Sairee Chahal has built an online world for women from all walks of life to help each other start a career
The quiet Sairee Chahal hides a will of steel, which is transforming womens’ lives in India
There is something about Sairee Chahal’s demure smile. She is the unassuming founder of SHEROES a women-only community platform accessible through Sheroes.com and the SHEROES app. The company’s office in Mehrauli, Delhi, is enveloped in a sense of calm — unlike many start-ups that take pride in their anxious bustle. Chahal is known to be non-fussy, even in her attire. Her quirk, which has been written about, is that she wears sneakers even to work.
Hers is the largest women-oriented platform on the internet, which helps women support each other by forming communities around common interests, such as work from home, college alumni or caring for disabled children; meet mentors across specialisations; and lastly, keep themselves informed. As of 2019, there are 15 million registered users on the SHEROES network, and Chahal’s dream is to make it a thriving community of 100 million women.
SHEROES, she says, works in a similar manner as Facebook. The platform has over 62 career-related, creative, and counselling communities to host conversations about common interests including start-ups, women in tech, health, travel, finance etc. There is even a bazaar where women sell their products like jewellery, garments, and artworks, and services like consulting, writing and marketing.
The platform allows its members to learn from and consult with SHEROES champions. It also hosts useful online live community chats and masterclasses by influencers on their platform. They also have an enterprise product named MARS (Managed Remote Services) where companies outsource entire processes to SHEROES, and they deploy work-from-home professionals in their community to work on the processes.
SHEROES has worked with over 20,000 companies in various capacities – diversity consulting, co-branded campaigns, events, POSH compliance programmes and MARS, across 1,400 locations in the country.
A bulk of its revenue comes from its B2B clients who pay the start-up for using its hiring and marketing services. Individuals are not charged for their membership. SHEROES, which clocked a revenue of Rs.42 million in FY18 according to filings in Zauba Corp.
SHEROES, run by Applied Life, raised its seed funding from Raghav Bahl and Ritu Kapur of Quintillion Media, 500 Startups and a group of angel investors including Vijay Shekhar Sharma, Rajan Anandan, Binny Bansal and Girish Mathrubootham in August 2015. In August 2016, the firm raised Rs.120 million from private equity firm Lumis Partners, a human resource investment fund. In September this year, the firm, apart from its existing investors, roped in Leo Capital and former Facebook director Anand Chandrasekaran as investors to raise Rs.102 million in their Series B round. The funds will be used to increase its reach among regional-language audiences.
There was nothing remarkable about her childhood. She grew up in a small town named Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh. “It was simple then, with no distractions of internet and gadgets,” she says. Chahal loved reading and went through all that she could find. The quiet days also gave her time to observe life around her, and she saw that women struggled without education and employment. It moved her deeply and perhaps put her on the path to SHEROES early.
Her parents were always supportive of her interests, even when she moved to Delhi to pursue her education. She did post-graduation from the Institute of Management Technology in Ghaziabad between 1996-1998 and then her MPhil in International Relations from the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in 2001.
Chahal also started working early. During her JNU days, she started working as a freelancer with different embassies on a part-time basis. She had working knowledge of Russian by then. Chahal then moved on to a magazine named Advancing Native Missions (ANM). “I did my first paid assignment when I was 19, and since then, I have never stopped,” she says.
But, after college, she found herself wanting to be an entrepreneur. In fact, she was certain that it was her calling. “I was introduced to the internet after I moved to Delhi, in 1996. I saw how pivotal it had become and how it could change people’s lives. I wanted to do something in this field,” Chahal says.
Her first business venture, Newslink, was founded in 2006, after she met Deepak Kamran, an ex-Marine. Though the credit for Newslink is majorly given to Kamran and Chahal, there were a couple of other friends they had who helped them in starting it. This start-up aimed to address a condition known as Sailor’s Depression, which is said to arise from the Marines’ long stints away from family, and their food habits. Chahal says that Newslink, till the time she was there, had helped 10,000 people. Even though Chahal is not a part of Newslink anymore, the venture continues to be run successfully by her friends.
She then started Fleximoms in 2011, which helped new mothers get back into the workforce by connecting them with suitable job opportunities, such as those that offered flexi-hours and mentorship. Fleximoms, she informs us, was the inspiration for SHEROES. Later, Chahal shut down Fleximoms and founded SHEROES in 2014, which is now a team of 80 people.
There is also a friend she is thankful to, too. In 2014, when she did not even have a place to house SHEROES, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder of Paytm, offered her the floor below his office. Chahal says, “Vijay is a good friend, and one day, I called and told him about my plan for SHEROES. I also told him that I didn’t have a space to run it. Without thinking twice, he offered me the floor, and I was overwhelmed.” She says that he was the first man to help her with this start-up. “Every morning he would turn up and help us turn that one corner into a workplace. It was a white canvas and we could paint it the way we wanted to,” she says, adding, “The first few months of any start-up, I believe, are the most fun days.”
There were naysayers too. Many doubted her all-women team. “People said, ‘Oh, what will they do? Are they going to start a fashion brand or an NGO?’ They were confused… but now, all their doubts have vanished,” she says.
The women she was looking to help, helped her too — keeping her inspired with their doggedness to better their lives. One such person, who was an early adopter of SHEROES’, is Saathiya Sundari. With the help of the company, Sundari moved out of her house where she was a victim of domestic violence and opened a beauty parlour. Chahal says she has come across women like Sundari in many villages. “Main kuch karna chahti hoon (I want to do something meaningful) is their answer when our team reaches out to them,” she says.
Chahal, who moved out of the comfort of her home when she was young, says she does miss her parents. “I sadly do not get much time to see them. There are times when months pass by working and I do not see them.” Personal life can be tough, when you are the boss. She recalls the days when her daughter was a child, and Chahal had to take her to the office and everywhere she went for work. To people who are seeking work-life balance, she says, there is none. Chahal says, “You know there is no perfect balance in life. I believe in finding my own flavour of imbalance.”
Of course her hard work got her to where she is, but Chahal credits any success to her team. “I am just a storyteller,” she says, “the execution is done by the team.” What drives the SHEROES’ band of women is their ability to dream big. “Somebody else’s idea of success is not going to hold us back,” she says.