A story that perfectly sums up the idiom “age is just a number”

A few days back, when Sapna Sharma, 57, walked into the office of DroneAcharya Aerial Innovations, a Pune-based drone services and pilot training startup, she felt like a child entering a school for the first time in life. This is Sharma’s very first job; her first baby steps into the professional world. Her workplace happens to be a start-up, a space that is dominated by the young. And yet, the organisation welcomed her on board. There’s a reason such stories need to be told. While we have women who have managed to break the glass ceiling, for many, career takes a backseat after marriage or children. Many choose to take a step back as responsibilities multiple or because they don’t get any help or support from families and many fail to open their innings. We need more workplaces like DroneAcharya that promote age diversity and give women of all ages a chance

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When fifty-seven-year-old Sapna Sharma was asked by the management of DroneAcharya Aerial Innovations, a Pune-based startup that works in the drone space, if she would like to join the workplace, she did not immediately say yes. She went back home and thought about it for two days. Her apprehensions were justified. Sharma has, as they say in the corporate world, no work experience.

Earlier this year, she, along with her husband Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Sunil Sharma, 60, moved to Pune after he was hired by DroneAcharya to join as President, Business and Strategy. Sharma accompanied her husband to the office one day when she was asked if she would like to join as Admin Executive. She was told that the startup would benefit from her life experiences and each team member would be happy and willing to help her integrate into the system.

“I eventually said yes and joined soon after. I think it’s never too late to start something and there is no age to learn new things. The fact that my husband also works in the same office and the management was motivating, encouraging, and welcoming helped me arrive at the decision. It’s been just a few days, but I am glad I said yes to the offer,” said Sharma.

The beginning of her journey

Born in Alwar, Rajasthan on September 18, 1965, Sharma completed her schooling in Jaipur and Jodhpur. In 1985, she completed a course in textile designing and got married in 1988.

“As my husband was in the Army, we had to relocate every two years. Some of the cities and states we have lived in include Sikandrabad, Chandigarh, Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, Mau (Madhya Pradesh), Mathura, Ambala, and Jalandhar. Because we were constantly on the move, I could never start my professional journey. You can say that I never tried. So, this job for me is like how a child goes to school for the first time in life,” said Sharma.

Sharma was 36 when her daughter Sweekriti was born and after that, her life revolved around her daughter.  

Bidding adieu to the Army, moving to Mumbai, Pune

Her husband took a premature retirement from the Army in 2006 and the family moved to Mumbai. Sharma’s husband took up a job with the Mahindra Group where he headed two verticals until he retired at 60 in March this year.

“Soon after he got an opportunity to work with DroneAcharya, so we moved to Pune. While we have some relatives and some wonderful friends here, it still felt like starting afresh. My daughter, now 21, is away in Bengaluru pursuing a course in filmmaking. My husband got busy with his new job, but it used to bother him that I used to be all alone at home. One day I accompanied him to his workplace when during a casual chat the management made this offer to me,” said Sharma.      

New innings: Joining a workplace at 57

While Sharma’s husband and daughter always encouraged and motivated her to work, somehow it never happened.

“It was for this reason I needed two days to think. Since I have never worked, especially in a corporate setup, I have been very out of touch. But because the management and my husband were very supportive, I decided to give it a try and give my best,” said Sharma.

How did she feel on the first day of the job?

“Well, I was very nervous, but, at the same time, I was very excited. Everyone was very helpful and welcoming. It wasn’t a very hectic day. I met the team and told everyone that they will have to treat me like a new kid in the class and teach me everything. Since that day everyone has been very kind and helpful,” she said.

When she decided to take up the job, the person who was the happiest was her biggest cheerleader, her daughter.

“I felt very proud. I have always encouraged her to work. In her case, going out and working was never a problem. However, there had been a long gap and after a point, she did not know where to start or what to do. When she got the offer, even before saying she was going to start working, she said she was going to start learning. So, she was very positive about it, and hence all we had to do was to give her support,” said Sharma’s daughter Sweekriti.   

“If your attitude is right, if you are ready to make an effort, and if you are willing to try, there is nothing you can’t do. She did have her apprehensions. While we were deliberating, she said she was hesitating a bit because she had no work experience and everyone in the team was very young. But those apprehensions were short-lived. She was willing to learn and give it a try,” said her husband, Mr Sharma.  

He added: “It would be wrong to say that she has never worked. For all these years, she has been managing the house, managing us, and making our lives so beautiful. Shifting cities and starting afresh, managing finances, all this is a lot of work. It requires great managerial and finance management skills. She has the skills; she now just needs to apply these in the corporate ecosystem. I must say she is a quick learner. Just two days back, all of us were casually discussing that she finishes her admin tasks in two hours, so now maybe we can give her additional responsibilities!”   

After so many years of being at home, Sharma was used to function at a particular pace. After joining the workplace, she had to quickly adapt to a new routine.

“While it’s too early for me to comment on the concept of work-life balance, but my routine has changed. That’s fine. It’s all about making some adjustments. I go with my husband and come back with him, and we get the weekends off, so it’s working fine,” said Sharma.  

Promoting age diversity at workplaces

At a time when boardrooms are getting younger with the start-up culture catching up, most companies prefer hiring young employees. Workplaces giving a fresh start to 40-plus or 50-plus is truly rare. In such a scenario, this move by DroneAcharya, of giving a chance to someone like Sharma, who is close to an age when most people choose to hang up their boots and who has no prior work experience, is truly worth applauding.

When asked to comment, Prateek Srivastava, founder and managing director, DroneAcharya, said: “She is starting her first innings at the age of 57. Her experienced outlook will surely add an interesting flavour to our work culture.”

Talking about age diversity at DroneAcharya, he said: “We foster an atmosphere that is very inclusive and welcoming of people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. Every single one of our employees is valued and given the same number of opportunities as the rest. While a younger workforce may provide fresh perspectives and energy, a more seasoned staff is necessary for setting long-term goals and creating a diverse and welcoming workplace. They also advise and play mentors to the younger employees.”

Commenting on age diversity, Sharma said, “It feels good to see people of all age groups working under one roof and towards the same set of goals.”

Her husband, who joined the start-up at 60, said: “In the new scheme of things, people want to achieve more in a short span of time, so they work for 18-20 hours a day and burn out very fast. In the culinary world, there is a concept called slow cooking. It’s often said some dishes turn out exceptionally well when they are cooked for a longer duration on a very low flame. Similarly, people like us who have been working for years or decades, have the wealth of knowledge and experience. So, our contribution is extremely valuable to any company.”   

Giving women of all ages a chance

While promoting age diversity is an important factor, it is equally important for workplaces to give women of all ages a chance. There are many examples around us wherein women have had to give up on their careers for various reasons. Some are not able to, or are not allowed to, work after getting married, for some a maternity break or having children comes in the way of building a long-term career. There are also women who get no help and support from home and quit because they get burnt out. Women often find it extremely difficult to find a job after these unavoidable breaks in their careers. It’s important for workplaces to give women of all age groups a chance because a career break does not make them less able, talented, or efficient.

When asked to comment, Sharma said: “It depends on person-to-person and situation-to-situation why women work, or they don’t. But I firmly believe there is nothing that a woman can’t achieve and there is no age to achieve something. Hence employees should not be discriminated against based on their gender. Women, of any age, are as valuable to a company as the men.”  

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Adding French to your resume will take you places

We are often told – when an opportunity presents itself, don’t be afraid of pursuing it. Sugandha Dubey Mishra did just that. Her journey from Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh to now being a French educator to students from across the globe is inspiring. A translator, interpreter, and corporate trainer, she also works closely with many embassies and international businesses, where her French language skills are sought after. In this candid chat with The Good Story Project, she gives us a peak into her profession and tells us how learning French, the language of travel, tourism, literature, international businesses, and diplomacy, will open new doors for students and professionals. Read this story if you want to be inspired to follow your own passion and carve out a unique path for yourself.

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It was in the late 1990s when Sugandha Dubey Mishra was pursuing her Bachelors in Science at Agra University, she was told about French and Russian being taught at the Department of Linguistics at the University.

“When I look back, I laugh at the reason behind taking up French. They were charging just Rs 500 per semester, and I thought it was a modest amount to pay to learn something new! But I am so glad that I grabbed the opportunity. French has given me so much, but, more importantly, it has given me my identity,” said Mishra, 42.

The beginning of the journey

Mishra was born in 1980 in Jhansi, a historic city in Uttar Pradesh. The only child of her parents Giriraj Kishore Dubey and Madhuri Dubey, Mishra was born 20 years after her parents got married. Her father, a central government employee working with the Indian Railways, retired in 1995 when she was in the ninth grade. He decided to move base to Agra, a tourist destination around 200 kms from Jhansi, so that his daughter could have better opportunities.

Mishra was academically a brilliant student and after completing her plus-two, joined Agra University. While pursuing her Masters in Zoology, Mishra, then 17, decided to take up a job at a school to support her father financially.

“It was the school principal who told me about French and Russian being taught at the university. I surprised myself when picked up French so well that topped the university and scored 99.9%. My professor suggested that I move to Hyderabad to learn advanced French at a prestigious institute. Being the only child, I could not have relocated so far from my parents. Agra is a tourist destination and many of my friends were working as interpreters and translators, but that did not appeal to me. So, I decided to move to Delhi instead, join Alliance Française and take up a two-month course in French,” reminisces Mishra.

Small steps, big changes

Mishra excelled in that course as well and the institute offered her a scholarship to pursue an advanced course. “I could not let go of that opportunity. However, living in Delhi meant I had to take up a job to pay for my expenses. I rented a house in Noida and started working with a digital marketing company. I would wake up every day at 4:30 AM, reach Alliance Française, which was in South Extension in Delhi, about 15 kms from Noida, by 7: 25 AM. Then at 9:15, I would rush to my office and at night I would go back to Noida. Back in the 1990s, commuting in Delhi wasn’t easy, especially for girls, and Noida was not as swanky as it is today,” recalls Mishra.  

All her hard work paid off.  The institute offered Mishra, who was just 21 then, a job at the French embassy. “It was a proud moment for me. In the 1990s, medical and engineering were top career choices and my father wanted me to become a doctor. But I told him that I did not have the energy to dedicate an additional 5-6 years to academics,” says Mishra.

Mishra still remembers what her father told her. “He said you are all that we have, and we have put in a lot of hard work to get you to this point, so no matter what you do, make us proud. For me, the job at the embassy was that moment. However, there was a catch. For the first posting, I had to go to France. My parents, who were senior citizens, were not very comfortable with the idea of sending me all the way to France, so I had to put that dream on hold. I do wonder sometimes how different my life could have been had I moved to France, but I harbour no regrets,” she says.

Marriage, motherhood

Mishra continued to work in Delhi and joined a very reputed event management firm. In 2005, when she was 24, she got married and moved to Indore.

It is here when her life story would sound familiar to many women. Especially those who find that their careers take a back seat when they get married, and more so when they experience motherhood.

The next three years were like a roller coaster ride for Mishra. A year after getting married, Mishra’s daughter was born, however, the same year she lost her mother to cancer. The next year, her father passed away.

“Those years were tough, however, my husband encouraged me to start teaching French at home. The journey started with just one student. After my son was born, we moved to a township in Indore, and that shift brought along many opportunities for me. Many children, who were studying in reputed schools in Indore, and had French as one of the subjects, lived in the township. I started taking tuition at home,” says Mishra.

French all the way

Over the years, until the pandemic hit, Mishra taught French to many students and took up numerous projects and assignments with different embassies across the world. She worked with various firms and international businesses as a translator and an interpreter, and also as a corporate trainer. During the pandemic, when everything switched to online, it gave Mishra an opportunity to widen her horizon. Today, her students are spread across the globe in countries like Dubai, the US, the UK, Hong Kong, Canada, and India. Presently, she has more than 70 students under her fold.

Talking about why one should learn French, Mishra says: “Well, it’s spoken across five continents, 89 countries and is the official language in 29 countries. It is also one of the six languages of the United Nations as well as the Red Cross and the European Union and it’s the most learned language after English.”

The many advantages of learning French

Mishra is passionate about French, and for good reasons: “I can safely say that learning French will enable you to have a very secure and lucrative career. One that will take you places.”

She lists down some of the benefits of learning French. “On an average, one gets paid Rs 18-19 per word for French to English translations and interpretations. If you know French, you can get a job with any embassy in the world. You can be a French teacher or a lecturer. For those who are planning to study in universities across France, knowing the language would help them get good scholarships and campus grants. For instance, one of my students who went to study luxury management at Sorbonne University in Paris, got a good scholarship because she is fluent in French. Even those who want to work as lawyers, medical professionals, or software engineers in countries like Canada, where French is the official second language, knowing even basic French can boost your profile. So yes, if you are passionate and efficient, then after learning French, the sky is the limit.”

She adds that many creative fields like filmmaking and animated films also need professionals knowing French for services like subtitling and voice-overs. Also, French is a bridge between English and other European languages. So, if you want to learn any other language after learning French, it will be easier for you.

Learning French was indeed something unusual back in the 1990s. But how open are today’s parents in letting their children pursue a career after learning French? “Things are changing, and parents are more accepting if their children want to learn French and also pursue a career in it. Besides, there are many professionals now who know French and so they can guide those who are learning the language now. There was no one to guide us back in the day,” says Mishra.

(Left) Mishra’s husband Rakesh Mishra, a banker, motivated her to start teaching French. (Right) Her daughter Ishna, 17, is learning French and is keen to take it up as a profession. Also seen in the picture is Mishra’s son Anadya, 8

Dearth of good teachers

The only issue, however, according to Mishra, is the manner in which French is taught in schools. “Many schools across the country, not just in the metros, but even in Tier I and Tier II cities, encourage students to learn French. However, we don’t have many good teachers. In most schools, teachers are teaching because French is part of the curriculum. They don’t tell them the benefits of learning the language and how it can help them in the future. It happens many times that those students who are good at French later don’t know how to make use of this added skill. Gradually, they forget and then all the efforts go down the drain,” says Mishra.  

Mishra’s future plans include tackling this one important aspect. “I plan to conduct professional workshops across schools so that children understand how learning the language will help them in the future. It will really help the way they will approach learning the language if they know why they are learning it in the first place. Also, I am working on having a website of my own,” says Mishra.

Apart from her usual projects, Mishra also dabbled in French storytelling. While talking about the scope of the same, Mishra says we will have to wait for some more time before French podcasts, storytelling or poetry recitations become a norm. “We are gradually getting there, but we are not ready yet. These things are still in the preliminary stages in the country,” she says.

Lastly, being a pro, is there any tip that she would like to give to those who are learning French presently? “All students face a peculiar problem. Because they are also learning English grammar simultaneously, it can get a tad confusing. Sometimes, it’s amusing for me when even adults and professionals try to apply the logic of English grammar to French grammar and end up getting frustrated! I keep telling them that now that you are learning French, put your English grammar in a sack and throw it away!” says Mishra.

Sugandha Dubey Mishra lives in Indore. If you wish to get in touch with her, you can send her an email at sugandhadubey@yahoo.com.

Disclaimer: This is a sponsored post. If you want us to tell your story, write to us at contactgoodstories@gmail.com