SparkUp is a career re-entry firm designed to help women return to the workforce. It has two chapters, one based in Westchester, New York, and one in San Francisco, California. TC's Meera Kymal spoke to Anju Kurian and Anne Barbara Lemmens, Directors of SparkUp's NY chapter.
In 2013, Singari Seshadri, a startup advisor and social entrepreneur, created SparkUp, ‘a social enterprise helping women to reignite their careers’. Seshadri, an entrepreneur with a background in venture capitalism and private equity, was looking to create a community for women exploring career options, particularly after having children. The women she met were very interested in returning to the corporate world, so Seshadri decided to create a supportive environment to help women looking at the next phase of their careers. SparkUp started with a guided process to career re-entry - essentially a six-week program working with a career coach to discover what exactly women wanted to do in the next chapter of their career. Anju Kurian joined the SparkUp founding team at this juncture.
Anju Kurian’s Story
My story is that I took time off for several years to be with my two boys (Anju previously was a management consultant with IBM Global Services). When my youngest started kindergarten I actually went back to work but I did not have a mindful approach to career re-entry. I had the opposite. I jumped in when a former boss contacted me and I was back to work in two weeks. That was certainly not the typical process for most people. What I found was that it was certainly a transition to go back. And as soon as I went back to work I had many women asking, ‘How did you do that?’ ‘How were you able to update your resume?’ ‘ How did you get the connection?’; so that’s what prompted me to get involved with SparkUp - to help build a community so people could really have a guided approach to career re-entry….not jumping in the way that I did!
Anne Barbara Lemmens’ Story
I moved from the Netherlands in August last year (to the US) as an expat. I‘d quit my job (Anne Barbara was a corporate tax lawyer) in the Netherlands to move here with my husband and my two little daughters who are 4 and 2 years old. I spent a couple of months to help my kids settle in, start a new school, learn to speak English..and then I realized I needed to get back to work because I’m a working mom. I don’t want to sit at home. I want to do more. And then I realized it wasn’t so easy to continue my career as I did in the Netherlands where the work-life balance is definitely different from here in the US; in the Netherlands I was able to work four days a week and spend the fifth day with my kids, having some quality time with my two girls. I realized that to continue my career here it was almost not doable – I’d have to work fulltime and not see my girls or just stay at home. I thought there must be a possibility to change that, an opportunity to make things work– because I saw so many women around me facing the same difficulty and challenge. Then I came across SparkUp and went to one of their Christmas events and thought hey, I want to get more involved. Since then I have been working with Anju fulltime to make this a success.
And that’s when we actually added the last piece of the puzzle – where we also connect with companies to make the placements and find the jobs for women we are working with.
SparkUp works by making connections
We are the hub of career re-entry; so if you really want to get back into the workforce, we want to be that one-stop shop for you. We have monthly programming where we curate resources – bringing together career coaches, life coaches, and even photographers who will help you update your LinkedIn profile. If instead of going to several places you come to us, we will give you a mindful, thoughtful approach to career re-entry.
We started out very loosely as a networking group and as we have evolved, responding to the needs of our community, we have added this final piece which are the jobs. We are now reaching out to local companies in Westchester, Connecticut and the city (NY) to create these opportunities and make that connection.
The job search process has changed significantly since our member base has been in the workforce; the way that technology is used to filter resumes - its just a whole new world. So we help our candidates in terms of retooling and providing these professional skills, but we also are an advocate for our members when we talk to companies. So companies come will come to us with a particular need, then we will do that custom search going through our database of people in our Talent 2.0 Program and make that connection.
The Talent 2.0 Program
We help companies find the right talent within that hidden, invisible talent pool, and for candidates we have free monthly events where we feature different topics relating to career re-entry. There are panel discussions with hiring managers and panel discussions with success stories; we have LinkedIn workshops and resume workshops where people can come in with resumes and have them reviewed by hiring managers of companies. We have life coaches presenting on what changes in your life when you get back to work, not just when you go into an office but also what happens to your family system. Its broader than just the job, it’s everything attached to career re-entry.
How corporate clients find us
We have reached out to companies via our personal networks. We haven’t done any broad outreach. But companies get it. They understand when we present the demographic of our member base; 99% have college degrees, 60% have graduate degrees, 10 plus years of working experience, a broad cross section of functional expertise and industry expertise. Companies see the value in this talent pool.
They see the emotional intelligence, they see them hit the ground running, the maturity and the motivation to succeed. They’re there because they absolutely want to be there. They’ve thought through why they’re there, what they want to accomplish, they’re very driven and motivated to be where they are. The companies that have engaged with us understand the importance of investing in this group of talent.
Why companies are more open to returnees
You hear about the talent war. Pretty much everything is commoditized but talent is where you can differentiate. There is an investment in training that will need to be made initially to transition in, but what you get out of it is a committed, loyal, engaged employee ready to contribute and make a difference.
Another aspect is that with more millennials coming into the workforce, companies need to change their way of working. Millennials have a different mindset – they have a different way of working. They see themselves as entrepreneurial, flexible, but still providing value. The career re-entry (the returnees) have that mindset and probably bring in more value at this point than the millenials who are fresh out of college. Companies are starting to realize that they don’t need to have people sitting in an office for hours.
The biggest challenge? A lack of confidence
It’s confidence. There are women in our community who have had great professional careers or very high profile jobs in the past. They stopped working for different reasons, and now they want to get back in; even after two or three years, five or even ten years, when you’ve been out and younger people have come in, these women feel they cannot do the same things they did in the past. Of course that’s totally not true. We respect and appreciate that’s the feeling because you’ve been out, but then you've done other things which are also very important. Now you have to be able to bring your value back again - that confidence level is something we are building. We got feedback that feeling part of our community already provides a confidence boost for our women. The programming and the coaching is how we get them ready.
Changing your mindset
Being in a professional environment, getting dressed to come to a seminar or workshop just puts you in a different frame of mind, a different mindset. It’s also slowly changing your vocabulary and the conversations that you’re having. You’re not used to talking about yourself in a professional capacity….you left that a few years ago. Many women don’t have opportunities to do that.
We actually do something called a Pitch-athon. We invite members to come up and do their elevator pitch in front of the group. You’d be surprised at how many women come up and say ‘Well I used to be a management consultant’. It’s such a subtle thing and we give the feedback right away – but it’s a very subtle shift, to say, “I am a management consultant’. You did not lose your value. And just that awareness changes your confidence and your mindset.
Don’t forget transferable skills
We talk about transferable skills. Many of our members while they were taking care of their children pursued volunteerism as a way to keep busy and contribute to the community. That’s a question we get often – ‘should I include my volunteer activity?’ We absolutely in all cases, say yes. Because what you’re looking for is transferable skills that demonstrate you may have managed a million dollar budget for your school PTA. That’s fantastic. It’s like running an organization. It’s drawing out what are your transferable skills so you can tell your story.
We always tell our candidates not to apologize for taking a break. You took your time off, you accomplished what you wanted to and this is your next phase. You have to acknowledge those accomplishments as well.
Entrepreneurship is rewarding
Entrepreneurship is very rewarding, especially in the area where we have our enterprise – its very rewarding to see that we can help women with this. It’s learning from just setting up a business to all the aspects around it. For me (ABL) using social media was something I wasn’t really into and now I need to because it’s the new world. That’s how you run your marketing campaign. It’s rewarding to see companies change their mindsets.
Pause, then find pathways back to work
We want to be able to take SparkUp and extend it beyond just the community here. We want to create the community online to be scalable where someone could participate in SparkUp regardless of geography and be able to access the same resources. The end result is really giving women these opportunities, knowing that if they take a career break their career is not really over. Pause but then you have these pathways back to work whether its entrepreneurship or corporate – whatever fits your lifestyle. We want to make it just a little bit easier for you to access those opportunities.
From a business standpoint it’s about growing your customer relationships. We want companies to grow their employee relationships, again to look at that broader lifecycle of a women’s career, not just as a segment till she leaves. But create opportunities find flexible ways to engage them and retain them throughout that lifecycle.