Who understands women better than women? Four companies are taking that thought and moulding an internal women's grouping that is a win-win. Each of these four groupings are helping women employees or entrepreneurs professionally and personally, and is giving companies a better idea of what women want, reports ET.
GE Women's Network: Bringing Them Back to Work
In GE parlance, Kshira Muthanna is a 'restart' candidate. For 14 years after she graduated, Muthanna stayed home to raise her kids. Then, in 2000, the technologist decided she was ready for a job and joined GE in Bangalore. "It was a tough phase in my life," she says. "I was much older than the others on my team, and was struggling to cope with the new computers and systems. When I heard about an affinity group being formed, I knew I needed to be associated with it."
It was early days, too, for GE's Women's Network, with women leaders wondering how to leverage it to benefit the company's female workforce. Mentoring was a focus area. So, Muthanna signed up for it and was assigned a technologist in the US as her guide. Her mentor eased Muthanna into the system by giving her global projects she could carry out from Bangalore itself. "She jumpstarted my career," says Muthanna who still keeps in touch with her former mentor.
Muthanna herself has mentored restart candidate Arioli Arumugam, a team leader at GE Aviation, who took a break for two-and-a-half years when she had her kids. Arumugam feared obsolesce of her skills because she "had not touched a computer in that entire period", but Muthanna set her right and urged her to hone the skills she would require for getting ahead. "Kshira kept pushing me to think about what I would do at GE even 10 years from the day," says Arumugam. "I'm thrilled GE is focussing on people wanting to return after a break. There are so many good candidates out there the company can benefit from."
In the last four years, GE has hired 30 'restart' women. And while the network also looks to cultivate leadership competencies among its female employees, position women in technology and even address their health issues, bringing talented women back into its fold is top-of-thelist, says Leena Sahijwani, regional head of the women's network. "A few years ago, we also decided to bring back women from long breaks and, alongside, created an enabling environment for them with flexi-hours, a buddy-mentor system, etc," she adds.
Smaller, centre-based events aside, the network organises roundtable events (with groups of 20-25 women) where senior, global leaders interact with employees; women's-only town halls with about 80-100 people, and a larger annual event under the theme of 'Aspire Connect and Lead', which is attended by anywhere between 100 to 600 women, depending on location. In an eventful year (like 2012), the network might host as many as 200 programmes. Restart, however, remains a critical initiative.
Cisco Connected Women: Mentoring and Skilling Leaders
Cisco employee Sripriya Sridhar had always thought of herself as nerdy, serious and lacking the social skills to be a leader. When she joined the company six years ago in a technical role, Sridhar was happy to work behind the scenes in systems development. Then, a few years ago, her mentor in the company suggested a business unit role. "He said I had the ability to delegate, influence and inspire people," she says.
"And that my positive attitude and sense of humour would stand me in good stead when managing a team. Frankly, I never knew I had any of these qualities." Sridhar is now a managing partner (engineers), and handles multiple projects and works with changing teams.
These learnings, especially about herself, have come from Sridhar's association with Cisco Connected Women (CCW), the company's women's network. Among other things, CCW members are assigned a mentor—usually someone senior and from another domain—who helps them work on their skill sets so that they can move up the ladder.
The other thing that CCW did was give Sridhar visibility. She is a regular at the annual Grace Hopper conference (an international meet for women in computing) and has come to know many of Cisco's global leaders, like chief technology office Padmasree Warrior, personally. On occasion, she has even used the conference to recruit new talent for her company. "When I joined Cisco, I used to think that the CCW was a group of benevolent aunties," says Sridhar. "It is anything but."
CCW founder-member Pallavi Arora says much thought went into just how Cisco would construct its women's network for India. In 2002, when it was started, there were just 14 members, who moved in step with the parent network in San Jose, US. Today, more than 350 women comprise the Indian chapter, which is run by a four-member leadership team.
"CCW India has gone beyond the structure set down by our headquarters to become one of the most active networks the world over," says Arora. It has done this by, among other things, expanding its scope of activities. Besides individual development of members, CCW drives some of the company's philanthropic work through tie-ups with external partners.
There's a clear reason for this kind of connect: while CCW's older members are interested in career development, entry-level executives are more keen on giving back. "Our Girls in Technology programme, which is aimed at creating an interest among university students through activities hosted by Cisco, is perfect for younger women employees," says Arora. There is an important lesson here. "If you want to run a successful women's network, you have to do different things," says Arora. "There can be no one-size-fits-all policy."
Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network:Empowering Entrepreneurs
The best thing Jessie Paul, managing director of the Bangalore-based marketing advisory firm PaulWriter, likes about the DellWomen's Entrepreneur Network (DWEN), is that it provides a safe and non-judgemental space for women entrepreneurs to get together.
Paul, who has attended some of DWEN's global meets, says: "Women socialise differently from men. In a general gathering, women entrepreneurs tend to be reticent and let their male colleagues do all the talking, even if they actually run the company. But when you have a women'sonly event, structured around areas of interest for us, you can build contacts and connections faster and more freely."
It's tough enough being an entrepreneur in India, tougher still if you're a woman. Most Indian women entrepreneurs face problems: they are not taken seriously by investors, and their work is seen as a hobby that generates a supportive income for the family, particularly if they work from home, says Paul.
DWEN tries to level the playing field. "There are some unique problems women entrepreneurs face, and we wanted to see how we can create a platform where a lot of successful women across the globe can engage with each other and access new markets through each other," says P Krishna Kumar, general manager for consumer and small business at Dell. As an IT company, Dell hopes many of these engagements will tap its technology or expertise to further these connections.
DWEN had its first conference in Shanghai in 2010, followed by Rio de Janeiro in 2011, and Delhi last year. "While our conferences are global, we have women entrepreneurs from countries like India, Brazil, Canada, China, Turkey, the US and UK participating in all of them," says Kumar. "At least 40-50% of the participants are from the local country."
At the Delhi meet, there are 40-85 Indian women as well. Before a conference, DWEN gets in touch with local entrepreneurship development associations for feedback, like CII and TiE in India. Investors are also invited to give attendees a shot at finding financial support on their own for start-ups. The company also offers a $100 million Innovative Spirit Fund, for women entrepreneurs to scale up projects (though an Indian has not been a recipient yet).
DWEN is a nod to Michael Dell's mandate to do something for small businesses. "As a company, we focus on small and medium businesses, because we were an SME ourselves once," adds Kumar. "But while large corporates get serviced by big brands, small businesses are neglected." DWEN hopes to fix that, at least where women are concerned.
HCL Technologies Women Connect: Their Needs, Company Policy
Shortly after Srimathi Shivashankar, the diversity lead at HCL Technologies, joined the company, she came across a newsletter (published by the women's network at the time) that was supposedly for women employees. The topics included how to pick a party outfit, what kind of cleaning agents to have around the house, how to take care of your hair, and such.
"The company was trying to bring some 'feminine' aspects to the workplace," says Shivashankar, "but perhaps this should have been more in the nature of gender-neutral policies and promoting compassionate relationships."
The idea that a women's network can do much to help its members come together for advocacy, career advancement and professional development had clearly been missed by those who ran the previous network. So, in 2011, when HCL Tech formed Women Connect (WC), an affinity group for its women employees, these things were high on the agenda.
WC works closely with the diversity team. "The idea is to look at the unique needs of women employees and see how these can be aligned to the business goals of the company," says Shivashankar. Thus, WC provides mentors, coaches and counsellors for women employees at different stages of their work life, and also acts as a sounding board for initiatives that may touch them.
"Before any policy gets rolled out, the HR and diversity teams seek our input," says Ambika Natarajan, a WC leader. "We've discussed flexi hours, maternity leave and telecommuting (where women employees work from home for a few hours every day)." When a team undertakes activities that might affect women employees, WC is the first port of call for suggestions and ideas.
Some meetings are purely analytics driven—data (relating to women employees) that needs analysing and translation into policy—but WC leaders are always a part of it. "This is thought leadership at its best, using crowd sourcing, and enabled by Women Connect," says Natarajan. One of WC's biggest imperatives was to make sure the needs of its members were aligned to the business. WC had the blessings of then-CEO Vineet Nayar, and most of the senior leaders, who are mentors to its members. For instance, when it comes to customer centricity, HCL Tech realised it was necessary to bring back women employees who had taken a break from work.
"We often had customers asking for certain managers by name, and even willing to wait for their return," says WC leader Sowmya Suresh. That became a problem when the manager went on maternity leave. WC works closely with the HCL Tech's recruiting team to make sure many of its former women employees are hired back.
Both Natarajan and Suresh say the network has helped them achieve professional milestones, by giving them exposure (especially among the senior management) and enabling them to showcase their capabilities. "After a certain point, most of your learning comes from rich interactions with the right kind of people. Training programmes just don't cut it any more," says Natarajan. "Women Connect allows for those opportunities." Suresh credits WC for incresing her personal efficiency. "Last year, I was awarded a certificate for producing a zero-defect product for a Japanese client. They are really hard to please, but seemed happy with my work. But for the mentoring enabled by Women Connect, this would never have happened."