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Well-established careers are left behind to follow passion amid pandemic

Switching careers is never easy, but the pandemic has seen many doing so. While some have been forced to pick another vocation, others with risk-appetites follow their passion. 
 

Published: 08th August 2021 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 08th August 2021 08:23 AM   |  A+A-

Radhika Bountra put her Le Cordon Bleu degree to good use.

Radhika Bountra put her Le Cordon Bleu degree to good use. (Photo | Express)

When Manu Mahalwar became an entrepreneur a few years back, he had his career path neatly laid out. He had spent a few months studying the market feasibility around putting properties on rent. He had invested his savings from a previous job to further promote his business venture.

Until March 2020, Mahalwar, 34, was running a hostel for college students and an Airbnb in Noida. The business was running smoothly as his rooms remained occupied throughout the year.

But then came the lockdown and the property slowly started emptying out and Mahalwar was soon staring at a vacant house. At home, with nothing to do, he started cooking. Sometimes he shared innovative recipes with friends. They, in turn, urged him to put them out on social media.

Mahalwar’s interest in photography turned out to be a bonus as his food shots became an instant hit. Soon, brands started approaching him and ‘homechef Manu’ became a social media influencer. Now he has no intention of going back to real estate, rather he wants to open a cloud kitchen. He is busy creating content for food and beverage brands, conducting online workshops and picking up skill sets to raise visibility of his work online. “I am pursuing my hobby and getting paid too. What could be more rewarding?” he asks.

That people are changing careers is not something new. But the pandemic has increased the numbers like never before.  Aniket Deshpande, a finance and risk management professional from Mumbai, had been mulling over being a life coach for many years. The outbreak of Covid-19 put forward an urgency like never before to work towards his goals.

“The pandemic was an eye-opener for me. It made me question myself. What if I were to lose my job? How was I going to support my son’s education or pay off my loan?” he says. As a first, he sold off his flat in Mumbai, paid off his home loan and shifted to a rented accommodation in the same locality. He also bought a house in Nagpur as a safety net. Once debt-free, he could focus on his dream career. “I chalked out my career path for the next five years. I want to be a life coach, then a wealth manager and eventually a social activist/influencer,” he adds. In the past 15 months, Deshpande has picked up several certificate courses in life coaching and also attended multiple skill sessions by renowned mentors. “In the last leg of my career, I see myself in Parliament. I want to be a changemaker,” he says.

In June, actor Shruti Seth posted on social media about her second calling in life—a certified emotional intelligence coach. Seth tweeted, “What started out as a curiosity a year ago just turned into a second career today.” Seth has since been conducting workshops as a coach. Actor Annup Sonii recently completed a certificate course in Crime Scene Investigation and has spoken about his desire to write a crime novel.   

It’s evident that the economic collapse caused by the pandemic has put millions out of jobs. According to a recent report released by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, the second wave has erased 7.35 million jobs in the country. Also, many more are pulling the plug on their long-pursued career or looking at updating skills for another one. While some like Mahalwar were ‘forced’ to choose another path, for people like Deshpande their risk-appetite propped them up.

Career goalposts are shifting faster than before. Experts believe that unexpected events override caution and provide a push factor. For many, the pestilence has been that push. The career ladder that needs to be climbed is left half-way through. Hustling is no longer linear. It can progress sideways or even have a zigzag path.

Pursuit of Passion
It might seem surprising when well-established careers are left behind to follow passion. Earlier, a shift in career mostly occurred at the beginning of work life or after retirement. But these are stressed times and the uncertainty around life hasn’t been more evident.

Will the pandemic become a turning point in the careers of the young and old? Will a second or a third career—once an exception—become the rule now?

“Yes, perhaps,” says Amit K Nandkeolyar, Associate Professor, Organisational Behaviour, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, “We can’t ignore that careers are no longer moving hierarchical. They are moving sideways and upwards.” He explains how now young people dabble in various gigs before following their chosen path.

Mumbai resident Vinda Dravid, 29, would know. She studied civil engineering and pursued internships in Zurich and a small village in Germany. Though Dravid secured admission for a postgraduate programme at Columbia University, US, she chose to return to Mumbai and work in a start-up instead. The next three years Dravid learnt everything from managing accounts to hiring teams and chasing clients. And during this time she had reached a saturation point.

“I quit a few months before the pandemic. I wanted to do something else but wasn’t sure what,” she says. After trying her hand at a few projects in June 2020, Dravid launched Curious Cat Company, which sells cat-themed clothing and accessories. She is a ‘cat mom’ and, with three of her own, dreams of opening a cat cafe.

“I put my love for cats into a business plan. Several people dissuaded me from starting out in these times. But on the contrary the pandemic gave me a positive push,” she says. It gave her time to slow down and introspect. “Life had come to a standstill for everyone. Because there was no pressure to prove to anyone anything, I could launch my venture.” What started with 20 products that were sold locally has now grown into 150 products and the merchandise is shipped all across the country. Dravid has got a handful of global orders as well. “Every month we have grown 25-30 percent except for the time when we were in complete lockdown,” she says.

Figures suggest attachment to one’s job is no longer a cherished value. As per Deloitte’s Millennial Survey 2021, job loyalty slipped from its 2020 peak. More millennials and GenZs would like to leave their employer within two years than last year—36 and 53 percent respectively, compared to 31 and 50 percent in 2020. “What was thought impossible before the pandemic has not only become possible, but also viable,” says SV Nathan, Senior Partner and Chief Talent Officer, Deloitte India.

Take, for instance, Samriddhi Balasubramaniam. She opted to pursue her hobby of jewellery designing when she was rendered jobless after the clothing firm she worked for shut its retail shop. The Bengaluru-based fashion designer who had previously worked in three start-ups realised that work in sustainable fashion, her choice of career, was underpaid and not growing the way it should have.

During the lockdown, the 25-year-old went back to designing jewellery using polymer clay, a hobby that she had engaged in while in-between jobs. She started posting her designs on her social media and orders started pouring in. In four months, Unbaked, her online jewellery store, started thriving. “For now, I have forgotten about being a fashion designer. I love designing, sourcing raw materials and crafting new pieces. I have started a paid members-only club along with a friend where we give tutorials on how to work with polymer clay. I have got orders from a Paris-based brand too,” she says.

Reality Strikes

Often people venture into businesses post recession as this is a time when unemployment is at its peak. Drawing on one’s hobbies seems to pick up during this period. “Being faced with a life-altering event like the pandemic has instilled a ‘carpe diem’ spirit in many. What started off as the child of adversity and uncertainty will hopefully grow up to be a champion of change, growth, and innovation,” Nathan says.

Some fields like travel, hospitality, and live entertainment are in a quandary. There’s no choice but to ace up. Just like the Kochi-based travel professional Sanush Vijay. For over a decade, he has worked in the travel industry, bracing through jobs during the Great Recession and upheavals in the tourism industry. But never was the urge to shift career felt more strongly than in April when he was laid off the second time since Covid-19 struck. “I was working at a prominent travel firm till March last year. As international travel took a hit, my team was dissolved. I got another job in December but the second wave became far worse for the industry and I became jobless once again,” he says. Last year, between jobs, Vijay had picked up a handful of certifications ranging from digital marketing courses to administrative ones and lessons in stock market trading. “Finally, I have decided to try my hand at trading,” he says.

According to Milind Jadhav, Mumbai-based certified life coach, the pandemic has made it easier for people to justify career switch—both professionally and to their families. “Your family is unlikely to object to a well-reasoned plan in the middle of an economic uncertainty or a health emergency. They will understand the ‘if not now, then when’ phenomenon,” Jadhav argues.

Vijay would agree. His family, though aghast at the prospect of him shifting careers after spending more than a decade in it, wants him to explore his other interests. “It’s hard to let go of the security of a decade-old career. For some people, it becomes a part of their identity. Often, I go through a sense of failure and abandonment. It’s not easy to leave behind my 15 years of experience in the travel industry and jump into the uncertainty of the stock markets,” he adds.

Jadhav knows what it is to be jobless. The recession of 2010 swallowed his glorified career in sales and marketing. A year later he made humble beginnings as a life coach. When people approach him with anxieties around the unknown, he shares his life story with them. “At 41, I picked up a new skill and started out without any backing. I keep telling my clients, ‘you are not your story. You can reinvent yourself anytime’,” Jadhav says.

A goal, which Krishna Tolia, 27, intends to chase. In normal times she took art workshops and home decor consultancy projects all across Mumbai. Today, she is a small business owner selling jewellery and accessories online. She hasn’t drastically changed her career but reworked the way she would utilise her existing skills. “I am constantly on an upskilling spree, attending workshops and meeting fellow artistes. My business has grown slow and steady. It gives me a sense of fulfilment, just like my previous work. Thankfully, I am still in a creative role,” she adds.

Burnout Season

The idea of a single career for life no longer holds true. Professional boundaries are being pushed against a grim job scenario and an uncertain 2021. It’s a trend that’s been observed because opportunities are more now as is job insecurity, says Nandkeolyar. “Some people have a more risk-taking appetite while some prefer secure jobs with less pay. All these reasons coupled with a health emergency made people rethink their career paths,” he explains.

Noida resident Rajeev Ranjan, 55, is a case in point. He was posted in Kolkata and Jaipur during the course of the first Covid wave in 2020. Staying away from family during a health emergency made him “reassess his priorities in life”. “It felt stressful to think I was away. Perhaps burnout too had become real by then,” Ranjan reminisces. He resigned from his job as vice-president of a multinational firm and bid adieu to his career of 32 years in insurance. “I have a law degree and I will now practise with a senior lawyer before starting on my own,” he says.

Anxiety and stress leading to burnout isn’t a new phenomenon but the pandemic has brought those deep-buried insecurities on to the surface of already-vulnerable professionals. However, for many the lockdown has been a blessing in disguise.

Radhika Bountra, 32, can’t stress enough how the pandemic has been a saving grace for her. Working as a public relations (PR) consultant in Delhi for a few years, Bountra was to join a new firm in April 2020. But as a nation-wide lockdown was announced, her joining date was postponed. Being jobless at home for over two months prompted Bountra to put her Le Cordon Bleu degree to good use. “I had pursued it from London in 2015 but had moved to the PR industry after a few anxious years in the hospitality sector. In July, I decided to open my patisserie. I spent two months deciding the menu and other logistics associated with running a single-person unit from home. I started taking orders in October,” she says. The PR firm approached her to join it in October but by then Bountra had moved on from her previous life. “PR is a stressful field. I don’t want to go back to it,” she says. That she earns a little less is not a concern.

Road to self-discovery

Abandoning a well-paid career that one has spent years in building isn’t easy. Mahalwar went from an industry where people earn in lakhs a month to start out at half the pay, but he has no complaints. “I got depressed during the lockdown. Suddenly there was nothing to do, no one to meet. Being on social media brought excitement. I never knew this side of me till strangers started appreciating my work. It was self-empowering.”

For the past two years as work-life balance shifts, an emotionally rewarding job is taking precedence over a financially-stable-but-stressed-out one. Even though starting on your own is never easy, especially close to retirement age, Ranjan believes his age is his strength. “At this age, when you shift not jobs but career, people realise that you are serious about the vocation. I have enjoyed the first phase of my career. Now I want to pay attention to the second one without a need to prove anything to anyone,” he explains. 

Moving into self-employment isn’t always easy. “They may earn less initially but it’s a small price to pay for the long-term stress and uncertainty of job loss,” Jadhav says. Setting up a new business in trying times comes with equal parts risk and motivation. When Jadhav started his journey as a life coach in 2012 he knew he had to help others avoid his predicament. He has since then coached several hundred clients. If recession pushed him into a second career, a decade later, the pandemic is bringing him new clients. “In ordinary times, people don’t act on impulse. But these aren’t ordinary times. Almost always 80 percent of my clients say they wish to follow their heart and do something different ‘someday’. In 2020, for over one-third of them, the ‘someday’ became ‘today’.” 

The Grey Area

It’s not that there aren’t any challenges when you go a few steps down the career ladder and attempt to climb another one. “For most people, the backup plan was never the one that was chased first. So that tinge of disappointment is real even if it comes as a fleeting thought,” observes Jadhav.

Bountra knows this feeling well. This is her second attempt at her baking venture. In 2018, when she started a small bakery delivery service from home, it failed to take off. She shut the venture after four months as she never had a business model in place. She has a piece of advice for anyone struggling to start afresh. “It’s alright to fail and one must remember that there are a lot of takeaways from failure. Keep pushing every day and pivot when you hit a roadblock,” she says.

Ranjan is anxious about starting a law firm. He is unsure how his clients would perceive his lack of experience. “Even though I want to pursue civil law, I will start slowly with cases around insurance claims and settlements. It’s an industry where I have spent many years,” he remarks. Balasubramaniam knows the struggle behind following her hobby to generate revenue. The instability around her income has been a consistent challenge. “But I have become conscious about my spending habits,” she says.

As for Mahalwar, he is trying to make a mark on a platform that favours the young. “The struggle is real. But my consistency and perseverance pay off,” he says. Subject experts would say career swaps lead to a dynamic economy. For those who have chased their second calling, it’s simply the pursuit of ‘happiness’, sometimes ‘survival’. 

Manu Mahalwar Noida

Until March 2020, he was running a hostel for college students and an Airbnb

Now

Busy creating content for food and beverage brands, conducting online food workshops and picking up skill sets to make his work more visible online. Wants to open a cloud kitchen too.

“I am pursuing my hobby and getting paid too. What could be more rewarding?”

Krishna Tolia Mumbai

Conducted art workshops and home decor consultancy projects across the city

Now

A small business owner selling jewellery and accessories online

“I am constantly on an upskilling spree. My business has grown slow and steady. It gives me a sense of fulfilment.”

Radhika Bountra Delhi

The PR consultant was to join a new firm in April 2020. But due to the lockdown, her joining date was postponed. 

Now

Being jobless for over two months made Bountra to put her Le Cordon Bleu degree to good use. In July 2020, she decided to open her patisserie. 

“I spent two months deciding the menu and other logistics to run a unit from home. I started taking orders in October.”

Shruti Seth Mumbai

Actor, who shot to fame with the TV series Shararat, will be seen next in the Indian adaptation of the popular British mystery series Guilt

Now

In June, she announced her second calling in life—a certified emotional intelligence coach. She has since then been conducting workshops on the subject.

“What started out as a curiosity a year ago just turned into a second career today.” On Twitter

Vinda Dravid Mumbai

Studied civil engineering and pursued internship in Zurich and a village in Germany. Chose to return to Mumbai to work in a start-up. 

Now

In June 2020, Dravid launched Curious Cat Company, which sells cat-themed clothing and accessories. As a ‘cat mom’, she dreams of opening a cat cafe. 

“Several people dissuaded me from starting out during the pandemic. But on the contrary the pandemic gave me a positive push.”

Annup Sonii Mumbai

Actor of the hit show Crime Patrol, based on real-crime incidents

Now

Completed a certificate course in Crime Scene Investigation recently, and has spoken about his desire to write a crime novel. 

“...During the recent lockdown, I decided to invest my time and energy in something more constructive. Yes, it was extremely challenging, going back to ‘studies of some sort’. But definitely, a choice that I am proud of.” On Twitter

Samriddhi Balasubramaniam Bengaluru

Fashion designer

Now

Opted to pursue her hobby of jewellery designing when she was rendered jobless during the first phase of lockdown

“I have started a paid members-only club along with a friend where we give tutorials on how to work with polymer clay. I have got orders from a Paris-based brand too.” 

Sanush Vijay Kochi

Travel professional

Now

Has decided to pursue stock market trading. Last year, he had picked up a handful of certifications. 

“Finally, I have decided to try my hand at trading.” 

Aniket Deshpande Mumbai

Finance and risk management professional

Now

In the past 15 months, Deshpande has picked up several certificate courses in life coaching and also attended multiple skill sessions by well-known mentors 

“I have chalked out my career path for the next five years. I want to be a life coach, then a wealth manager and eventually a social activist/influencer.”

New Career Trends

A Deloitte survey shows job loyalty for millennials and Gen Z slipped from 36% and 53% respectively in 2019 to 31% and 50% in 2020

Gartner’s 2020 ReimagineHR Employee Survey reveals that 74% of employees globally expect their employer to become more actively involved in the cultural debates of the day.

Skills required for a single job are increasing by 10% year-on-year, according to Gartner. Around 69% of HR executives report pressure from employees to provide them with development opportunities. 

Microsoft Trend Index says nearly 68% of Indian workers are likely to move to a new location as they are able to work remotely now

As per Prudential Financial’s Pulse of the American Worker survey, 1 in 4 workers is preparing to look for opportunities with a new employer once the pandemic threat has subsided

“Careers are no longer moving hierarchical. They are moving sideways and upwards.”
Amit K Nandkeolyar Associate Professor, Organisational Behaviour, IIM-Ahmedabad

“In ordinary times, people don’t act on impulse. But these aren’t ordinary times. Around 80 percent of my clients say they wish to follow their heart and do something different ‘someday’. In 2020, the someday became today.” 
Milind Jadhav Certified Life Coach



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