An engineering graduate, who took the conventional route to the software sector, that is how Vanitha Shankar began her career. Working as a specialist across multinational firms on their financial solutions, Shankar worked in business analysis and program management before she decided to take the big break in her career.

With two children in tow with barely two years between them, and a spouse who was travelling for most part of the month, things got challenging when they used to live in the US. “I tried a few flexi-work options. However, the truth was that I was tired. I quit at a time when things were going well at work for me, and I was being primed for promising opportunities," Shankar says about the break she took after working non stop for 12 years. She eventually moved from the US to Singapore and then to Chennai.

The sabbatical, which started as a short-term break, moved into three years of freelance consulting before she decided to head back to work full time. “I always wanted to be financially independent. Over a decade of work, a simple lifestyle and some investments saw me through the sabbatical phase," says Shankar.

Varied interests

The sabbatical was a time when Shankar tried everything under the sun. While adding to her skill set was important , she also wanted to use this time to enjoy herself . “I designed websites, worked on the creative, helped friends trying to establish small-scale businesses, taught classical dance to kids, volunteered at spastics society, and travelled. It was also during this phase that I learnt to build social networks and explored varied interests," says Shankar. Her days were busy, and she was happy with her explorations and her multiple activities resulted in two tangible initiatives that took shape during the sabbatical.

New projects

Shankar started Madhuradhwani, a three-day classical music confluence in Singapore in February. “Hosting an arts-oriented event at that scale helped me gain exposure in the domain of public relations and execution. It taught me how to effectively bring different people—artistes, advisers, audience, volunteers, supporting organizations and sponsors to work together," she says.

The other project was a research-based writing project that came out in the form of a coffee table book tracing the evolution of Hindu temples in Singapore, which was a paid assignment.

Discovery of self

The self-discovery that the sabbatical offered is the biggest takeaway for Shankar as it helped her open boundaries to new possibilities, discover hidden interests and also gain a new perspective on how to approach a corporate career again. “I discovered new skills, strengths, interests and above all, self-confidence stemming from the ability to work outside my comfort zone and still deliver," she says.

The real challenge was translating the value of her sabbatical work in a corporate environment. This is when the networks that she had built during her sabbatical came in handy. “Finding my way back into the corporate sector wasn’t difficult but securing a suitable role was tough. It was like getting back to employment post a start-up stint," she says.

After navigating through a few different roles and moving a couple of jobs, she realized that she wasn’t looking for a job as much as she was looking for a space where she could contribute and express her explorative instincts.

Her current role as the executive director, Chennai International Centre, helps her to use her creative skills and communication prowess with her organizational skills.

She plans and executes talks and meet-ups with industry thinkers. “It’s a role that aligns my diverse interests," says Shankar.

Looking back

Every sabbatical has its own actions and consequences and Shankar feels her break turned into a journey of self-discovery. It allowed her to develop passions outside of work that she continues to pursue even today.

Taking a sabbatical is a personal decision that might stem from different and unique reasons but how one uses the time in the sabbatical can determine their next step in life.

When asked if she would recommend sabbaticals, Shankar says, “The only thing I’d like to offer from my experience is that it’s very important to stay employable, remain connected with the work world and have your finances planned for the period."

The Sabbatical Story is a series that explores reasons behind a break from work, and the journey of the return to work.