with several forums and networks. It's no wonder that women are enrolling in these networks. SHEROES, started in 2014, is 21-million-member strong. Even a new platform such as WiT has got 1,00,000 members in the last six months and Leap.Club, in five months, has managed to get 500 paid members across Delhi-NCR, Mumbai and Bangalore, and has a waitlist of 7,500.
The Big Gap
"Women are demanding more. They have aspirations. They want more out of life and careers. They are no longer comfortable with gendered experiences and want an avenue to discuss and share," says Sairee Chahal, Founder and CEO of SHEROES. Chahal says she started SHEROES when women started approaching her for personal advice. It was earlier a career platform for women with a helpline for professional support.
Human resources (HR) veteran Anuranjita Kumar took the entrepreneurial leap with WiT India this February to increase women participation in STEM roles. "After being HR head of two big firms, Citi and RBS, having written the best of HR policies in these organisations, and authoring books on diversity, I saw the needle wasn't moving."
Maya Chandrasekaran, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at Green Artha, started Women in Investing Network along with former colleague and friend Jayaroopa Jeyabarathi in 2017 when they felt the need to meet other women in the investing ecosystem. "We would discuss how we were often the only women in the board room or during investor pitches. In conferences, it used to be a man-el and not a panel." They have not opened up the platform for other areas such as financial services so that they keep their focus sharply on the VC/PE space in India. "As a professional, it is ok to deep-dive into an area, but in investing, it is important to know the wide breadth of issues, new trends and upcoming sectors. This comes from strong personal connections." From six, it is now a forum of 200-plus members connected through a Telegram group.
Not Just Networking
Many platforms have also started offering professional services to enable women achieve their goals, whether it is access to one-on-one mentorships, upskilling or industry connect.
While SHEROES has a social app, it also runs a vertical -Managed Remote Solutions - where 10,000 women work remotely on processes for a range of businesses. Clients include Delhivery, PayTm, Zomato, Bira. Their social commerce initiative, SHECO, enables women to become entrepreneurs.
"We are more than a platform. While we are getting women on board, there is equal focus on getting companies too," says Kumar of WiT India.
In the last six months, WiT India has onboarded over one lakh women and 128 companies, which run a 'Chapter' in their area of expertise. "These communities are sponsored by industry," she says. For instance, the Chapter on Data Sciences is anchored by Crayon Data, Cloud Computing by IBM and Startups by Sequoia Capital. The peer network is not just about networking but bootcamps, hackathons and seminars too. Also, women get the option to assess their skills and get access to upskilling and learning solutions to jumpstart their career in STEM professions. Leap.Club's co-founder Ragini Das says members get access to executive coaching and one-on-one therapy sessions as well.
Do They Help?
Sheetal Gurung, Communications Trainer at American Express, says she joined Women on Wealth as she was not saving any money. "Once I accepted that I have money issues, I tried to resolve them by being a part of this community." Four years on, she leads the group's book club. One of the reasons for her continuing with the group is a desire to give back to new members. "Networks work on give and take. Like me, everyone joins a community to fill a void, but those who get value stay on to create a ripple effect." Gurung says founders play a crucial role in setting the right tone. "I am part of several other networks but there is no sense of engagement there and most of the people are silent."
"Every network has to set out its value proposition at the beginning, as without the right energy and engagement, interest will taper off," say Rashmi Mandloi, Managing Partner, BeyonDiversity Foundation.
Amrit Ahuja, former Facebook India Director of Communication who is now a mentor at Corporate Diva, says women need the safe space that a network offers where they can find allies, speak freely and show emotions without being judged.
"My every achievement in these last six years is owed to the organisation," says Sanya Khurana of LeapIn India. Khurana says without their support she wouldn't have even applied for internship at her 'dream' companies. "I was not applying to Fortune 500 firms as I felt they are out of my league. I got this courage due to the tenets of the group that one must embrace failure and take risk." ." Khurana has been working full-time for the last three years as a software development engineer at Adobe. Karuna Kak, Manager, Recruitment and Training, WhiteHatJr, downloaded the SHEROES app in 2018 for guidance as she was moving back to college after working for three years. It's been two years now but she is still on the platform and posts queries about her insecurities related to work, new job, career switch. "Recently, I accepted an offer that meant a shift in job profile. Community members gave me the confidence to take the plunge."
Women-only networks have their benefits, but it is also heartening to see women experimenting with its different formats to further the cause. "We want to leave behind a better legacy which is more inclusive and progressive. It is as simple as that," says Kumar of WiT India.