Sunday, January 16, 2022

Pandemic and Family Wellbeing

Last year, 2021, I signed up for #CauseAChatter, when I was told by Team Blogchatter that most of my blogs submitted under blogrolls qualify for the same. I stuck with the programme all through the year. Come 2022, January brought with it some great changes and some not so great ones as well. The first great thing was the certificate for being part of the CauseAChatter for 2021.

I have been offered a job in a start-up overseeing their HR operations, which is a huge thing for someone who has had a very non-traditional career path. I also decided that I wanted to pursue Masters (Post Graduation) now, 2+ decades after I completed my undergraduate studies. I was really hoping that the COVID situation will ease out with some semblance of normalcy returning into our lives.

Unfortunately, Omicron seemed to have a different idea altogether. Slowly cases are rising which has brought online schools back in full force. Even the glimmer hope that a form asking parental consent on sending older children to regular offline school just got squashed. 2+ years of online school, work from home (WFH) alternating between with and without domestic help, based on the circumstances, have had their toll on my mental health.

I was curious to know if I was the only one facing burnout and talked to some friends and found that many were going through a similar phase. It got me thinking. Here are some things that I deduced from my discussions with peers and friends on what contributes to this burnout:

  • Stunted Social Life: Restricted movements and the social distancing protocols of COVID appropriate behaviour leaves us all stuck indoors with just our family, and a few friends/neighbours who live close by our place. This is even more so when we are not in a financially privileged position to hire a private transport from our place to someone else’s place far from home.
  • Stunted Vacations: Vacations are the time to unwind. Irrespective of ones’ financial prowess, we would have one family vacation at least every 2 years away from our place of residence to enjoy the few days of change of routines or the lack of it, excitement of exploring a new place (small village or huge city), or just a change of scenery to break the monotony of life. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been possible for obvious reasons.
  • Virtual Workplaces: While there are benefits of virtual workspaces that help in keeping the continuity of work and by extension, business, and economics, it is still not an option for all. Also, the virtual workspace, I think is stunted as well, especially with respect to human interactions as it lacks the decorum that an actual workplace can provide.
  • Stunted Learning for Children: Children thrive with social interactions that involve all their senses. Online learning has them glued to the screens and a chair with no friend close by to snicker or bicker. The attention span that was already very low, to begin with has become almost negligible due to the monotony of the online classrooms.
  • Lack of personal time and space for primary care givers: For homemakers like me who hustle between homemaker and consultant/businesswomen at our convenience (read when the rest of the family is out and about, away from home), the pandemic lifestyle has been the toughest, catering to the demands of the family bringing order among the chaos that COVID brought into the daily routines by completely throwing it off track. Despite the repeated reassurance given by experts that the pandemic will soon move into the endemic mode, the light at the end of the tunnel is still not visible, especially considering the lack of change in human behaviour that is exhibited by leaders and common people alike.

Usually, when I write, I like to make sure that I also give a few pointers on how to address the issue at hand. While I do know I can give some, for the above-stated problem too, I am not sure they are enough to address the problem of burnout that people like me (Indian women, who are the unopposed primary caregivers with no choice to play the role of a secondary caregiver) are going through. And this burnout is not restricted to just people like me. It has affected every individual irrespective of age, gender, economic status and other such associated identifiers. The online space is also not safe enough to discuss our issues and vulnerabilities without a troll or a few dropping in and adding to our already overflowing basket of woes. With such a bleak picture, a deep sigh escapes me more often than usual and I find myself wishing fervently for the end to be near, for everyone's sake.

The need for safe spaces for everyone to be able to share their vulnerabilities, pain points, and frustrations has become a priority. Unfortunately, as a race, we humans have still, not even taken the first step to understanding ourselves and the biases that drive our behaviours and life choices. We are a long way from creating such safe spaces for healthy sharing and the probable start of beneficial discussions that can initiate a change.

I believe that miracles are a result of small intentional actions that would eventually drive a tsunami-like shift in our behavioural patterns, that feels like a miracle. Let us all together pledge to do our share of small intentional actions such as being self-aware, observing what is happening around us, and acting when we see someone in need of a break at least when they ask for it, shifting our focus from excellence to consistent progress (even is student performance – as parents and educators), and more.

Do share your thoughts on what other small intentional actions can bring about the tsunami-like wave that looks like a miracle?

This blog is part of Blogchatter’s #CauseAChatter challenge, #MentalHealth, #Discrimination, #AccessToEducation.

Sunday, December 05, 2021

My Volunteering Journey

My association with Blogchatter started with the team reaching out to me saying that many of my blogrolls submitted qualify for the #CauseAChatter challenge that had just begun in the first quarter for this year. This was in Feb. this year as soon as I joined the platform creating my profile. While this marks my journey as a #CauseAChatter champion, my journey as a volunteer began when I was in 6th Grade at school. The earliest I remember was enrolling myself as a part of Scouts & Guides team. I remember wanting to be part of the National Service Scheme (NSS) during my secondary years, but my new school did not have NSS. 

My blogs are a means for me to share my lived experiences in my life, filled with changes and learning from adapting and dealing with the constant changes that I have gone through as a student (K12 completed in 7 different schools) as well as an adult glomad (resident in 4 countries on 3 continents in a span of 13 years).

This year’s UN theme for International Volunteer Day is Volunteer now for our common future. On this day, this makes a lot of sense for me in my mid-life, I can’t claim that I knew about this as a child or even as a young adult. Yet the warmth I felt, when I volunteered and saw that my time and effort created a positive impact wherever I was able to contribute, was something that I wanted to keep. This is what made me to continue volunteering my time, effort, and skills in every place I resided. Once I settled into the new place, I would seek out the local community centre or NGO through the network of friends that I made in the initial phase and start my volunteering journey working for the cause that I felt at home with, in the local community. 

Over the years, I have faced one question that I have always struggled to answer with conviction, not because I did not believe in volunteering, but because I never really paused to think what was it that always brought me to volunteer my time and effort and not my money that I earn from my profession. There have also been times when I have felt low when peers and juniors (sometimes even seniors) have made statements to the effect that excellent skills were probably not used enough to support myself towards mending/uplifting my career path. 

Thanks to Blogchatter’s question for this International Volunteer Day on what #Unstoppable means to me as a #CauseAChatter Champion, my mind raced down the memory lane to come up with the answer to why I always kept being pulled towards volunteering.

Working for a cause is always measured by the impact that it has created and for me this measure was always important. The purpose of my work, I preferred to measure with the impact that it had/has in the overall schema of things. Most people associate success to a number (either the figure of salary that reached our bank accounts, the ordinal number in the race of life, or the hierarchical position in the career ladder), for me it meant the feeling of contentment for me and if someone else also benefited from my work, then that is the cherry on the cake. Volunteering never failed me in this. 

There are different kinds of volunteering based on what you are willing to volunteer: Financial Aid, Time, Expertise & Effort. All of them are essential components to be able to bring the required impact.

While I know what benefit I gained, the measure of impact that my contribution is some instances are unknown so far, maybe because they were seeds of thought planted to initiate/enable change and I had to relocate from there before I could see the progress of my planted seed.

Blogging (close to 2 decades) here & on Momspresso (for the last 3 years), and answering on Quora (at least the last 3 years) is another voluntary activity that I have had the pleasure of doing. This is my way to leaving behind responsible digital footprints of my lived experience and knowledge gained from these experiences, for the future generations to come, because what you put online, remains there forever.

What is in it for me?

This is one question I have faced time and again from many, despite the higher personal benefit gained from volunteering experience. So here I am listing it out again, hoping that this article will serve as my answer in future the next time I encounter the question.

  • Personal Satisfaction of Serving by impacting: While financial independence may not be there, I get the experience of deciding how the funds, shared by those volunteering funds for causes close their heart, get utilised to positively impact the recipients of the cause.
  • Knowing that my skills are directly being used to impact changes at the grass root level issues and hence will bring a better changed perspective and maybe by extension a better world for our future generations, because I am on the ground working at the grass root level and hence see this impact sooner than most.
  • It also helps me identify the causes at the grass root level to give me a front row seat view of how concepts of social and parental conditions, community groupism drive the group think. So, while solutioning, inclusion comes naturally due to having experienced these things on the field rather than just reading a passive version of it in books in the form of theories.
  • Helps me become a better person because mindfulness becomes a way of life in every role I don as part of a larger group/community. I am aware that the world of opportunities and privileges aren’t the same for everyone, even within the same community and hence the solutions or community level programmes need to be open and flexible enough to accommodate for this kind of variations, is a deeply ingrained lesson from practically experiencing it.
  • The personal detachment also becomes a way of life, while receiving feedback and criticism. Both success and failure are transient, is something that I have learned over the years, and hence the criticisms have started becoming less personal and less trigging. Equally, appreciations bring momentary pleasure, they never get to the additive phase, and I can move on to the next goal or cause that I identify for myself to work for the community wellbeing (that will eventually also cater to my wellbeing).
  • Success and failure are impact based rather than number based, which is a huge change in perspective but very calming for my personal self. I am out of the rat race because I know why I am working and not doing it because everyone aspires success. I also do (aspire for success), but just that my success definition has changed.
  • It allows me to experiment and learn skills outside my expertise and comfort area through online certification courses that contribute to the Continuous Professional Development (CPD) and growth.
  • The freedom to work outside the comfort zone also gives me scope relook at my educational qualification based on the country's acts and regulatory norms before I can narrow down on the right degree to top my current qualifications to continue my personal journey of skilling and qualifying, that would enable me to contribute towards the cause and the community with more relevancy and expertise.
  • Builds my personal and professional network and helps in personal self-care (with a sense of contentment and accomplishment) for the multitude of reasons mentioned above.
While #sustainability and #EnvironmentalTalks invoke the thought of green initiatives and reduce, reuse & recycle, I think the sustainability and environmental talks are incomplete without the impact of the role of volunteering and volunteers in these. On this International Volunteering Day, sharing my continuous tryst with volunteering till now and one that will continue in future also, is my dedication to this year’s theme in urging those of you who happen upon this blog to start volunteering to experience and enjoy what I have, and if you already are a volunteer, then to continue your journey.

This blog is part of Blogchatter’s #CauseAChatter challenge (#EnvironmentalTalks & #MentalHealthTalks) and #CauseAChatter Projects.

You can find all my blogs written for the #CauseAChatter challenge here.

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Sunday, November 28, 2021

How can women be the champion of change in MSME business?

We all know and have heard how educating women can change the dynamics of an entire family and even a nation. Here are some powerful ones:

“When women are educated, their countries become stronger and more prosperous.” - Michelle Obama

“When you invest in a girl’s education, she feeds herself, her children, her community, and her nation.” - Erna Solberg

“A girl child who is even a little bit educated is more conscious of family planning, health care and, in turn, her children's own education.” - Azim Premji

Beacons of Change 

While we now have a lot of schemes in India for Girl child education, what happens to most of them after they are educated? The socio-cultural conditioning still finds space for the unconscious bias of family care and nurture being solely dependent on women. This becomes even more detrimental when the career progress of women is concerned. Yet, we see on a regular basis that, many women are undeterred by the hurdles that these unconscious biases (their own and that of the society’s) poses for them and can figure out their individual path, that brings them back on the track to career and contribute towards conscious community care and development as well. This lived experience is different for every woman and these variations are what bring novelty to their individual experiences. 

When these women stabilise their journey back into a career and sustain their growth despite the changes in their personal life, and challenges in their professional life that might be conflicting with their personal needs, become beacons of light and leaders, who inspire by walking the path. They inspire the possibility of change for many women wanting change in their lives due to decisions taken out of generational conditioning. Women in Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises (MSME) are a smaller subset of this larger group of women who choose self-run business as their career option. While there are many successful women to highlight understanding those women who are probably much closer to us by the proximity of distance or relationship would help us relate to how each of us can become one such woman inspiring change by living it.

To understand this better, before we get into real-life inspirations that each of us might have in our own circle of family, friends, and acquaintances, let us take a couple of relatable modern-day movie characters, that bring out this aspect very well.

Sashi (from English Vinglish)

Shashi Godbole is an Indian homemaker who makes and sells laddoos as a home-run business. Her husband and daughter take her for granted, mock her because she doesn't speak much English, and generally treat her with disrespect, making Shashi feel vulnerable and insecure. Sashi’s character is representative of most homemakers in India. The rest of the movies unfolds with lived experiences of how a non-English speaking Indian woman finds her way around New York City, manages to enroll in a Spoken English class that has people from different countries of the world, giving her an international multi-cultural exposure as a bonus. The money that she uses for payment towards the spoken English course is from the income of her laddoo business. Finally, with her command over the language (upskilling), her event management skills to manage a wedding in foreign soil, building and nurturing relationships accommodating for the changing times, with healthy boundaries that mirror her personal values, she ends up being an inspiration to many. 

Vasanthi (from 36 Vayadhinile)

Vasanthi is a working woman, doing the run-of-the-mill job as a clerk in Revenue Department and managing her home - again a typical characterisation of a middle-class working woman in India. When her husband aspires to emigrate to Ireland, she is unable to join him due to her age acting as a hindrance for job applications. When her husband and her daughter travel to Ireland, she is left behind in India and finds a lot of time on her hand with lesser responsibilities at home after work. 

A happenstance meeting with her college friend (who is now a CXO), reminds Vasanthi of herself when she was a college student. This inspires Vasanthi to rediscover herself, whom she lost in the mundane everyday life, with no personal time or space till now. This quest of hers takes her down the path of creating a sustainable business model of sourcing and using organically grown and sourced vegetables for a wedding catering, by using the unused terrace spaces of a modern city dwelling into organic greenhouses and the manual effort of homemakers and retired citizens who love gardening. Eventually, the movie goes on to show her winning regional and national accolades for her idea and achievement and the successful meeting with the President of India, with complete confidence.

Shashi & Vasanthi inspirations in my Life

I have met such women in real life as well. A trailing spouse from India, living in the USA with a young child, graduate in her local medium (but did not know English), loved cooking, made a source of income, by making homemade Indian community around us, used that income to find a private English tutor for herself, to come home to teach her (as her child was too young for her to leave home for a class). Now, she is quite well-versed in English and financially also independent and contributing to her family. 

When I lived in the UK, I had the opportunity to know another such strong woman who was from the same state from where I come, in her late 30s, but never had the experience of having a formal school education, before she relocated. She could not read or write in any language and could only speak in her mother tongue. She had three children and loved cooking. She started with making home-cooked meals for elderly and known people, for a nominal price, to support her spouse’s paltry income, to care for the needs of the family. I saw her transform into someone who now knows to make simple sentences in English, found herself a job through a UK job centre, in one of the retail stores. Now she has a day job and a micro business.

While both these women are my real-life examples (but outside India), I am sure we all will have such stories of women who transformed to inspire others in our own lives in our own neighbourhood in India. Sometimes we miss noticing them, as we are too close to the conditioning thoughts/culture that blind us from seeing such women for their achievements. 

Champions of Change

The above examples show how traditional skills and passion areas can be turned into possible opportunities for a woman’s livelihood when supported by necessary skilling and networking. 
Many of women's contributions to the economy continue to go unrecognized because their work is not easily counted within the conventional structures. Women do most of the work within this unorganized sector (and mostly from their homes) and as a result, much of their work is not counted (or is underrepresented) in official statistics. Yet these experiences naturally equip women with some basic skills that benefit those who wish to enter the MSME segment:
  • Thriving in adversity makes women resilient in the face of failure. Setting up a business has its own journey of ups & downs, filled with challenges and changes before it can start making a profit. Having experienced such adversities on the personal front, helps them to stay the course till the business starts making money.
  • Maximising impact with limited resources: Something women are used to, on a regular basis, while running a family within budget. Bootstrapping, working with limited funds and resources in an MSME business is just a natural extension. 
  • Agile Learner: Learning to adapt to change in environment (during marriage and as trailing spouses), transitioning through stages of growth daughter, wife, daughter-in-law, mother, grandmother. In all these phases, the constant being shouldering the responsibility of home management as default. In some cases, women also play the role of a tutor, counsellor, and first aider. This ability enables women to dig into the business nitty-gritty, understand its depth and width, look for help and ask for it as well when needed, and keep marching ahead. 
  • Home Management Skills: Planning, Bookkeeping, Procurement, Budgeting, Personal care, Teaching. These are transferable skills that are useful assets in setting up a business and becoming a trainer for self and others thereby minimising training costs and personal costs. Childcare, a major responsibility heavily dependent on the woman is a viable business option today for creche or pre-school/playschools with the necessary skilling and certifications along with safety requirements.
  • Hobbies into Business Ideas: More traditional housekeeping and self-care skills that are taught as hobbies to women such as sewing, embroidery, lace making, crochet, tatting, candle making, art, craft, dance, music, yoga, fitness, are all possible sustainable business idea for MSME with minimal or no investment or advertising costs. 
  • Research shows that Women are more Emotionally Intelligent than men. Handling relationships, childcare, care of ailing family members, are natural means to learning emotional intelligence on the job and this comes in as a strength in the business world while learning to manage professional relationships and work with different people their cultural conditioning.
  • The Right to Education & Educating a Girl Child campaign has been liberating and empowering women to establish a presence in every field. MSME is no exception. Read more about the women who have achieved by being trailblazers in the MSME segment in this article by The CEO Story.

Encouraging more Women into the MSME Segment

Ministry of Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises (MSME), on the eve of International Women’s day 2018, launched Udayam Sakhi, a network for nurturing social entrepreneurship creating business models revolving around low-cost products and services to resolve social inequities [2]. The ministry’s website is also content-rich with multiple resources and reading material on MSME for those who wish to venture out in this direction.

The ministry also has a programme called MSME Champions to promote sustainable growth to promising MSME through mentoring and make them national and international champions.
For more in-depth reading and information here are a few recent reports:
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Pictures: Stills from the movies English Vinglish & 36 Vayadhinile.