In a series we started on International Women’s Day 2020, Business Forward explores modern-day obstacles to women leading successful businesses and happy, functional families.
In part two of our series, we speak with parentpreneur Dr. K.R. Maalathi, founder and CEO of the India-based Auuro Educational Services. 30 years ago, her professional life began as a teacher but due to strenuous circumstances she could not avoid, Maalathi felt she had no choice but to start her own business to achieve economic independence. Even today, she describes herself as a teacher.
Interview conducted at the Women Economic Forum (WEF), hosted in Cairo, between March 4 and 9, 2020.
Describe your own experiences of balancing motherhood and starting and running your own business.
That is a beautiful question in the sense that you know it has been a big struggle. I did not start as an entrepreneur. My career started as a teacher. Certain situations in my life pushed me to be an entrepreneur. At one point in time I lost everything, and I needed to be economically independent to take care of my family, especially my daughter and her education. I needed more money which could not come from the teaching and working in a school. I had to think of other ways where I could actually [be economically independent]. I was looking back at my strengths. I realized that education is the only thing which I know.
I was good at setting up schools. I was good at training teachers and then I was good at organizing exchange programs between schools. Introspection pushed me to start a company and that helped to become what I am here today.
In your opinion, what are the key obstacles to women choosing to become both mothers and entrepreneurs? To what extent do women have to choose between one or the other?
As a woman, it is actually a difficult question to answer. If given an option, most women prefer to be at home taking care of the family. But the kind of women whom I have observed over 40 years including my mom, my aunt and myself love to take care of people, and at the same time, they also like to be productive and contributing to society. It is difficult for us to strike a balance but if you do not get the needed support from the family per se, especially the men in the family, if they do not support us, it is going to be a difficult choice.
In the country which I come from, we have a giant family set-up and it is very difficult if we do not get this support from the extended family for us to establish ourselves as career women or as entrepreneurs or professionals. It is important for the women to have the necessary support from the family to strike a balance between family and profession.
When we do that, we also need to be emotionally balanced. [When] that emotional balance is missing, we are lost. When I started, I understood the type of difficulties that I went through. I was not aware about many things, from opening a bank account to filing my taxes because there was always somebody to take care of it. When I started the company, it was difficult for me to get to understand the nuances and the rules. I understood that when I have difficulty as a so-called educated woman, what will happen to the women in [rural areas]? 15 years ago when I started the company, approaching a bank for a loan or filing an income tax was very difficult for women in those days; the fear of not knowing things held the women back so I wanted to break the fear. That’s when I started mentoring many first-generation women entrepreneurs.
When someone like me can learn it, it is possible for anyone to learn it.
Is it possible to be a fully available supportive parent and an entrepreneur running a successful business?
Honestly, no. It is not possible. That is why I said [you need] the support of the family. In my case, I lost many such occasions with my daughter and in my business too. It is very hard to strike a balance between both but we can prioritize. For example, when she has an important event where she definitely needs me, I have to prioritize, cancel my other events and stay calm and not brood about it. At the same time, when I have a very important event, it is important for me to make her understand that it is needed for me to be there. But honestly it was not an easy path. Both your family and your clients cannot be satisfied at the same time.
To what extent do you think privilege plays a part in the opportunities for women to be both mothers and entrepreneurs at the same time?
The time that is at your disposal is the only privilege you get. If you are working for someone else, you have restricted hours and you cannot be flexible in your timings and your financial terms. Being an entrepreneur gives me an edge over the others so I can be flexible in my timing and flexible in terms of demands. I know what my deadlines and financial targets are. I set the targets for myself. That helps me.
What advice would you give to women who want to be both mothers and entrepreneurs?
Understand your passion in the first place. Do you want to be an entrepreneur because you find it comfortable or is it because you want more money at your disposal? Choose a business that will suit your style and where your experience or expertise lies. Learn about the product, its market space and how much of your time and money will be needed. Do a risk analysis.
Being an entrepreneur is as demanding as being a parent. Entrepreneurship is like raising a child and a family. You definitely need to nurture your company as you would do with your child. You need to give your child the needed nutrition, self-reliance and independence to grow their intelligence. Same way when you are an entrepreneur, your venture needs all these components. Nutrition in terms of capital investment. Self-reliance through establishing your mark in society and trusting your business intelligence and acumen to understand where [you] need to work on to move to the next level.
For being a successful mother and an entrepreneur my mantra is “be at a distance but be close enough to be at a distance.”