Welcome to Career Changers. This is a very special series where we talk to women who have successfully made the switch to managing their own ventures. Our guest today is Anitha Balaraj, who runs her own internationally successful executive coaching venture based out of Chennai.
Q. Anitha, let’s begin by talking about why you decided to make this switch while you were still at a very promising career in the corporate world?
A. When I was doing my MBA quite sometime back, we had a course on career development and financial competencies. In that course itself, I discovered that autonomy was one of my biggest career anchors. I have always loved working on my own. For me joining a corporate was about gaining experience and it just felt right after ten years of work experience to make the shift.
At the time I got introduced to executive coaching as a profession. A friend helped coach me in this profession for a few years, after which I quit to start out on my own. Another career attribute which is very important to me is contribution. That is what gave me the impetus to step out and be on my own.
Q. Tell us a bit about the initial difficulties of leaving the comfort of a successful career with a steady salary.
A. When you are working in an organisation with a steady job, you are used to getting a regular income. Not having that safety net is a scary proposition. Having decided early on that I will be moving out on my own, I made the choice to work with a financial planner from 2010. My planner helped me save for my financial needs that could come up in the future. I was also very clear that I wanted to purchase my own apartment, which I achieved.
Also, the profession I had chosen, is one where ‘grey hair’ is valued a lot. Not to take away from the value that people with experience bring to the table, I was also very open to acquiring whatever experience was needed. Hence, I spent time gaining experience in allied fields like leadership skills and psychometric assessments, but still remaining focused primarily on executive coaching. I gained a lot of experience in four year’s time, which has helped me stand out in this field.
Q. You were also talking about how, soon after you shut your first office is when the business started picking up. What is the journey like when you are going through all these ups and downs?
A. It took about two years for me to find comfort in the kind of earnings I had, the work I was doing and to say with certainty that I don’t want to look back from here. The first year was a sabbatical, where I explored a lot; I did a yoga teaching certificate course, I travelled a lot and did many trainings and acquired certifications during this time. Having said that, it is never easy. You start doubting yourself and family and friends begin to doubt your choices. There are many challenges one faces; my mom fell down during that time and around the same time I had to give up my office space because I wasn’t making money.
I will be honest; it is scary when you are used to a secure existing and now you feel like the ground beneath your feet has vanished. It’s exciting and scary in parts and one has to hold out for the long haul is what I would say.
Q. Anitha after you actually made the shift, how much did you have to change personally and professionally to ensure that the venture became a success?
A. Confidence and courage are traits inborn in me. But I am also an introvert. For me to step out and build business relationships, ask for business was something I had to do myself. So, relationship management is something I had to learn, not sure if I can call this a personal skill I learnt.
Professionally, I invested a lot in my growth. I try to do one big course and two small courses, through a year. Upskilling is something that I am passionate about and it has helped me in my work. I also read a lot online, on a variety of subjects which helps me with good quality conversations with my clients.
Q. Emotionally Anitha, has this set you free? Has it brought you the happiness you thought it would and ticked all the emotional boxes?
A. For sure. I have more time for family and meet friends more. I spend a lot of quality time with people that matter to me. I also spend time on my hobbies like yoga, meditation, philosophy and playback theatre. I recently had an accident, which also set me back a bit but just being on my own gave me a lot of time to heal. I am a much more content person after having quit my job and being on my own. It gives me a lot of satisfaction and I am constantly in a state of flow, that’s a blessing for me.
Q. Anitha before I let you go, talk to us about your biggest learning keeping in mind that there are women out there who want to take the plunge but may not have the advantage you did of having a corporate career experience.
A. The first two years were very hard; one I did not have cash flows and I saw an entire cycle of ups and downs. I was also very confident though that I can hold on. My biggest learning is that hold on to your dreams but be flexible in your approach. From my perspective, it meant holding on to the dream of being an executive coach but being flexible in how I go about achieving the dream.
If there is something you truly desire go for it but be open to different ways and means of getting there. I’d like to quote something here for the readers.
It’s a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.
This holds true for all of us. Hold on to your dreams, but be nimble in your approach to reach the destination.