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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