Sindu Verma is someone who has worn – and still wears – different hats: She’s a mother, a manager, and an entrepreneur. She spent over a decade in the BPO industry in Mumbai and Bangalore before deciding to call it quits. The challenge she faced was one that’s common to most working women today: how to find a balance between your desire to work and grow at work and your desire to care for and spend time with your children? Sindu found a unique solution to this challenge, and we talk about her journey in some detail. This is an entrepreneur’s journey, but not the typical “tech entrepreneur” so common these days.
The daycare Sindu started in 2008 – Teddies Daycare – is presently dormant due to the ongoing pandemic. Apart from staying in touch with the children and parents through online channels, she has hosted webinars on nutrition and children and Corona and children.
One of the things I love about this conversation is the way it brings out Sindu’s delight at being in the world of children. She’s also very open about the difficulties the daycare industry faces in a place like India, where parents still carry a lot of guilt about sending one’s child away to be taken care of by someone else.
This podcast is hosted on Buzzsprout and is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast players.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
We have a lot of ground to cover as we speak about your career, but perhaps a good place to begin would be to start at your daycare – The Teddies Daycare that you started. Why don’t you give me a quick overview of your daycare.
I started the daycare in 2008 basically for my own son. The idea was to help a few moms like me. Before the daycare when I was struggling managing work and the baby, the seed of thought was along the following lines: this could be a nice place where mom’s could guilt free drop their babies and then go to work and give their 200% at work without worrying about how the child is throughout the day, and then come back and see a happy child and take the baby back home.
So the whole idea was to help a few moms while my son and I get to spend time together. I did my research and there was nothing much in India around daycare, which was really shocking. There were balwadis and anganwadis in the government sector but nothing coined as ‘daycare’ at that time. So all my guidelines came from US, UK, the Europe side, where there were very strict guidelines on what all permissions a daycare requires, what is the per square feet space required for a child, what is the educational background that a daycare owner should have, etc.
So I went through all these websites and it was like my bible because there was nothing much in India that I could rely on. Even my application for registering the daycare was rejected twice because in our laws and by-laws at that time there was nothing catering to the daycare industry. I didn’t even know where to start you know, I didn’t have any benchmark or anything like that, so I had to setup and do things along the way, so things just worked along the way. It has been 12 years, discounting these six-seven months.
We’ll will come to the situation created by the pandemic in a few moments, but tell me about the state of your daycare before the pandemic began. How many kids you had in the daycare, and so on.
So before we closed in March we had a pre-school and a daycare running. At the daycare we had around 25-26 children coming, which included various plans like the full day plan and the quarter day plan. Children would get dropped after school. Our pre-school is more of a pre-nursery, a playgroup kind of environment, so here we had around six kids.
How do the kids like the daycare? Do they struggle in the beginning and then settle down? Describe for me the arc of a typical child in a daycare?
Yes the initial days are very, very daunting and it is very difficult for the baby and the parents, especially the mother. The mother is caught in a guilt trap because she sees her baby crying and the separation, the anxieties of both the parents and for the baby is very, very difficult in the first 20 to 30 days. It takes a month or so for the baby to completely settle, and even after that, even after the crying and the sobbing and the wailing stops, there is still that fear of separation from the mother.
So initially they hate the daycare, especially after the weekends. We can see that every child on Monday is upset, grumpy, has mood swings. The time that they spend with their parents is always precious, it’s different, it’s their home, their space where they are kings. And here they have to share the space with other kids, they have to behave socially. Kids of all ages pick that up that this is not home and there is a kind of behavior that’s required, so it’s difficult, very difficult for the babies.
But once they settle they start socialising with the other children, they realise it’s a happy and safe environment, and that’s when then the child opens up and then it’s like a flower blooming. It’s so beautiful, every day they start talking, they start playing. The life of a child anyways is a lot of joy, and we get glimpses of this every day. Of course, there are mood swings – even adults they have their mood swings – they have bad tempers and most of them are single children at home, with parents working, so weekends are those special days for them where they are pampered and spoilt and then when they come to the daycare there are certain rules that they need to follow, like share toys, share spaces. So then you can see the characters blooming.
The way you describe children makes me think that you must be missing them a lot these days ever since the daycare had to close beginning March when the pandemic began. How have you kept in touch with them, do you have some online engagements?
Yes, so we started with our online sessions for our pre-school. As I said we have a pre-school where we have toddlers, so the toddler environment is of children who have just completed two years – they don’t understand what school is. So we started with our sessions in June and realised that these are not kids who are going to sit in front of this interface. They don’t understand the concept of the virtual world – for them it’s touch, feel, emotions and all of that, so what we do now is we have a home schooling plan where we meet up with the parents along with the children twice a week for an hour where we conduct a few activities, and then the week’s plan is sent to the parents. And then we keep in touch and we have videos and pictures that come in from parents and that’s how we know the progress of the child.
And for the daycare children what I normally do is have a video call with them once in a month or once in a couple of months where we just virtually say hi to each other.
You also conduct some online webinars, isn’t it? I recall seeing one on nutrition.
The nutrition one was our second webinar, the first one was around corona in children. There was so much speculation on the impact of the lockdown on children, academically, emotionally, socially and all of that. So the assumption was that there must have be a lot of questions in the minds of parents, and since it’s more about the vaccine and the medical side of things we forget children in all of that. We know we want to protect them and we want to keep them safe at home, but what is the impact on children of sitting at home for such a long period?
Kids are supposed to go out and play and scream and have friends and put their hands in the mud and get themselves dirty. Now suddenly they have to be home. And it was not a week or a month, it’s been like seven months now, so they have been impacted greatly. So in the webinar we talk about the fact that there is anxiety in adults and how we are venting out our emotions and frustrations, but what about these little kids? They can’t even voice out or communicate what they feel.
So this was the idea behind that webinar, and it offered an amazing insight on how these kids may be getting impacted emotionally. But kids also love to be at home with parents and they are suddenly getting so much time and quality time with parents, so they love it. When I talk to some of the parents they say our kids don’t want to go back to school – they are happy with online sessions and they say let’s find a school which will continue with online sessions because they like to be at home.
That’s very interesting. I guess the pandemic is going to have a long-term impact on many industries. People have been discussing how in certain industries like IT people would be spending a lot more time working from home, which may impact the amount of time parents in these industries send their kids to daycare – we’ll have to wait and see. Now let’s move back in time a bit and spend some time talking about the early days of your career. So I understand you graduated in science and then started working. Tell me more about those early days at work.
While I was doing my graduation I also did my diploma in computers and computers was the buzz word. And after I passed out I got a job very easily. I took it up because I’d had enough of studies and I thought if I wanted to I could study later. My first job was at a computer institute and then I worked with a pharmaceutical company, then a BPO. 1999 is when I joined the BPO industry. It was a new industry, there was a lot of buzz around it, lot of technology and it was fun. I think I have learnt a lot, my career graph I guess maximum learning has happened in this sector.
For those listeners who may not be familiar with the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector, it would be great if you could give a brief overview of this sector and the kind of roles you had in it.
So when I started there was this company which was recruiting any graduate with good English skills, and they were recruiting in bulk. At that time my younger sister and I applied together and we got selected. We didn’t even know what was the role or the job, it looked like a nice office and there were cubicles and there was a computer in each cube and we went back home and we told our parents that we got a job. And when they asked us what it is and we said we don’t know! We would know what we need to do in the coming months, we were getting paid well and it was fun. And then the night shifts had started. That was very different you know at that time, so girls doing night shifts was very different but…
This was a call centre, isn’t it?
This was a call centre. We came to know that it is a call centre maybe five or six months down the line when we actually started working on the floor. But this was actually a web centre because at that time Voice Over IP (VOIP) had not come to India, so we were replying to customers who would come in through web, as in mail and chat. And then we slowly moved, the ones with experience, the ones on floor who showed leadership skills, we moved ahead through internal job postings and interviews. I got to do a lot of challenging jobs in the call centre industry. So I moved up the ladder there, I worked almost for four and half years in Mumbai in this centre and I almost picked up everything from operations to quality to training.
And through your journey in the BPO sector you worked in companies like HP and Dell and along the way you also moved from Mumbai to Bangalore. In between you also took a sabbatical when your son was born.
Yes, so we got married in 2004 and 2005 is when my son was born, so that’s when I took my sabbatical just a few months before my maternity leave. I took a break because I found it very difficult to manage the shift timings and the demanding operations floor. So I took a break when I was around five months pregnant, intending to join back as soon as the baby is born. Because I thought the baby comes out and I am free (laughs). But that was not the case, and I had to take a longer break so then I went back, I quit and I promised them that I will come back. Then I joined back when my son was around 1 or 1.5 years old.
So you were on a sabbatical for about one and a half years. That seems like a short break – were you rearing to get back?
Yes, from day one I was like I want to get back. With that thought in mind I was programming my baby around all of that: a eat-quickly, get-ready-quickly, follow-up pattern without understanding that this was a baby that I was dealing with and it was no longer technology. And that was a wake-up call for me.
The mother in me woke up and then I realized that a baby demands a lot of time, a lot of attention and the frame of mind of a mother is very, very important in actually molding a baby. Because when I was happy, when I was content, my baby seemed to be happy and content, but when I had this….because I was in this hurry that my I had to cope with the maid, cope with the daycare, start external feed quickly so that I can get back to work. And when I started hurrying these natural processes is when I saw my baby getting anxious, and he would not cooperate and would be very upset with all the new procedures that I would want to attempt with him. So that was a big learning for me that this was a baby that I was handling, this was a little human being with feelings and emotions.
So you joined Dell back in 2006 and a couple of years later you left Dell to start this daycare of yours. Tell me more about that. Did you spend a lot of time thinking about it, what were your motivations – take me through that decision process.
Okay so 2006 to 2008 was a really challenging time for me where I wanted to put my 200% at work, wanted to prove that I was of the same mettle as I had left but it was very difficult. It was very difficult to bring the balance between work and home, managing a toddler at home and maids and care takers – it was very, very difficult. And the most challenging part was the timing.
In the call center industry you have to work as per the shift timings. I was an area manager handling a team of 150 to 200 techs on floor and my presence was required, I had to be there when they are there and sometimes I would find it very difficult even to conduct a team meeting which would be post shift, which would be like 11 or 11:30 in the night. I would feel so guilty about sneaking out of the office just to get back home to put my baby to sleep or give him one hug before he goes to sleep.
So I found it very challenging and to add to it all the nanny scene didn’t help at all. I had thrown out nannies and care takers in dozens I guess – 22 was the count that I kept and after that I stopped counting because it was really depressing to know that you couldn’t find a good care taker. So it was very challenging, and after a few months I had to decide whether it is home or work because I was not able to put in 100% in both places.
I also noticed that emotionally my child was getting affected. He was getting very clingy, and I don’t know whether that was the guilt of a mother or whether he really was going through that emotional separation anxiety but I couldn’t take my child crying all the time and being very insecure. I wanted him to be a happy child and the feeling started coming in say a year down after I joined, but things got worse because of the nanny scene at home.
That explains why you stopped working, but you could have stopped working and just stayed at home taking care of your son. Instead you decided to start a daycare. Where did that daycare idea come from?
So the sabbatical had taught me that I cannot sit idle at home, so that was one thing. Second was that I wanted to be with my son – whatever I do had to be around him. The third thing was that the frustration that I was going through as a mother, I thought should do something or around that area that could help a few other moms.
So putting the pieces together, the daycare option just popped up. It was not easy afterwards because I had to do my research and like I said there was nothing around that in India. So while I wanted to be sure that this is what I want to do, I had no backup, no knowledge base to look back on, or a benchmark to start off with. There were too many things and then I guess it was just fate, I left it to fate and destiny.
All this groundwork and preparation must have taken quite some time. Take me through that phase how long did it take and what kind of preparation you had to do before you started the daycare?
So December 2007 is when the idea crept in that now I will not continue in Dell or in any other corporate place. Then I started my groundwork and my research. It took me a month or so to do the background work, then I had to get down actually to groundwork. I wanted a place which is close to home, I had to look for a place, I had to look for staff, I had to look for props and setup, the infrastructure, I had to recruit people. So this was a three to four months project of mine.
What you just described a little while back is actually a typical arch of an entrepreneur who feels the pain himself or herself and then looks in the market and sees actually there is no solution, and comes up with a solution. As I understand this is what exactly you did, you looked around and the daycare market was practically non-existent then, so that’s when you started – which is very interesting. So you started in April 2008 and as I understand at that time you had two children in the daycare – your son and another child.
Yes, my neighbour’s child. I didn’t get anybody from outside. What I did is I talked to my neighbour and she had a live-in maid at that time, so she was also going through a lot of crisis with the maid and all her drama that was going on at home. So she was also in that frame of mind where she didn’t know whether to stay at home or get back to work, and when she heard me say that I wanted to start a daycare, she didn’t even ask where I was going to open one, did I find a place, did I have the infrastructure, nothing. She just told me that the first admission is here and my daughter is with you.
So I actually started in my house because she was so desperate to have someone take care of her baby that she actually dropped her baby with me at home while the setup of the daycare was happening. So I was getting the wood work and all of that done and before that I already had in parallel started my daycare at home with my son and my neighbour’s daughter.
Of course at the start of business it’s always a good idea to have or approach friends and family to be your initial customers, people who can adopt and give you feed back. So this is not surprising but it is also nice to have a neighbour like that. So you started this in 2008, and you must have had some expectations when you started it. You started with an excel, you had a plan, but how did the reality turn out? Were there some surprises?
I would term it Manohar not as a surprise but as a shock. Because in my excel sheet I should have started making profits after the first year itself, but that was not the case. I expected one admission per month and that was not a very high expectation to have. But for the first two years I had a tally of 5 to 6 kids and it was a shock for me because I thought just in our apartment there would be at least 15 to 20 women who would be going out to work and who would require a space like this for their child.
But what I realised over time is that India … I am not sure outside but India still has not accepted the fact that children can be dropped in a place called daycare which is safe. My mom, my aunties, still keep asking me who are these mothers who drop their children and go to work, they keep wondering who these emotionless or cruel moms are who can drop their children in some place and go to work. So I think that is a big constraint, it’s a mindset that people still hold and that is why there is a lot of guilt around the daycare.
There are lot of stories too. People would ask me questions like you ‘Do you put eye drops in the baby’s eyes to put them to sleep?’ Apparently here were things like that going on in some daycares. There was a lot also in media that nannies would take the babies who are dropped in the daycare and take them to the junctions and crossings and make them beg and stuff like that. So there were a lot of such queries from people who would have heard all of this in the media, carry the guilt of ‘dropping my child somewhere and I am going to go to work’, so one negative feedback or one negative review or something here and there is enough to deter them. So I think the daycare industry still has a long, long way to go in India especially.
And I guess the support structure in terms of the family is always around the corner. The grandparents come and go and so on which is probably not the case so much in the west where nuclear families tend to be pretty much independent even after the child is born. And I guess that also shrinks the market that might be interested in such a daycare kind of service. So that was one surprise or a shock – what else?
Babies are a big responsibility. So they fall, if they fall at home it’s absolutely fine but if even if a mosquito bites them in a daycare environment or outside home then it’s a crime.
So this was a shocker for me. Actually I also feel that it is because again of the guilt. Mom’s carry so much guilt that they have dropped the child somewhere and they have gone to work, so they are looking for reasons to fight back or revolt or tell us that you are not so good, you don’t take care of my baby as much as I do. So we have to be on our toes, all eyes on the babies at all times. So expectations from parents was something that was a big, big shocker for me. If it’s not about safety then it is about academics, or it is about growth of the child – there is something or the other always that parents are bothered about and the expectations from the daycare is like very, very high.
I guess it’s also a learning for the parents to deal with this new entity called daycare and manage their own expectations around what they want from such a daycare. And perhaps you too have to communicate in a subtle way to the parents about how things work in the daycare, isn’t it?
It is more by example, I guess nobody wants to get parental advice or tips on how to parent your child, so it’s always by example.
Some moms are always worried about whether they’ve eaten enough, how big is the chapatti, how much does it weigh, how thick was it and how many chapattis did my child eat and so on. What I normally do is I send videos out of the child eating, playing, just being happy so that the mother is satisfied. So it’s by example for certain things.
And it’s about the trust. The parents don’t know me, we don’t know them and still they have the trust to drop their child with us day in and day out. Over years I have actually raised children right from them being dropped as infants to the 7-8 years they’ve been with us. So we see that trust doesn’t come in a day or two, we have to form the trust. It’s a daily work in progress.
I want to just connect back to your earlier role in the corporate world. What would be some of the learnings that you had during the time in the BPO sector and around that to your job now as an entrepreneur, as somebody who is managing this setup.
There was a lot of learning because in Mumbai in Track Mail since it was a new setup, a new company itself so there were lot of processes that we put down and followed, and if it failed there was something else that we setup. So a lot of processes, our knowledge of processes, organising, planning all of that I guess I have learnt from my work in the BPO sector. Managing people, managing staff, setting goals, plan A, plan B, I guess all of that.
And most importantly, customer satisfaction. Because working with HP and Dell, where the customer is always king, this quality gets into your blood stream. That there is nothing beyond the customer. And I worked on that framework where I tried to get in as many processes and policies and my setup around the customer, to convenience the customer and these are my babies. So everything is around the babies.
But there you were working mainly with adults and managing white-collared workers and now you have to deal with children and perhaps work with the support staff and more blue-collared workers, isn’t it?
Oh yes! It was very different because in HP or Dell you have a meeting, you have a goal setting that happens, and then everybody gets to work and then you know the progress through mail or whatever, you keep in touch, you review – it was easy.
But here suddenly my benchmark of cleanliness and hygiene somehow seemed to be very different from what these nannies or care takers and my aunties at the daycare had. They just couldn’t understand when they said clean and my clean was like worlds apart. So the first two years were very challenging and then over the years they learned.
Some of my caretakers have worked with me for eleven or twelve years, so they know my style, they know what I mean by clean, they know what I mean by keeping the baby happy and healthy. So they’ve learnt along with me and it’s a bond now and I love the genuineness here. In the corporate world – I am sorry to say this – but in the corporate world many things are not so genuine. The love and the loyalty here is different, is definitely different.
I can totally imagine that having been in the corporate world – it’s a different atmosphere altogether. I am also curious about the changes on the personal side, all things that changed in your life as you moved from working in the corporate sector to this kind of a role. Of course your schedule would have changed as you said you are putting a lot of late nights or long hours, but apart from the schedule what are the things on the personal side that changed?
The initial years were very stressful because I was setting up and things were not working and I couldn’t figure things out. My son was with me all the time and things were different now, completely different. On a personal level the initial years were stressful but over time I realised that this was my passion, this is what I wanted to do all my life because I enjoyed being around children.
So there were all these joyful moments of the day which would brighten up my day, so even though there was a lot of stress I really enjoyed being around children. There were always these stories that I would come back and tell my husband or my family about this child said this and that child said that.There was a lot of joy suddenly, even though stress was there and tempers were rising there was a lot of joy and I guess that has continued and grown over the years.
I have now understood how to control my temper. I definitely feel as a person I have become more sensitive, much, much more patient and I understand the value of small things because children take joy in every small thing. They see a flower, they see a butterfly and they’ll giggle out, somebody will jump and they will laugh. So I’ve understood that there is a lot of joy in every small thing in life, and that’s something I really cherish now – small joys.
That’s such a beautiful thought Sindu and I think it will stay with me for a long time. This probably is a good time also to bring this conversation to a close, but I have one last question for you. In hindsight, looking back, would you have done something differently?
Not really. I guess the transition was good and there’s learning, there’s definitely learning. So I don’t know, I don’t think I would want to change anything. Maybe financially yes, financially yes there would be but I guess otherwise it’s been an absolutely amazing experience. Because the credit is mine and the joy is mine and the successes are mine. So I enjoy that.
And the world of children – I don’t know how blessed I am that I have got included in the world of children which is just amazing, that joy is just amazing.