The SHEROES Contributor

Riitu Chugh

A digital strategist, Riitu has 20 years’ experience across mainline advertising as an account planner and business head. With experience in the Leo Burnett, Hakuhodo and BBDO networks (mainline advertising) and Hungama / Digitas / FleishmanHillard (digital & social ). As an entrepreneur, she uses her account planner’s discipline to work with consumer research and insights to craft digital / social media strategies plus creative ideas and content for a holistic offering to clients
Her dreams include running a marathon and dividing her life between Delhi and Bali in the not so distant future.

My Long and Winding Road

I've come a long way, baby.

With due apologies to Virginia Slims. Those of us who were in the advertising business in those times would remember that one.

Circa BC or should it be BM (Before Marriage)?

Business was different back then. Television was growing by leaps and bounds as a medium of entertainment and information. Some of the best loved TV serials were holding sway. Print was a robust and credible form of communication. For those of us who worked in advertising - the view from outside was that of a glamorous, easy-going and fun world.

No one saw the long hours, the endless deadlines, client tantrums, and the constant effort to deliver a creatively outstanding campaign. And the endless chase to recover payments.

In the midst of all this - here I was - a wide eyed, enthusiastic account management trainee - thrown in at the deep end. The good thing was that here was a space where women were equal participants.My business group was headed by a woman. And there were enough of us in myriad roles and departments making it a healthy gender balance. We worked shoulder to shoulder. Across functions and designations. Everyone put in the long hours expected, uncomplainingly and over delivered at work. No one saw us women to be different or having special needs of any kind. Ergo - no privileges, no HR centric initiatives, no self help or support groups. Nothing, until the time marriage and motherhood happened.

Life as a woman changed significantly. At home at least. But my life at work did not. I was still expected to work insane hours, meet deadlines, and pretty much put baby, home and hearth on the back-burner. And since I had by that time moved up in the professional hierarchy, the pressures to perform and deliver were greater.I was known to be one of the pillars of my company and there was a new branch head. So I simply walked in to his room and asked if I could finish my work for the day and then leave. It was not a flexi-time arrangement - but one which gave me some leeway to finish work and rush back home to my baby. All the while I was consumed by guilt for leaving him behind with my parents.

I knew I was missing out on his development and would miss seeing a lot of his milestones. Then the everlasting search for reliable domestic help was taking a toll.But one struggled on. Once the boss got a bee in his bonnet and decided to withdraw the 'leave from work early' perk - it became truly and nearly impossible to carry on. So one decided to compromise on the moneys but not on the child and certainly not on peace of mind.

I took a break from work. I was lucky to have people in my network who enabled me to get part time work opportunities - teaching management students and consulting with boutique agencies. It was the answer to my prayers - since it not only kept me busy and helped me flex my grey matter, I earned enough to feel secure. But I guess - I was lucky.

I don't think I came across similar situations happening with other women friends. It was all or nothing. So we were damned if we did and damned if we did not. Now that I look back - and think - what would have made it easier?

Understanding and empathy -certainly. Some of that one got from colleagues. But hardly any from bosses or management. I don't think things have radically changed over the years. If that basic understanding / sensitivity is not there - then it will not manifest in any actions or initiatives that support working mothers in their place of work. It all starts there.

There needs to be this big realization that if a woman employee is a valuable asset to the organization - then do your best to hold on to her. Do what you can to enable her work life. Help her look forward to her workday. Understand that each day is a challenge and that a positive and supportive attitude can actually change and enable her life completely. Some obvious specifics -

  • Ideally six months of maternity leave - with the option to extend by another six months without pay.
  • Flexible and work from home options
  • Reliable and vetted child care services on location or in the work vicinity.
  • Access to information and / or services to make life easier - doctors, domestic help, self-help and counselling services, support groups
  • This could be a trump card — if an organization is large enough to wield influence with schools or even set up one if it's own — then you can be sure that every employee will hang on to their jobs for dear life.

Most importantly — there needs to be a realization amongst us to not treat this time-out as a problem or a roadblock. Just as we are told not to regard pregnancy as a disease, but as a natural process to be enjoyed and cherished — one needs to treat this time as one of consolidation and growth — both as a mother and a professional. Relax, enjoy, re-group and refresh and turn the time in to a springboard for your next level of growth. Frame a time bound activity plan with specific milestones, and goals. Work around flexible opportunities, or keep your sabbatical. See if you can go back to studies and learning to add value before coming back in to the work space. Or if nothing else, read and stay connected with developments in your field.

In short — turn in the challenge into an opportunity. We can do this individually. One can hope that employers would formalize this thought and develop this for their women employees. Or a life skills coach could turn this in to an action plan and make a killing.

Cut to AD The challenges of managing work and home are a distant memory. Life has been about mostly work and about my wonderful baby son who now is ready to step in to his professional life. The years have been kind to me. I have and continue to live in really interesting times.

A career that began in the mainline advertising space, interspersed with a dot com stint taught me my fundamentals and how not to run a digital business. Along the way I was nurtured and turned in to an account planner, ended up working on some of India's largest brands, acquired an MBA degree with a gold medal for topping the course.

Coming back in to the digital space was the best thing that happened to me professionally. A mix of assignments with Indian and multinational agencies on some great brands brought me home to my calling as a digital / social media strategist.

That's the good part. Balanced out by challenges that have persisted in terms of struggling to find a space where I could be truly comfortable in an environment that would be supportive of my work and capabilities. To be fair — each space taught me and enabled me to morph further in to the professional who finally took the leap of faith to turn in to an entrepreneur, recently.

After the initial strain of adjusting to a new work routine and beginning virtually from scratch — life has been a roller-coaster ride. Despite the ups and downs, the no's and the silences, the payment follow ups and delays — overall — the experience has been one which I would not now exchange for another job. I technically still do not have a 'company' or a name for it, nor my own website up as yet. I have been through the experience of people going silent on business deals and outstanding payments. I have turned down more work than I have taken on.

There have been obvious benefits such as being master of my own time and the flexibility to take up projects which a regular job would not have ensured. The biggest and most beautiful surprise has been the discovery that I am within a network of friends, acquaintances and professionals who have enabled me to create fabulous opportunities for myself and my growth.

The best thing is when I wake up every morning and I really, really look forward to having a happy and fulfilling day at work. The moneys have begun to flow in. A former colleague turned work partner says — "we are good people — and we do good things — so good things will happen for us." Every day is an adventure — in doing great things in my work space. Be it meeting an interesting start-up or collaborating with an unexpected contact or getting a lead in to the coolest new brand that's already making waves. My best is yet to come.

Secret sauce tips for making your life as an entrepreneur more than worth your while — Take time out and decide exactly what you want to do. Be different from the rest of the world.
Go back in to your network of contacts for opportunities — and never leave anything unexplored.
Reach out to all new and old contacts via your network.
Build your personal brand on Twitter, Linkedin, Quora. Write a sensible blog. Keep Facebook for personal stuff.
Your single most precious asset is your time. Use it wisely and don't waste it on people looking for ideas and costings. Don't bother.
Remember — time spent on a project on which more than one person is participating — will lead to loss of time plus cost of that opportunity, assuming you would have used that time for something more productive and fruitful.
Read, share and study. MOOC's rock.
Spend time with yourself — introspect and plan ahead but don't obsess. And give yourself small treats for something well done.
Give of yourself — and it will come back to you.
Enjoy your new life as your new master. I certainly am.

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