"I'm the mama who smothers them with kisses, and also is mean and tough" : CEO Mom Chiki Sarkar
From poopie diapers to presentations: Chiki Sarkar walks us through what motherhood as a CEO looks like
Chiki Sarkar has an uncanny knack for identifying the next big thing that in no time moseys its way to every Indian’s bookshelf and night stand. The co-founder of Juggernaut Books, a digital book publishing house and India’s first smartphone publisher, was also named among Forbes’ W-power Trailblazers in 2018. And one of her many impressive skills is her alarming e-mail response speed – 18 minutes to be precise.
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Sarkar is also a mother of two little boys, and by the looks of it, she is as proactive a mother as she is an e-mail responder.
What are the unique struggles that a CEO mom faces, you may wonder. Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but motherhood and the pram full of challenges it comes with are pretty much the same across the board. Think gross poopie diapers, your little ones interrupting Zoom calls, and bucket loads of working parent guilt – “After I had my first baby, I went back to work in two months. And the first time I left him, I remember closing my flat door and bursting into tears because I felt so upset about leaving him,” she admits.
In a candid conversation, Chiki Sarkar takes us on the roller coaster ride that is the life of a CEO mom – peppered with mismatched cushions, and multitasking moments of flipping pancakes while checking work e-mails.
CEO Mom Chiki Sarkar shares her cheat sheet to success
What does a typical day for Chiki Sarkar look like?
My day usually begins at about 7:15 am or 7:30 am. My toddler and my three-year-old wake up at about the same time, as does the husband. The morning is low energy but sweet.
My nanny comes in at 8:30 (phew) and that’s when I respond to a bunch of work emails, and get dressed for work.
I take a break at about noon to exercise for 30 minutes each day. This daily exercise has been a new addition, thanks to work from home, and it has really transformed me.
After lunch, I head back to work and stay put until 6 pm. Early dinner, playtime with the kids, and after they’re in bed, it’s either more work or a book or a TV show with my husband, Alex.
How would you describe your approach to efficiency: multitasking, focus on one task at a time, delegation?
It’s a combination of all, I do what works best at that moment.
For instance, my son had to draw a birthday card for my mom and wanted me to help, but I said “I’ll draw the letters, and help you write, but didi (the nanny) will help you draw.” That was me delegating without overthinking.
In the morning, I make breakfast and then alongside, I check my work e-mail. I don’t think women need lessons in multitasking and delegation — we all act in the same way and get stuff done.
The one thing that I would say to someone is that there are moments you can multitask and there are times when you just can’t do everything at one go. So be mindful about that.
And as far as focusing is concerned, the trick is to have a designated place to work out of. During lockdown, I go on a different floor where I’ve set up my temporary office and work from there. Going into a different space from where the kids are helps you switch off and lets you give your undivided attention to work. Another thing that really helps is having support staff.
What’s the one area you’ve seriously improved in, from when you first became a mom + entrepreneur?
I have learnt to stop fussing about the small stuff that used to annoy me. So the fridge is a mess, but who cares? Everyone is being fed, and that’s what matters.
It’s essentially just one less thing to stress about. It means that when I come down at 6 pm, I can only concentrate on spending time with the kids instead of worrying about the mismatched cushions or the dining table being flooded with toys.
What’s the one thing that you still struggle with?
It’s the challenge of attention – giving children your undivided, pure attention.
I think what kids need, at this age, is someone sitting with them and talking in gibberish, and playing kitchen-kitchen with them. I just don’t do all that, I’m not that person.
I can cuddle and kiss them, and I tell them a lot of stories and read to them, that’s my relationship with them.
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But children need your time. Do I give them enough? I don’t. That’s the hard thing. I hope they won’t be too f*cked up because of it.
How important is the role of the spouse in being able to do what you do? How did you arrive at the dynamic you currently share?
My husband is totally wonderful and takes equal onus for the kids. He also struggles between work and kids and his own time, just like I do. We divide the kids between us and alternate between tasks.
Alex is definitely the game player of us two.
Also, we divide the chores equally. I don’t like cleaning poopie diapers, so he does that, and I do the bathing. Our older one has a longer story time before bed, so we alternate that – one day, I put the little one to sleep and he does the longer story time, and the next day, we switch. Also, whoever is done with sleep time first, cleans up.
How do you balance your ambitions with working parent guilt? Where do you draw the line on how you spend your time?
Sometimes, I feel like a rockstar, other days, I feel I don’t give enough time to the kids. And then there are times when I feel like I am not working enough.
The way I define work-life balance is being able to find a middle ground between everything I want to and can do, without straining myself. Before the lockdown, I wan’t able to exercise, and it bothered me that I had stopped. But now, I am able to do that one thing I want, while still working enough, and being there for my kids. That for me is striking the right balance.
I approach that guilt the same way as one might look into the mirror and wish they had longer legs or a smaller ass – “Well, you don’t. What are you going to do about it?”
The trick is to use your time doing exactly what you want – it could be working, exercising or spending time with your kid. When the decision is based on what you want to do, the guilt is less.
Do you carve out time for yourself as an individual? How do you spend that time?
Me-time comes after the kids go to bed – if I don’t have work to do, I will either read or watch a TV show.
What are the advantages and disadvantages, in your experience, of being a CEO Mom in India?
I have a lot of help – a cook, nanny, part time cleaner, and driver. Many working professionals will have this type of support. While I live away from my family – this support staff is vital for me and it allows me to work all day. I really wouldn’t have been able to have this in the West. So I feel very lucky.
Also I think the higher position you are in, the easier it is. As a CEO, you’re doing more delegation, looking at the big picture, and supervising. Of course, you have more responsibility because if a thing doesn’t work, it’s because of you. I would say the CEO can potentially manage children better than those in mid-level positions, because they’re just working, working, working.
Do you feel women in India are treated differently in the business world, especially after they get married or choose to start a family?
I come from a very female-dominated industry, so I haven’t encountered this problem first-hand.
How do you want your kids to view you, and what are the ways in which you’re establishing positive gender roles in the home?
Your children’s behaviour is feedback — they literally copy you.
I don’t do anything consciously but my older one sees that both his parents are working. The bossy person in the house is a girl, he always says he’s more scared of mama, and he has a deep and profound relationship with my husband. They are like the loves of each other’s lives. Very gentle and beautiful, and I’m the mean bitch, often. So he sees this tough bossy person who is working a lot as a mom. Like okay, mom is in the kitchen, but dad is also helping everywhere.
I want them to view me as they already do – a mama who smothers them with kisses, wipes their nose clean, reads them stories and also is the mean and tough one.
What’s the one piece of advice you were taught or learned the hard way, that could seriously sort out a lot of fellow professionals?
So it’s hard. Big shit. Don’t give up because of it. I really believe every woman should work – for their own strength and growth. Never give up on the big stuff. And investing in yourself, growing a working life for yourself is as big as it gets.