In-Focus

Kochi: A recent study indicated that one out of every 11 adult women in the developed world is an entrepreneur. And Kerala, with its 100 per cent literacy and forward-thinking women is not far behind at all. One of the advantages in a woman-owned business is that the workforce distribution is much more balanced. Studies say that women entrepreneurs are more likely to have a staff pattern that is more gender-balanced, comprising 52 per cent women and 48 per cent men, on an average. On the other hand, most male-owned businesses have a workforce that often comprises more than 65 per cent men.

The transformation that the women in the education field has brought about in Kerala is significant. In the last decade, there have been intense efforts to impart communication and soft skills, with institutions cropping up all over the State. Seven of them – Sheela Alex Matthai, MD, Graduate Overseas; Anisha Cherian, MD, Chemmannur Academy and Systems Private Ltd.; Nirmala Lilly, CEO, Infinity  Hospitality Services; Joshila Ramesh, Founder, Aspire HR Solutions; Chandra Vadhana R, 4Tune Factory and Roshni Binu, Founder, Educkshetra – stand apart.

With a mix of compassion and assertiveness, women can conquer hearts easily. And no wonder they are great at holding leading positions in the education arena. With maternal instincts coupled with genuine traits of care and concern, women make great teachers as well as entrepreneurs in the education and learning fields. For them, entrepreneurship is not a sports item or a field of activity where men and women compete in different sets. They believe, when you enter business, you face challenges equally and both men and women are in the race together. Since women are inherently very capable and dedicated, it makes them great teachers and leaders, feels Roshni Binu, who kick-started Educkshetra. “As women deal with the upbringing of kids and caring for family members on a day-to-day basis, they are able to understand, engage and teach students very well,” she says.

The scope is tremendous as educational qualifications of job-seekers and the industry requirement hardly meet. According to Jose Dominic, MD and CEO, CGH Earth Group, there is a substantial gap between the industry’s requirement and the quality of the pool of candidates available. “Most of them are in a scramble for obtaining graduate certificates. This gap presents opportunities for training and HR firms to provide job-ready, skilled people, especially for the service industry, which needs employees who are having good communication and interpersonal skills,” he says.

Speaking to Destination Kerala, Tom Jose IAS, Additional Chief Secretary, Department of Labour and Skills and Chairman, KASE (Kerala Academy for Skills Excellence) said the State Government will initiate steps to chalk out an action plan to utilise the service of women entrepreneurs in the field of training and education to plug the gap. “We will soon call a meeting of women entrepreneurs in the sector, organise a seminar, seek ideas from them and assign a task force within the Department to develop an action plan. Besides addressing an industry issue, promoting women entrepreneurship will also boost the economy. Women entrepreneurs can be the force multipliers of our economy,” he said.

There is a general consensus regarding the redundancy of school and college curricula and how training programmes are becoming the need of the hour to make students capable.

Chandra Vadhana R of 4Tune Factory says, “Real transformation occurs when the person decides to get transformed. A well qualified and experienced HR trainer acts as a facilitator.”

Roshni says, “Besides introducing relevant syllabus, I would like to integrate more life skills and leadership lessons, and moral values to nurture a great mindset in young job aspirants.” It will make them self-reliant and evolved individuals.

Chandra adds: “Technology-enabled solutions have changed the way we see and understand education and training industries. Trainers help students to think by themselves and the ordinary teachers teach what the syllabus tells. Teachers have become inspirers, coaches and trainers. Their role is to inculcate an interest in studies as well as to help in coaching the skills needed for practicing their profession.

So how do these women entrepreneurs manage their businesses?

Riya Cherian’s (Guiders Academy) mantra for success is ‘Total commitment towards your goal with 100 per cent honesty and humility’. Ego, she feels, has absolutely no place in business, but what matters are self-confidence and the belief in oneself. Honesty and transparency in all your actions and decisions are what will help one tide over hurdles and create clear lines of communication with staff, customers, and everyone else involved in the business. Besides these, Riya staunchly believes that you have to get your priorities right and realise when you must agree and be lenient and when you have to put your foot firmly down and say ‘No.’

Stressing the Importance of Resilience

Sheela Alex Matthai is the MD of Graduate Overseas, a student agent for studies abroad. Started in 2003, it has been maintaining high performance and presence in various parts of the country. Sheela has a postgraduate degree in English Literature from Women’s College, Thiruvananthapuram, and is a reigning Educational Consultant in the State.

How has the journey been?

The entire concept was that of starting a company to help students realise their dreams. So I am a dream full-filler, if one can be called that. We try to ensure that each student’s ‘want’ – which maybe unique – is addressed. I started this firm after gaining necessary core competence in this field and ensuring tie-ups with some of the top universities abroad. One thing is very important to us: that the quality of institutions we represent and quality of services we provide are not compromised. Last two years, I took a step back. I have always wanted to be the best student advisor for overseas studies. Some top-ranking universities have approached us to work with them, so the plan is to visit them, get trained and ensure that students get the information first hand. We presently work with around 100 universities across the world.

 ‘Students come First. Always,’ says your tagline. Tell us more about it.

This tagline was a very clearly thought-out choice when we started. We wanted to be different by making sure that even while we represented several universities, it is a student’s need that always came first. We also emphasise that students know the pros and cons of studying abroad. This helps them with realistic expectations. Eighty-five per cent of our students are referrals, which speaks volumes about not just our service but also of the institutions that they have enrolled into.

 How do you recruit your staff?

There really are not any set pre-requisites while recruiting a team member. We have personnel coming from all strata of society and with different educational qualifications. One thing that they have in common is the sincerity to students and counselling, in that order. All counselling is done by me or my senior staff members.

How was your journey as a woman entrepreneur in the State?

There is absolutely no difference being a male or a female entrepreneur in Kerala, especially in our field. It is more about the information level you have, your partner universities and your relationship with the embassies, which decide your journey. I am an active member of the Ladies Forum of Kerala Chamber of Commerce and Industry and I have to say we all feel the same.

In your view, what are the necessary qualities to succeed in business?

Resilience is the most important quality that an entrepreneur needs. This can only be honed with experience. Specific qualities required in my field would be relevant information at all times; courses keep getting updated, rules of countries keep changing and so do the visa requirements. What is of utmost importance is sincerity to the student and your partner university.

 How do you balance work and family life?

There is no perfect balance, and we cannot have it all. So let’s be very honest about that. I think the answer lies in prioritising and that would be an individual’s choice. I would like to think I have managed very well.

 What are your future plans?

Graduate Overseas should be known as one of the best student advisors in India. When a genuine student or parent makes a decision or when any school, college or educational institution decides to have a seminar on overseas education, I want them to think of Graduate Overseas.

Quality and Relationships Count Much

A multi-faceted personality, Anisha Cherian is the MD of Chemmannur Academy & Systems Private Ltd.

Training and recruitment are core verticals of Chemmannur Academy, which was launched in 2003. Having been born into a business family, starting one’s own enterprise and running it only seemed natural. “In the first year of my BBM, I experienced a transformation after attending an intensive self-development training programme. I realised my strengths and weaknesses and got hooked to attending training programmes and reading self-development material,” she says.

Anisha was very active in college literary and cultural activities. She was the editor of the college magazine, where she learnt the importance of structure, and how to focus on the expectations of the readers and the management. She was pivotal in fundraising, logistics and arranging media coverage as the chief coordinator of a National Management Colleges meet. She reminisces: “We hosted more than 75 management colleges. It was an amazing experience on leadership; creating and managing teams, delegating responsibilities, resolving issues and following them up.” Participating in debates helped improve her presentation skills as well, paving the way for a well-defined future.

How does she manage family life with such a busy schedule? She says she’s still in the process of finding that perfect balance between work and home and family. “It is not easy and is a continuous process of trial and error. As a woman entrepreneur, I have multiple roles to play – of a mother, a spouse, a business leader and a trainer,” she adds. She believes that an efficient system of time management based on planning, scheduling and setting priorities is absolutely necessary. She has also set systems within the company and ensures proper delegation of responsibilities to help focus on the most important priorities and follow-up on results. “The fact still remains that you would need to make some sacrifices, receive help at home and have the support of the family.”

Anisha is passionate about conducting sessions on Leadership & People Productivity-related training for decision-makers of companies, with a focus on building strong effective teams and increasing human capital productivity. She specialises in creating long-term training programmes for transforming family-run businesses to professionally-run enterprises, evolving systems and processes, tweaking existing HR-related systems and monitoring the actual implementation of these systems. She says, “Always gain a few years of experience in the industry before you start your own business, make a business plan by keeping a worst case scenario in mind and take a class on financial management and cash flow.” Having 14-plus years of entrepreneurial experience, her ability to relate practical business issues with timeless management concepts is profound. ‘‘It is very easy to give up in the face of failure. Persevere and focus on quality and excellent relationships, success will eventually come,” she says.

There are many qualities an entrepreneur needs to hone in order to succeed in the industry. Anisha says, “Resilience is the best quality an entrepreneur should have. Loads of criticism may be showered on you every time you make a mistake. You have to say it is okay, have self-confidence and believe in yourself. Remember to keep on learning.” There is definitely no shortcut for gaining experience. You have to constantly improve your skills and keep yourself positive and motivated, she says.

Anisha Cherian is a Charter Member of TiE Kerala, Joint Secretary of Woman Entrepreneurs Network and Principal Co-ordinator of Raising Our Voices (ROV) Foundation.

Discipline and Ethics as Watchwords

She is the first Indian to be interviewed for the Toastmasters magazine as one of the top professional speakers in this part of the country. She was stage-shy at first. But that changed after Nirmala Lilly, CEO of Infinity Hospitality Services, met the leading members of the Toastmasters Movement of Kerala. She has featured in various magazines, represented women entrepreneurs in several forums, travelled widely and trained thousands of amateurs into professionals in the hospitality industry.

“My Toastmasters journey has helped me develop communication and leadership skills,” she says.It was her dream to start a tourism consultancy and training academy. “I always dreamt of becoming an entrepreneur. A long 25 years experience with hospitality industry inspired me to turn entrepreneur,” says Nirmala, who has worked with Taj Group and the Wonderla Holidays, before becoming a business woman.”

She feels lucky to be associated with major forums such as KMA, KCCI and Indian Society for Training and Development. “My industry experience came in handy during the startup phase,” she says. “I have taken a lot of risks, faced a lot of challenges, but everything was a learning experience for me.” As a self-motivated and self-made person, she says that challenges are part and parcel of any organisation and an entrepreneur has to boldly face hardships. Her watchwords are discipline and ethics.

Learning, the Never-ending Process

Joshila Ramesh, the founder of HR consultancy firm Aspire HR Solutions, always dreamt of putting people in right jobs. There was a dire need of agencies and institutions to train people to attend interviews gracefully, develop their work profiles and take part in discussions. That is how she launched the consultancy firm. “It was not an easy task to start with, but the challenge was one of the motivating factors,” says Joshila.

She also conducts computer training sessions for senior citizens which has tremendous social impact in a State like Kerala where every family has somebody working abroad. By learning basic computer skills families back home can keep in touch with their loved ones abroad. “After the coaching session, if they are interested in working, we set them up for recruitment too.”

Learning is a never-ending process, and her inspirations are her mother and mother-in-law. “They are among the most active women I have ever seen in my life. My mother was a special grade secretary at Panchayat. And my mother-in-law was a school teacher and a political activist. What I respect most about them is that they achieved all these while raising their children. Joshila enjoys immense support of the family in running her business. “I give hundred per cent to both my family and work. Everyone in my family is very supportive and understanding. My employees, too, are well-disciplined and sincere,” she says.

Perseverance, the Essential Prerequisite

A supremely confident person, Chandra Vadhana R started 4Tune Factory in 2013 and is now a leading trainer in Kerala. A research scholar of Cochin University of Science and Technology, she also plays the roles of a voice artist and Radio Jockey. Hailing from Thiruvananthapuram, she has masters in Management and Psychology. The experience and training she has received as an NCC cadet and at the IAS training academy have been the motivating factors which helped her realise the importance of efficient mentorship, according to her. “After working in the academic field and corporate institutions, and in government projects for a decade, I wanted to realise my dream of starting a training organisation,” she says. She and her colleague organised the State’s first Soft Skills Trainers’ Conference in 2015. “In January 2016, we got selected for incubation at NASSCOM Startup Warehouse for our product www.T4Trainer.com. And in one year, T4T has become a trusted brand for hiring quality trainers for various training and skilling programmes,’’ she says.

Having a clear goal and perseverance are the most necessary qualities required in business, according to her. And women have that in plenty. To a certain extent, it is true that women are better suited than men in heading and guiding firms in the fields of education and training, she says. “Women possess inherent qualities needed for nurturing which help them excel in service roles. Women are also good at people skills and in managing teams. I have more women team members and would like to retain a ratio of at least 80 per cent,” Chandra says. According to her, women should choose their career based on their own passion. “Each and every person is employable if one takes the necessary steps to overcome the shortcomings.”

Passion as Success Mantra

Roshni Binu is crystal clear about how and why she started Educkshetra, which now has four branches in Kochi. “My academics did not help me shape my career. I had to attend a short-term course in an institute and work there for a couple of months to become employable. So I wanted to bridge the wide gap between academics and career,” she affirms.

Educkshetra has positively influenced its aspirants to secure a sure career for themselves. She says, confidently, “We were able to make them smarter and employable to meet the demands of the industry. Many of them are successfully placed in companies, including the students who failed in academics.”

Her biggest inspiration is Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam. “He ignited our minds with ideas and great thoughts. His message is an eye-opener for our youth. My father inspired me to face challenges with ease. My daughter, too, inspires me as I understand the thought process of the younger generation through her.”

She believes firmly that one needs to follow one’s passion and have a good plan and team in place to be successful in business. “Attend seminars and workshops, network with experts and keep yourself updated.’’

“Balancing work and family life was not a cakewalk when I started my entrepreneurial journey. I had to opt for a full-time maid to take care of the household, which made life easier. My mother lives with me and is very supportive,” she says.

Tapping Power of Communication Skills

Riya Cherian, founder-director of Guiders Academy, is the driving force behind the committed team that carries the institution forward. She is a keen entrepreneur and a strategist. Her effective communication and relationship management skills have enabled her to relate to people at all levels; in liaising with corporates, handling customers, counseling students and guiding parents. “The inspiration for starting this venture came from my own guru, Susanna George of SATM, where I secured my IATA certification from,” says Riya.

Guiders Academy, based in Kochi, has branches in Thrissur and Thiruvalla. Setting up of the Academy involved hard work and usual tensions, but Riya had the full support of her husband Cherian John. She says: “Although the entire administration, management and operations of the institute were handled by me, my husband was by my side, helping with finances, finding the space and overseeing statutory affairs.” Since Riya had encouraging parents and a very supportive husband, balancing family and career was never a problem. “When my children were small I had my mother to look after them. As they grew up and started going to school, the school timings coincided with my institute timings and hence, I could be with them.”

The institute has grown and it now has affiliation with the Open University of Malaysia. She believes that education is an industry that needs a woman’s touch, and majority of her teaching staff are women.