Sairee Chahal, founder of Sheroes needs no introduction. A trailblazer in her own right, she has revolutionised the job scene for woman through her venture SHEROES – a Noida-based online career destination for women from all walks of life. Sairee believes that a career is a maze and not a ladder as has been traditionally prescribed to us and her mission is to help millions of women navigate this maze through any and all stages of their lives. She is aiming to reach 100 Mn women members in the next five years.
In a candid AMA with Inc42, Sairee opens up and reveals what constitutes her version of success, how simply asking around can get you your next best leads, and why she is always seen sporting sport shoes with all her outfits!
Here are the coolest answers from the session:
Question: Sheroes has grown a lot but what inspired you to start in the first place?
Sairee: In some cases, you look around for idea, in some cases ideas find you. In my case, Sheroes was absolutely an idea I had to do something about. It is something that sort of grew up all through my career – it was a need I saw as I progressed in my career. The woman at work story is very incomplete and I got to do something about it. The thing that compelled me the most was that we haven’t built scalable products in this space. A lot of work has been done but at a very basic level and somehow the coolness of tech had not crept into building products that will really benefit women. We are in India and broken in many ways, especially, in the gender disparity numbers and maybe this was the right thing to do.
Question: How could one go about identifying and addressing sexism in the workplace?
Sairee: What constitutes sexism is something not a lot of people are aware of. As workplaces get more diverse, different kind of people come in the workplace – it’s a critical issue. To me, calling out sexism is one way of addressing it. If you notice something, then it means it needs to be recognised and addressed and not brushed under the carpet. From a company perspective, getting people sensitised to gender diversity, to diverse people in the workplace, to making space for everyone is really critical.
Sheroes actually offers an independent reporting and grievance helpline to companies to manage issues of workplace sexism and harassment because a lot of people are not sure – men and women alike – as a lot of workplaces are still grappling with becoming diverse or getting more women in the workplace or breaking the bro culture. I think these are very early days but workplaces in India are becoming diverse and inclusive and fair- but everyone just needs to own it a little bit.
Question: Workplace diversity is a thorny issue all over the world especially India. Can you name some tectonic shifts in the workplace, especially in tech, since Sheroes began?
Sairee: When we started, we would sit outside large company offices waiting for meetings. We would get the most junior intern to meet us – that was the level of significance of the agenda in the hierarchy. They would not have any budgets or clarity but as we have grown we have seen that this conversation is now owned by CXOs, board rooms – the stakeholder ownership has changed. And that’s one big shift I have seen.
Secondly, workplace flexibility has changed. People would question us – what do you mean by work from home or working remote? Even today, a large percentage of people think work from home means doing scammy data entry jobs, cheap work which no one feels proud of. But today one of our fastest growing business lines, our biggest ask is remote work. And we feel proud of the fact that it is a big shift.
Question: What is the first step one should consider taking while starting one’s own business?
Sairee: One should definitely start a business when you have an idea that you really want to do something about. Don’t start a business because your friend said so or your mom said so or because it’s cool to start one. Start a business because that’s what who you are and you want to make a difference.
Don’t start a business to make money because money is going to come perhaps much later than a job. And start it for the right reason – solve a problem, build a product, build a solution. Do something that you are passionate about. Do something that you really want to do and the logistics of doing it is called a business.
Question: What advice will you give millennials to find purpose and passion in life?
Sairee: I don’t think anyone has it figured out. Life is an iterative process and, unfortunately, we all lose in the end with nothing to take with us. We are all here to guide each other home and everything else is logistics. So you have one life- you have got to live it well enough to be proud of it for it to may be repeatable again! Maybe that’s a good metric. I use it for myself all the time.
Question: As an entrepreneur and a mother, your go-to mantra for managing work-life balance?
Sairee: I have to confess I have no semblance of any work-life balance in my life, even though I have a family and a daughter. There are things that demand my attention but it would be it would be absolutely imperfect to say that I do justice to all of them. But at any given point of time, you take your pick – you put something as number one in your life. For a large part of my life, even in the current moment, it happens to be my work. Maybe balance is illusionary – maybe it’s ok to do it your own way, build your own version of imbalance whichever way it works for you.
Question: Everyone has a definition of success. What is yours?
Sairee: I would say success is when after a day of work, you can go home, go to bed and fall asleep in five minutes. I think that’s a good measure – you have had a good day. I think liking what you do, liking yourself doing it, liking where you are – that’s success. Even if it is hard or not so cool or sexy or rich or famous but it works for you, it’s fine because it’s your version of success.
Question: Why do you always wear shoes with every dress?
Sairee: Most of us have office jobs and we are there from morning to evening. So, if you wear high heels, whatever little walking you do, you are not going to do even that. To me it is just comfort over anything else. It also makes your life simple – I don’t have to think which shoe or which dress to match every morning! I can go for a walk or a run anytime. I take lot of meetings and calls while walking. I had a huge shoe collection which I gave away three years ago. So now I only own two pairs of shoes. It’s quite peaceful – you feel comfortable, you can walk a lot. People might think you are looking ridiculous but they notice you. So yeah, shoes have a story!
Question: What challenges have you faced while starting your own venture?
Sairee: As Sheroes was not my first venture, a lot of the mistakes I had to make, I made in my previous ones. The core challenge was to get the category right. When I said I was going to form a women-centric company, everyone thought I would sell stuff to them. A lot of people still ask me – are you Naukri for women? Which is not who we are at all.
So, getting the category right, putting together the tech piece, the whole ecosystem were some challenges. Some companies are like building a factory – you have to put the pillars, the shed, and the machines before it looks like it is going to churn out something. So Sheroes is a little bit like that. It needs a little ground work before everything starts rolling in a scalable way. For a long time, people were wondering what are we- a training company, a media company, a recruitment company? Luckily I had a lot of support from my mentors and investors.
Question: Three books that you would recommend as a must read for women?
Sairee: A must read is both for men or women. Zero to One by Peter Thiel,from a startup perspective, Steve Job’s biography, and Alex Fergusson’s (Man-U coach) biography are books I have enjoyed. I am a biography fan and find that sports biographies are a good way to learn. There’s a book that I keep by my bedside called Simple Abundance and that’s actually a book for women. It’s called the daybook of comfort and joy.
Question: How do you manage your time and get things done? How do you unwind?
Sairee: I get a lot of help. I also realise I am fairly disorganised and inefficient most days. My management is by process of elimination and just doing what really needs to be done, what needs to sort of get out of the way today. I don’t worry too much. I give it my best shot and I enjoy while I am at it. So when I am at work, it doesn’t feel like work. If I had my way, I would live in office and bring my toothbrush and yoga mat with me! I unwind with a good drink with my friends, I enjoy conversations, I read , I play with my dogs, I take my daughter out.
In the end, Sairee’s advice for budding entrepreneurs was to keep at it, keep doing the right things, trying making less mistakes, learn from the mistakes of others, read up, stay grounded, stay connected but do not worry much about what others says about success and business models. Over execute over everybody else!