After pausing her career following the birth of her second child, Shashi Dokania was ready to return to the work force. She attended a coding bootcamp to learn software engineering, and then sent out dozens of job applications.

Despite these efforts, though, Dokania found little interest. Employers, it seemed, were not very interested in a woman with a four-year gap in her résumé.

"People were very skeptical about the break I took," Dokania says. "They didn't have confidence in me."

Fortunately for Dokania, there was one company that was willing to give her a shot. In February, PayPal accepted her into a "returnship," a new type of internship designed specifically for mid-career professionals who have halted their careers for extended periods but are ready to resume working.

PayPal conducted its program with the help of Path Forward, a nonprofit that specializes in helping companies tap into the vast pool of professionals who have taken more than two years away from work for caregiving. With Path Forward, PayPal brought on Dokania and eight others as interns. For 20 weeks, the nine professionals regained their professional bearings through their work responsibilities, as well as networking events and development sessions.

At the end, all nine individuals were able to find jobs--six of them, including Dokania, were offered full-time positions by PayPal. "I know how nervous I was when I joined the program and how confident I felt after 20 weeks," says Dokania, who is now a software engineer for the company.

Following the success at PayPal, Path Forward is pressing ahead and taking its program to more tech companies. The nonprofit announced on Tuesday that it will launch returnships at CloudFlare, Instacart, GoDaddy, Zendesk, Demandbase, and Coursera this October.

"Managers are very nervous about hiring anyone who has a gap in their résumé of more than a few months," says Tami Forman, Path Forward's executive director. "This program allows managers the chance to see someone in action before they make a full commitment to hiring them."

Path Forward's program is open to anyone with more than five years of professional experience who has been away from the work force for more than two years. Returnships particularly benefit women, who leave the tech industry in larger numbers than men due to a desire to start a family, an unclear path for career advancement, or a host of other reasons. All told, there is a 56 percent attrition rate for women in tech, according to the Harvard Business School.

"For women, the program offers a real confidence boost and puts them in a position to negotiate for or find a position when the program ends," Forman says. "It offers them a true 'on-ramp'--a period of time where they can reacclimate to the work force and restart their professional life."

Helping diversity efforts

With so many talented women involved, Path Forward's program should be highly appealing to the tech industry, which has struggled to improve its female representation. Across startups and private tech companies, women hold just 33.5 percent of jobs, according to an analysis by 500 Miles, a startup that uses big data to help college graduates find high-growth employers.

"Instacart's customer and shopper base is very diverse, and a large part of it is busy parents," says Udi Nir, Instacart's vice president of engineering. Among Instacart's more than 300 employees, only 38 percent are women. "We are always looking to have our team reflect our customer and shopper base, and partnering with Path Forward can help us achieve that."

Aside from designing the program, Path Forward serves as a marketplace where companies and returning mid-career professionals can meet. Path Forward can help companies find professionals with all kinds of skills, including marketing, engineering, and sales. The nonprofit, which formally launched in March, has previously worked with seven other companies and had more than 40 women and a handful of men participate in returnship programs.

Depending on the size of their returnship program, participant companies pay fees ranging from $15,000 to $50,000. Since the program's inception, 80 percent of Path Forward's professionals have been offered employment at their returnship companies, while 90 percent of all participants are now employed.

"They have a track record professionally of projects they've worked on and obstacles they've had to overcome," says Michelle Zatlyn, CloudFlare co-founder and head of user experience. "We love that they have prior work experience."

Over the next few weeks, Path Forward and the six newly added tech companies will search for returning professionals to fill the dozens of open spots.

"I would really like if more and more companies pitched in to such a noble initiative as PayPal has," Dokania says. "It changed my life, and I'm sure there are many people like me still waiting."

Published on: Aug 23, 2016