Pathmakers: FlexiBees – Shreya Prakash, Rashmi Rammohan and Deepa Narayanaswamy, PGP 2008

Women’s empowerment is an upcoming strong voice in today’s world. Many societies and cultures are trying to close the gap and dilute the disparity women have always felt. One of the prominent places where women are constantly trying to find an equal place is in a professional set up. It may be for equal pay/ opportunities, work-life balance and even child care. Often women who take a maternity break find it difficult to come back to work. Finding a suitable or flexible job is difficult and an employer that empathizes with you, is almost unheard of.

This is how FlexiBees was born, to bridge the gap, to hire talented women, simultaneously providing cost-effective hiring solutions to companies making it a win-win situation for everyone. FlexiBees is a beacon of hope for women who are trying to coming back to work without comprising on personal life or professional life. An up and close interview with friends, and Co-Founders of FlexiBees – Shreya Prakash, Deepa Narayaswamy and Rashmi Rammohan.

Q. How did FlexiBees come into being? What’s the idea behind it?

FlexiBees was started in 2017 with the vision to change the way work is done, to make it a lot more flexible by normalizing options like flexi-time, part-time, remote-working, etc. The three of us in the co-founding team, myself – Shreya, Rashmi and Deepa, are friends and batchmates from IIM Bangalore, class of ‘08. We worked at various places after graduation but with the dawning realization that the current construct of work – the rigid 9 to 7 monolithic where everyone has to go to the same central location and work the same hours – does not work for many groups. It does not work for businesses who are looking for expert talent that is affordable and agile, and it certainly does not work for talent segments that are looking for flexible work opportunities.

Chief among these talent segments are qualified women who have dropped out of the traditional workforce due to care responsibilities but are looking to return via flexible options. India’s female workforce participation is one of the lowest across the globe, at 23.3% overall and 20.4% in the urban parts of the country as of 2017-2018. And it is declining, including within the college-educated segment. We felt that not utilizing this pool was a massive waste of high-quality talent and economic potential, not to mention the emotional hit that those individuals and consequently families and societies take. We decided to do something about it, and FlexiBees came into being.

Q. What were the triggers behind leaving your corporate jobs and starting-up?

Deepa: I have lived this journey. I am a CA, and post-MBA have worked as a management consultant at KPMG, at Aptech where I led award-winning teams and developed businesses from scratch. But come maternity, coupled with a personal tragedy, after months of trying, I had to leave my job to take care of my daughter. I did that for a couple of years, and then of course the gnawing feeling of wanting to get back started getting stronger every day. I have always been career-oriented, my late mother worked all her life, and beyond a point, I could not imagine not working myself. However I still needed some flexibility to be able to manage life. I looked, I looked everywhere, applied to everything that seemed suitable or even slightly unsuitable, but I could find nothing. There weren’t many flexible options to begin with that did justice to my qualifications, and even when out of sheer frustration I tried applying to full-time roles, I got asked inane questions due to my break and being a mother. I was ready to do something about this situation, and everything fell into place when we three started discussing in more detail what it is that could be done.

Shreya: I was working at Unilever in Sales & Marketing, and having a ball. But in the back of my mind, I have the latent notion that someday I would start-up. Even then, I knew it should be something that I am passionate about, the start-up journey being excruciating, needs that. As the years went by, and my peers started getting married and having kids, I realized that for working mothers, either they find themselves extremely stretched with exacting schedules and culture of always being available, or they drop out. Deepa’s experience hit me hard, she is a textbook achiever and if she had to quit, and more importantly, was struggling to return, then something definitely was wrong. The three of us started talking about it, about what systems we could build to help parents, especially mothers and the idea of FlexiBees came into being. It felt to me like lots of things had come together for the first time, a great idea I was passionate about, a team I was completely aligned with, and even at work, I felt like I had finished what I had been working on for the last 2 years at that time. It just felt right, and I took the leap based on this feeling. My family, especially my husband, who is also my batchmate from IIM Bangalore, was completely on-board and excited about having an entrepreneur in the family.

Q. How has the journey been?

Rashmi: The journey has been amazing, difficult but rewarding. As soon as we narrowed down our idea to flexible jobs, we started speaking with businesses, with start-ups in particular. And we were astounded to learn of the demand that already existed for flexible i.e. part-time talent. The market was ready and waiting! So following Lean Start-up principles, we quickly started building a database of talent and went to our network seeking requirements, and we found a few immediately. Then followed a period of experimenting with models, we tried out managed services where we undertook the onus of delivery, we tried out the marketplace model where we did a basic match and launched the placement, but none of these completely worked. The managed services model seemed unscalable and the marketplace model had glaring gaps, prone to failures. We realized that for this space to work successfully we would need to assess not just the hard skills the candidate brought to the table, but also their support systems, their actual time availability, their motivation and work ethic. We started designing these systems, and have never looked back. I have to say here that for me, this has been especially rewarding; I have always been a problem-solver, and there is no greater high than taking on something challenging, getting to the heart of it, and solving for it. I drew on many of the skills I had built over the years in the designing of these systems, such as consumer research, deep insights mining, and today we are very happy with what we have built.

Today we have provided talent to 140+ paying clients, across a wide variety of roles, helped hundreds of women get flexible opportunities relevant to their qualifications. Moreover, we have built an organization where we walk the talk, with our 24-member team being completely remote, working across cities and even countries; 19 of them work part-time, and almost all are returning mothers. We are also thinking very actively of the next 5 years, and building for it. The future looks exciting.

Q. What are the services offered by FlexiBees?

We offer part-time, project-based and remote-working talent across a range of functions like Marketing, Sales, Investment Banking, Content, Design, Tech etc. Businesses get extremely cost-effective pricing models for the level of talent we provide, and they get them via agile models wherein they can hire from us within 1 week, and quickly scale-up and down as well. Most importantly, they get talent that is qualified & experienced with an average experience of 7 years across domains and functions, and hence productive from the first day.

Q. FlexiBees endorses flexible talent. What is this and how is it relevant?

We spoke earlier about how flexible working was relevant and needed for the talent pool. Even for businesses, today given the dynamic and competitive environment that they operate in, they cannot always afford to spend 3 months hiring someone, 6 months training them and so on. Product cycles have got crunched, innovation is a hygiene expectation, and in this context, businesses need expert talent, they need them now and often they need them affordably. This last one is especially true of start-ups where you could be wanting to expand, but find yourself unable to afford full-time talent or wanting to experiment a bit and hence unwilling to commit to full-time hiring. Flexible talent solutions like part-time and project-based hiring are hugely relevant here, they give resource-crunched start-ups the freedom to grow competitively.

Q. What makes FlexiBees more effective than its competitors?

Well for that we would have to first define competition. So, our closest competitor is a gig marketplace like Upwork and we are different from them in two ways. We provide talent across a range of functions including more core and operational ones like Sales, Marketing, Finance, etc whereas Upwork largely specializes in more standard and parameterized roles like Content, Design, Coding, etc. The second major difference is that we take on the onus of finding and evaluating the talent for each role ourselves via our proprietary selection process that not only matches for Skills but also for something we call – Flexible Working Ability. This latter metric is a gauge of whether the candidate has the time availability, support systems, commitment, the technology savvy, work ethic, etc to fulfill the role. This selection process is crucial to engagement success, as has been validated multiple times.

Q. What are the advantages of being associated with FlexiBees both as a seeker and as a client?

For potential clients, the what of what we deliver – flexible talent via affordable models means that they have to spend 40-60% of the cost they would have spent hiring for the same caliber of talent full-time, and this calculation does not even include the saving they get on CTCs and CTC++ because of the contractual and remote nature of our engagements.

Because of the process, we have where we take the onus of doing the selection, clients save immense effort through the hiring process, spending less than 10% of the time hiring from us vs other sources – 4-5 hours vs an industry average of 40-50 hours per role. Moreover, because we do this intense matching, they see only a targeted set of profiles at the end – 1.75 avg per role vs an industry average of 36 – a huge saving on bandwidth. And finally, they get far better matches which is manifest in the fact that 65% of our business comes from repeat clients.

For the seeker, first and foremost we provide opportunities that are career building, in-line with their experience and skill-set: this itself is rare within the returnship space. Through our matching process, we ensure they are coached and well-prepared for the client interaction, and through our contracting mechanisms, that they get paid properly and on-time. We also induct them on best practices for working flexibly, coach them at any point even after the launch if needed, and provide them with more opportunities if the current engagement gets over.

Q. Your advice to women on a break or seeking opportunities to come back to work?

First of all, it is important for a woman returning to work to have the mindset of confidence, to believe that her career break has not made her unemployable, she is still the same competent person, who will be an asset to any organization. Having said that, it is important to understand that there may be some amount of ‘getting ready’ that she may need to do, could be as simple as dusting off old contacts and getting back in touch, and for some, it could mean upskilling. We also place a lot of emphasis on enlisting family members’ support and goodwill, before even embarking on applying for jobs. And of course, needless to say, a working woman’s best friend is her childcare infrastructure; we recommend she have it in place, tried out for at least a month or so, before starting, so any teething problems are already ironed out. In fact, we have created an entire returnship readiness framework, you can find them here, here, and here.

Q. Empowering women in your words.

Empowerment for any individual is about the agency to make their own choices and about the financial security that powers these choices. Across the world, circumstances and individuals take away one or both of these factors for women, leading to them being unable to reach the fullest of their personal and professional aspirations. We want to help change that and play our part in giving women the choice to work as they wish to and the financial security that accompanies it.

Q. Any life lesson as an entrepreneur that you would like to share?

Be fair. To partners, vendors, employees. The networth of an entrepreneur is far more than the value of their assets, it is the value of their reputation. By dint of that reputation, brands can get built or destroyed, partnerships can break or flourish, employees can strive beyond all reason to fulfil your vision or leave at the first competitive offer. Reputation anywhere is crucial, but for entrepreneurs who are usually resource-poor as far as it comes to tangible assets, it is invaluable. All three of us co-founders share this value, and we have brought it to life across innumerable instances, and it has always stood us in good stead.

Q. Your advice to younger alums seeking the entrepreneurial path.

Be very clear you are passionate about the space, otherwise it is difficult to sustain the pitfalls that most certainly will come your way. Your primary hypothesis may, actually, will be questioned, a business may see ups and downs, money might take a while to come. So be clear this is where you want to spend at the very least a decade of your life.

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