Studying after motherhood – Radhika Arora’s pursuit of MBA

. 7 min read . Written by Roopal Kewalya
Studying after motherhood – Radhika Arora’s pursuit of MBA

"When I made the decision to pursue an MBA, I was leading the global vendor management portfolio for a Fortune 500 technology services company. I was working from home in Mumbai, travelling to the HQ and global offices at least once a quarter,” says Radhika Arora who decided to take a break from her career and motherhood to pursue MBA from Carnegie Mellon University in the USA, majoring in Strategy, Analytics and Entrepreneurship.

I have known Radhika for a while now. Not like a close friend but as a distant acquaintance. In our sporadic meetings spread over a few years, the one thing I have noticed about her is how she adds spark to a gathering just by her presence. A smile that shines through her eyes and a personality that is difficult to forget. So, it came as a surprise to me to hear that she was in fact, dissatisfied with the way she struggled with a work-life balance after she became a mother.

As she shares, “My transition from an active, well-networked professional to a working mother was an inflection point in my life. Raising an infant while driving a high-impact transformational agenda at work, tested my patience and prioritisation skills to the core.

On many occasions, I felt torn between the mother who wanted the best for her daughter and the leader who wanted to continue climbing the corporate ladder. Though I managed to somehow balance both aspects, it came at a very high personal burn.

Last year, Kool Kanya conducted a survey across India for working women and discovered that a majority of women drop out of the workforce after maternity. The fact that in 2019, women still have to choose between a career and between being a mother reveals the flaws in our social structures that impose the responsibility of raising children on women.

It then takes women like Radhika to break that status quo and take a step in the right direction. But even for her, it was not an easy decision to leave her family and her child behind to pursue further studies.

Logistically, the biggest hurdle was figuring out a secure and reliable ecosystem for my 4-year old daughter while I was on the other side of the planet. The biggest resistance was from within me, the desire to invest in my future was facing a significant challenge from the comfort of home and status quo. The fact that I also received an admit from IIM-A, just a 7-hour drive away, did not make the decision any easier.”

Like a lot of women at this stage of their lives, Radhika realised that she was struggling every day. In her own words, “I was reactive and not in control. It reflected poorly on my bond with my daughter and husband. It was imminent that some sort of change was warranted.”

I had goosebumps when I read these words by Radhika answering the questionnaire I had sent earlier. Even though she talks about her struggle, her choice of words about being reactive (as opposed to taking action) is the hallmark of a successful person.

It is when we lose control over our lives that we start reacting to things, people and circumstances. In order to regain control, we need to start taking action that stems from putting ourselves back at the centre.

And while most women shy away from putting themselves at the centre of their worlds, Radhika managed to do that in a very systematic way.

“My decision making followed the least resistance to failure approach. Simply put, I gave myself one chance and a tough set of criteria for success. I started pursuing this goal with an understanding that if I fail my criteria at any step, I will back off.  Steps included getting my husband to support, identifying the target set of schools, writing GMAT, applying, and interviewing – all with clear minimum benchmarks and knowing what is not acceptable. I was not prepared to fight out for more than one year, so one attempt is all I gave myself.

And to support her in this journey, her husband Gagandeep Grover changed jobs so he wouldn’t have to travel as much. Both sets of grandparents took turns to stay with her family and took care of her daughter. Every 3-4 months they’d swap so the workload on their ageing bones remained balanced. Radhika says she can’t thank her family enough for providing this unwavering support through the journey and had she not received this support, she would have had to drop the idea. “There was no way I was going to let nannies/house help raise my daughter.”

I wonder how many women reluctantly rely on nannies/house help or daycares to raise their children just so they can work. Given an absolute choice, no woman would agree to that arrangement.

But how many families actually step up to support a daughter or daughter-in-law to study after motherhood or even to chase high profile career opportunities in another country when it would require the entire family to shift. As opposed to a man’s career graph where it’s a given that the family will be supportive and would follow him around the world if the need arises.

But this support was only the first hurdle crossed. As Radhika went on climbing this mountain, she realised that the next challenge was to get a good score on GMAT – a global competitive exam that tests your analytical and verbal abilities in a time-crunched manner. Having been away from academics for over 15 years, this was a tough first step.

But, to my own surprise, I crushed the exam! Luckily, I achieved a great GMAT score in my first attempt, getting through 4 schools across the world, – these early successes helped me and my family believe in my plan. I was also fortunate to have received a 50% scholarship.” Radhika funded the remaining 50% partially through personal savings and partially through an education loan. All of this gave her a lot of confidence to keep moving and validation that she was taking steps in the right direction.

Once I landed in the US, I realised that I was one of the oldest in my cohort. It felt weird to be sitting among 20-somethings and learning about business. I feared that I wouldn’t “fit in”. However, the diverse nature of my class and the support provided by the school helped alleviate these fears quickly. I felt relevant when my real-life experience contributed to enriching the class discussions.”

This last bit did not come as a surprise. The need of the hour for companies to hire a workforce with a good mix of experience and fresh blood is exactly what is needed for enhanced growth.

Radhika further expands on yet another challenge which was the range of topics to be learnt during an MBA. According to her, the younger lot, especially the ones with 2-3 years of experience, were quick to grasp new concepts and eager to participate. Radhika admits that she personally needed to find the drive to match their pace and energy, which took some time.

While Radhika kept on walking on this tough path, the mountain of the guilt of leaving behind her daughter did not help much. “I felt guilty and torn every single time I face-timed with my daughter and she wouldn’t say anything but just hug the phone. There were times when I felt like leaving everything and returning home, but my husband’s confidence and encouragement kept me on course.”

But Radhika adds that there was something greater that kept her going despite the emotional turmoil. The fact that she was not doing this for emotional reasons but for the greater good. When asked to elaborate, Radhika explains,

My long-term goal is to start a venture that provides unified service solutions to working women with family responsibilities, so they may continue pursuing their careers. Getting an MBA was the first step to hone a well-rounded skill set and the network required to run a business.

It is so easy to build a path for yourself but it is another matter to walk on the path less travelled and to make it easier for the next person to walk along the same path. That’s how communities are built.

Radhika goes on to add, “Currently, I’m working with a top consulting firm to build adequate intellectual capital, tools and a network required to start a business. I was handpicked by the firm through campus recruitment. My new job allows me to work closely with the C-suite executives and devise strategies for growth, profit improvement, mergers and acquisitions. This is precisely the kind of exposure I need to be able to start my own business. Can’t be more thankful for my alma mater. I plan to continue working at this consulting firm for 2-3 years and then go ahead and pursue my ultimate goal of starting a business that provides a supportive ecosystem to working women and enables them to pursue their dreams.”

McKinsey reports that women make up 50% of entry-level positions at US firms but only 3% make it to the C-suite. The realisation, that women globally face similar challenges and that most of them are forced to drop out of the workforce, filled Radhika with a deep sense of purpose. And as is obvious, she is already on the path.

I ask her for advice for mothers who wish to work or study but are unable to because of a lack of support system. She speaks through experience,

Prioritising is an integral part of a woman’s life. We pick one thing over another all the time. Think of this as a once in a lifetime decision to pick a priority. Think long-term. Leaving your family behind to go and study seems too much of a shake for the apple cart but the question to ask is – would you be able to live with the regret of not trying?

And there couldn’t be a better sign-off than that.