How to live your career break and return like a rockstar

Interview with Divya Patel, Director Incubator Programs at the HUB Singapore.

You worked for many years as a consultant at a big global corporation. What prompted you to move from corporate to the world of entrepreneurship?

 When my twins were three and a half years old, I decided to take a career break from the corporate world in order to spend time with them and to try things that I had always wanted to do. But from the start, I was always very clear that this break would be for only 2-3 years until my kids went to grade 1. When the time came for me to start looking at job options again, it really got me thinking about what my true passion was.

 The easiest thing would have been for me to jump back into consulting. But instead of going back to my comfort zone, I spent a couple of months with a life coach, reflecting on my values, goals, and the vision that I had for my life. This time of introspection reconnected me with my lifelong interest in the impact space, and so that became my focus in pursuing career options.

 I started by doing a consulting project for a non-profit called Aidha as well as a fundraising campaign for a social enterprise called Milaap. One thing led to another and soon I found myself meeting with Grace, who is the co-founder of The Hub Singapore. When I learnt about her plans to set up Incubation Programs at The Hub, I knew that I had found the perfect job.

 In my current role, I set up Incubation Programs with our partners, which include leading banks and government agencies. Through these programs, we work with both individuals and social enterprises to help them build robust and financially sustainable – as well as scalable – business models for their ventures.

“Don’t feel like you can’t participate in business or industry conversations just because you’re not currently working! Your opinions are just as valid now as they were before, so never hold yourself back.”

 

Divya Profile pic

Divya Patel is currently Director, Incubator Programs at the Hub Singapore.

 

What advice would you give women who are on a career break?

 I think one of the most important things is to stay current. When I was on a break, I spent at least half an hour a day just reading through key news sites like BBC and FT. I also met with my ex-colleagues regularly and stayed in touch with what was happening in my industry. The best thing you can do is to keep viewing yourself as a working professional, even if you are on a career break.

If you read about a talk or a networking event that sounds interesting, go for it. Don’t feel like you can’t participate in business or industry conversations just because you’re not currently working! Your opinions are just as valid now as they were before, so never hold yourself back.

It’s also very helpful to create a bucket list of things you want to accomplish during your break. For instance, I knew I wanted to learn about art and photography, and do more cooking and travelling. Take this time to pursue the passions and interests that you put on hold because of your career. As long as you keep learning, you will feel focused and motivated. Most importantly, it will help you stay relevant to yourself.

 Was it hard for you to go back to work after taking a break? How did you cope with the transition?

 For me personally, the transition wasn’t too hard, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I always kept myself engaged with some kind of work during my time off – whether it was 20 hours of docent training per week or volunteer projects. Secondly, I kept a daily routine in my house that was very similar to when I was working full-time. I wanted to commit to my projects as seriously as I had committed to my previous job. In fact, when I did my training course at the Asian Civilizations museum, my kids even thought I was working there!

The moment I decided to return to work, I was also very open about the fact that I wanted a job with flexibility. Women are often afraid that if they try to negotiate, employers will think that work is not their main priority. I think it’s a valid fear, but at the same time there’s a very real need to overcome it. Many people close off their options before even starting, because they don’t think they’re going to get what they ask for. But here’s the truth: if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

I’ve seen more and more women asking for and receiving flexibility at work, which is very encouraging. Also, there are many more opportunities now to work remotely or start your own business. If you explore all your options while you’re on a career break, it will make your transition back to work much smoother.

 Do you have any tips for women who want to become entrepreneurs?

 I think the first step is to do your homework. If you have a business idea, research it thoroughly, so you can get a clear picture of what you’re up against. What differentiates your idea from others? Is someone already doing it and if they are, how can you be bigger, better, faster?

Also, don’t wait for your idea to be 100% perfect before you launch it – it’s okay to start getting feedback even earlier and build further on it, as it will help you get validation that there is indeed a demand for your product or solution.

Start developing a habit of networking even if it doesn’t come naturally to you. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask people for advice, or a meeting over coffee. You might even find a co-founder in the process!

Get more comfortable with increasing your risk appetite and don’t take failure personally at all but just as a part of the journey. By removing the fear of failure from your system you will find yourself pushing your limits further and getting to heights that you might not have imagined.

Finally, seek out and keep yourself surrounded with positive people. The entrepreneurship journey can be a very lonely one – and the last thing you need is people pulling you down further telling you that it can’t be done!

 What is your own experience with failure and how did you overcome it?

I’ve never really looked at anything I’ve done as a failure. It’s always just been a learning lesson. For instance, a lot of people tried to discourage me from taking a career break, because it was a risk. But in the end, it turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. I got to spend quality time with my family, and learnt how to pursue what I was truly passionate about.

At the end of the day, you need to have your own definition of success, and measure yourself against that. We often tend to compare ourselves to others (working moms versus homemakers, etc), but that’s a waste of time and energy.

You are your only benchmark. It’s fine to get inspired by a lot of people around you, but ultimately you need to live life on your own terms.

 BY STEPHANIE CHARAMNAC