Yusra Aziz started Podi Jobs, an online platform for freelancers to find work, a few months after she gave birth to her first son. Like many Sri Lankan women, Yusra wanted to take the time to raise her children and left her job in IT at Virtusa after getting married. “But I missed the rush of the corporate world and you find yourself comparing it to doing household chores,” she laughs. “I started freelancing for companies overseas because organizations here wanted me to come in at least twice a week which didn’t work for me.” Yusra was craving more and while she freelanced for foreign startups, she started putting the plans together for her own.
Podi Jobs initially began as a platform for young mothers to find work that they can fit into running a household and children. It started with zero funding and a Google form that went viral. Now, 3 years later, it is a thriving community of over 2,000 freelancers and includes both men and women. “We are a small team of 3, plus freelance project managers when required, so we had to shut down our social media due to the many requests from freelancers. It’s tough to deal with the volume and shortlist them, so we’re running with our existing database,” she says. Yusra stepped into unchartered waters because before Podi Jobs there wasn’t a freelance platform in Sri Lanka. And, initially, marketing the brand to companies was tough. “We were a group of moms,” she explains. “And I’d get silly questions like: ‘Where do they find the time to do this?’ and ‘How do they juggle housework and this?’”
Juggling two start-ups, 3 kids, a household and everything that goes with the territory is no easy task, but Yusra is doing it. “In between work, my kids and I are sitting in bookshops after school stocking up on their supplies, all the while I’m answering emails or talking to an angry client!” she shares. “But the moment I pick up the phone all hell breaks loose with the kids—it’s a lot of shouting and screaming! I used to be embarrassed and apologize for it, but one time when I used to freelance, I was transcribing an interview that Scooter Braun did (he’s Justin Bieber’s manager). He told the interviewer: ‘Today is the day I look after my son and you’re going to hear him in the background. If you’re okay with it we can continue or we can reschedule this to another day.’ I was in awe and. I took it to heart, practised it and the response was amazing! Many clients said things like, ‘We get it, we’ve been there done that. It’s okay, we understand. If you can hear us we can continue.’”
This year, Yusra co-founded WERK (Women Entrepreneurs Resource Kit) with Amrit Ruparsinghe, an online community for women. With a team of 3, they’ve amassed over 400 members. Their goal? To bring women together from both the corporate and entrepreneurial spheres to celebrate and support each other, learn from one another and continue to do amazing things. “Women reach out to tell us they’ve been looking for something like this and are excited to be a part of it. It’s so nice to hear!” enthuses Yusra. “I’ve never sold tech to ladies and many seem to struggle with it and I’m not sure why. We built a hybrid app, so it’s not something you get off the PlayStore or AppStore—you need a link to download it and it takes up very little memory to run. We want WERK to be a thriving community where Sri Lankan women can reach out to others, learning and benefiting from the many events we aim to have.”
For Yusra, it’s important you celebrate yourself and toot your own horn once in a while, and social media is a great place to talk about all the cool things you do. “Women are doing incredible things, but they don’t want to talk about it,” explains Yusra. “This may stem from our culture where we’ve been taught to do good work but not speak about it. As such, women struggle with telling their stories. You’ll listen to someone else and be in awe of what you hear, then realize you’ve done cool stuff too and you’ll be sad because no one appreciates it. But when you think about it, it’s because you’ve never told your story.” Yusra believes tech helps in that area and, while many women are uncomfortable sharing their story and building their brands up, the mindset is changing, especially with younger girls. “It’s become their way of life—you need to have a social media presence to get a job, for example. I know the first thing recruiters do is go check your social platforms or Google your name to see what comes up.” So what should you do when you do something amazing? Tell your story, Yusra advises. “Post about it. Tag who you want to or who you want to be seen with. Reach out to other women and connect—make your voice heard and build on what you believe in.”
Photography by Amitha Thennakoon. Art & Direction by Ricky De Silva. Videography by StoryWorks.