Tracker Connect CFO Clarissa Appana on stigma and re-entering the job market after a career hiatus.
Clarissa Appana is a trailblazer in more ways than one. Her decision to take a year off from her position as the CFO of a large industrial company, only to return with renewed vigour and experience, is nothing short of bold.
Sharing her story about returning to the workplace after time off sets an example for other professionals who may be feeling trapped by the expectations of the business world.
The start of a challenging journey
Clarissa’s journey began with a series of unfortunate events. Within a space of a few months over the end of 2020 and mid-2021, she lost her mother and brother-in-law in quick succession, leaving her grappling with grief. As if that wasn’t enough, in September of the same year, she received her second dose of the Covid-19 vaccine and unfortunately, was one of the people who experienced very rare negative side effects, which were not published at the time.
Doctors were unprepared for the adverse reactions, leaving Clarissa to suffer the consequences. “I would still, in retrospect, advocate strongly for the vaccine, and still take it, knowing the side effects suffered.”
Fast forward to December 2021, and the family had their first outing since the pandemic began. Unfortunately, they contracted Covid-19. “While we went through the initial infection okay, I developed long Covid. Initially, I thought that the stress from my new job and the loss of my mother and brother-in-law were causing my symptoms. However, when my symptoms persisted, I realised that the situation was more serious than that.
At the same time, her daughter’s health also took a dip. She was frequently falling sick and skipping lots of school. “One day, while discussing my daughter’s illness with another mother, her comment triggered a realisation: while other children were only sick for a few days, my daughter’s illness lasted for weeks at a time. I began to document every detail of her recurring fevers and antibiotic treatments, hoping to find a solution. As her health began to deteriorate, I knew that I had to prioritise my family’s wellbeing over my career.”
Clarissa acknowledges that balancing work and caring for a sick child is a challenge that many parents face, and she was no exception. “As a dedicated employee, I always put my job first. But for the first time in my career, I realised I would need to consider taking a break from work, and started saving more money just in case.”
The situation reached a breaking point when her daughter had to be admitted to the hospital. “It was then that I realised that I couldn’t continue working and taking care of her at the same time. As much as I loved my job, I knew that my health and my family’s wellbeing had to come first.”
Knowing when to step away
“After discussing my situation with my employer, I was relieved to discover that they were not only understanding, but also supportive. Despite my best efforts, I found myself struggling to maintain the high standards I had set for myself throughout my career. Although I was still delivering, I knew that I couldn’t continue at this pace without risking my health.” In the midst of the havoc, the family’s au pair, being part of the key support structure for the family, left to pursue a corporate career, leaving them in the lurch.
As a result, Clarissa made the difficult decision to leave her job.
“This was not a choice I made lightly, especially as a woman of colour in a male-dominated industry. I had overcome numerous challenges and obstacles to get to where I was, and I had worked tirelessly to establish myself in my career.”
She adds, “With my daughter’s health at the forefront of my mind, I dedicated all my efforts to uncovering the underlying cause of her persistent sickness. I employed my analytical and investigative skills to conduct a thorough investigation, leaving no stone unturned. After extensive research and consultation, we were fortunate to find the right specialist, who made the correct diagnosis and following treatment her health has improved substantially, and she was able to go back to school without interruption.”
Re-entering the fold
Over the next few months, she also got better, and upon recovering she refocused on her career and began the process of engaging with head-hunters to find job opportunities. However, she found herself encountering preconceived notions about career breaks, and hers came with the double whammy of being a woman.
She points out that her commitment to her career has always been unwavering, “I have worked since the age of 18, juggling work with studies, family and other responsibilities. I had never taken a break and it’s unfortunate that the load falls on women when things go wrong. When a crisis hits, the toll it takes on one is significant, yet these pressures are often undervalued and underappreciated.”
This became unmistakable during an interview with a listed financial services company. “I was asked about the gap in my employment history and described the challenges I had faced. Despite sharing these details, the interviewers asked whether I had pursued any studies or certifications during that time. I was frustrated by their lack of sensitivity and empathy and had to reiterate that my focus had solely been on getting better.”
This experience highlighted the stigma attached to taking time to focus on life outside career and accentuated the importance of empathy and understanding in the workplace. “Employers should acknowledge that their employees, especially executives, are people with lives outside of work. They must understand that unexpected extenuating circumstances can arise, requiring their attention and focus.”
Going beyond lip service
Highly visible women such as Former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki have also stepped back from all-consuming roles; Clarissa says that women are rewriting the narrative around work, and society needs to evolve to accommodate the ebbs and flows of life more.
“I believe that companies should create environments that support the success of female executives and leaders, recognising that women typically have responsibilities to care for others outside of the workplace. Companies need to offer flexibility and collaboration to help their employees perform at their best. That way, inclusivity will go beyond being a buzzword and actually become an integral aspect of daily life.
“This means actively seeking out voices and perspectives that are often under-represented, whether it be in our relationships or workplaces. It also involves being aware of our own biases and making a conscious effort to address them.”
The next chapter
Despite the negative connotations, Clarissa says the career break was a transformative experience that allowed her to explore new industries, gain new skills, and ultimately make a deliberate decision about her career path. She used the time to explore various industries, deep dive into new trends and concepts, attend webinars, and acquire new knowledge and skills at her own pace. This led to a deeper interest in the emerging field of AI, among others, providing her with clarity on where she wanted to direct her efforts.
After much contemplation, she made the intentional decision to transition from the industrial sector – where she had spent 20 years – into the technology, financial services, healthcare and pharmaceutical space. These are the industries that held the most potential for growth and innovation, and where she wanted to focus her attention.
“AI is not only limited to your typical technology sector: most recently, even luxury brands such as LVMH have embraced the metaverse and AI, creating an immersive sensory 3D experience for their customers. It is this holistic approach that pulls together across industries that is truly exciting for me.”
She firmly believes that technology is the key to the future, presenting numerous opportunities for women. “This dynamic and thrilling industry is undergoing a massive evolution, and I yearned to be a part of it. My strength lies in comprehending how a company operates beyond its finances and I aspire to contribute more and make critical decisions. With technology as the driving force, I saw endless possibilities for growth and innovation, and was eager to be at the forefront of this exciting movement.”
With clarity about the industries she wanted to transition into, she also knew that It was crucial to find a culture that aligns with her values and supports her goals. “This is why I was drawn to Tracker Connect. It ticked the box of being a future-facing, innovative company and after researching its values and mission, I was impressed by its commitment to caring for its employees.
“I took a walk around on the floor after the second set of interviews, and I was pleased to see and feel the vibey energy, especially on the sales floor. They truly live their values, and this alignment with my own ambitions and ideals made Tracker Connect the perfect fit for me.”
Clarissa’s willingness to put her family first, prioritise her personal life, and use that experience to excel in her career shows that taking time off doesn’t have to be career suicide – it can actually help you thrive. Her fearlessness in pursuing what she needs makes her an inspiration to all those grappling with the work-life balance dilemma and proves that it’s possible to have both personal fulfilment and professional success.