An interview with Sri Lankan mumpreneur Yusra Aziz-Eliyas

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Her fresh, modern thinking is refreshing and truly inspirational!

She’s mum to two little boys (and expecting her third), owns and runs the company PODI JOBS and has a fierce passion and determination to empower Sri Lankan women. 

This trailblazing entrepreneur (but we proudly give her the title of mumpreneur!) is none other than Yusra Aziz-Eliyas.

Being a mum herself, Yusra truly understands just how tough it can be to re-enter the workforce after having kids, and finding a job that allows the flexibility to juggle both work and parenthood without compromising either.

Freelancing and working from home are two options that permit this flexibility, as are job positions that give the option of flexi-hours.

But many Sri Lankan employers still fail to offer this kind of flexibility and without truly understanding what incredible multitaskers mothers are, insist on sticking to offering archaic nine to five desk-potato positions.

Yusra is one woman who spotted this gap, and is here to hopefully start changing this mentality, and offer women, mothers, access to income through work that they can excel at even with their busy lifestyles. She understands that mothers are true multitaskers and that there is nothing they can’t manage once they set their minds to it.

We picked this supermum’s brain recently to find out how she does it all (and more). And because we believe that Yusra is a true inspiration to all Sri Lankans, especially women and mothers, what better day to inspire you with her story than today, International Women’s Day!

Tell us about yourself and what you do

I am a full time busy mum of two boys , expecting my third and I also run PODI JOBS which is Sri Lanka’s first freelance platform which connects freelancers to employers and we also support and empower deserving single mothers, women and girls with our proceeds. I also freelance as a business analyst and writer at times which marries my formal career path and passion.
 
What led you to starting your own business?
 
When I left my job to start a family, I freelanced which gave me the amazing ability to do what I love when I could, and be around my kids as well.
 
When I looked locally, I found absolutely no legitimate jobs publicly available ( or it was all just data entry) and uncovered many Sri Lankan mums both here and abroad who had left their careers to look after and be there for their children.
 
Some were in financial difficulty and unable to contribute to the household as they couldn’t go back to work (having to start all over again, or companies requiring they made to work at set times were some of the issues they faced).
 
Many were really smart ladies and I wondered why such women were made to choose between a career and family life when the rest of the world was embracing the gigging work culture of freelancing and flexi-hours.
 
I also wanted to help the less fortunate ladies and girls who were struggling to get ahead in life. Wanting to help these two segments of women kicked things off. So PODI JOBS started with just a few mums and when we went public a year ago, our aim was to empower women and empower Sri lankans with flexible work options.
 
We’ve grown to more than 2000 registered freelancers local and international, done more than a 100 jobs (local and globally)  and it just seems to be growing!
 
How do you balance your work and your family life? 
 
It’s tough! I have to be super-organized as I don’t have extra help. I freelanced when my kids were infants and I used to work when they napped.
 
I still do this, or get work done when they’re at school or after bed time. So I spend my time with them and work the rest. There have been late nights, but what has helped is an understanding husband and of course a set routine which I adhere to.

Yusra skillfully balances owning and running a company and motherhood.

 
What’s it like being a mumpreneur in Sri Lanka? What are the challenges you face/ have faced and how do/ did you overcome these?
 
Being a Mumpreneur is both tiring, difficult and liberating! Tiring as all mums are eternally tired, difficult due to challenges and stigma, and liberating as it really motivates one to make a change and of course the extra cash which comes in while doing it on your own time!
 
Challenges have come in all forms, from inquisitive relatives to business obstacles and sometimes even general work obstacles.
 
Sri Lanka has a culture where kids and work don’t mix. The Aunty network is always quick to point out that if you work, you’re neglecting your family and if you’re a stay-at-home mum, you aren’t doing enough to contribute to the household expenses, when actually both types of mums are working hard!
 

Being a WAHM, I would argue we have it harder though! Sometimes you have to tell clients, “I’m picking up my child, I won’t be able to sit through a meeting” or “You’ll hear my child in the background” (when on a call). But letting them know beforehand allows them to be more understanding and responsive to the situation.

There’s also a stigma around female entrepreneurs, especially in the tech world where old-fashioned thinking (which still prevails to a great extent) dictates that girls aren’t supposed to be very technical.

 
So as a tech/social entrepreneur, it was sometimes hard and difficult to sit and listen to the many suggestions I got about how I should be running my business or why I had started it out in the first place. It even got as bad as being told that women don’t know how to run a business, or that we require unsolicited business advice.
 
Being blunt, and letting the concerned individuals know about my sound IT knowledge and research helped.
 
What is sad though is that this happens to many females wanting to expand in the IT sector or into the entrepreneurial world. I guess it’s part of the glass ceiling women face locally which is built around our “assigned” cultural roles. This clearly needs to change.
 
Also due to our culture and employee work habits, winning business for our freelancers has been a tough task locally. 

We have had more response from international clients wanting to hire Sri Lankans, but local businesses are still hesitant and we are working on this by giving them a guarantee and holding deposits for them and for PODI taskers till work is complete. So in a nutshell, we give both employers and freelancers a safe, secure platform to work over.

I guess shifting this old-fashioned work culture and rewriting social roles is a hard job, although I am determined to see it through to create more opportunities for more women and Sri Lankans around the island.
 
How would you describe your mumpreneur journey so far?
 
Absolutely crazy!
 
I have been feeding kids while typing/reading emails or even cooking while being on business calls! I took a chance with PODI JOBS starting it up with absolutely zero investment using already available tools and social media, just to challenge the whole startup environment and it did work.
 
Watching it grow over the past year has just been amazing! I have met the most remarkable ladies doing extraordinary things and I hear the tough life stories of strong women or I hear from our PODI Taskers (freelancers, both male/female) about how a job or a donation/scholarship that we’ve given to a deserving woman or girl has transformed their life and that is just motivation to keep going.

Sri Lanka needs more trailblazing mumpreneurs like Yusra.

 
What are the top three questions women aspiring to be mumpreneurs should ask themselves before taking ‘the leap’?
 
a. Have I found my purpose? Am I passionate about this venture to work hard at it, no matter how tiring it might be?
b. Can I handle the ups and downs and pressure of business or competition or backlash?
c. Am I able to balance both my family life and the venture so that I am equally available to the family as well as the business. And can I draw the line between work and home life so that everyone benefits?
 
Please share your top three most valuable tips (gained from your own experience) for other mums out there who are thinking of starting their own business. 
 
a. Have a clear purpose. Do your research, on competition, available options and try to do something unique without going with the flow no matter how risky it might be (although you would want to take calculated risks) and stick to it.
b. Go global! The world is now a small place thanks to tech and delivery options etc. See if you can market your product or service globally.
c. Just go for it! If you don’t take the plunge, you will never know. Don’t wait for a day or a year to do it, and do not go over all the negatives. If you don’t make it, learn from it and try again, either at the same thing or something different. If you do, congratulations you’ve learned the first thing in business – taking a risk pays off!
 
If you had one message for employers about hiring mums/ women, what would that be? 
 
A marital status or the age or a title of a woman should not be a judging point of their capability, be it for a full time working woman or a woman who is freelancing.
 
Women should be evaluated on their experience, on their ability and even on their potential to learn on the job. Women are great employees and none of those factors contribute to what they are capable of at any age. 

As for freelancers even working remotely, women deliver on time, are reliable and their attention to detail is great as most of our clients ratings state and yes women are as smart as men and deserve equal pay!

theAsianparent Sri Lanka thanks Yusra for this interview. If you are an employer reading this, we truly hope you have been inspired to hire more freelancers, more women and more mothers!

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