In 2014, I decided to take a break from full time work following a relocation and a complicated pregnancy. While I originally thought it would be only a 6-month break, it ended up being 4 years. The 4 years were a very joyous time spent nurturing my children. I also used the time to delve into my other passions of poetry and performance philosophy and published peer-reviewed journal articles. Surprisingly I was offered landscape design projects where I brought together my art, dance and poetry experiences into the color and form of the landscape.
After those 4 years, I spent time with my family in India and it felt peaceful and grounding because I hadn’t spent that kind of time with my parents and sister in 25 years! I also had the opportunity to work in India, teaching sustainability and art-science related courses in India and enabling operations to scale at Fooniferse (an EdTech solutions company). After coming back from India, I started consulting with a Bay Area startup, while also sending out my resume to relaunch programs at different companies.
I did not get into any of them for months and switched to looking at jobs in Academia, then further refined my job search strategy to apply for full-time roles. Here I made some progress and landed interviews. I also took a variety of strengths assessments to figure out how I could best project both my skills and explain my journey. I had switched my career from being a research professional in the field of Neuroscience to working as a partner/customer success manager at Cisco once in 2012, following a life-altering accident that changed everything I had ever dreamed of till that point. However, having hit that reset once, having struggled with many ambiguities along the way, I realized that my journey had strengthened my resilience and my ability to respond to ambiguity.
One highlight in my relaunch process was attending the iRelaunch Return to Work Conference and I found the iRelaunch Return to Work Roadmap particularly useful for categorizing all the information I had. Another area which the iRelaunch Roadmap helped me in was to take the step to reach out to my friends and people that I had worked with before. I had a fear of being judged and kept playing the devil’s advocate to myself. However, when I did reach out, this step was actually an eye-opener and very reaffirming. My previous managers spoke very highly of my work back in the day and all my friends helped by forwarding my resume. My advice to all relaunchers would definitely be this one from the iRelaunch Roadmap: reach out to your network and start with your family and friends.
In a way, this step also turned out to be the best aspect of the relaunch journey. I found more about my successes and how my work was perceived in my Partner Manager role than I ever had on a performance report at work from my previous managers at Cisco! I also saw myself through the eyes of my friends: Kavitha, Ritu, Nancy, Andrea, Renu, Steve, I am so grateful for all of you holding up the mirror for me and speaking honestly about my strengths and weaknesses, and even giving me areas to improve on! My sister had guided me when I started writing journal articles and has been there to catch me everytime I falter, our conversations have gone deeper into aesthetics and epistemology giving both of us immense pleasure.
The other joyful part was finding out that my husband was going to walk with me every single step of the way with relaunching and picking up the kids or doing the dishes or cooking. I found out how proud of me he had always been when he made a list of my achievements as a surprise gift one morning! My middle schooler celebrated and said she was so proud of mommy and offered to take care of her sibling!
My journey led me to work with iRelaunch after attending the iRelaunch Return to Work Conference and signing up for the iRelaunch Job Board, where I found the posting for the position of Market Research and Project Manager reporting to Shannon Amspacher. What I thought would only be data analysis turned out to be a very rich experience of learning and using my skills in new ways. I would consider that a gift as everyone just plugged me into different areas of the company, really allowing me to expand my capabilities and bring my whole self to work
The final step in my relaunch journey is when I started my role as Business Operations Manager for the Silicon Operations team at Cisco, in July of 2021. This opportunity is a testament to the power of networking and to the lessons I learned in the iRelaunch Roadmap...to reach out to your contact pools (See Phase 4 of the Roadmap on "Discovering, building and activating your network!). Sometime before I accepted the role at iRelaunch, I had reached out to a former manager. At the time, he didn't have any positions available for me, but a few months later, he ended up reaching back out with this opportunity! Simply because I used my network, "went public" with my job search and planted that seed, I now am in my current position and am really looking forward to the rich scope this role has the potential for!
We caught up with Sandhiya to see how she is doing in her new role and to reflect back on her career break, her time at iRelaunch and her overall relaunch journey...
What are the most transferable skills you feel carried with you to where you are now from both your previous work experience and from your career break?
Staying organized definitely was one of the key skills that I have used throughout my whole life! It helps me problem-solve in a much better way, a more efficient way. When I am organized both in my thoughts and with all the items that I need to take care of, then I'm able to be more effective at work.
Critical thinking, analytical reasoning...these are things that I have used extensively in my previous roles, in my research career, that are completely transferable for me in my current role.
Adaptability...being able to handle situations when they are ambiguous. That's another key piece of the puzzle that I feel really helped me in my previous roles. During my career break, I was doing a variety of different things, not necessarily knowing ahead of time what I'm getting into. But it was fun. And now that I have restarted my career, I see that ability to handle ambiguity has gone a long way.
Communication skills. These are always important. Being clear about what I am saying, what I'm required to do and being sure that I'm clearly communicating to the rest of my team. Being able to adapt and work with different team members' styles. That's another thing that I see being really useful from my career break and transferable into my current role, I've worked with a variety of different people. So this is a great experience that I've been able to move with.
What do you wish you could change about how career breaks are perceived?
I would really like to change the assumption that when people are on a long enough career break that they have forgotten how to work, or that they will not be able to handle long work hours or be able to orchestrate different aspects of work. It is true that maybe we need to upskill when we have taken off from work in a few areas.
From a relaunchers perspective, upskilling and signing up for coursework that is related to the field you want to relaunch into will always help - not just from a future employer's perception, but for you as well! It gets your mind going...what is the current situation in the market or in a specific vertical that you're interested in?
I think that what I would really like for employers to see is, especially for people who have been active and involved during their career break, whether it's through the PTSA or in other areas that they have interest in, that relaunchers have learned a lot of soft skills that could be completely transferable into any situation.
They are also more mature - which is also a plus! Finally, some fundamental base of critical thinking and reasoning simply doesn’t disappear - it really is muscle memory. It is still there, the ability to problem solve and look at things with clarity...that doesn’t go away.
What was the most frustrating part of relaunching?
Not even getting a single interview. It took me about seven or eight months before I got my first interview. When I originally started out - I tried applying to returnships and return to work programs to try to start off with a 3 month or 6 month initial project but I didn’t seem to qualify for any of them which was frustrating. I decided I would expand my search to broader opportunities beyond return to work programs. I got a job interview from Amazon relating to the exact thing that I did in the school before. I didn't clear the last level, but I went through around four levels of interviews. So that was bittersweet because it was positive and validating to get so far in the interview but then disappointing to not get through the last round. Then I went through another period, maybe 3 or 4 months without interviews, I was drawing a blank everywhere.
I changed up my strategy once again. I switched into some other areas of interest. I took some coursework in sustainability and other interests of mine to try to see if I could use my transferable skills plus my new coursework learning into either teaching or into a company that focuses on sustainability or ESG.
As I went down this path I got a couple of interviews...for teaching and another for communication relating to sustainability and the third one which I was surprised that they interviewed me for because I did not have any finance background, but it was for investing in sustainable sources. I was fortunate enough to get two job offers from these, but unfortunately, both needed me to relocate which I was not prepared to do.
What was the most exhilarating part of relaunching?
I really used to pack my days with different things because I couldn’t sit still. I had to keep moving and keep doing something. I needed the mental stimulation and intellectual challenge. So I used the time I did have to explore all my interests...attending conferences and talking to philosophy professors, researching epistemology, intersections of science and art, screendance...but I didn’t have a structured way about my day because I wasn’t working in any particular field. I was so packed, my husband would joke, "I need to make an appointment to meet with you" when I was still on my career break!
Now that I have started working, I feel like I have a more structured way of setting that up. So I am thrilled about that part of relaunching because it stabilizes me.
The other thing that made me really happy and was really reassuring was when I returned to work was my daughter noticing and saying “Mom, you're working! I'm so happy for you!” It made me feel really validated and proud that she can see the professional part of my identity too.
What did you find most helpful in your relaunch journey?
I actually found the iRelaunch Return to Work Roadmap the most helpful, and I’m not just saying that because I used to work for iRelaunch! I wish that I had when I first started thinking about relaunching, because it would have helped me organize myself, my thoughts and my ventures into my varying interests. It’s given me a lot more resources than I was finding by simply Googling. The Roadmap really structured my thinking around relaunch and because I was testing out and doing a lot of different things. It also helped me rewrite my resume.
So those were two key things from the Roadmap that were useful. The third part that was particularly useful for me, was really hitting home the message of “go back to your network. I kind of knew it, but I wasn't doing it. And it was really hard for me to ask for help. And it's really hard for me to say, “Hey, I want to get back. I am ready to return to work. I'm interested in these roles.” It was really hard for me to say that. And I don't know why I thought about it that way back then, but it was really hard...I guess I just did not feel confident. And I did not feel like people would accept my career break or my story and would react by saying “You took time off. You're doing a bunch of assorted things. None of this is directly related to what you're saying you're going to get back into.”
I was playing the devil's advocate to myself so much that I couldn't step out of it and just reach out. I actually found it easier to reach out to strangers on LinkedIn, because I felt like, “Oh, they don't know me, so I don't care if they judge me.” But again, the Roadmap really nailed this point home for me and said, go back to the people that you know...to the people you've worked with, to your close circle to your friends. And something clicked when I kept reading that a few times, so finally I resolved to myself, “okay I’m going to do it.” And it was really hard for me. That was the hardest part to do. But I am glad I did it, and I don’t think I would have taken that step without the Roadmap and that really put me on the path that I am on today.
Taking that step and reaching out to my former manager is how my current role fell into place for me. When I reached out, he didn’t have anything available at that time, so it was still a few months in the making, but he ended up reaching back out and one thing led to another, simply because I reached out and planted that seed and said I was ready to get back to work.
What are you most proud of accomplishing during your return to work experience?
From my family perspective, I am proud that I was really able to take the time to spend with my parents and show my kids what it is like to grow up in India.
Both my children had different challenges that they really needed to work through and overcome. My older child is in a healthier place and is stronger both physically and mentally as she goes into middle school. My younger one is almost convinced that school is fun to go to. So I feel like I have done my job well as a mother to be able to be there for them and also to involve both my kids in some aspects of my own culture, because I feel like I am sharing a part of me with them.
What advice would you give to future relaunchers?
Keep at it - you can do it. Definitely reach out to your network and don’t feel like you have lost something because you have taken time off. You took time off for a specific reason which you don’t have to justify but that has made you a better person, a stronger person, being able to handle things in a much more mature and efficient way than before. Believe in yourself and keep at it.