Lineage and Legacy: nFormation and the Activation of Women of Color for a Better Future

Jennifer Brown | |

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Co-Founders Deepa Purushothaman and Rha Goddess join the program to discuss nFormation, a first-of-its-kind app-based community for high-achieving women of color. (WOC) Discover how nFormation seeks to reimagine traditional power structures to not just help more WOC take their seat at the table in corporate America but to leverage their collective power to change the way the table is formed.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • Why Deepa and Rha created the nFormation app (22:00)
  • The qualities that women of color bring to leadership roles (26:00)
  • The problem with operating from a culture of fear (30:00)
  • The importance of engaging employees from all levels of the organization (39:00)
  • The need for an emotional investment in DE&I work (41:00)
  • Why we need single identity spaces (46:00)
  • The need to rewrite old messages and narratives (49:00)
  • Why women of color often fall out of the pipeline (51:00)
  • The problem with the traditional way that organizations rank and promote employees (52:00)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

JENNIFER BROWN: Deepa and Rha, welcome to The Will To Change.

RHA GODDESS: Thank you.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Thanks so much for having us.

JENNIFER BROWN: I’m so excited to have both of you here, Rha, as a multi-time Will To Change guest, everybody should know Rha Goddess, we’ve heard your amazing wisdom and voice several times, over the years. And then, Deepa, I’m so happy to have you on for the first time and you too have a new venture that we’re going to get into, which is so timely, so important and I think in incredible hands and hearts, with both of you. But let’s start as we normally do, with our diversity stories, as we do on the Will To Change.

And again, some of our listeners may be familiar with yours, Rha, but I would not assume that and share whatever you’d like. But, Deepa, let me start with you since you’re our newcomer to The Will To Change. What would you like to share about your background, your identity, your challenges? And what led you to be as passionate as you are right now, and having founded this company? Which we’ll get to in a moment.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Sure. Thank you, again. I think my diversity story is really tied to being Indian-American, being first-generation, born in the US and growing up and walking in a lot of predominantly-White spaces. Whether it was the town I grew up in, whether it was the schools I went to and then even at work, just finding myself in rooms, even as a senior executive, being the only woman of color and always trying to work through my own challenges around, “Do I belong here and what does that mean and how do I want to show up and what do I want to really represent?”

And so the work that I’m doing with Rha, right now, is so important to me because I do feel like, as a woman of color, I have walked in a lot of rooms and really carried that and really thought, “Does that mean my leadership looks different? Does that mean that I am bringing a different voice to issues or a different perspective to things?” So I think it’s very much tied to being a first in a lot of spaces and then an only in a lot of spaces.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, Deepa, Rha?

RHA GODDESS: Yes, and it’s so good, Jennifer, to be back. I will say this, it feels like home every time I come and as you know, my story is, I’m the child of parents who survived over two decades of Jim Crow segregation in this country. And so a lot of those frontline battles to be the first, to be even in the room has been the legacy that I come from.

And in terms of my corporate experience, and Deepa and I laugh about this, Deepa devoted 22 years into the corporate space, to bring change and empower and enliven the lives of the people that she had the opportunity to work with and serve, both within the company and as well as her clients. And I left the corporate space over 25 years ago and I was an only, at the time, in the specialty chemicals industry. And I think that it feels almost like coming full circle to do this venture together, to create what we hope is going to be a new and even more empowered experience, for women of color leaders.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love it. What a year we’ve been in, right? Of truth-telling, of soul searching, of difficult realizations for some, but what’s most exciting is that dots are getting connected now, that I don’t think we’ve ever seen. And the appetite is so strong and I think there’s an openness and we could focus, I guess, on the resistance to this moment. But I think what I want for today is to talk about the opening that’s available to us, to really share these stories but not only that, to build an organization that enables a deeper fix, a deeper intervention that interrupts the harmful experiences and the missed opportunities for women of color, in the workplace, as we traditionally understand it.

Tell us about nFormation, what app did you perceive in this conversation? And I would imagine that the rocket fuel this year has convinced you, more than ever, this was always needed but it’s needed now more than ever. I wonder if you could also contextualize that in this moment and what does it solve, in a unique way, that has been a persistent problem and a de-railer for so many to thrive?

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yeah, I can start there, this is Deepa. nFormation was really born out of a number of conversations that both Rha and I had been having, with women of color in different settings. And the topic that kept coming up over and over again was that so many of these women of color, whether they were new in their careers or advanced in their careers, were really feeling alone, to be honest with you. Alone in some of the challenges they were facing, alone in how they create change in their organizations and really alone in that they, most of the time, had multiple jobs or multiple roles at work. Not only their day job and what they were hired to do, but this almost face of race, right? In their companies or in their organizations.

And so those conversations led us to this discussion of where do women of color go, when they need to talk to one another? Where are they getting support? And we had actually talked about this prior to COVID so, in some ways, COVID and the racial pandemic of the summer, only to your point, really energized a lot of the conversations that we were having and the need for this type of coming together, for women of color, at this moment.

And so nFormation was born out of this desire to create a safe space for women of color to come together, a brave space for women of color to come together and a new space for women of color to come together. And I think what we’re really trying to do is to, have a space that we could come in and talk about, again, the challenges that we’re facing, really let our shoulders drop and find community. But also a lot of us feel that, to your point, we’re at that moment where anything is possible, yet we haven’t really been given the language or had the opportunity to talk about what does that look like? What comes next? And so we wanted to create a space to actually have that discussion, if we really had the tools and the pen to find what comes next, what do we want it to be, as women of color? I think it’s really exciting in that sense.

JENNIFER BROWN: I think we have to decide what our vision is, we actually have an opportunity now, to say, “Well, what do we want if we could design this in a way that was built by and for us, and really saw us and included us? What would these systems and companies look like? What would career paths look like?” And you’re right, Deepa, I think it’s unprecedented, the possibilities right now and the agency that we have. And I love that you’re building a container to hold that visioning and hold that dreaming about it process, and then the actually making it a practical reality, now more than ever.

Rha, I wondered, for our audience, can you identify what are we solving for that has really come up from this audience, that you hope to serve? In terms of the key barriers that if we do have this magic wand in this moment, let’s imagine we do, what would be the key things that would be changed by ourselves but also in the institutions we find ourselves in and amongst our colleagues, our allies and accomplices, et cetera? And if you could just give us a quick taste of what you think is going to be solutioned in these spaces.

RHA GODDESS: I mean, I think there are many things that we have an opportunity to solve in bringing women of color together, in this way. I think the first thing is, and this is women, Jennifer, right? Just the opportunity to affirm that we have a right to lead, we have space to lead, that this is our moment to lead and that the things that are unique, that we bring to our leadership, are what’s needed right now.

Deepa and I talk about this all the time, one of the things that we often get asked was, “Well, what is it that women of color bring in their leadership that is different?” And very much, I think it comes from the lineage and the legacy of who we are and how very many of us were raised, in the context of our cultures. We’re always working on culture, right? Whether we have the role or not, in terms of what’s on our business card, women of color in organizations, we’re always on culture, we’re always working on people, we’re always thinking about not just the what but the how, right?

And I think we’re at a time where every single one of us understands, no matter what identity we occupy, that our current systems are broken, they’re just not working, right? If we look at the state of our world, if we look at the state of, for many of us, the culture of our organizations, when we have a profit-only, financial profit-only mentality or profit at any cost-only mentality, we do not do justice to all of the possibilities that are available, when people are enlivened and empowered.

We were in a conversation, recently, where someone talked about the fact that they noticed a lot of people in companies don’t speak up, when they see things happen, because they’re so afraid, right? They’re afraid to say the wrong thing, afraid to do the wrong thing and that’s whether that’s intervening in the context of an issue that may be happening, whether it’s a microaggression or a major aggression, or whether it’s even in just being willing to speak their truth about something and share their unique perspective.

And so what happens is when people operate in a culture of fear, you don’t get their best contribution. I don’t care who that is, right? You just don’t get their best contribution and so what would it be if we could, in organizational environments, listen? While we’re at it, let’s talk about the society we live in. What would it be if we could be in a society where, so many of us were not operating and living in a place of fear? Where so many of us did not feel like who we were, inherently, was at odds with the environments and the spaces that we occupied? What would it be if we could have a vision for genuine inclusion, that created more room and space for different voices and different perspectives?

And so I think the end of this work, the end game of this work is that all of us are thriving. Not just women of color in organizations and corporations and the larger entities, that they have the honor and privilege to create and serve, but then all of us have the opportunity to thrive, when there can be a different consciousness at the center of the table.

JENNIFER BROWN: Beautiful. And the remedies that we’ve tried to bring to this, like so many remedies for enabling the thriving of different identities, haven’t been as successful as we’ve wanted them to be. And so what you’ve created, very specifically, I think gets to, maybe, the missing piece. As we look back at this moment and we say, I think a lot about how we’ve done diversity and inclusion, historically, and wondering why we haven’t made more progress. Even though we really believed in the interventions that we’ve done, it just hasn’t moved the needle.

I am assuming and believing that your program will move the needle because it does some things differently, right? It challenges some assumptions or it provides something that hasn’t been provided before, that we haven’t gotten exactly right, yet. So tell us about the structure of nFormation and what you have designed it to do, in a new or unique way that you think is going to unleash this potential and, obviously, engagement in health and ability to thrive for women of color.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: This is Deepa, nFormation, at its core, it’s a platform or an app that allows for a lot of the conversations we’re talking about to take place. We have a number of forums where we can have discussions on, for example, Rha brought up the microaggressions, the macroaggressions that are happening at work, health and wellness conversations, it’s these really special, curated spaces to have discussions.

There is also a really unique library that focuses on women of color research and resources for women of color, to lean on. There is a place and a community where we are going to have access to women of color-friendly resources, so not only just, Rha and I joke, where to get your hair done or where to find products but also, truly, self-care. Are there therapists that focus in women of color trauma topics? Right? And so the whole gamut of the resources that I think many of us need but we don’t always find.

But really, at its core, I think what we’re really talking about, Jennifer, is you used the word interventions. I think, at its core, nFormation is saying, “So much of the dialogue up till now has been about conforming,” right? It’s been about, “There’s a way to be if you want to be successful and move up in an organization or in a company.” And what we’re truly saying is that sense of conforming and that moving up and that entire structure, it’s time to really rethink it. Not from an intervention perspective but from a, how it was created, how the table has actually formed perspective.

And that is a fundamentally different conversation, that requires a very different space and a very different holding, to allow for the possibility. Because most of us have been stunted in that innovation conversation, right? We’re not even understanding how to have that discussion about what’s possible, because we look at the status quo and think about making tweaks here and there.

One of the conversations I had really recently, that really sat with me, it was a senior woman of color who has started her own company. And she was saying, she thinks what’s so special about women of color is that, because we don’t sit in the status quo, we’re not afraid of questioning the status quo. Yet she said, “I don’t always know what to ask or how to do that.” And so I think by having these forums and these special places and dialogues, right? Bringing in speakers that can help us have some of this conversation amongst the group, we’re really going to foster that new way of thinking, that new way of innovation.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. And then we have to bring organizations along with what is being architected. And somehow connect outwards from the work that’s being done and the discovery and the building. And that’s going to be really an interesting point of… One of the things I’m mindful of is a client would share, they’ve built a parenting Slack channel for working mothers, for example. And there are working fathers that have wanted to be in the channel, “This is important, this is helpful for me too.”

And so what’s very specific is also very universal, right? And it’s wisdom because we all need a different workplace, we need a different system and I would argue it doesn’t work for so many. And so, I guess, how will we be able to partake in the wisdom that springs from this? And how will it reach potential allies and accomplices who can help take that and drive it, so that everybody can benefit from what is created and what is produced from this, from what you’re building. Because it strikes me that there are clues in what’s going to result from this, that are critical for all of us to know and hear and to take forward.

RHA GODDESS: This is Rha, I mean, one of the things that we are equally excited about in addition to the app and the community and the environment, that we will be creating to support the cultivation and advancement of the women, is the work that we’ll have to do in connection with companies through placement. And we specifically have designed an innovation for placement, C-suite level, board level and a opportunity to actually develop what we’re calling a success wrapper, so that it isn’t just about putting the woman in the chair.

What we know, Jennifer, right now, about this time, is that women of color are in demand, right? A lot of people are looking, right? At every level of the company, they’re looking, they’re recognizing and realizing as a result of the illumination of this summer, that there have been gaps in representation, massive gaps in representation. And so a lot of what is happening now is the scramble, genuine interest but it’s a scramble, none the less, right? To try to find these women.

And what we’re saying is that, it’s not enough to put the skirt in the chair, that there has to really be a process that not only that the women undergo but the companies undergo as well, to get ready for these women and to support these women, and to be able to create an environment and a context that will enable the contribution that these women have, to be made, and for the companies to be able to thrive as a result.

And so we recognize and want to say, very clearly, that there is a body of work to be done. Not just by women of color but there is a body of work to be done by stakeholders in corporations, who are very serious about wanting to have more women of color in their ranks. To be able to receive these women, to be able to create environments that encourage the unique contributions that they have to make, to ensure that they have room and space to lead and we know, to your point, that it’s going to be evolutionary for them as well. That this is a partnership, this is a collaboration.

JENNIFER BROWN: Absolutely. I mean, it goes back to that existential question, I think, of leaning on others to do all the changing, to fit into the system, versus having expectations and accountability for the system to make the room and, really for the system to actually take a hard look at itself. And that’s, I think, what we’re going through this year. It started with, I think, the pandemic and then the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Movement this summer, that it feels the brokenness is so manifest, it’s all around us.

And leaders are really struggling to understand a new language, I think, if they’re in a certain identity group. And I find myself spending a lot of time with those folks thinking about, “How do you learn more about the experience of talent in your organization, where you haven’t really dug deep into it or at all, in the past?” I mean, I’m amazed, I think there should be a list of microaggressions for each of our communities of identity that should be committed to memory, by everyone in a organization.

There are things you need to learn and then you need to intervene, you need to know something when you hear it, you need to spot biases as they crop up in selection process, in performance reviews. Casual comments, not so casual and that intervention piece is, I just find that we are so at the beginning stages as aspiring allies are just starting to learn, that somebody else is having a radically different experience than they are, in the exact same environment. And this is my whole meritocracy argument, I say, “Well, if it were a meritocracy, wouldn’t it feel the same for everybody?” And it really doesn’t and let me show you all the data and all the information that we have, that we haven’t been looking at, we haven’t been heeding it, we haven’t been listening to it.

It’s well-documented by all the think tanks in the world but, somehow, the wake-up call hasn’t been felt. And so I guess I wonder how you will create a shift with what comes out of this, that will wake people up, equip them with more understanding than I think they have right now, and then involve them, in a really meaningful way, to set that table differently. And to not even build table in the first place but enable others to build it because I do think, too, we all know this concept of de-centering ourselves so that others can be centered, and moving out of the way so that others can thrive.

It’s not a hand up or a handout, in many ways, it’s people have got the tools they need to thrive, it’s that the challenges and the headwinds are the problem. And so I just think a lot about, “How do I explain this to the folks that I’m always finding myself educating? And what will be the guidance that comes out of this? That people can feel that is practical, concrete, that’s doable?” Because I think that’s important, that the year has been a year of overwhelm, too, and for good reason. But we do have to make things digestible, also, and doable. And people have to feel like, “Hey, I can actually help, this is something I can learn about and I can do something about,” what would that look like?

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: This is Deepa, I think the first step and you’ve named some of it, is that, I think until very recently, probably until June, there wasn’t an awareness or even an acknowledgement of any type in the corporate spaces or in professional spaces, that race actually came into the workplace, right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: I can see some of that happening outside of work but at work, to your point, it’s a meritocracy, it doesn’t happen here. And I think, for the first time, you started to see companies and you started to see leaders ask different questions in June, and really maybe listen. I’m not saying that we’re progressed to the point that things are happening everywhere, but at least there was a pause with, “Maybe my experience is completely different.” There are people, there are families that are having to have, “The talk,” right? That it is different to walk as a Brown person or a Black person in America, and that actually shows up at work in different ways.

And I think that, that is new and I think, to your point, it’s almost, “How do we walk through that? How do we continue to evolve that discussion?” And what we’re hearing from a lot of the women that we’re meeting with is that, I think companies are still in the early stages of that, to be honest with you, Jennifer. I think companies are asking the question but it’s still really uncomfortable for people. I think we’re still in the stage of, “Let’s ask the questions, let’s create the space for maybe some of the awkwardness to let itself out.” That right now, sometimes even the best of intent people don’t always know the words to use and the questions to ask, but we need to understand.

And I think, as a former inclusion leader, I would say the biggest change I see is that before, companies didn’t always engage all levels of their workforce in the conversation, right? For a lot of companies, inclusion was very top-down, which is an odd thing to say now because I think there’s more of an awareness that we need everybody to participate. But, I mean, you know this, right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: For the last five, six years, it was very top-down. And I think fact that there is a willingness to hear, that it is different to walk in different people’s shoes, that it is a different experience, is the first step. And I think we’re at the stage now where, if it’s a 10-mile run, we’re maybe at mile two or three, where we’re hearing, right? We’re just creating the space for the discussion to happen and for that to seep in. And if we can continue to help that and foster that and make the voices at least come out, and I think Rha and my work is very much about holding the container, as you said, so the voices can come out and really empower women of color voices.

But there’s still mile three through 10 that we have to figure out, that are down the road of how the actual organizations change. And so that’s my perspective, I think we’re in the, “Let’s hear the multitude of voices,” which, in itself, is brand new and we need to really encourage that and allow time and space for that, because the stories are very different and we haven’t heard them for many years.

JENNIFER BROWN: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

RHA GODDESS: Yeah. This is Rha, I would also add that I think there are three things that are really, really important, to Deepa’s point. I think in order to really hear the stories, there has to be a genuine openness and a willingness to even consider that there is a different reality, right? And a genuine openness, and this is back to this room and space conversation, a genuine openness that lends to more room and space, to really be in a different set of priorities in a conversation, right?

I also think emotional investment, to your point, Jennifer, I think the work that corporations have had access to, in the D&I space, has been very strong work. But I think if there’s not an emotional investment, in other words, if this is only held in the container of skill-building, or this is only held in the container of “Practical tips and tools,” I don’t think we get the shift, the mental, spiritual and emotional transformation that needs to happen. Which is really rooted in the inner-looking and the deep soul-searching, that also has to accompany this work.

Which isn’t just about, “How do I intervene on behalf of another?” But, “Where might I be part of the challenge? Where might I be?” Right? And, “How do I confront that with compassion?” Right? “How do I confront that with commitment?” And so genuine openness, emotional investment and sustained commitment are there things that are really going to enable, I think, the tide to turn.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, Rha, I’m considering my next book, as Deepa knows, and I think that emotional journey of change is profound and may hold back the skill building, and the practice, and the improvement. Because we do get stuck in the emotional stuff and the depth of work we need to do, on a personal level, the accountability that we need to take, to participate in this, is a whole different level than what it has been in the past.

Deepa, I take your point that diversity was like taking your medicine and I hate it to be seen that way, when we would enter the space and be helping companies. And just to know that somebody might look at something like this as a compliance exercise or to do the bare minimum, or that it’s not really their job to care about this, to investigate it, to increase my knowledge, to really step in and get involved.

And I think we will probably look back at… My prediction is, the way we’ve done D&I, we’ve let a lot of people off the hook for that involvement and we’ve been so passionate, we meaning the people, the three of us. We carry so much water in our passion for doing all the work and then some, right? Our day job and our diversity job. And we’ve, I think, found community and found a lot of energy in that but I have wondered, very much, about why haven’t we been able to effectively involve everyone in this conversation, at all, really. And knowing that we couldn’t make a lot of progress, I think, without involving a lot of people.

But I do want to bring up, it’s a question I sometimes get around, “Why do we need single identity spaces?” This question is coming, I get this question a lot, it’s excluding to include. I get that and I am a staunch defender of creating specific spaces for identity, it’s so important. And I understand that maybe the world is changing around us in terms of, “Well, the younger generations are incredibly multi identities,” right?

And even to the point where maybe ERGs that are oriented around different identities, they may shift over time as the next generation comes in and says, “Well, I’m this and I’m that and I’m that and I don’t want to be just that, I’m multi-hyphenate.” But I would imagine you have a wonderful and wise answer about why a dedicated space is, more than ever, the right answer. It’s one of many answers but it is such a critical answer, what can happen in these single identity spaces like this, that you’ve built on your building? And who’s that woman that you hope finds you? Can you tell us a little bit about what she’s missing and what this community is going to provide?

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Rha, this is Deepa, why don’t I start with the, “Why it’s important,” and then maybe you can fill in, “Who our ideal woman is.”

RHA GODDESS: Yes, totally.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Jennifer, It’s funny, as a former executive, I had that question myself, right? Meaning, “Do I need a space like this?” When I was in my corporate role, “Is this even required?” Or, “What does that look like?” And I think what I’ve realized is, I didn’t even know how much I needed it until I had the conversations with the other women, right? Because you think so much of what you carry is on you and my own deficit and my own challenges, and that’s a Deepa thing, right?

And I realized the more and more I talked to women then it wasn’t, it was something that I was taught. We’re all taught these messages, as we grow up in the world, and they’re going to be different for different groups so I’ll just focus on the women of color messages. But I think, because we have never seen ourselves as leaders in the media, right? In politicians, in corporate CEOs, we often walk through the world not knowing, to Rha’s point earlier, not necessarily giving ourselves permission to dream big, to think big, to realize we belong in spaces, to realize that we can show up as we are, how we are.

Because so much of our life, even before work, right? At school, even growing up in our towns, I grew up in a completely White town, I was one of three students of color until I was in high school. I don’t think I understood the ramifications of that and what that meant for me, until I started to really pull apart questions of identity like, “Why am I struggling with what it means to be Indian in a White space? Why am I struggling with finding my voice in certain aspects?”

To me, I think these spaces are very much about being seen and heard. And maybe they’re not spaces we need forever, as women of color, I mean, to your point, maybe we move in and out of that, maybe, in a few years, I’ll be looking for a different type of space. But for right now, I think there’s such a need for the conversations that we’ve just never had before and so, to me, that’s what the space is. It’s really about seeing and hearing women of color for the first time, and hearing and seeing that their experiences are different and what does that mean? And giving ourselves permission to really rewrite those narratives and rewrite some of the messages we were told, about having to be twice as good or five times as good or, Rha and I joke, 10 times as good, right? As the little White boy sitting next to us in school.

That’s a lot of what we were told growing up, that in order to compete or in order to be seen as equal, we’re going to have to do better and be better. And that comes with a lot of stresses, so I think it’s a space to let go of some of those messages and really rewrite what we want success to look like and how we want to show up in the world.

RHA GODDESS: And I think to our ideal woman, she is looking for her people, she has a vision, she is ambitious, she knows she’s got a great contribution to make, she wants to be in an environment where her leadership is affirmed, where she’s challenged to grow in ways that are healthy and where she can let her shoulders down, take her hair down and be in conversations where her identity and her experiences are affirmed.

And she wants to be supported, she wants to be held accountable to that higher vision, while also being in a space where she can be fed, she can be nourished, she can be encouraged and invited to reach for the highest potential of her purpose and her calling.

JENNIFER BROWN: That sounds so delicious and so necessary, I love the word nourishment. I think about self-care, I think about fatigue this year, it’s been such an intense time and now, more than ever, needing that space to just relax, take a breath, be comfortable, drop the covering behaviors I talk about all the time, that we have to maintain for our safety. It’s the constant code-switching that many of us walk through the world doing, and it does sneak up on you and sometimes you don’t realize the impact that it’s having. And so these places can be where we restore, we plug back in, we connect back in, we compare notes, we strategize, we dream about. I think that you can’t be creative unless you’re really relaxed and you feel psychologically safe.

And I think that when you’re the only or the first, you’re spending so much time and energy dedicated to managing how you’re perceived and almost anticipating bias and stereotypes and things, comments. How can you possibly be focused and productive and do your best, when you’re managing all this double work? And I think it’s really exhausted many of us and it’s caused many of us to leave that leadership pipeline. To the point where, I don’t know if you all agree but, when I look at the senior levels, to me, it’s an exact indication that many of us fall out of the pipeline because of a lot of these challenges, that aren’t of our making, but that haven’t been addressed sufficiently or at all.

And so I’m sure you’re focused on placement and working with recruiters, I love and I want to hear more about that. I often find, I say to a client, “You need to hold your partners accountable for diversity,” if you’re working with an agency or a marketing agency or a recruiter, and they’re giving you slates of candidates, how does that look? And are those slates reflective of our world and of the available talent pool? And if not, how can we apply some pressure to get something better, something more reflective, something more accurate? So I wonder, how are you tackling those really important sources of talent that surround every organization? And, specifically, what does that advocacy look like and that education look like, to the services companies that service larger organizations? Because I think that’s a huge failure point, in my experience.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: This is Deepa, I think it starts with almost dispelling this notion that there’s a pipeline issue, and I think the three of us would agree, right? That there isn’t necessarily a pipeline issue, maybe there’s a finding the women or the diverse talent issue and people not knowing where to look. And as we’ve talked with a lot of recruiting companies, a lot of placement companies, I think that comes up in different ways. Even if some of the large companies have women of color in their databases, they’re not always top-of-mind because it’s still very much a business that’s run by who’s top-of-mind? Who do you know? Who’s in your immediate network? As far as the recruiters who place people.

It’s a little bit of putting the women of color at the top of those lists and top-of-mind, it’s how they’re presented. Rha and I are working on a piece right now and we were going back and forth, over the last 24 hours. I think that a lot of the criteria we use to score or to rank or to promote traditional candidates, really does a disservice to people of color and women of color. For example, if someone is a first or if you’re an only, one of the first in their family to go to college or one of the only to walk, as you described, in a code-switching environment, they have this whole set of skills that we don’t actually give them credit for and we don’t talk about, right?

They have things like grit and moxie and an ability to translate that we don’t score those. And so maybe they fall lower on the traditional meter compared to the size of company they’ve worked at, or the titles they’ve had before or the schools that they even went to. And so I think a lot of the conversation we’re having is, how do you actually start to look and value women of color leadership, and the experiences of women of color, in ways that are real and true?

And even looking at that list and then I think, Rha, talked about earlier, there’s a whole different process once they’re actually in the seat. But we’re trying to fix both of those equations, right? There’s a process to vet them and to get them into the slate and into the seat, and then there’s an entirely different process once they’re in the seat. And we need to fix all of that, if we’re really, truly going to change the leadership ranks and have more women of color at all companies or at organizations at senior levels.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. I think to summarize that concept in one way, it’s, if you get them, can you keep them? And losing, it’s so unhealthy in so many ways for organizations to squander someone who’s so talented or an entire generation of talent, because of the culture, every day and the unwillingness to perhaps look at that and change it. The courage to change it, because there’s still that perception that, “Well, the workplace works for me, I don’t know how important this really is.” I feel very frustrated in how many times I’ve had to point out the data, and the data we actually collect directly from people in terms of focus groups and surveys. And we deliver that on a silver platter to leadership and we say, “Here’s what’s getting in the way for your talent to thrive.”

And my wish is and I hope that maybe this year we’re at a point where we can say, “Give us every… We want to know everything, we don’t want to ignore anything, we want to know all the headwinds that are being faced and we want to address them with an equity lens, one after the other, after the other.” And I believe, sadly, there’s a lot of work to be done because we haven’t looked at our systems and processes, through an equity lens. And I know both of you are really extremely skilled at advising on that, but it’s hard because it’s the water we swim in, right? It’s the workplace we know, and for people to be able to step outside of that and see what’s problematic, in something they’ve been doing for years, that’s a really far bridge.

RHA GODDESS: Yeah. But it’s one we have to cross if we’re really going to change, right?

JENNIFER BROWN: We have to.

RHA GODDESS: At a fundamental level, this is about really taking a hard look at what we value, and really considering if the things that we have traditionally valued are still the things that are going to serve us and take us forward, right? And I think it’s, at a fundamentally level, also going, “Who do I want to be, in the matter of this? And am I willing to humbly admit that I don’t know what to do? So even when I see the problem, even when I can recognize, even when I’m staring the numbers in the face, can I be humble enough and courageous enough to admit I have no idea how to fix the problem, but I’m open and I’m willing to learn how to fix the problem?” This is where we are, this is the moment we’re at.

JENNIFER BROWN: Agreed. I think the fundamental definition of leadership is changing. It was already changing before this year but this is a real wake up call, for leaders who are not comfortable being uncomfortable. I think the whole question of what leadership looks like and how we perform, having all the answers, which has never been true. But how that’s been rewarded versus the vulnerability that this year is, I think, demanding of so many of us. To say, exactly, Rha, “I don’t have the answers, I want to identify the problem, I want to know and I want to,” also, by the way, “Not jump to the solution or the fix either.”

Because we have that tendency to fix, to solve like, “Give me the checklist, give me the gold star.” And this is going to take a while to unravel and to really rebuild something in a different way, in the right way is, again, something we don’t have muscles for, I don’t think.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Absolutely. Rha and I often talk about, a lot leaders don’t even know what the work is, right? And so, to your point, there is a set of activities, once you know what the work is, but we’re still deep in defining what the work is, right? And a lot of people don’t understand that.

RHA GODDESS: Yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh my gosh.

RHA GODDESS: Yeah, and dare I say, still defining the problem.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Right.

RHA GODDESS: You know what I mean? Depending upon who we’re talking to, right? To Deepa’s point, “Are you at mile one in a 10-mile journey? Or mile two or mile three?” And I think our ability to help people really understand where they are, along the continuum, is also critical, because some people think they’re much further along than they actually are.

JENNIFER BROWN: For sure. What is that called? Self-enhancement bias.

RHA GODDESS: Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: It is the, “I’m a good person and I’m on the diversity committee,” or, “I have daughters and I understand this,” boy, that is not enough.

RHA GODDESS: No, no.

JENNIFER BROWN: Not enough. In our few minutes left, Rha and Deepa, again, congratulations on the creation of, nFormation. Where would you direct interested folks to get involved? And if you could include, for listeners who are not women of color, how people can get involved, what role can they play? And it’s okay to say… Speaking of not having all the answers, I know that sometimes we build the plane as we fly it so no pressure, to be able to wrap that up in a nice bow. But I know this audience is going to be very eager to either participate or support, so how can we do that?

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: I would say come to our website, the website is the letter N, the number two, and then formation.com, n2formation.com. And we have pages there, not only for women of color to learn more and to sign up, but also for allies or advocates or people who really just want to learn more. And so we thought about that, Jennifer, and again, our focus is not necessarily on creating those spaces right now, for allies, but it may be in the future. And so the website really has a lot of that information and we’re asking people to sign up so we can stay in touch, as we enhance our services and figure out exactly how we start to truly tackle, really creating cultures that make sense for all of us.

JENNIFER BROWN: Fabulous. Thank you, both of you, I really appreciate this and I wish you so much good fortune and success. I know you’re going to be flooded and you are, I’m sure that the appetite is just so pent up for something like this and I really can’t wait to learn from this community, that you’re going to amass and energize and connect with each other, and empower and give voice to in the way that it’s going to shift the ecosystems, that have so much improvement to make and such a long journey to go on.

But this is a really critical piece of it so thank you and I will continue to drive as many folks to you as I possibly can, because I believe so deeply in both of you and what you’re creating, but thank you for joining us on The Will To Change today.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Thank you and thank you for all you do, Jennifer.

JENNIFER BROWN: Absolutely.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: I mean, you creating those spaces and inviting us makes a difference as well.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you.

RHA GODDESS: So appreciate you, Jennifer, thank you so much for having us.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks. Both of you.

USEFUL LINKS

nFormation