The Few, the First, the Only: Catalyzing Women of Color with Deepa Purushothaman

Jennifer Brown | |

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This episode features an interview with author, leader and speaker Deepa Purushothaman as she discusses takeaways from her new book The First, The Few, The Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America. Discover the changes that need to happen in the structure of corporate America, and how to reframe the “fit in” and “lean in” mentalities that have left women feeling burnt out or isolated in the workplace. Deepa also reveals how the conversation around the imposter syndrome is changing and the first step that a woman can take to better claim their power at work.

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

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: For me part of writing this book was showing other women of color they’re not alone. What happened to me is, once I got into really stressful situations, I would think it was all me. What did I just do? What did I do to create that? Why am I being so sensitive? It was like every aspect of it would drag on for days and weeks, if not months, I would be psychoanalyzing myself and part of what I want women of color to realize is some of these things are patterns, some of these things are things that happen to almost every woman of color I interviewed, so I interviewed over 500 women of color. And once you realize it’s a pattern and it’s not you, there’s freedom and there’s power in that.

DOUG FORESTA: The Will to Change is hosted by Jennifer Brown. Jennifer is an award winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker, best-selling author and leadership expert on how organizations must evolve their cultures towards a new, more inclusive workplace reality. She’s a passionate inclusion and equity advocate, committed to helping leaders foster healthier and, therefore, more productive workplaces, ultimately driving innovation and business results. Informed by nearly two decades of consulting the Fortune 500 companies, she and her team advise top companies on building cultures of belonging in times of great upheaval and uncertainty. And now, on to the episode.

Hello and welcome back to the Will to Change. This is Doug Foresta and today’s episode features an interview between Jennifer and Deepa Purushothaman who has been on the podcast before. Suggest, if you have not, to check out episode 135 where Deepa joins us previously. But in today’s episode, Deepa is on to discuss her new book, The First, The Few, The Only, How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America. And in the episode, in the conversation, Deepa and Jennifer talk about how the structure of corporate America was not built for or by women of color and what that means for women of color trying to navigate their careers.

Deepa discusses what needs to change in corporate America and shares her own experience on how being a first shaped her own workplace experience. She also discusses how we can begin to reframe the fit in or lean in mentalities that have left women feeling burnt out or isolated in the workplace and she also talks about the imposter syndrome, steps that women can take to move past those feelings as well as how women of color can move past the idea of working harder to get ahead. All this and more. And now, on to the episode.

JENNIFER BROWN: Deepa, welcome to the Will to Change.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: So excited to be here again, Jennifer. Thank you for having me.

JENNIFER BROWN: I know. I’m happy to have you again and specifically about your upcoming new book release, The First, The Few, The Only. Congratulations. How are you feeling about the launch which is coming up very quickly?

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: It is, it is. I’m excited, I have to say. So, I’m a first time author, I just left my corporate role a year and a half ago so it’s, I think, bigger than just the book. It feels like I’m stepping into my new life, if I can say that.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: So, it’s exciting and overwhelming and all the feels.

JENNIFER BROWN: All of the feels. Yes, writing that book is a love letter to the world and a very vulnerable moment, I know.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Having been there many times and yet, addictive at the same time. So, I predict there is more in your future.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yes, I believe you’re right. I loved the writing process. The jury’s still out if I enjoy this process, meaning telling everyone about the book and the PR process is a different animal but I loved the writing of the book. So, yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so cool. Maybe we can get into a bit about your process that you used and how you landed on the topic that the book is about. But first, if you would just remind our audience a little bit about your background, how you got into this work and became passionate about it. Anything you’d like to share about your personal journey with us.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Sure, absolutely. So, I grew up in the US, I was born here. I think that’s important sometimes for context. I grew up in New Jersey, in a very White town, was always one of the only in school and growing up and I think that really, I think, for me defined a lot of maybe how I see the world and questions around belonging came really early and we can talk about that. I went to grad school thinking I would do politics and policy as a result of being an only and having opinions and thoughts on underserved markets and just how policy needed to change to be reflective of all people. And then I joined Deloitte out of grad school and I stayed there for over 20 years. It was a very different path.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my goodness.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yeah. And then I just left a year and a half ago. And when I was at Deloitte, I was our first Indian female partner and so, it’s important in the context of the book because a lot of the book is about stories we tell as firsts. And although it was an amazing opportunity and a trailblazing opportunity and all of those things, we don’t talk about what I call the dark side of trailblazing, the challenges of what that is. And so, that’s a little bit about what motivated the book. I also had a big inclusion role at Deloitte and so, it gave me opportunities to meet with other women and talk about leadership but also other companies. And so, it’s always been something in my DNA even when I was in my corporate role and then I decided to leave.

And I left six weeks before George Floyd’s murder so it was very relevant in that I decided I wanted to do this work before but then, to meet the moment and have the book sell so quickly and my partner, Rha Goddess, who I was on your podcast with before, and I started nFormation. So, it’s a company for women of color focused on creating safe, brave and new space for women of color. And so, everything I’m doing is based on women of color right now and it seems really important and really timely. And all of it comes from this struggle of stay or go.

So, when I was in my corporate role trying to decide if I wanted to stay or go, Rha encouraged me to meet with other women of color and figure out what to do, like what are women of color friendly companies and places to go. And in that process, we met with a lot of women of color, we ended up doing dinners across the country and those dinners and those conversations that we can get into, that turned into the fodder for the book and the company and how everything ended up this way because it wasn’t designed, it just all happened, to be honest to you.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, those are the best stories though, right?

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yes, they are, they are.

JENNIFER BROWN: Life gives us what we need at the right time even though we may not see it that way at the moment. Deepa, 20 years of Deloitte, when I think about that, I think about the industry which is management consulting and challenging that industry is, first of all, and how intense that is. But also, the company must have changed a lot over those years and then you changed within that system and probably came to find your voice flexed through a lot of different career promotions, I’m sure. And I just wonder, what would you tell us about that particular environment as one that, perhaps, challenged you, forged you, shaped you and what you learned about being successful in that environment? Because I know a lot of our listeners have some familiarity with that industry, either as an insider or an outsider, but it’s known to be extremely challenging [crosstalk 00:07:13]. Like join the club, right? Or something like that.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yup.

JENNIFER BROWN: Almost all industries are but that is a particular one. So-

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: … I just have to hear about that.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Absolutely. I think especially from a lifestyle perspective, right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yup.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: I mean, towards the end of my time there, I was on a plane sometimes three cities a week because, in addition to my client role, I had this other big inclusion role. Although I loved it, it was very hard to manage and a lot of what I talk about in the book and my own story, we can come back to it, is that I’m getting really sick, to be candid with you. I found the burnout, the stress, the living out of a suitcase took its toll and I ended up having to take a break that led me to a new path and a lot of other things. But yeah, I did, I loved my time there, I learned a lot until it was time to go. And once it was time to go, it was definitely time to go.

But I would also say that it’s an environment where you said I found my voice. I think that’s been a lot of what my journey is about and I think it’s, maybe, I’m still finding it, to be honest with you. I think when you’re in corporate cultures, although Deloitte was very open and very progressive on many things, I think the corporate culture is, in some ways, not about finding your voice. It’s about conforming to the culture around you and figuring out what works and how to be successful and molding to that.

And so much of what I met, as I met the women, and this is part of why I decided to exit, was that that process can take a lot from us. I don’t know that I had my own definition of success and power and what was healthy because, when you’re in that system, you’re driven to work hard, play hard. There’s a certain way to get ahead and a way to behave that, at the end of the day, where I am now, I don’t think that it aligns with who I am and what I want out of my life. But when you’re in the machine, you have to play it and do it well if you want to progress and I did it really well and I progressed really fast but it comes with a cost, I think, in some ways.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. And how do women of color pivot through that specifically because of identity? I’m curious and I know that’s what you write about now-

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: … and with so much insight but how does that land on or how did it land on you in particular as it pertains to other women of color too in those systems?

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yeah, I think it’s hard and part of my story is I was the first and so there weren’t a lot of women of color ahead of me, if any. I can count on one hand the ones I can think about. And so, I ended up having to take a lot of White male leader leaders ahead of me and pick and choose from their activities or their leadership started to create my own. So, I think my biggest gap in navigating for, maybe, the first 10 years was not seeing a leader who looked like me which made me question how do I want to show up. Everything from how I present myself to what’s my voice and how forceful and aggressive do I want to be, all of those things were things that I had to learn by trial and error because I didn’t have a model that I really felt like I related to.

And so, I think that’s probably the hardest part. I also think there’s a lot that is put on women of color in these companies and structures. There’s a lot of culture building activity, there’s a lot of mentoring other women, there’s a lot of recruiting women of color. There’s such a desire for all those things but many of those things become extra, I call them burdens in the book, but extra things that we do that are beyond the day job or beyond the job description we were hired to do. And although many of us want to do it, because I saw it as part of my work, it’s extra and we need to talk about what that means and what that looks like because there’s a lot of extra because there’s so few of us, I think that’s the point.

JENNIFER BROWN: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: How would we redistribute that? That’s the question I wake up every day asking myself. A few of us are doing a lot of the work of culture shaping and supporting the education and awareness of others and sharing our lived experience, what would need to change in your mind to distribute this carrying of the water, so to speak, across many, many more identities?

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yeah, I love that question. I don’t know that I have an exact answer for it because I think it’s hard. I think the first step in the phase we’re in right now is just beginning to share our lived experience and what I tell a lot of leaders right now is that it is very different. Take whatever group, but I’m speaking specifically about women of color, it is very different to navigate as a woman of color and I don’t think, until George Floyd’s murder, there was room and space to talk about that difference. There was a lot of it’s the same, corporate America is a meritocracy and my whole book is really about this idea that it’s not and what does that mean and how do we unpack it.

So, I think the first step before we can even figure out how we can all carry the water is to understand the carrying of the water is different for each of us. I met with Verna Myers, who’s a VP of inclusion at Netflix, and I tell her story or tell our discussion in the first chapter. And one of the first things we talked about was airplane design and how, when you get on an airplane, I’m 5’1″ so the process of getting on an airplane, getting my luggage into the overhead bin is very stressful for me. I used to worry about it 20 minutes before I got in an airplane.

And she’s tall, I want to believe she’s 5’6″ or maybe a little bit taller and she said it’s a completely different experience for her. But as a mom, she worries about the luggage falling on her children’s heads. And then you take the White male executive sitting next to me who’s tall and maybe not thinking about those things. The point is, it wasn’t designed with all of our nuances in mind and so it doesn’t really show up for us in the same way. And I think that’s the same thing about the workplace. It shows up differently for us but there’s never been space to talk about that and we can’t possibly redistribute the water until we understand the differences.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. And the meritocracy thing, every day it comes up.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yes, right?

JENNIFER BROWN: You just gave a great example of explaining why it’s not a meritocracy but what are some other ways you handle that question in its various forms? Because I do think it’s a deep source of pushback particularly around leveling the playing field. Let’s just take demographics and hiring for one example, we all know that, in order to change the demographics more quickly and not just leave things to chance but really true up the representation and employees to look like the world, we have to take some pretty strong action. But I always get the pushback of, “Well, are you telling me I have to preference this? I have to, in a way, address the unequal playing field with particular actions?” And my answer is like, “Well, yes.” If we want to see change, we have to make this a priority. And it may not feel like it’s a meritocracy related action, but regardless, we have to make some bold moves to change what needs to change but I just feel like this meritocracy thing is so anathema to people.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: So, I wonder if you tackle that and what you think the best way to contextualize that is.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: What I’m finding is just explaining how it’s not a meritocracy. So, I have 10 chapters of how much extra work there is for women of color, what happens around micro aggressions, how much we code switch. So, I think, really, part one is explaining it. But I also think the challenge with the meritocracy argument is that it suggests if we all just work hard, we’re going to get to the same place and it really ignores all the other things that show up. So, even when I was leaving my career, I was not a young person anymore and I can’t tell you, almost on a daily basis, how I’d be asked, “Are you the leader?” Or, “Did you just graduate from college?”, because I looked young and that’s a simple thing but it really undermines my authority and my credibility and that wasn’t happening to my White male peers who were leaders, just as a small example.

And so, I think it’s really understanding what those nuances are and then appreciating that. It’s almost like the same conversation, Jennifer, about quotas. I have a lot of strong feelings about that and I used to really fight it because I think the challenge is you end up in a situation where, then, women of color sitting in the seat and people question how she got there and if she’s deserving and all the things that come with that that I’ve argued for many years.

At the same time, to your point, we’re in a moment where nothing has worked and we need drastic action because it’s taking so long. So, I’ve gotten to the place where I’m okay with it. I’ve gotten to the place where I’m not asking for unfair or extra, I’m just saying it’s not equal to start with so let’s talk about that and let’s do some things that get us to a level playing field because that’s the problem. It’s not in the first place.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right, that’s right. How do you advise, it may be in your book, for women of color showing up in a system not built by and for them, which is the most elegant way it can be put.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: Agitating in the system but balancing that need to assimilate at the same time and trying to thread that needle, so to speak.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: What is your advice? Because I struggle with that if you make a lot of noise, if you push, if you demand, if you show and share and you’re a very vocal person, there’s the penalties that we still incur if the system is not ready receive us showing up in our most empowered way-

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Absolutely.

JENNIFER BROWN: … and then we lose opportunities. And you could argue, well, that is an opportunity you don’t need.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yup.

JENNIFER BROWN: That you need to find a different situation but that’s the privilege. To be able to switch up your life to have the economic freedom to be able to do that. So, what do you advise and, I guess thinking about your younger self, I’m curious, what do you wish you would have done differently knowing what you know now in terms of navigating that system for 20 years?

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yeah, so many mini questions in that one question. I think the first thing is that I don’t tell women to just be their full selves in all occasions, I think that’s really dangerous feedback. What I am saying, though, is that every choice and how you show up is a choice and to be smart about it and to read your culture and really understand what’s possible where you are because not all cultures are created equally. But that every choice is part of your agency and I think what I’m really trying to talk about is the structure was not made by us, was not made for us, frankly, doesn’t even want us there some times and that’s the other part of it.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, yup.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: But that it takes power from us with unsaid things and with said things and that we have to find ways to get our power back and part of that is deciding when and where and how you show up. And again, it may not be possible everywhere but it is possible in some places and, without that conscious choice making, I think we default to we can’t be ourselves at all. And I’m seeing that starting to evolve but I still think that’s the default. I think I tell my younger self, I was always bold, I was always saying my own thing. I think it’s part of why I got ahead because I was that odd duck that [inaudible 00:17:59] because I went to grad school, I wasn’t an MBA. I didn’t think I’d be there forever so I wasn’t wedded to my career path, I really wanted to make change.

And so, I was always bold but I think the bigger issue for me is I’m not sure I always knew when I was conforming or editing myself and that’s really where, I think, the power and the work is and what I’m really talking about. We get so many messages as little girls of color that we’re not the ones that are powerful, we’re not going to be the leaders and it’s almost rewriting those messages that we know that we can and then we get to choose when we want to. I call it play the game while we change the game and, unfortunately, I think we have to do a little bit of both.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. We’re demanding a seat at the table but what we’re bringing to that table is so needed and so overdue and so necessary. We have so much to contribute and we felt like navigating that, I think it teaches us a lot to navigate-

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Absolutely.

JENNIFER BROWN: … and differentiate between the messages we’ve gotten and we’ve internalized and what our truth is and then, ideally, we all find a system in which we can be really aligned. And that’s my hope but we’re a little ways away from that.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: You talk about imposter syndrome in the book and it’s so fascinating related to this. The internalization of that we’re not enough or that we can’t be our full selves or we can’t be most empowered. And you say it’s changing and I’m curious what you mean. How is it changing? Why is it changing? And for those of us that still get attacks of it, and I’m curious if it shows up for you here and there still, I know it does for me in different forms. But first question is how is it changing? And second, do you still cope with it? How does it show up? Even with your level of experience or mine, I think there’s still these moments and we have to be very disciplined. Like you just said, perceiving it is half the battle.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Absolutely.

JENNIFER BROWN: When it happens to name it is so 50% and then we can make a different choice. But anyway, how’s it changing, first of all?

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: I think it’s changing because more of us are talking about it. Again, similar to what I shared before, I think once you understand the system and the messages we get define some of how we interpret how we show up, then we’re able to change it. Until then, we internalize so many things. So, for me, part of writing this book was showing other women of color they’re not alone. What happened to me is, once I got into really stressful situations, I would think it was all me. What did I just do? What did I do to create that? Why am I being so sensitive?

It was like every aspect of it would drag on for days and weeks, if not months, and I would be psychoanalyzing myself. And part of what I want women of color realize is some of these things are patterns, some of these things are things that happen to almost every woman of color I interviewed, so I interviewed over 500 women of color. And once you realize it’s a pattern and it’s not you, there’s freedom and there’s power in that. So, I think that’s part of it, it’s the first part, realizing what’s yours and giving back the rest and that’s such an important and hard thing to do.

I think for me, yes, it still shows up. There’s moments of this, there’s huge moments of it in this book process. So, I wrote something-

JENNIFER BROWN: Yup.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: … it’s the first time I’ve done something totally in my own voice without Deloitte’s backing or thoughts on it and, yeah, are people going to like it? Does it matter if people like it? Does it matter if people buy it? All of those things and I’ve gotten to a place where I’m really trying to reprogram the external validation and I think that’s really hard, especially for women of color because most of the external validation we got growing up was that we weren’t enough, that we weren’t all the things. And so, it’s really active work to reprogram and I call it shedding and carrying. That we have to shed messages that don’t serve us to carry forward new messages that do but it’s hard work.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s beautiful. I love that. Shedding and carrying?

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Is that what you said?

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Love it, love it. The shedding is so important. I love that you shared that you had attacks of who am I to write this book? What is my unique message? And I wonder what was the process like? Were you the kind of writer that looked out into the field and said like, “What’s going to mean my unique take?” Or was it to write from your intrinsic wisdom and you went inward for that? How did you decide what made it into the pages and what your focus would be?

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: I think it was very different than I thought it would be when I first started because I’ve never written a book before and I thought I was going to get a lot of help. In the end, I wrote the book myself without outside assistance in anything other than an editor and so that was a huge difference from what I thought it would be like. And I think a lot of my process was I would interview women and there would be a line, it would be so clear to me that’s going in the book in some form or fashion. I also had kept so many messages to myself over the years in one or two line emails and so I had a lot of nuggets that were not necessarily threaded together.

And so, my process was almost taking those nuggets and threading them together. The messages I’d given myself, my own pep talks over the 20 years and tying them together. And I have to say, there was a little bit of divine intervention, I feel like, because whenever I needed something, something would show up. The right person would show up, the right expert would show up, it felt magical. So, there’s something about the process that felt really special and, if I could create that in my next book, I would love to. But yeah, it was a little bit of knowing what I wanted to say but also the right things showing up.

But I’ll also say, Jennifer, it was a process. Especially as an Indian woman, I struggled with even terms like women of color when I started. I think I’m much more comfortable now and we’ve, I think, covered a lot of ground in the last few years on vocabulary and definitions. But when I started writing this almost two years ago, terms were still being defined and I didn’t know if I had permission to talk about this and how it would be received. It’s been a lot of, again, I just have to write what I know is my truth and what I heard from the women of color I interviewed and, if it lands for some people, that’s wonderful and there’s many other authors who are also writing and maybe they’ll land for other people.

But for me, it was also important to bring an Indian woman’s voice to this, someone who was in corporate and still had 20 more years left and chose to leave. And even a little bit of the immigrant experience because so many of the women that I know and in my community are immigrants and that experience isn’t really talked about as a woman of color and the extra that comes with that. So, there’s a little bit more in this book that, I think, touches on things I’ve never seen before but I think are also lost in the dialogue right now.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love that, thank you. I’m so excited for our audience to pick it up. Did anything feel really risky for you to write in the pages? I know for me, I was like, “How hard do I push?”, when I’m writing. It’s not censoring but it’s definitely like I never want to lose my audience. I want to be, maybe, firm and very clear and very direct but I also, I write, as you know in my writing, I want that person that’s sitting on the sidelines with this topic to really step in and I know that that’s really fraught.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yup, yup.

JENNIFER BROWN: And so, I’m trying to meet them where they’re at but I could be very provocative or less provocative so I’m constantly threading this needle. I wonder, yeah, if there’s anything in there that felt very risky to include or perhaps what you decided, “Hmm, I’m not sure we’re ready to talk about that,” or something that maybe you got some advice around that was like, “Mmm, I wouldn’t go there yet or people aren’t ready.” What are we not ready to ready?

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yeah, you know what’s interesting? I don’t know that I feel that way because I think so much … maybe where the book was a year and a half ago is very different than where it ended up. I also think I went there primarily because I felt like I had to. The more women of color I met and I saw the patterns, it just felt really important. I really tried to thread as many stories as I could, so it’s not just my story. My story is weaved throughout but there are probably more women highlighted in this book than are in most because I wanted to show the expansive nature of what it means to be a woman of color.

I wanted to show the patterns but I also wanted to just show the uniqueness of being a Black woman in the Midwest versus an immigrant woman in the South. And so, really trying to tell enough stories in different industries and what that looks like and at different tenures of one’s career. So, what some of the early feedback I’ve gotten is that there’s so many stories, that the breath of stories is almost shocking because there’s no denying the experience when you see that many stories.

JENNIFER BROWN: Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative).

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: So, I think that was one. I think the other is I wasn’t sure how far I would go on my critique of capitalism or my critique of power and I went there. So, more than just the women of color experience, I’m asking some really big questions about work and about the structure overall that I’ve not seen all put together in one book. And so, it is the stories but it’s asking us bigger questions about the world we want to be in and the problems we’re facing today and what we’re willing to do to undo where we are and what that’s really going to take.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my goodness. So, give us one of those really big ideas and predictions. Or, what is your sense about what really, really needs to change around power?

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: Who has it? How do we use it? How do we share it? I’m sure you go deeply into that, but-

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: … what is your vision for how that needs to change?

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: I think it also so much so touches on the work I do with Rah and nFormation. We just had a TED Talk come out just a few weeks ago and one of the lines in the TED Talk is that we’re all competing for the seat. And one of the biggest findings from my book that turned into the research we did with Billie Jean King and then turned into the TED Talk was this feedback I got from women who said we don’t show up for each other. So, whether it’s White women not showing up for women of color or women of color not showing up for each other across ethnicities, races or even within our own.

And so, that really was surprising, it really took me in a different direction but it also made me want to talk about things in a different way. So, for example, this idea that the model itself creates scarcity, the model itself makes us compete and is that competition really helping us? And I think one of the biggest challenge, and you alluded to this in the beginning, is that we’re in a model where I think a lot of White men, in particular, who sit in the seats are worried that, by women of color maybe gaining an opportunity taking from them.

And so, part of the whole discussion here is I don’t think work is working for anybody. Yes, I wrote the book for women of color but you could find and replace some of the experiences with White men who were of my age group and who were trying to figure out how do I spend time with my kids? How do I spend time with my significant other? Work has not been set up that way. And so, I think that it’s this real question of the structure itself and how it’s not working for anyone but we’ve been blinded to that, we’ve never really questioned what is success and what does power look like and can it be done differently. And some of what I heard from the women of color and my own thinking is it can be, but it’s going to be very different than what it looks like right now.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. Yeah, I think the willingness to realize that power isn’t finite, right?

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s not a binary but it is something that can be multiplied through the sharing of it.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Correct.

JENNIFER BROWN: That is fundamentally what we need to believe and how we lead people to that conclusion and support it will be the name of the game, I think, because this whole scarcity thing is frustrating on multiple levels. Yeah, I think it’s fundamental to people in leadership sharing privileges and opening the doors that that privilege can open is heart of what needs to happen in order to pull up talent that’s been missing from the equation and it has to work together in these systems. And it’s a good segue to talk about nFormation because this community of women of color you’ve gathered and you spent this time with and pulled together and convened and given a safe space to, I’m sure it’s very emotional, I’m sure that it’s just a life-changing experience to be in a community that is dedicated to this conversation and I wanted to hear what is it like. What is occurring-

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yeah, absolutely.

JENNIFER BROWN: … in those cohorts? And describe a little bit about it because I think some of our listeners may really want to get involved, too.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yeah, it’s interesting. So, I think there’s a lot of women’s organizations right now but I would say that there’s very few that are focused on women of color and especially women of color who are mid-career plus and that’s where we’re focused right now. And what I see and hear is that, again, similar to the dinners, we have shared experience. So, just by holding the space, women show up and there’s opportunity to get to a conversation that sometimes would take six months in another community, I think that’s been the most fascinating. Women will just show up and they’re integrated in one meeting and they’re sharing in a way that they’ve said they’ve never shared before because it does feel like we all understand.

There’s a shorthand that happens when you’re talking about these issues as a group of women of color. We’ve also found that, within just the first quarter that we were in existence, almost 25% of the members either ask for more money, a bigger job or left their job as a result of just being in community and it’s not anything magical that Rah and I are doing, it’s really that they’re seeing each other and they’re feeling like, “You know what? If it’s happening to you, I’m going to ask for more because it’s not me.” It’s back to it’s not me.

And so, I think it’s this idea of, we call it power of me and power of we and I talk about it in the book as well, you need to find your own power but there’s a lot of power in shared community and spaces like this and it helps us all change the structure because structure change can’t happen as you and I as individuals, that happens by us being in community and doing it together.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right, that’s right. Let’s take on women for a minute.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

JENNIFER BROWN: What can White women do? What has your research shown that White women can do as the aspiring ally and where do we get tripped up in terms of we think we’re being supportive but it’s actually not the kind of support that’s really going to make a difference?

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: I feel that there’s this misunderstanding of how to activate allyship amongst women of different identities. I want to hear more about what you’ve learned and what do you advise?

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Absolutely. I think the biggest, shocking, one of the most shocking stats in the research and it’s actually in the TED Talk, we say it more than once, is that we polled women and 91% of the White women said they wanted to be better allies or co-conspirators, that’s the language we used in the paper. But what we found is only 9% actually were. So, 91 versus nine. So, there’s a real gap between thinking you want to do something and actually doing it. And I think, to be fair, that has a lot to do with that whole competition and scarcity model in the corporate structure itself but I also tell, Jennifer, I tell people it doesn’t have to be these grand, big gestures, I think it’s just realizing in the moment that it’s your responsibility too.

So, if you see something inappropriate, say something if you can make a change. Someone is being dubbed too ambitious or too aggressive and it doesn’t seem right, ask the question why. Would we look at Bill and say the same thing? I think it’s just using your voice in a very active way and realizing that we can all be bystanders or we can just ask the questions that I think we know in our guts but we haven’t been trained to really ask because we assume someone else and the structure will correct itself but we’re realizing it’s not going to.

JENNIFER BROWN: No, it’s not going to. I tell that story about the Microsoft CEO who was on stage at the Grace Hopper Conference and he’s asked about why it’s so hard to ask for raises as women in tech and he’s like, “If you just wait for karma to take care of you, it will reward you,” and I [inaudible 00:33:51]. I mean, it’s shockwaves that went out from that.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Waiting for the system to do the right thing, I think we’ve been fooled by that and we do have to take matters into our own hands but we need the partnership of allies. As an LGBTQ person, the straight allies in my life, really, stepped up and still do and offer to support or talk to somebody or advocate.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yup.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s incredible to be in that kind of relationship where it’s so symbiotic and mutually beneficial, I hope, and it’s really the way that it should work. But in order to achieve that, especially for White women, the scarcity model has to change in our mindset and then we have to check our intent versus our impact and I think that’s what this research speaks to is I can want to be a good person, I can claim ally. But the thing is, we’re only an ally if somebody in the affected community calls us an ally.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: And so, that’s impact.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: And I tell people check your impact, investigate that and say, “Did I actually make the difference or the impact that I wanted to?”, according to him, and then what would I have done differently and who defined the impact? I even think sometimes we get into all of our ally feels and think we know what is going to make the most difference and often we’re wrong, often we’re wrong.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: I think that’s right. I think there’s so much of the time that we also just think if we believe the right things, then we’re an ally.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Oh, yeah.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Right? I mean, ally is about taking action as well. You can’t be an ally if you’re not willing to take action and I think that’s maybe what the report was also getting at and the conversations that we need to have more of. What does it mean to actually take action and what does that look like? Because it doesn’t, again, have to be those scary, big things. I would like some of that too, but it’s also small things and how do we practice. One of the most amazing things is I’m telling women of color just to practice. Practice what you’re going to say when a micro aggression happens or a racist incident happens, practice what’s going to happen in this.

And so, it’s very much like just know what you’re going to do because it’s there. Even today, I get flat footed sometimes when I’m caught in that situation because they’re emotional. But the same is true of allies, practice that you’re going to say because I guarantee you will be the bystander to one of these events. And so, know what you’re going to say when someone says something inappropriate or someone is picking on someone or someone is not giving space to a woman of color and that’s what we all need to do and it doesn’t just fall on women of color to do that homework.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, yeah. I love that. I think language, it can be such a barrier and yet such an opening if you know how to approach a conversation and you do it with grace and kindness but firmness.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: But it does take some stumbles before you develop, I think, the competency of doing it.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Absolutely.

JENNIFER BROWN: And so, a lot of my messages, you got to jump in and try, but also, I would even acknowledge that it’s going to come out imperfectly, it is a new conversation to be having and I would acknowledge it up front. I think that helps contextualize our efforts. And when managers say, “I just don’t know how to broach this topic or begin a conversation about this on my team,” I say, “You just said it. Go into that conversation and say, ‘I’m unsure how to proceed but this is something that’s important to me and I may not have the right language but I’d like to express this, I’d like to say what it means to me.'”

And I think if we help people see our own learning process and where we are, there’s a lot more appreciation and maybe even patience and grace for our stumbles and our awkwardness until we develop that language. But it can be, boy, speaking up can be really tricky. I would love to hear your advice around micro aggressions because I get that question a lot too and what are some tips for addressing those that you have seen being most effective?

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yeah, I think it comes down to practice. I talk about three in particular in the book but one is where often women are called by the wrong name because they’re just confused. Three Asian women in a company and they’re all being confused even if one is Chinese, one is Japanese and one is Indian, sometimes just completely confused but they were all called Maggie. And I talked about an example in the book and one of the things that the women who told me the story, because that was actually one of the most common stories I heard.

JENNIFER BROWN: Wow.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: What they would do is two of these women sat next to each other in an executive meeting, even though they worked with the executive for, I think, more than seven years and they made it a point to point out that they were actually two different people and he had to acknowledge their name. Another woman said that the first time she’ll pull someone aside and explain what happened, the second time she might actually do it in a public setting and just stop the meeting to point it out. Again, to your point, in a, I don’t want to say nice, but in a thoughtful way. So, with grace, let’s use that language because nice, I think, is overrated.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: But then the third time, she said she just embarrasses the person in public because she’s tried all the other tactics and sometimes it takes that. So, again, it’s this idea of practicing what you’re going to do and say in the moment, getting creative, talking to others in the company to think about how you can write a situation that’s uncomfortable but also addressing it in the moment if you’re comfortable enough to do so. And so, I love those examples because they’re funny but they’re also where women were basically saying, “It’s enough, I’m not going to take anymore and here’s what I’m going to do.”

JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. You know what you just described as a progression, I think, from the call in to the call out.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right?

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: And the call in is the firm and, I don’t know, kind may be a better word than nice, but yeah, that invitation to a conversation to learning and then the second, you up the ante the next time it happens, and then you really up the ante if you’re just not being heard and, hopefully, we have to pull that out very rarely but I think sometimes, maybe, that’s the only language that somebody listens to. But anyway, I think in the business setting, the call in is great though because I would hope, and tell me if you agree with this, but many people will hear and appreciate the call in and successfully make the adjustment after one conversation.

Many, maybe I won’t say most. I’d like to believe that at least two tries will capture most people. But yeah, it’s like [inaudible 00:40:25], like misgendering even though you’ve been told and even though you’ve had a conversation with somebody, that habit has not quite been developed yet. And so, sometimes, as I’m developing that habit and trying to be better because it’s true, as a cisgender woman, this is something I practice but I call myself out almost to say, “I did that again, I’m sorry and I’m aware and let me correct that, let me correct that now.”

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yup.

JENNIFER BROWN: And then I try to explain, also, what my process is for learning and how I’m trying to hold myself accountable. So, I describe again my learning process and I hope, in doing that, it gives some permission for others to talk about their learning process too and also teaches people at the same time that we’re not going to get it perfect but it is almost how we process not getting it perfect because not getting perfect is going to be a reality.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: I think it’s how we make that path visible and handle it with humility and publicly, in a way, like calling ourselves out.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: I completely agree. I love that because I think what you’re also modeling is vulnerability and openness and your own story in that. I also think, the word I use is permission, we have to give more leaders and more allies and even more women of color who don’t always get it right in these situations but more permission to get it wrong but it’s more important that we try. I would hate for people to not try because they’re afraid of getting it wrong and, unfortunately, I think that’s a lot of what is happening in corporate America. People are so afraid, especially leaders at the top, of getting it wrong because there’s backlash to that. But I think it’s more dangerous to not try because then we’re not even able to make forward progress.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right, that’s right. We’ve got to try in order to learn.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Correct.

JENNIFER BROWN: There’s no way around it. Speaking of those leaders, so you’re creating nFormation as this wonderful incubator and space for women to show up and perhaps make different choices to realize they’re not happy or to negotiate for something better. Have you heard some amazing stories of sponsors of these women, people in senior leadership who really have supported their growth trajectory? What is the thing that leaders do that enables women of color to feel really supported? If you could say do this all the time, think about this or take this action or support in this way, what would that advice be?

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: I think most of it is just making space for the stories to be heard. It’s not finishing the sentence or trying to solve for everything which I think a lot of leaders try to do, but really understanding what the lived experience is like and creating space so that can be part of the dialogue because it’s not been historically. I tell a story where I was matched with a senior White male partner for almost a year and a program where we shared about our lives and he became one of my biggest sponsors. During the first meeting, I think we both looked at each other and we thought we had nothing in common but we shared imposter syndrome, we shared insecurities, we shared some of the growing up challenges of being in spaces where neither of us grew up with a ton of money and so it was really interesting.

And so, I think it’s that we don’t share those stories, we don’t talk about what that looks like because, even in those stories, there’s opportunities for shared kindredness and crossover that we don’t get to talk about because those things aren’t historically things we brought to the workplace, we didn’t talk about that. And so, part of it is, I just think, creating space where we can connect as human beings, where we can understand where we’re coming from even if you can’t fully appreciate my story, there’s space and there’s interest in learning about it.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so beautiful. I love that. And just that unlikely connection and can kindredness …

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: … we, I think, have to be very cautious about othering. When we look at them we think we know their story-

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yeah, yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: … and we are never right.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Very seldom.

JENNIFER BROWN: And it translates too to privileges that, I think, we all have access to.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: They’re different but we have … You worked for Deloitte for 20 years and the things that you understand and the things that you saw and what you can talk about now, it gives you an intelligence and a wisdom that, I think, sets you apart. And when we think about privileges more broadly defined, it’s intriguing and I think it feels empowering and I think it levels the power differential, too, because the question to me now is who really has the power? If we just define it as those at the top of the org chart, fine, but that’s one version. I think there is a lot of power in the upcoming generation of talent.

The power to demand to be heard, to bring our full selves to work in a way that has been unprecedented. I think younger people are coming in and not willing to tolerate certain cultures and micro aggressions or macro aggressions or equity issues and they have the power of, I think, facility with the language of equity and diversity and inclusion. They understand what a culture of belonging should look like and feel like and sound like. And I think that leaders are at a real disadvantage because they only know one workplace that they have grown up in and succeeded in and, oftentimes, it has been created for some of us too to succeed in.

So, if we just broaden our definition of power and turn it on its side and flip it to the horizontal, or maybe even flip it upside down and talk about reverse mentoring which I love the concept of, thinking about if power is knowledge and cultural competency, who possesses that? Who can see into the future of what the work relationship is going to need to look like? And I think some of us, generationally and identity wise, we’re very limited in terms of what we can envision but that vision is coming through loud and clear, I think, in communities like nFormation, for example, and other communities particularly underrepresented identities. There’s so much guidance for the future. If we can figure out how to tune in to that lived experience like you just said, not just make room for it, but elevate it so that we are at the table shaping what’s next then it’s going to be more representative of us and that’s been really the missing piece and I’m sure that’s what you want to create.

In our last couple minutes, what do you hope the legacy of this book is in the world? Who do you want it to really support and shine a light on and energize for the road ahead?

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yeah, I love the segue because I think it’s perfect. I want the book to speak to women of color. I think I shared what’s interesting to me is a lot of White leaders are picking it up and asking different questions which is amazing, unexpected because I really wrote it for women of color but I do think everyone needs to see it. I also think my message, to your point, there’s a lot about philosophical discussions on power and who has it, what does it traditionally look like and how do we redefine it. But I think what I’m also saying is that women of color in particular, we have a ton of power because of our lived experience, because we know how to talk about these issues, cultural competency and other things.

And so, it’s not so much give us an opportunity, I think it’s get out of our way because the workforce of the future is more diverse, it is going to require these things, it’s going to require talking and tackling the biggest entrenched issues of our day and time and I believe women of color are well positioned, if not the best position, to answer those kinds of questions and so, it is a message of empowerment. It’s a little bit of we have to believe that we can and then we have to just do because we have that ability.

JENNIFER BROWN: And some of us need to get out of the way.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yeah, that’s it.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you so much. This is wonderful. The book is called The First, The Few, The Only. Deepa, thank you. Best of luck with the launch. And Will to Changers, please support the book and support Deepa, watch the TED Talk. We’ve shared about Rah and Deepa’s talk in our social media bunch but please look it up, give it a listen and nFormation, too. Where can people get information about getting involved in that?

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Yes, the letter N, the number two and then formation.com but it’s also on my website. So, if people find it easier, just go to deepapuru.com, everything is linked there as well.

JENNIFER BROWN: Wonderful. Thank you so much for joining me today, Deepa, and I’m rooting for you. This is needed and it just is an incredible read. So, thank you for writing it and doing all of that labor to get it out into the world.

DEEPA PURUSHOTHAMAN: Thank you for all your support. I so appreciate it.

JENNIFER BROWN: Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at jenniferbrownspeaks.com? You can also subscribe so that you get notified every time a new episode goes live. Head over there now to read my latest thoughts on diversity, inclusion and the future of work and discover how we can all be champions of change by bringing our collective voices together and standing up for ourselves and each other.

DOUG FORESTA: You’ve been listening to the Will to Change, uncovering true stories of diversity and inclusion with Jennifer Brown. If you’ve enjoyed the episode, please subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. To learn more about Jennifer Brown, visit jenniferbrownspeaks.com. Thank you for listening and we’ll be back next time with a new episode.