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For Moms Heading Back to Work, ‘Returnships’ Offer a Path Forward


How does a former stay-at-home mom become an employee of a tech company that could be worth more than $1 billion?

For Ellein Cheng, mom to a 5½- and a 2½-year-old, the answer involved a “returnship.”

So-called returnships are internships that target men and women who have been out of the workforce, either for childrearing or other caregiving. It gives them a chance to retrain in a new field.

In Cheng’s case, the former math teacher and tutor took a returnship at AppNexus, an online advertising company.

For companies, returnships are an opportunity to tap into more mature and professionally diverse talent pools. For participants who may be out of the workforce, it’s a chance to refresh their networks, learn new skills and try on new roles.

Beneficial arrangement

For both parties, it’s a low-risk, low-commitment arrangement. Companies can achieve their goals to make the employee ranks more diverse. Job seekers can potentially find full-time work.

Cheng’s returnship was set up by Path Forward, a New York-based nonprofit that works with tech companies to coordinate 16-week, paid assignments for those who have been away from the labor market for two or more years because of caregiving.

The organization partners with tech companies that range in size from 30-person startups to behemoths such as PayPal, which has more than 10,000 employees.

“What these companies of every size in the tech sector have in common is rapid growth, and also not enough talent to fulfill their needs,” said Tami Forman, executive director at Path Forward.

Women re-entering the workforce often struggle to explain the gap in their resume and find employment harder to come by, Forman said.

“They often get feedback from companies and recruiters and hiring managers that makes them believe that they’ll never be hired, that no one will ever overlook their gap,” she said. The organization says it gets results — 40 out of the 50 women who have gone through the program were offered ongoing employment at the companies in which they interned.

Teaching background

In her job search, Cheng applied for teaching positions but was also open to other fields. The product support work struck a chord with her in its appeal for candidates “passionate about learning and teaching.”

The program gave both managers and participants the chance to see if a long-term opportunity would be the right fit for them.

It also provided a dose of inspiration.

Other employees were “inspired to see people stepping out of their comfort zone, taking a big risk, working on something they haven’t done before,” Lorraine Buhannic, senior director of talent acquisition at AppNexus, said.

For Cheng, the inspiration came from a more personal place — her daughters.

They are growing up “in a world that is changing so quickly with technology, and I just want to be part of that,” she said. “I want to grow with them, I want to learn with them.”

In the end, the match worked. After the returnship, AppNexus hired Cheng as a product support specialist.

Now working in the fast-paced world of online advertising, Cheng says she doesn’t feel she has left her old self behind.

“I’m still obviously learning a lot, because I’m switching careers completely, but at the same time, still bringing the teaching element part of it every day to work,” she said.

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