For Nandhini Gunalan, full-time work wasn’t going to be feasible when she and her husband relocated to the United States in 2008. While caring for their first child, who was an infant, she looked into part-time jobs as a quality assurance engineer, but her visa would only authorize full-time employment. Gunalan decided she’d go back to work when her child was older, but by then the couple was expecting their second child.
Nevertheless, Gunalan stayed on top of the latest developments in tech, and in 2020, earned a master’s in computer science. Even though it had been 13 years since she was last employed, she says, “I thought getting a job would be easy; this was a master’s degree from a great university, and I had these Amazon Web Services certifications.” Instead, wherever she applied, she would hear that she was a great candidate, but they couldn’t move forward without current work experience.
For anyone whose career hasn’t followed a constant, linear path this is a familiar response. Although research has long demonstrated that inclusive hiring practices mean greater diversity of thought, and greater success, for companies, people who have taken a year or more off from their careers tend to get passed over. “Though many companies talk about inclusion and diversity,” says Gunalan, “if there is a gap, they won’t even get you to the interview stage.”
But people like Gunalan are exactly who Audible’s director of human resources programs, Supriya Mimani, wants to hire. Mimani knows women are much likelier to put their careers on hold, which makes re-entering the workforce even more prohibitive—especially in the always-changing tech field. “Here you have this tremendous pool of talent,” she says, “and all that is being held against them is that they took a few years of career break to care for a loved one.”
To tap into that pool, Mimani worked with leadership and several teams across the company to launch Audible’s "Next Chapter" Returnship Program in October 2020. The 16-week program was available to mid-career professionals with more than a year’s gap in their experience, and offered the possibility of full-time employment at the end.
Kathryn Zaharek was experiencing frustrations in her job search that were similar to Gunalan’s, and her own work gap was much shorter by comparison—just three years. She had experience running her own consulting business and working for a top media company as a senior product manager but a series of family illnesses and challenging events made it necessary for Zaharek to devote herself full-time to caring for her family. When she was ready to dive back into work, Zaharek says she wasn’t daunted. “I thought, ‘I can take classes, study up, analyze the market, and get back in.” But without recent experience, getting an interview proved much more difficult than she’d expected.
Zaharek and Gunalan started attending workshops at Path Forward, a nonprofit offering toolkits, trainings, workshops, and mentoring to professionals trying to re-enter the workforce. When Path Forward began working with Audible to develop its returnship program, the women learned right away about the open roles in product management, software and quality assurance engineering, UX, and more. “Eleven positions,” exclaims Gunalan. “I have seen returnships at other companies with one or two, and only now and then. Audible was the first I’d seen hiring this large a number all at once.”
In February, the inaugural returnship group was hired. That, says Mimani, was the beginning of the critical stage. “You might think hiring is the hardest part,” she says, “but you have to put effort into the entire experience.” By Mimani’s design, a virtual army of people stepped in to onboard the group to Audible: their new managers, a group mentor, human resources representatives, and team “buddies.” Senior Vice President of Technology Mike Masiello, who had been championing the program at every turn, had an hour-long lunch with each individual to get to know them better, and Chief Technology Officer Tim Martin, along with other leaders, made sure to speak with the group within their first two days. “Hearing from an executive tech leader,” says Mimani, “it makes you feel like you’re valued.” Employee-led impact groups like Women in Tech and Moms@Audible led interactive sessions on imposter syndrome, confidence, work-life balance, and more. Gunalan reports, “I didn’t feel like I was getting back to work after a decade, nor did the team treat me that way.”
Amid all these layers of support, the returnship group started a Slack channel and quickly became close. The channel soon filled with questions and advice on anything from acronyms and esoteric terms used by certain teams to how to use their new remote-productivity tools. Karishma Gokhale, a software engineer who joined Audible’s returnship after a three-year career break to raise her child, says, “A lot of what you’re feeling is echoed by the group” in the chat. “We would just check in with each other.” Mimani was counting on this happening, which is why she had hired such a sizable group all at once. “We wanted them to bond with and support each other through similar experiences,” she says.
The returners say they tried not to think about whether or not they’d receive an offer of employment at the end of the sixteen weeks. Zaharek was in the middle of a project when she got the offer. Her returnship ended on a Friday, and she returned Monday as a full-time employee. “Other than a few new onboarding sessions,” she says, it was business as usual. Gokhale points out that it was a more seamless transition than usual, when you have to ramp up and acclimate all at once. “Here I already knew what I was doing and who everyone was.”
Next Chapter’s pilot program was such a success that this fall, Audible is tripling the number of returnships available and extending into marketing and data science, as well as tech.
In spite of the challenges, Gunalan says she has no regrets about taking a 13-year break from the workforce because it let her spend quality time with her kids when they were little—and besides, she loves where she ended up. “Now I can do much more, what I really wanted to do. And I was there when they needed me.”
To learn more about Audible’s returnships and view open roles, visit our Careers page.