“On my first day at a previous job, I went into the woman’s washroom wearing unisex clothes, a shirt, and jeans,” says Harsha Hayathi. “A woman was shouting and yelling at me: ‘Hey, why did you come into this washroom? It’s for women.’ I just kept calm and thought, Why do I need to tell a stranger I’m transgender?”
Hayathi is among a number of trans employees in India facing challenges and discrimination in the workplace. Despite the landmark 2014 Indian Supreme Court ruling that recognized transgender people as a third gender, the community still faces serious difficulties in accessing essential services like healthcare, housing, and education. A combination of social stigma, discrimination, and an absence of job opportunities have created an environment where trans people are widely excluded from mainstream workplaces and jobs.
PeriFerry, a startup founded by Neelam Jain, aims to untangle these challenges by upskilling vulnerable members of the trans community, providing technology training, and placing them in jobs that pay a living wage in an inclusive workplace environment.
An Idea Is Born
While working as an analyst at Goldman Sachs in Bangalore, Jain participated in networking events held by an LGBTQ employee group. After speaking with trans colleagues, Jain began to gain a deeper insight into the obstacles members of this community face in searching for employment. While Jain isn’t trans herself, she entered an application to the Analyst Impact Fund, which gives grants for projects that address societal challenges at Goldman Sachs in hopes of making the investment firm more trans-friendly.
“Let’s put together an idea around creating jobs for the transgender community, which is the number one socio-economic issue in the country for trans people.”
–Neelam Jain, founder, PeriFerry
“Lots of people were pitching for things that are already being looked at in society. So I thought: Let’s put together an idea around creating jobs for the transgender community, which is the number one socio-economic issue in the country for trans people,” explains Jain. According to the National Human Rights Commission of India, 96 percent of trans individuals are forced into low-paying jobs, begging, or sex work. As Jain prepared the application, she recalled traveling around Chennai on public transport as a young girl and seeing trans people cast out on the street. Meanwhile, at Goldman Sachs, a three-hour conversation between Jain and a trans colleague named Uma played a crucial role in helping Jain understand the employment challenges trans people face.
Though Jain was praised by her bosses for the idea of providing training and upskilling to members of the trans community, the application wasn’t chosen by judges as a winning entry. But this setback didn’t stop Jain: She met with NGOs, community leaders, and trans job seekers during the competition process, and had created a comprehensive business plan. “This was the moment I realized how passionate I was growing about this issue,” says Jain. “I realized that the right thing would be to quit my job and actually try and pursue this full-time.”
Sharpened Focus on Tech Training
Jain left her job in 2017 and founded PeriFerry. After the success Jain had in matching skilled trans people with jobs—more than 250 people have been trained by the startup and 90 roles have been arranged for members—PeriFerry started to provide free English language training, computing, and entrepreneurship skills.
In an increasingly competitive employment market, job seekers looking for high-paying positions in the tech industry need well-developed skills to attract employers. Since PeriFerry opened its doors, the social enterprise made technology training a central element of its operation: From the basics of navigating the internet to learning how to use Microsoft Office to practicing typing, participants gain the essential skills they need to get hired. Thanks to the strong reputation PeriFerry has built in the trans community, clients of the company typically find out about the free training through word of mouth in the community and through referrals by people who have completed the programs. Before the pandemic, trans clients would visit the PeriFerry offices to learn in person with computer-based lessons and classroom-style communication teaching.
There is no one-size-fits-all process that trans clients of PeriFerry must go through to gain a job placement, explains Jain, who works to see where individual members need support most. For some, interviewing skills need to be brushed up, while others may need help using a computer or speaking English in a professional setting.
Hayathi was one PeriFerry alum who benefitted from the program. In 2018, she was getting ready to leave her family home in search of a job, as her parents were not accepting of her gender identity, and reached out to a friend who mentioned PeriFerry.
“I got the number of [Jain] and she got to know about my interests in life, what I really wanted to do, and even tried to speak with my parents,” says Hayathi. PeriFerry then connected Hayathi with Bangalore-based ANZ Bank, where she landed a job as a service desk analyst. “Before I joined [ANZ Bank],” explains Hayathi, “PeriFerry went to my company and trained our team, our managers, everyone for six months.”
“Before I joined [ANZ Bank], PeriFerry went to my company and trained our team, our managers, everyone for six months.”
–Harsha Hayathi, PeriFerry alum
PeriFerry has since made it a key part of its mission to help create a more inclusive professional environment. With some companies failing to properly address trans people when hiring for a new role, including misgendering and asking inappropriate questions about the transition process, PeriFerry guides their partner businesses through this journey and communicates best practices. Through workshops and community events, PeriFerry brings together employees and trans people to build bridges and eliminate misconceptions about the community.
As Jain saw trans people who had either an educational or employment background in technology get in touch, she decided to start a new training program focused entirely on technology. In partnership with global software consultancy ThoughtWorks, PeriFerry recently launched the first software development training cohort.
“We’ve been training people on the basics of Java, as well as helping them understand the fundamentals of coding. We’re trying to ensure that just because you’re transgender it doesn’t mean you don’t get access to tech jobs. So we’re trying to create training for them, especially those who have the right education so that they get into fields like software development and coding,” says Jain.
A Brighter, More Inclusive Future
Since its humble beginning, Periferry now has offices in Chennai and Bangalore and counts six core staff members on its team, several of which are members of the trans community, alongside many community partners like Neysara Rai, founder of the online support platform Transgender India.
Alongside PeriFerry, a growing number of government initiatives, such as the Transgender Welfare Board, are dedicated to improving the day-to-day lives of trans residents by providing access to healthcare, housing, education, and employment.
But it’s the individual reminders from Periferry alumni like Hayathi that continue to motivate Jain and her team. “It’s almost three years since I started my job,” says Hayathi, “and it’s the first time in my life no one asked me about my old name or questioned my pronouns. I don’t have to hide myself.”