Womenpreneursofindia.com interacted with Dr. Gayathri Vasudevan for a new segment called ‘#ExpertTalk’. Dr.Gayathri is the co-founder & CEO of LabourNet services private limited. ‘LabourNet’ is a social enterprise enabling livelihood of informal sector labours through skilling and by facilitating them with employment/entrepreneurship opportunities. Before joining LabourNet, she has worked for the International Labour Organization, at the UN. She was mentioned as one of the top 50 women in business by Business Today and “Entrepreneur of the Year in Social Business Category” by Forbes India in 2018. She shares more about herself and her venture by answering the questions from our founder Raaghavi Nithiyanadh.
Raaghavi Nithiyanandh: Could you please share with us about yourself?
Gayathri Vasudevan: I am originally from bangalore and I grew up in a middle-class family and then I did my education in bangalore and Delhi. I finished my bachelors in Economics in Delhi and then moved to Bombay to finish my masters in social work. I returned back to bangalore and post that, I’ve always been in the development sector. For about a decade, I worked at the ILO at the UN and then I set up ‘LabourNet’.
RN: Please share with us about ‘LabourNet’ and What is the mission behind?
GV: ‘LabourNet’ mission is to enable livelihoods which means that we believe that work for most of the people who are in the informal sector will happen through either transparency of information and certification. We believe that continuous learning is important for one to have enough ability to earn more. So productivity is directly linked to wage in the informal sector. Our effort has been to catalyse both – learning as well as access to work, that’s what ‘LabourNet’ does. So what it means in effect is we work with workers in construction, Beauty, tailoring and whole range of sectors to facilitate them to be able to earn more and for companies to be able to access a pool of people who have both the experience as well as skills.
RN: Can anyone who is interested in taking up these courses reach out to ‘LabourNet’ skill centres? How does it work?
GV: Yes. We also have a combination of hybrid courses. All doesn’t have to be at our centre. One can also get certified using our hybrid platforms of virtual learning and asynchronous learning. So, for those where there is a requirement for on job training and experience we have places where one can do practical and take it forward.
RN: This seems to be a huge mission that you have taken up. Could you please share with us about your initial struggles?
GV: I think the biggest problem initially when we started off was, the GPS facilities were not there. So, to track where a person is and ensure that workers provided at that location was problematic. Second is bank accounts were not there like it is there today. So, you know, the two things which are very important for both identity as well as transaction were not available to the poor and that was a major hindrance. I think in the last decade those accesses to both of these have really solved a lot of the problem. The third is, I think people’s belief that one could do hybrid learning where one does not have to do only practical or only classroom has been a big standing problem that we’ve been attempting to solve. The faith that one can actually learn in multiple ways and using multiple modalities have been very difficult for us to believe. I think convincing people that this is the way in which the world actually works has been our biggest struggle.
RN: How about your personal struggles as a mom entrepreneur? Did you have Mom guilt? If yes, how did you overcome it? Do you have something to share about this?
GV: (Laughs) Well, my children are now grown up and adults now. Yeah, when the children are young, you know, it is always difficult! Everybody expects you to be both a mother as well as a working professional. I think it’s very tough. The basic thing is at some point, one or the other gets sacrificed . So my thing has been very simple that I can’t be good at both. So I’m okay to be average at both. So my task is that it’s not possible for perfection to happen. To give you a simple example, my son’s graduation at the twelfth standard, I was not there! I couldn’t be there and I had to go for a meeting. I just couldn’t be there in Bangalore on that day and he was finishing his 12th. So, here are various such occasions that I’ve missed. My children have often even told me that ‘LabourNet’ is my first baby and both of them are the second and third in that order.
I think everybody learns to do it and with it and there is no easy answer to it. My point is that, If guilt pulls you down, you had it. You cannot have a career. At the same time, you know, it’s also the whole society making you feel, Are you there to read them a bedtime story? Are you there to teach them? But, at the end of the day, you are human! So, I think I mostly took the simple attitude saying – I can’t be good at everything! I’ll do what I can and beyond that just move on. so I think that’s been my stance from the beginning to be easy on myself.
RN: About social entrepreneurship – Do you think anyone can take it up or is it about an individual’s inner calling? How is it with women?
GV: See, social enterprises are tough to run because you have a dual mission. You have to be sustainable and profitable as well as you have to have a social cause. Naturally, It has its own complexities. Can anyone do it? I think it is about the inner calling and importance that you have. Right? So, the answer actually is yes. But for a man or a woman, that the real question really is – Do you really want to do it? I mean, the nature of the beast is such that it has the complexity. There are many types of enterprises, one has to decide whether this is what one wants to do.
RN: There are a lot of women who take up business, but only a few of them scale it up into an organisation or they work to take it up to a global market. What do you think that stops them? What is your opinion on this?
GV: I think there are two things, risk & availability of capital. Along with these, the tremendous amount of effort it takes to really grow into an organisation. Most of all, Is the whole family comfortable in her taking the risk?
First, Any entrepreneurship is about risk taking, is that something which is acceptable to everyone in her family is very important to determine. I also think it is about the support that one requires in order to grow an organisation. Second, when you have a family with children, suppose you have to be out five days a week, how does your family react to it? And, are you able to negotiate that space for yourself becomes very important. As you scale, it’s also going to be a lot of work, a lot of travel, a lot of commitment. And the third is, how the world views you as investable. So all three, I think what hinders women from scaling up their business.
RN: Not all women come from understanding & privileged backgrounds. How can they overcome their constraints & Do you have any advice for them?
GV: There is nothing like privilege. When you have a family what happens is a lot of people will tell you something. For me, I can tell you an example people used to tell me – your children are young, you’re not there, you’re an absentee mom! These are hard to take. Right? You know, When somebody tells you that you’re always not available or it can be small things. I mean, I can give you one example, my son actually moved to my mother’s house in his 9th standard. They live about 10 minutes away from me. But, basically because I was never home.These things hurt you, you know what he preferred to be elsewhere than with you because you’re not there! But at the end of the day, these are the compromises one has to make. It is not to do with privilege as much as to do with your desire to succeed. As I said, you have to give away a lot. You have to decide which battles you have to fight and which battles you are okay giving up. And some things in that period of time hurt you. But I remember the day he told me, ‘Ma, I just need somebody to wake me up in the early mornings for me to study and you’re not there!’ which is a fact!
But, how does society also see that? Society doesn’t take kindly to it. They say ‘your house is yours, why is your child not staying with you?’ So, it’s a combination of ability to harden your heart to say something -‘This is good for me, this is good for him and it’s okay!’ It comes from the negotiation each woman has to do!
In my case, I took one example. But, there can be multiple examples of the negotiation which one does as a woman herself and with her immediate family and society. Because, everybody views you in a different manner, right? So whether you are coming from a poor family, privileged family or a rich family those negotiation points are tougher for a woman. So, I think the key is to be able to be easy on oneself, as I said – That’s the only way. Otherwise, one will really be depressed.
RN: We know ‘LabourNet’ works with various women entrepreneurs. Do you have any unforgettable story or experience that you’d like to share with us?
GV: The one which always stays with me was there was a beautypreneur who was setting up a small shop and her husband was an autorickshaw driver. He was bringing somebody to the office, he told that lady and he came up to say, “I’m very proud of what my wife has done”. And, I think that stayed with me because generally the impression is that, how much support they are going to get from their family. But, I think she was able to negotiate that space for herself, earn a living and become successful. She was able to convince her family that what she was doing was of substance. That really stayed with me, something which I cherish over the time.
RN: We have women coming from the corporate world and business schools starting up. We also have women starting business from their homes. Do you think there is a gap in between? Could you share your thoughts on this?
GV: I think, not all successful entrepreneurs are people who come from a corporate. I can tell you for myself, right? I don’t come from a corporate world. But, you will learn how it is to run a business. I come from a development background. I think one learns how to do it. It’s more about the Instinct and the ability to learn and relearn. That’s the more important thing. I don’t think everybody with a corporate background will succeed.
RN: What is the advice that you would give to budding women entrepreneurs?
GV: I would say, just go for it. Plan well and don’t get disappointed at your first defeat that you have. I mean, I have probably failed so many times and at this point of time, I think – I am again failing. With this total lockdown and how is this going to really succeed. I don’t know! But, you have to get up in the morning and say you will still manage, right? I think the key is to have faith and say the next day is going to happen and move forward. I can tell you don’t take defeat, don’t take any negativity, handle it and do it again!
RN: COVID has definitely hit a lot of sectors. Being a leader working with unorganised sectors, How do you see it? How can businesses sustain? Do you think everybody can pivot?
GV: I think you have to pivot, there is no option. The jobs are not there, we have to take jobs to rural and urban areas. live. We need to be facilitating, certification has to look different. So all of us have to pivot and the pivot has to be fast. The pivot is scary because you don’t know how the model would look like but it’s very very important to Pivot. And as I said, have faith. I sometimes get up in cold sweat thinking, you know, what’s it going to be like? but, you have to wake up and the next day has to happen. So my advice to myself as well as to anybody would be ‘Be agile, be positive and do what it takes!’
RN: To look at the positive side, What do you think has been the biggest milestone in your growth?
GV: I think but joy comes from when certain models work. So the milestone for me was when people agreed, when we had to recognise the skill sets of people even if they didn’t go for formal training. I think, when there is a recognition of a model that we work and it has resonance in other people. I see it is a milestone.
For me, I’m a completely half glass full person. So, small successes make me feel ‘okay, there’s one more step that I can take’. So, my biggest milestone has been when other people believe in the cause that I believe!
RN: Do you have something to say to the women entrepreneurs in our community?
GV: think it’s important to work with each other as women entrepreneurs. It’s very important to support each other. That means giving business to each other, like anybody else does. Be a close network which can really work together. Then I say this again and again, women have to be easier on themselves. Don’t be so hard and don’t expect magic. At the end of the day, we are just human!