Meeting some of the women who are part of a new local group trying to help women return to paid employment after a "career break" makes one aware that Silicon Valley may be wasting a precious resource that has nothing to do with the drought.
The women who have joined to form SparkUp have advanced degrees from places like Stanford, Berkeley, Columbia and Cornell. They're lawyers, scientists, MBAs and PhD'. They have decades of experience in demanding workplaces.
They also have what many call a "resume gap" -- years spent outside the conventional work world caring for children or elderly relatives, or even working on their own businesses.
The women say they are facing problems they couldn't imagine when they decided to shift their focus from work to other priorities, whether a few years or more than a decade ago. Many have found that now that they are ready to return to the work world, that world doesn't seem to want them.
Company loyalty seen as liability
Katy Jenkins of Menlo Park, who in 2013 took a buyout after 32 years with the Hewlett-Packard Company to help care for ailing parents and a teenage son, has been told that something that used to be seen as a laudable trait loyalty to an employer is now seen by some as a liability.
After helping her mother cope with the death of her father, moving her to assisted living and clearing out the family home, while supporting her son through the transition from middle school to high school; Ms. Jenkins decided to return to paid employment.
The break "recharged me," she says. "I have the energy to go back full-swing."
When she left H-P, she was an engineering business operations manager, in charge of incorporating a start-up acquisition into the company.
With a master's degree in electrical engineering from Stanford University, a master's of business administration from the University of California, Berkeley, and a wide variety of management experience at H-P, it seems that Ms. Jenkins would be a prized commodity in Silicon Valley.
Instead, after recently going through two rounds of interviews at one company, she was told that the interviewer "didn't like the fact that I'd worked for the same company for a long time." Another company told her, despite having both an undergraduate and master's degree in electrical engineering, "they didn't think I was technical enough."
Resumes fall into "black hole"
Mostly, though, she has applied for positions "that I think are perfect for me" only to see her resume "fall into the black hole," she says.
At a recent SparkUp meeting in Menlo Park, a panel of recruiters and career coaches gave advice to the standing-room-only crowd of women in attendance, including Ms. Jenkins.
"It's important to remember rejection is a normal part of the process," said Colleen Canney, an engineering recruiter for Google and a career coach. She recommended an action plan that includes talking with people in a job you think you might want. "Speak with people and put yourself out there," she said.
SparkUp success story
Divya Kumar is someone who did just that after attending one of the first meetings of SparkUp, which was formed only last October. Ms. Kumar, 39, had a doctorate in chemistry from Columbia University and had done post-doctoral work at UC Davis when she discovered her infant daughter had severe multiple food allergies. "It was hard to leave her with anybody," she says. "Day care was out of the question for me."
With her daughter now in kindergarten and a second child who is free of allergies, Ms. Kumar, who recently moved to Sunnyvale, decided she could return to paid employment. At SparkUp she found that "everyone had this common goal of trying to get back" to a career, she said.
Although it was not part of her background, Ms. Kumar decided she wanted to work in food allergy research. After trying unsuccessfully to be introduced to a doctor she admired, Kari Nadeau, the director of the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy Research at Stanford, Ms. Kumar just sent her an email. "I kept realizing this is what I want to do, and why not tell this doctor?" she said.
Dr. Nadeau not only emailed back quickly, but encouraged Ms. Kumar to apply for a job in the lab. Although Ms. Kumar was over-qualified for the entry-level job, she convinced them that she would stay with it.
She was hired. "It's so rewarding," she says of her new job.
Founder surprised Silicon Valley women also need resources
That type of success story was what Singari Seshadri had in mind when she formed SparkUp. The local group was actually her second, and she says that after relocating to the Bay Area when her husband got a new job, she had no plans to transplant the organization she had started in New York state.
In fact, she thought that Silicon Valley would have plenty of resources for women trying to return to paid employment. "I didn't think there was an issue here," she says.
But then an attorney who wanted advice about what might happen if she took a break from her legal career posted a comment about her situation on the Parents Club of Palo Alto and Menlo Park website. The posting struck a nerve in that community. "It brought up this whole issue of, can women go back to work?" Ms. Seshadri says.
Ms. Seshadri posted a link to the New York SparkUp, and she was urged to start a similar organization here. A Google forum led to a coffee in October, which led to another meeting, and then a speaker series and additional get-togethers that started in January.
For the first speaker, "we honestly were expecting 15 people," Ms. Seshadri says. They had 93, and had to scramble for a room to accommodate them at the last minute. The group now has 300 on its mailing list.
At the core of what SparkUp is trying to do, Ms. Seshadri says, "is the idea of having this peer group or cohort to support you through this journey." The women keep each other on track and motivated, and share connections and ideas. "It's really this idea of support, motivation, accountability," she says.
"These women are so intelligent, so talented, have so much to offer," Ms. Seshadri says.
MBA from Cornell and research scientist
Roopa Shah, 39, of Atherton is one of those SparkUp members. With a background as a research scientist and an MBA from Cornell, she says she's just beginning to "think about going back to work" now that her second child is 2.
"I didn't mind taking a backseat for a while," she says. But now, "I want to do something for myself," she says. "I still have that drive in me I want to use it."
From SparkUp, Ms. Shah says, she's learned that figuring out the type of work she wants to do and where she wants to do it are important. "I'm trying to figure out what I want to do; what I can do," she says.
Knowing others who are doing the same thing helps, she says. "It's good to know there (are) so many like you who are trying to transition back," she says.
Ms. Seshadri, the SparkUp founder, says had an ulterior motive in getting the local organization going she'd like to go back to paying work as well. With her family finally settled in Menlo Park and her son about to enter middle school, the 42-year-old says she's ready. "I'm out there networking, meeting people; trying to figure out what's next for me," she says.
Since she advises women to try to figure out what their ideal job is, Ms. Seshadri has her own in mind. "My dream job is running, or being involved with, an organization or a fund that invests in women entrepreneurs," she says. "I love working with start-ups, I love working with entrepreneurs. I am interested in empowering women."
Since she's been at this awhile, Ms. Seshadri also knows "the perfect job doesn't exist," she says, so she would also be happy to take a job that combines two of those loves.
Ms. Jenkins says despite her setbacks, she is not discouraged. "I'm optimistic," she says. "Maybe it's because I'm a problem solver." She now understands, she says, "you don't necessarily go back to the job you left and I think that's one of the things women have to get over.
"But there's a world of possibilities out there."
While no one says it's easy to return to work after taking a break in their career, there are resources available to help.
● SparkUp is at SparkUp.org and has information and events for women looking to start their own business or return to the workplace.
● iRelaunch at iRelaunch.com, calls itself the "return-to-work" expert. Their website has resources, events and even a help desk. It has a list of career re-entry programs in all fields.
● OnRampFellowships at OnRampFellowship.com is a program for lawyers wanting to return to work after a break. It offers one-year paid work at many law firms.
● Lean In at LeanIn.org, while not specifically about women returning to work, has lots of information about combining family and career and getting ahead in the workplace. It also has Lean In Circles, groups that can be joined to provide support and information.