By Yassin El-Moudden
In a world undergoing serious tectonic shifts, there’s very little that can be taken for granted. Still, one could have assumed that in 2022, women’s rights should be one of those unquestioned constants. Not if you have been paying attention, that is. From the #MeToo backlash amidst the Depp v Herd trial to the continued disproportionate effect that economic crises and war have on women, there’s clear evidence of backsliding to be found.
This brings us to Roe v Wade and the US Supreme Court’s overturning of that landmark ruling on abortion. Whilst numerous countries across Latin America have taken historic steps to liberalise abortion, the US has gone the other way and it isn’t alone on that. Poland is another example, perhaps closer to home, where abortion laws were revised last year and now joins Malta and Monaco as countries with similarly restrictive regimes.
It’s a truism to say that we live in a world where the odds are stacked against women. What then, about mothers – and moreover, working mothers? Sporadically, we hear stories around the need for flexibility in the workspace, childcare provision, the balancing out of parental responsibilities through paternity leave, etcetera. About time then, that we hear the story of a mother who took up the initiative to build a workplace that suited her.
With the current context, this interview with Unnati Topiwala is remarkably timely. Born in Livingstone to Gujarati parents and raised in the southern US state of Georgia, Unnati’s turn to entrepreneurship emerged from a specific point. Not a teenage dream of ‘making it’ (she received her Bachelor of Science degree amidst the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis) nor an egoistic desire for ‘being the boss’. Simply, so that she continue to work when her conventional career wouldn’t let her.
Having worked in marketing in the corporate world, it was the birth of Unnati’s son that brought a critical issue to the fore. In the US, there is no federal maternity leave at all. Some companies only give leave for 3 months. In other words, after giving birth, a mother is expected to return to work and make arrangements for her 3-month-old baby.
“It’s very common in the States. In Georgia, it’s based on your employer, so if your employer says that you can’t get any maternity leave, you don’t get any” With only a few states offering more mother-friendly policies (Georgia not included), Unnati had little choice but to give up her job. She requested that she continue working from home, just like a colleague, but “they refused and they don’t have to (explain why)”. And it isn’t just mothers who suffer from this power imbalance between employer and employee. So too, if you need healthcare, which pretty much covers everybody.
“Your employer provides healthcare for you, so you are somewhat dependent on your employer”, Unnati explains, “and mothers are forced back way too early, financially.”
Still, faced with a similar situation, mothers might have to invest their income in expensive childcare, seek out flexible opportunities that are few and far between or even drop out of the workforce altogether. With all the stress that motherhood entails, entrepreneurship isn’t exactly the first thing that springs to mind, right? Unnati concedes that she was “lucky enough to have a husband that allowed me to take the risk, where we could take that financial hit” and “ However, each household is different in that aspect”.
Which makes you wonder how many innovative ideas are out there but struggle to find the funds to turn them into reality. A space for the third sector and charities, perhaps? “I hope there is. You can get loans, but grants are harder to get for businesses”. So, if money wasn’t too much of an issue, what was the most challenging part of setting up her first business?
“Faith in saying “we’re doing this” and “let’s stick to this”. Building your base, that was also difficult”. Building up – that can be a bitter pill to swallow for those entering business and hoping to turnover profits overnight. “It’s a process. I mean, it is hard to become a millionaire, unless you win the lottery! No, it’s a hard process, so make sure you have an accountability partner – “. Sorry, accountability what?
“Accountability partner”, Unnati replies, like it’s the most natural thing in the world. “Somebody to hold you accountable. So, my accountability partner is someone I talk to about my business and they talk to me about their business. We keep each other accountable for our goals. Where are you at? How are you going to reach these goals?”
Do you pay for this service? Unnati laughs at the suggestion. “No, it isn’t monetary. It’s just a friend who can help you keep on track because with anything in business, you can’t do it by yourself. You always need someone there”.
I pause to let that sink in. Unnati clearly subscribes to an alternative model of entrepreneurial thought.
What does her current workforce look like? “It’s all-female, at the moment”. And now that she’s calling the shots, in light of her previous experience, how does she treat her employees? “How women should be treated in the workplace. If I’m lucky enough to grow this company, I want to bring in other women and help them if they have business ideas of their own”.
So, what of Unnati’s company? AyTop Marketing is a provider of online marketing solutions, whose portfolio spreads across a range of industries. “We collaborate as a team and we develop separate designs, which are all shown to the client”. There are more democratic vibes here, as opposed to the traditional top-down approach where the boss alone takes credit. “that’s always bothered me. Anybody that puts some work in should be credited for it...I hire and surround myself with people who are smarter than me”.
On that note, we end our conversation by looking to the future and contemplating the profound changes that businesses are going through, post-pandemic. “We’re always learning”, Unnati reassures me, “nothing will ever stay the same.”