Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello, my name is Rita Kakati Shah and I’m the Founder and CEO of Uma, an international platform dedicated to empowering women returning to work after a career break, transition or relocation. Our approach is twofold: we increase companies’ bottom lines by focusing on their retention strategy, and we build confidence in our return to work cohort.
Our work with companies fosters inclusivity by focusing on diversity and retention strategies which include unique training workshops to educate both management and returning employees. Meanwhile, our work with returnees offers networking events that allow sharing of valuable stories, lessons and contacts, and be part of a supportive community. Uma Academy workshops help polish skills in a constantly changing work environment, providing practical tools, clear career direction and emotional support. Finally, Umaships are curated job experiences with select companies across diverse fields, that help bridge the gap between current lifestyles and return to work.
In just over two years we have grown from a single person office in New York City to London and San Francisco too, and have conducted events around the world in cities such as Los Angeles (US), Madrid (Spain), Moscow and Sochi (Russia) and Toronto (Canada). It is thanks to our incredible community of volunteers, staff, members and corporate partners that enable us to grow every day.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Throughout my career, I have been a dedicated advocate for diversity and equality issues in the workplace. I received the Excellence in Citizenship and Diversity Award for my contributions during my 10-year career at Goldman Sachs in London. After an industry change to pharmaceuticals, I got married and relocated to New York City where I took a career hiatus of almost four years to raise my two children.
Try. We pride ourselves on running a disruptive company, and that means constantly trying new things - not just once or twice, but continually, each and every day.
When my son was born, I was faced with the decision of whether to stay at home and raise him or return to work. In the UK, this decision would have been easier since I would have received a year of paid maternity leave and then would be mentored back to work. However, in the US, I received barely six weeks of unpaid leave and had to file a disability claim.
When I was thinking of re-entering the workforce, I experienced the hardships and challenges that women face every day. Employers could not get past the gap on my résumé, and it was almost like everything I had done professionally in the past was irrelevant. I have met so many incredible women who have similar stories and realized that someone had to challenge the system. I lived the problems and made it my mission to fix them.
With this intent, I launched Uma in 2016. Uma is a rapidly growing global platform that helps women regain their status in the workplace after taking a career break. And to do this, our philosophy had to be twofold – empowering those wishing to return to work and in tandem educating the companies they return to, so that they are happy and stay there.
It was clear from the start that we had hit a nerve in the market. I hear the stories and know the obstacles moms face as they take those first tentative steps back into the workforce. Uma is a platform to empower all women to take charge, be bold and true to themselves.
How did you launch the business?
Our goal was powerful, so we needed a powerful way to showcase it. But we had limited bootstrapped funds. We also had the task of fulfilling two tasks consecutively when we really had the bandwidth to do one. Were we to concentrate on growing our candidate pool, or focus on expanding our network of companies to partner with? It was a bit of a catch 22 situation in that as a startup you only have the resources to focus on one, but as one depended on the other, there was no choice but to figure out how to do both at the same time. We then decided to go full steam ahead.
To start, we highlighted what we needed to get started. A logo, business cards, website, social media presence. We hired a branding company to set the messaging and tone, and website developer to build our website. This was a key start. It had to be both user friendly to our return to work members as well as corporate partners. We used the same branding across all our social media too with the aim to launch everything at the same time. We were in existence and wanted the world to know.
Then it was wait and see. Thankfully, the strategy of targeting two different client bases at the same time, worked. We started seeing new clients, then repeat clients and happy businesses. Timeline wise Uma launched in September 2016 in New York City. Last year over 50 women came through our workshops, and we successfully placed 6 women into Umaships, and every placement converted to a permanent job, which is a 100% success rate. 2018 saw the launch of San Francisco and London too.
Would we have done anything differently? Most definitely so. The logo and branding were a good idea, but the website could have waited. Most of our initial clients and business came through referrals, either through friends referring friends or through social media. In hindsight it may have been more cost effective to launch the social media portion first, as there is minimal to no cost to doing this. It was a good idea to get our logo designed early however, as that is how we managed to streamline our branding and start spreading the word. However, we probably didn’t need that many business cards (if at all), as most of our contacts either knew us already or added our contact info via LinkedIn or social media. Also, the money spent on our website should ideally have waited until we were well off the ground, and then we could have focused more on SEO and marketing.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
The key for us was free PR. In our case, when we set up our social media accounts, we started following other businesses and influencers in the space we were in. Soon we were inbox messaged by one or two local community bloggers that had spotted our existence on Facebook or Instagram. Whatever publicity we got, we would then share and highlight and ask friends to share.
It’s super important to get your word out as much as you can with the resources you have. The bloggers then became entrepreneur scouts, and eventually bigger more well-known magazines. We were fortunate enough to have a regular stream of publicity come in, but that is because we were continually putting ourselves out there. Take this example – Pat Walls reached out to us after spotting an interview on Medium. Similarly the author of the Medium interview contacted us via Authority magazine. That same piece subsequently got picked up by Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global too.
As the founder and therefore face of the company, I have to put myself out there a lot too. Networking events, meetings, speaking engagements are all part of our content posted on social media. Take pictures when you can of anything you or your team members have been involved in. It helps to strengthen the legitimacy of your brand and business.
We also have a monthly newsletter that we send out, highlighting what’s happened and what is to come. We use Constant Contact, and a benefit of using an official mass mailing platform is the analytics you get afterwards. You can see everything from the number of opens, to forwards, to who clicked on what. This in itself is market research as it is showing what is of interest to our target audience.
However, it is worth noting that although we wouldn’t have been able to spread the word without successful social media campaigns, we are ultimately in a relationship business where the emotional quotient plays a huge part in attracting new members. So even though our own social media has helped us reach wider audiences, the ultimate user is more likely from a referral after a successful experience, and so we have made it a habit to ask for brief testimonials after the completion of a successful project. Our returnees like that we are approachable and responsive. Our partner companies like that when we put our name behind a curated job placement or training workshop, the end result is flawless, with impeccable delivery.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Uma’s mission is empowering women to succeed at life and work after a career break or transition. This in itself is disruptive as it requires shifting the needle in the ways jobs are done today. In creating Uma, I single handedly created an international movement by identifying pain points and challenging the status quo. From income disparity to paid family leave, I am definitely not afraid of asking tough questions and making bold suggestions. With offices in New York, London, and San Francisco, our community continues to grow every day.
Through our platform we have created a unique experience for our members where they are not only connected with job experiences across industries, but we build confidence, resilience and the fighting spirit to progress in their new journeys ahead. Nothing beats the feeling of seeing the actual difference you have made to a person’s life. Companies are starting to see the results of our training workshops too. Every person we have trained that in turn doesn’t leave their company within the usual attrition period of 12-18 months, is a significant saving to that company’s bottom line, which is a direct result of our program.
Our aim is to take our mission global, as we seek to change the narrative on how companies do business, and by doing so, empower as many women around the world as possible, providing them the guidance and tools for success, whatever their future life decisions or paths ahead. More TV, radio, podcasts and written publications are coming out, so watch this space!
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
It’s important to keep three things in mind: be a good listener; always keep trying and make sure you take time to recharge.
Listen. In order to be an entrepreneur, leader and mentor you need to constantly connect with your surroundings. This means being aware of the market conditions, staying ahead of your competition, and always being ready to adapt and change. Take the time to listen to those around you, whether it is your consumer base, employee or family. In the case of Uma, we were based in New York City, but by taking the time to listen to the voices of the thousands of incredible women in our network, we knew that in order to innovate and empower people, we quickly had to expand our operations to both the San Francisco Bay Area and London.
Try. We pride ourselves on running a disruptive company, and that means constantly trying new things - not just once or twice, but continually, each and every day. There will be several setbacks and hurdles, but you have to be aggressive and keep trying in order to build a resilient brand and execute your vision. Uma would not exist had we not tried.
Recharge. When you run a company across multiple time zones, you are traveling and in meetings around the clock. Couple that with spending time with your young family, and it is enough to cause burnout. So be smart and carve out time to relax and unwind. I believe in the golden rule: work hard and play hard.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Execution is key to functioning as a business. As such, it is worth investing in robust infrastructure as soon as you know you have a viable market product.
For marketing, social media and newsletter purposes, we use Constant Contact, FaceBook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube too.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Jason Fried’s TEDx talk on why “work doesn’t happen at work” is something that truly resonated with me. There are so many distractions at the office that we give everyone the option to work remotely and maintain flexible hours.
This freedom increases productivity, creativity and efficiency. To foster team camaraderie and social interaction, we arrange team get togethers and dedicated idea generating sessions where the teams can actually exchange ideas and brainstorm.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Success isn’t just handed to you on a plate however. It comes after much perseverance and dedication. First and foremost you have to be passionate about what you want to do. Once you feel that buzz, that pull toward a certain field or company, you need to go all in. By that I mean doing your research, attending as many networking or career events as you can and meeting prospective employers for coffees.
Being an entrepreneur means you are constantly creating new concepts and ideas. Combine that with also being the boss, now you can shape the entire direction and philosophy of your company.
Finding a strong mentor is key, be it a former colleague, friend or family. A professional mentor is great for bouncing ideas off, and speaking to friends helps understand your market.
Don’t be afraid to change your direction based upon actual market research too. As an entrepreneur it can be all too easy to stick to a particular methodology, whereas your audience is telling you something else. Explore that something else and keep innovating to stay ahead of the curve.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
If you are enthusiastic, talented and keen to make a change in the way jobs are traditionally done, please reach out! We are adding to the following teams, so please feel free to email [email protected] indicating which of the below roles you are looking for:
Role 1: Business Development – reaching out to companies and helping to establish partnerships to offer Umaships as well as internal training workshops
Role 2: HR/Client Relations/Recruitment – reaching out to and maintaining the network of moms/career transitioners
Role 3: PR/Marketing – Updating monthly newsletter, boosting social media presence as well as reaching out to influential policy makers, magazines, newspapers, radio hosts, tv outlets, etc
Role 4: IT/Developer – Maintaining / updating our website
Where can we go to learn more?
To view our website, go to www.beboldbeuma.com
To follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, our handle is @beboldbeuma
To subscribe to our channel on YouTube, click here
To keep up to date with our LinkedIn page, click here
To get in touch, email [email protected]
- Rita Kakati Shah, Founder of Uma
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