Join Change Catalyst Founder & CEO Melinda Briana Epler with Deepa Purushothaman and Rha Goddess, co-founders at nFORMATION on how to support women of color as leaders in the workplace.
We talked about
- The future of work and what managers can do to become real allies for WOC
- The new mobile app for women of color that nFORMATION is launching to support the community
- How to address systemic oppression and create a safe space for WOC to bring their full self to work and lead in the workplace.
- How the concept of power might differ for WOC and how it can benefit everyone in the workplace
Learn more about Deepa & Rha’s work at www.n2formation.com/index.html
Rha Goddess and Deepa Purushothaman were brought together over 5 years ago. Deepa was a “first” Senior Partner at a Big 4. Rha left corporate America and the chemical industry as an “only” two decades ago to focus on helping leaders find their passion, purpose and calling. Deepa has spent years focusing on women’s leadership and inclusion strategies to help women of color navigate corporate structures. Rha has helped hundreds of high impact leaders realize they can work in ways that honor their values and uplift new definitions of power, profitability and success.
Together, they have discovered that there is a collective untapped power that WOC have yet to harness and leverage, so they came together to create nFormation, a first of its kind membership community for professional women of color offering brave, safe, new space and career advancement opportunities.
Melinda: We can’t hear you. But I read your lips.
>> I’m doing good. It’s a good week, yes.
Melinda: Good to see you again.
>> Good to be here.
Melinda: It’s a little bit loud. If you can turn it down. Awesome. Thank you.
Melinda: Hello with everyone. Happy Tuesday. As folks are joining, I am just gonna describe the slides for anybody who is blind or has low vision or is on the phone and can’t see them. So, this is our video and live — live video and podcast series, Leading with Empathy and Allyship, ChangeCatalyst.co/allyship series. And aces from the guests. This is episode 30, a conversation with Deepa and Rha. And their handles are @deepas_thoughts and @rhagodess. This is by Change Catalyst, ChangeCatalyst.co. And interpreter now, www.interpreter-now.com. Kalina Anderson is with us here today. And we have a code of conduct, be kind, practice radical inclusion. And we do not tolerate harassment. And you can find out more. And the next episode on December 15th is with Kate Johnson, President of Microsoft US on the importance of empathy, courage and proximity in leadership. She’s a white woman on stage with a black leather jacket and black pants waving to a crowd. The podcast is available now on our most — most podcast platforms. All right. Okay. So, we will take the slides down. And in the meantime, everyone, if you all would just say hello in the chat. Let us nowhere you’re tuning in from, love to know where you are and what you’re up to too. If you tell us what you’re working on. Who are you? And… yeah. Just say hello. Say hello, y’all. Don’t be shy. And in the meantime, I am going to kick us off. So, welcome, everyone, to Leading with Empathy and Allyship. A live event and podcast series. I’m your host, Melinda Briana Epler, the founder and CEO of Change Catalyst. We build inclusive innovation through training, consulting and events. So, in the series, we go deep, we get real, we build empathy and explore tangible, actionable steps to be better allies and better advocates for each other. Today we’re speaking with Rha Goddess and Deepa Purushothaman about supporting women of color in leadership. Welcome, Deepa, welcome, Rha. Excited to have you here.
Rha: Thank you so much, Melinda, for having us.
Melinda: Yeah, absolutely. Love to see you. I’m gonna jump into a few logistics and then we’ll hop into our conversation. And hello to Rosanne, Mary and Andrew and Polly and Liz. Hey, good to see you. Liz is an old friend of mine from Seattle. Good to see you all. Thanks for introducing yourself. And keep going, keep using the chat. I would love to hear what you’re thinking about, what your ah-ha moments are. And Liz says, I got to see Rha Goddess in her conversation with Tiffany Dufu a couple weeks ago and am excited for more. Awesome. Cool. So, on screen we have an ASL interpreter, Kalina Anderson. Our interpreters are sponsored by Interpreter Now, a deaf-owned company. We love them. So, if you’re interested in using interpreters, they’re a great company, happy to connect you. We also are being live captioned by Amanda at White Coat Captioning. So, down at the bottom of your screen, if you want to use captioning, go to closed caption. You can change the settings there if you’d like. And to use — yeah. Use the Q&A function. If you have specific questions for us, we’ll definitely spend some time toward the end with — to answer questions. So, if you have questions for us, use the Q&A function so it’s easy for us to find. But otherwise, chat away. So, and I’m just looking at all of your — your introductions. Danielle. Jenna, I’m not sure if I’m pronouncing your name right. Polly, Tanushree. Good to see you all. Welcome. So, let’s dive in. So, could you both tell me — tell us a bit about your stories? How you came to do the work that you’re doing? And why is it important to you I think is another piece of that. Maybe end with that. Rha, why don’t we start with you?
Rha: So, I had the privilege of meeting Deepa through a beloved friend and colleague in the work, Claudia Chan, who is the founder of She Summit and She Global Media. And Claudia has been doing work around gender parity in the context of the corporate space and inclusion. And Claude was doing work with Deloitte and raving about a new leader. I would love you to support me in the context of her visioning. sort of what is the future. Within the context of her role. So, we had the opportunity to come together for a full day training. And I think I was 5 minutes into the conversation. I feel like, Melinda, she walked into the room and I was like, so, who is that soul?
Melinda: Nice, nice.
Rha: And our whole kind of premise of being there was really she was interested in having people push her thinking. You know? Really serious about the vision and the opportunity to take what had been a really successful initiative to the next level. And so, that was how we — how we met. And again, I was really struck by the sincerity and the commitment to really wanting to not only sort of create new language, but the real opportunity to kind of walk the talk. And what would it really look like to walk the talk in the context of innovation? And so — that was how we met.
Melinda: Awesome. And I see, for those who can’t see in the background, Rha has her book on a shelf — on a table. The Calling. Do you want just say a few words about The Calling?
Rha: So, the book is really designed for people who are looking for their purpose. I believe all of us have one. And I know that sometimes, Melinda, people can experience purpose anxiety. Right? And have lots of reasons, you know, one day I’ll get to my purpose or, you know? And the book is really designed to help people step-by-step really not only discover what’s important to them, but to discover what are those aspects or parts of themselves that maybe they haven’t had the opportunity to express in a way that would make all the difference in the context of who they are and what it is that they’re here to do in the world. That’s what the book is all about.
Melinda: And it sounds like information that’s kind of taking that and moving it into another platform. Deepa, do you want to talk a little bit about information and also, you know, your own story would be great too.
Deepa: Sure. Thank you again. Yeah. So, as Rha said, we met — it was instantaneous. We knew we had to work together. And her book is actually a lot of what we spent five years working on. So, I think I was — I was a senior executive. I was the first partner of Indian descent to make that level. I was asking questions about purpose. I was asking questions about what my leadership looked like. I was looking around, had an amazing career at that point, been at the firm for 16 years, loving, a leader and loving what I did. But I was asking what else? And my path was different. I was the first Indian female partner. And didn’t see a lot of women of color executives in general in industry. And so, I was asking different questions. And so, I tapped her on the shoulder after the meeting and said, would you consider coaching me? And we began a 5-year coaching career program discussion. And here we are 5 years later. And I think through these discussions and through my own work, as Rha said, I was not only a partner in the firm with responsibilities with clients, but I also had a large inclusion role. I was responsible for a women’s initiative for a hundred thousand person organization. And asking the questions, what does this mean? In those discussions and my analysis, I started asking questions about women of color. And my 5-year soul searching with Rha, what does leadership look like? Is it different for different groups? Especially for women of color. nFormation was born out of the discussions. Born out of discussions we’ve both had with female leaders, women of color leaders who I think are just questioning the things they’ve had to compromise on, the things they’ve had to conform around. How they show up in the work place and if it’s different. And I would honestly say, Melinda, it’s interesting. Prior to June,s conversations were very different than we have now. We can have very different discussions than we had in the work place. That wasn’t even a term we could use before, you know, without a lot of explanation. And so, information, even though, you know, some of the ideas came prior to the summer is really this safe space. It’s an app for senior women of color to come together and find community, to find safe space, brave space and new space, we say. Safe space in finding one another. I think a lot of us find ourselves isolated. We used term “The first, the fews and the onlies requests. We’re one of the first in the organization or the families to work outside of the home. We’re one of the only people in our departments, in our groups at the C-Suite level. And one of the fews in our departments. And so, that idea of safe space for the community to come together and talk is where we started. New space because right now it feels like there’s new conversations happening that need to happen for women of color. And brave space because I think a lot of what’s being put on women of color, especially in the work place, is what needs to involve? How does inclusion change? Help educate not only the organization, but allies. We wanted to lean on each other and have discussions about what does that look like for us? Is our leadership different? Is now the time to push for structural change and what does that look like? We’ve developed this app and the community. We are fully launching at the end of January. We are in wait list format. Hundreds have women have signed up and there’s excitement and craving for this. It’s an exciting time to be launching something like this.
Melinda: Awesome. Yeah. It’s fascinating how things have changed since June. And, you know, I — I just turned in my manuscript for my first book on allyship. And how to be an ally. And, yay! I know —
Rha: Yes! Yes!
Melinda: Last night at midnight. So, I love your new background in the chat. This is not my home. I went away and just kind of give myself a little writer’s retreat. And I will say that when I was — I had to rewrite a lot of chapters because I could go deeper than I could have before too. To really go to some systemic inequities and systemic) and say words in the book that I wouldn’t have said or at least wouldn’t have said so deeply. So, it is — is a new opportunity. It’s not the way anybody would have wanted it to happen. And it’s good that there is this new awakening.
Melinda: So, can we talk a little bit about terminology? What do you mean when you say “Women of color” and why did you choose women of color? There are a lot of groups and there’s a lot of kind of discussion around — around that terminology.
Rha: Yeah. Maybe I’ll start, Deepa, and you can dive in if you want. Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, we believe and really put forth that this is a self-identifying opportunity. And I think that that’s really important, Melinda. Because the conversation of identity, as you know, I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, is so complex. Especially in this country. Because we live in a country that historical life has allocated, you know, rank and file, dare I say, to certain types of identities. And there are lots of ways in which we can find ourselves on either the plus or the minus side of that. And so, the first thing I would say is that we really hold open the space for women who are self-identifying as women of color. We see it as daisporic. And what you are alluding to, there’s quite a bit of discourse about Black women and the terminology of women of color being associated to Black women. And the desire for Black women to be articulated and seen and represented as Black women, right? I think that that’s incredibly important. And I will say that we — in all of the conversations that we have been having and the discussions and some of the ways that we have been gathering women individually and collectively over the years, that there’s also something very powerful when women identified as — or self-identifying as women of color come together and have larger conversations about the range and the depth and the breadth of their experiences. Also, we recognized and Deepa and I have been really been very intentional about this is that women of color across cultural often don’t have a lot of space. Everyone if they work side-by-side in corporations, there are not necessarily a lot of places where they can have the deeper conversations about their own cultural experiences and what they carry into corporations. And what they’ve had to let go of or shed in order to be able to show up in ways that feel in alignment with the culture. For better or for worse. And so, we feel that it is incredibly important to create this space not only because of the shared experiences that women of color are having in corporations, but also because of the different experiences that women of color are having in corporations. And the ways in which we can learn from one another as we go deeper around one another’s experiences.
Deepa: I would just add there, Melinda, we have talked quite a bit, especially in the past month or two. post-election, there’s been a lot of discussion about women of color, BIPOC, Black women as Rha mentioned. I think we are really clear that people’s experiences are different and it is different to walk — Rha and I talk about this all the time — it is different to walk as a Black woman in the United States. We talk about that quite a bit. We recognize that. But I also think from having spent 22 years in a corporate setting that some of the experiences that we face as women of color are shared at least in the work place. There are varying degrees to how that shows up. But the idea there is a majority culture or something that leadership looks like and the rest of us don’t rook like that or don’t feel that we’re part of that group, we have to cater ourselves or conform in certain ways is a real discussion. We’ve really focused on that. I also think it’s important to point out, we’re very much talking about corporate spaces. That is why we have really embraced that term, women of color and we also went back to where it came from. It came from the ’70s. It came from Black women who were part of the women’s feminist movement, looked around, said our experience is really different. And brought in other women of color, well, it seems like your experience is different as well. For us, it’s embracing, it’s a term of power. It’s a way to say the group is really large. I’m writing a book on women of color right now. As I look at the data, data suggests by 2050 we will be the majority of employees or workers in the work place. There is such a power in the number and that’s why we lean to it. Not to neglect anyone’s experience or to peanut butter the experience. Because we appreciate it is not the same. But it is to say that there is power in numbers and what could we really do as a group if we band together and push on that a little?
Rha: Yeah. The other thing that I would add is that we — and again, we know this — is that we are in a society, thank god, where we are embodying multiple cultures in one body. You know? And I think there’s also something about acknowledging the fact that many of us are multicultural in how we identify. And often struggle because we feel like we have to leave some aspect of our identity at the door in order to be able to be embraced and in order to belong. And I think if we’re really talking about innovation and we’re really talking about work place in the future and we’re really talking about the future of leadership, that we also have to acknowledge and recognize that identity is evolving. You know? We must honor history. This is very, very true. And at the same time, we also have to embrace where we’re headed.
Melinda: Yeah. Absolutely. So, Deepa, you kind of touched on this earlier. And maybe we could go a little bit deeper into women of color, particularly we’re talking about leadership. And what are some of the challenges and opportunities both, I think, for women of color in leadership, maybe, coming from your experience? What are some of those detailed pieces that women of color experience in the work place that — or can be barriers and how do we, you know, look at that differently?
Deepa: Yeah, there’s obviously so many. But I’ll just pick on one or two.
Melinda: Yeah, yeah.
Deepa: I think a lot of us is we don’t see ourselves as leaders. As I’m interviewing women, I’m over 400 women interviewed as I do there book. That is quite a large group. I don’t feel like I belong. Does my leadership look like the leadership that’s before me? I will give examples of difference. One example, I was speaking with a C-Suite leader and has since retired and what comes next for the boards and other things. As a woman of color, particularly a Black woman, she felt real responsibility bring issues in the community to her work place. And that’s not necessarily something everyone at her work did. But she felt a really big responsibility. She was at a pharmaceutical company to raise issues of access to hospitals and medical care as a woman of color, as a Black woman, that was very different for her. Again, many issues we can touch on, but I think two or three that are really important are not seeing yourself in leadership. So, questioning if you belong that. And that weighs on you and is a real constant discussion and dialogue. It creates imposter syndrome. It creates confidence issues. I think secondly, the sense of responsibility.
Deepa: I have been given this opportunity. I’m at the table. How do I show up for everyone who is not here? Although that is a wonderful opportunity, there is a lot of burden and weight that women carry as a result of that. Of having to speak. One of the women said, Rha, right, if you remember, I speak for my whole race.
Deepa: I’m in the just speaking at Deepa, I’m speaking for all Indian women. Rha for all Black women. That’s huge. And thirdly, there’s a question of — or some of the things that are intrinsic to who I am and how I show up. There’s a lot of dialogue for Black women around hair style and presentation and clothes. Around Indian women, there’s a lot of discussion around expectations at home and how do I bring the challenges of that duality of what’s expected for me at home to the work place and confidence and assertiveness which are not always prized in some Asian communities or at home. It’s deference and respect. How do you navigate and talk about that when there’s one ideal and one way to succeed and one idea of what success looks like. Those are three examples. But it’s a really complex thing to navigate. And I think the biggest issue I would share is that we don’t talk about those things until very recently. Again, that June pivotal point where discussions of race could finally happen in the work place. I think there wasn’t an open dialogue. But some of these challenges and some of these discussions were happening for women of color. So, as they hit certain obstacles or started to question themselves or maybe even opt out of coming out of the work place. They felt, I don’t have the confidence or I’m not assertive. I don’t have that voice. They couldn’t go anywhere to have those discussions. Again, that is why finding Rha for me was so special. But also why we created nFormation. Some of the thing that is you think are Deepa or Rha? Just about you are not. They are much more systemic and cultural. And you can work on them once you know they’re not really about you. Once the shame is gone with that.
Rha: The thing that I would add to that is also that as a woman of color, often when you enter the work place, you’re automatically working on culture. Whether you have the title or not. And I think there are two sort of factors that feed into it. One, is you do become a place where people come to get educated. Right? And whether there’s permission or not. Right? You just need to — right? That there is that sort of pressure. I also will say that there is a deep concern with how things happen. You know? Traditionally, if question sort of think about power and the way that it operates in an organizational context, it’s all about the results. Right? It’s all about the what. And we find that as we’re talking with women of color and as they’re sharing about their work experiences, there is a real reflection and a real deep concern and desire to also look at the how and the who. So, that as we’re looking at achievement, there’s another aspect of what we value in the mix. Right? As we define culture. So, it’s not just that we’re a results producing culture at any cost, but that actually we’re able to work in ways that feel more honoring. That genuinely feel more inclusive, that genuinely feel more uplifting. And I think to some degree many women of color don’t feel that they can necessarily bring that natural and organic sense of concern into the culture in a way that is valued. They play the roles. But they don’t necessarily when it — whether it comes to evaluation time or it comes compensation time, those are not necessarily the things that are on the list of criteria of what is evaluated when one considers ones’ leadership and the success of ones’ role and contribution. But those things are played all the time and they absolutely contribute to the bottom line. And so, there’s this explicit/implicit conversation that also goes on for my women of color who are operating inside of these, you know, these corporate contexts about what the role really is. You know? And so, I think there’s an opportunity, you know, for us as well to become more forthright about what those expectations are. And where we’re saying, yes and where we’re saying no and where that yes and that no is being heard or not heard, quite frankly.
Melinda: Yeah. And I think it’s — what that role really is and what the role can be, too, right?
Melinda: And we need to make space for different types of leadership. I mean, I will say even as a white woman and as an executive a few years ago, I hit a wall. Where I was in a culture that — where that culture saw leadership in one particular way. It was older white men. Men over 50. And a specific way that they led that was very different from the way I lead. And I was a — a huge that was a huge issue for me, for them, for the culture. And then you add on top of that race and ethnicity and you have a very different — even more of a — of a kind of abrasive experience I think a lot. And so, one of the ways I think that we can address that, and maybe we can talk a little bit more, how we address that in our work place is how to make space for my types of leadership. For new ways of people stepping in and stepping up and stepping forward.
Deepa: Absolutely. We call it room and space. And we’ve written about it a little bit. And, you know, one of the things we’re asking companies and allies to do is to not just invite women of color to the table. So, we’re starting to see in the last few months more women of color taking seats at the table, which is wonderful and we want to encourage that. We don’t want to stop that. We need more. But once they get to the seat, do they have the room to actually use their full voice? Do they have the room to show up, to your point, in their full leadership. Is different from women of color, is different for you as a white woman. It is different. How are companies and allies actually not only encouraging women to show up and take the seat, but actually to show up fully with their voice and are they allowing for those discussions and that dissent? Are they asking, I want to hear more about how your perspective is different. One of the things we didn’t touch on is microaggressions. I’m floored as I talk to all these women about the affect which microaggressions happen and the fact that a lot of corporate cultures, you know, will dismiss them. Like it doesn’t happen often, right? Or only just once or twice or just over there. And I think they’re much more prevalent and to your point, a lot of women of color don’t show up with their full voice. I think that idea of room and space and actually addressing more systemically some of the true challenges of difference and different leadership is really important if we’re going to change culture and really allow full innovation. Rha often talks about this. Part of what we’re asking for with inclusion and with more diverse voices at the table is allowing for more innovation to happen. What’s happening now is we’re stunting a lot of voices. How you create a space for everyone, not just for women of color, but for everyone. Even white men, right? A lot of them are stunted in how they can express their full opinions on things in corporate culture. How do we create room and space for everyone to really kind of voice what is true for them and true for their experience? I think that’s really what’s underneath a lot of what we’re talking about.
Rha: And I think there’s the opportunity to really consider that all of us can be better. Like that all of us can benefit from different styles and different embodiments of leadership. And different definitions of leadership. And evolved value systems. Right? Within cultures that actually we all could get to thrive. And I think the — the thing that we’re touching here and leaning against is that it is no longer acceptable for such a small percentage of leadership to be thriving and everybody else suffering. And that’s whether you’re looking at the state of our world or whether you’re looking at the state of our organizations. And I think that, you know, what excites me — I mean, there’s so many things that excite me about — about this partnership with Deepa. But one of the things that really, really excites me is that if we did have that space to think about innovation, to think about some of the larger systemic challenges that we’re dealing with in the context of our organizations and our societies. What would happen if just more people had the opportunity and the space to offer their perspective? We’ve got be to believe that we would get better. And so, I think our work, because I know — I know you were about to take us here, Melinda, but I think our work is, one, creating a space where all of us can actually feel safe enough to have the more difficult conversations and the more challenging conversations about what is genuinely working or not working for all of us. You know? To really sort of pull back the facade. And really start to, from a very honest place, about what’s working and not working. And about what the possibility or the opportunity could be if we were able to allow more hands and hearts in the mix.
Melinda: Yeah. So, I was going there with — okay. So, what are the solutions? How do we in our work places, how do we really create — create these spaces and what else? What are the other things that — that people can really do within their work places to better support women of color? To grow his leaders and to be leaders as they are? Maybe Deepa, if you have thoughts?
Deepa: I’ll give you two different examples because I think there’s so many different things we can do here and we need to look at different parts of what’s happening in corporations or in had corporate America. And I think one is making sure we’re asking, right? I think it’s been fascinating to watch since — since the summer which companies are truly listening and which companies think they’re listening and are holding soundings but maybe not really listening. And I think what we’re really asking for now is a different kind of listening. So, it’s listening to all levels of the organization. It’s not just listening to the senior level and saying, we don’t see it here so it doesn’t exist. It’s really finding ways to create space for different kinds of discussions to happen and voices to be heard. That is not the normal, and we’ll just open a conference room or get on a Zoom call and ask the question and everyone will speak up. If you don’t have a history that have, that’s not going to be the norm. Really trying different things. Bringing in had outside facilitators. Asking really different questions, doing anonymous soundings. There’s a lot of things that companies can do there. We can talk about that more. I think the seconds thing is looking at processes. We don’t sometimes talk about that. So, let’s just take a simple one. Complaint processes. In a lot of cases, complaint process actual double victimized women of color or anyone who was complaining, right? An incident happens a micro, or what I call a macro aggression. The woman voices maybe to her manager. Eventually maybe files a complaint. Those processes become very quickly and become about protecting the company. Because that’s how — they’re legal processes. They’re not set up for the employee experience. And so, I’m seeing a couple of cases, not many, but I’m starting to see a few cases where companies, or new companies are merging, women of color companies, which makes me really excited. But women lawyers really standing up companies to do investigations in a very different way. And they’re asking — there’s one, Triangle Investigations in New York. She wants to see if a company has three examples or three cases that are come up within give a time frame, last 6 months a year that you hired an independent investigator to come in and look at the data. Not just the incidents, but the data and larger issues and see what other macro trends are going on. Maybe there’s something else going on in regards to hiring and firing and promotions and pay. Those are two examples where we have to create space and have discussions and be willing to hear the feedback and ask the questions. Which is unfortunately what some companies are doing. And support the employee process and allow for the dissent and the infractions to really bubble up. And what do you do about it? They’re going happen. I don’t think any company can expect to be perfect right now. I don’t think you want to be perfect right now. You want to uncover what’s happening so you can change it. We need to get to that space where it’s not drama for uncovering. But Rally around how to make this better for people.
Rha: I think this practice of courageous facing and honest deep looking across the board feels important and necessary. And I think that’s whether you’re looking at personal leadership styles and ways of operating and the sort of subcultures and dynamics that occur in organizations, or whether you’re looking at the systemic policies and procedures. I mean, to Deepa’s point, even the other side of that is, how is the person who raised the complaint treated? You know, so, it is in the just necessarily that there’s a corporate culture of protection. But there’s also now this person is incredibly afraid. They’re afraid for their own job. They’re afraid for their own sort of emotional safety in the space. And to what degree are there any efforts made to acknowledge the importance of, you know, cause I say this because, you know, we get the double talk a lot, right? Oh, if there’s ever a problem, please come to me. You know? And literally I think it taking everything in our power to go, yeah, right. Because we don’t believe it, right? Because we have X-X-X examples of where people have raised their voices and what happens? They’re not here anymore. And I think that threat is real. And I think that we’ve got to be willing to acknowledge how we’ve operated historically when people have spoken up in the face of people being urged to speak up. Right?
Rha: Just give one other example because I think it’s imperative here. Certain corporation chose to have a sounding with the larger community in the face of doing cuts. So, how much am I really gonna say in a sounding?
Melinda: Right. This is not really a safe space right there. Right. Right.
Rha: No. You know, I might be two words away from a pink slip, you know? Especially in a pandemic. So, I mean, you know, so, we have to really kind of — you know, I think the practice of truth telling is maybe simplistic as it sounds on the surface. It’s gonna require deep, deep, deep-looking and various forms of new ways of being and behaving to really get us there.
Melinda: Yeah. Yeah. So, you touched on the fact that it’s kind of — we have to look at two different things here. One is the kind of systemic processes, the systems, the processes, the inequities, the — the racism, sexist, ableism in our work places, in the core structure of our work places. That structural stuff. Which I think is sorely missing and starting to be addressed now in many different companies for the first time. Or in lots of different companies at a deeper level than it has been before. And also, we have treating the impact of years and years and years and years of systemic inequity, of discrimination, of harassment, of bullying. And, you know, when we talk about microaggressions, I think it’s important — and even in microaggressions that it’s intervening, making it stop, working to create processes so that it doesn’t happen in the future. And also, looking at what the impact was and really, you know, addressing that as well. Because the reality is that people show up differently. And I think that is some of what you were getting to. And also, I think some of your other work, Rha, is in your coaching and in, you know, it’s how do you get to the heart of who somebody really is so that they can really show up as that person? As their full self.
Melinda: Yeah, go ahead.
Rha: I just — thank you for sort of naming this. Because I think that is the bigger work that needs to happen. I feel like structurally, procedurally people go, get it. Okay, I can understand it. But when you start to talk about, what are the attitudes, beliefs and perceptions that each of us carry? And how does that guide the way that we show up in our work context? And, you know, not only what happens interpersonally, but what have we internalized that has caused us to show up in particular ways, right? And I think all of us have this work to do. You know? In terms of how we recognize and understand all of the ways in which we have been conditioned and indoctrinated to show up in certain environments. Sometimes even the environment may not have that going on culturally. But we’ve come from other environments. And we have imported our trauma. Right? Into new work environments. And we’re operating, you know, from old organizational trauma and the current environment may not even have that in it. But where do we look? Where are those spaces? And how do we begin to create places where people can start to do that deeper internal work and recognize that the deeper internal work is also necessary? That this isn’t just about moving pieces around the chess board. This isn’t just policy change. This isn’t just sort of tick sheets and tip sheets and protocols. This is about people doing that deep internal looking and that personal growth work that should be an imperative for leadership.
Melinda: Yeah. We — another thing we kind of touched on but didn’t go deeper into, and I know, Deepa, you have some — some passionate thoughts about this. About power and the role that power plays in the work place and how that affects how women of color show up in leadership. You want to talk a little bit about that?
Deepa: Yeah, you know, one of the things that’s coming out as I meet with all these women and I do writing for my own book is this idea of power. I think it’s a complex idea, right? What we think of as power. And I would just ask your listeners and viewers to kind of just ask themselves this, right? What does power mean to you? Where did that definition come from? How does it show up in your body with someone asked me this week. It was interesting. Does it make you cower or stand with your shoulders back? We come with preconceptions and based on how we grew up, ideas on that. What I’m asking women of color to do is look at power. Power to us has been external. This idea that power is external and we’re maybe craving it or looking for it, success is very tied to seats of power. And I think what I’m realizing is because so much of those seats of power and leadership as you called it out, Melinda, is the seats taken by older white men. They don’t necessarily resonate with the rest of us. And so, we’re aspiring to something that is inauthentic to who we are and how we show up. So, it’s a very nuanced, but a very confusing sort of the discussion that happens for a lot of us. And what I’m really asking women to think about and where I’ve come to in my own thoughts around this is power for me and power for a lot of women of color needs to be about inner strength. Needs to be looking about who you are and alignment for yourself first. I have this visual. I think we put power outside, right? We literally — it’s something that sits outside of us. And I want to take that power and put it inside of us and really carry that and have that show up and have that dictate when we push back on macro or microaggressions. Have that dictate whether we take on discussions. As long as we feel safe. That’s the other really important thing I want to lose in this discussion. It is not on women of color or women or anyone who is not in a seat of power to take on a system or to take on people. I think you should do that if you feel safe. But only whether you feel safe, right? We can’t ask everyone to take on that responsibility. But I think that’s also a sense of power. I think a lot of us feel powerful when we’re able to make change. And I think that’s really what we’re looking for right now. And for me, that’s what I’ve come to understand power to be. At least for me. It may be different for both of you and it would be interesting to hear what power is for each of you. For me, power is the ability to change things. Actually create change in seasonal systems or in people. And that’s my work. But it’s important as women of color, we ask ourselves, what is success? What is power? And make sure they are things that we believe. And that we come to feel for ourselves, not because we have been told to crave them or want them or need them. Because that won’t work for us. And I think that’s the big shift that’s happening.
Rha: I think this opportunity to self-define and self-actualize is, for me, what’s at the heart of power. Right? And, you know, we talk about this in our work and in the context of information as well as in the context of wide awakening which I’m sure we’ll talk about at some point. But power to — new notions of power. Power to, power for, power with, power of, power within. As an alternative to which we have mostly known which is power over and the idea of dominance and control. And I think this question of safety is really important because, you know, as I’ve talked to women, it is amazing to me not only how many much them feel unsafe, but how many of them have an expectation that they are — that the environment is unsafe. Like in other words, we’re comfortable with the fact that it’s not safe. Like we’ve learned to adapt to the fact that it’s not safe. So, you know, many of the women talked about how they armer up, you know? Whether it’s that bullet proof suit they wear, or Deepa and I talk about this a lot — that bright red lipstick or that necklace — that bar neck lace, gold necklace, gold-plated necklace, whatever it is. But this way in which you get ready for battle. What does that do to your body, your mind, your spirit ever day where you feel you have to armor up to go into your place of work. Which is a time you spend more time often than you spend anywhere else. We have shifted that in the context of our new reality. And that has been a challenge. I was talking with a mom the other day. What am I going to say if I’m in the middle of the Zoom meeting and my 3-year-old is running around behind me with no pants on? You know? It’s my humanity. That I actually have on identity outside of work. It’s a revelation. And for a really, really long time I was feeling really embarrassed about that. So, what does that mean that you, as a mother, feel embarrassed about your child? Because your child is looking for his pants. You know what I mean? In the middle of a Zoom call. He’s doing what he’s doing. You know what I mean? And you’re doing what you’re doing. And why, you know, is that not okay? And just those little things — and I say little, but they’re huge. Because if you think about how profound that is, that it gives us a sense of how deep the indoctrination is. How much we have been conditioned to button up and armor up in order to survive in these environments.
Melinda: Yeah. Yeah. Deepa, you asked, I also think one more thing to add in terms of power. I think of — I think of stepping into your power. And there’s so many people stepping into their power, finding their power and stepping into their power for the first time trying it, seeing what it’s like. Stepping in, stepping out, stepping back, stepping forward. And the thing that needs to happen with people who are in power is allies is to step back and allow other people to step into their power. Or sometimes to lend your power when it can really help support somebody and help them grow into power. That would be the one thing — those two things I would add to that. We’re already getting close to time. So, I want to dive into a little bit into, Rha, wide awakening and what you’re working on there. You and I are both in interracial marriages which is a fascinating kind of journey for me, anyway, in terms of allyship and understanding and kind of deepening my knowledge. And I suspect it is — I’ve talked about it, so, I know it is for you too. And you and Cory have been working together to really kind of build and grow allies. Can you talk a little bit about that work and what you’re working on?
Rha: So, for the last 20 years Cory, my husband and I have been doing race relations work. And we actually, interestingly enough, met through one of his race relations projects. He often jokes about the fact that he can not promise that result for everybody.
Melinda: Oh, no.
Rha: However, it was how we came to actually meet one another. And it was actually through that work that we really discovered that there was more there for us than just our passion for a better world. But this new body of work really came because as the events of the summer began to unfold, both of our phones were ringing offer the hook with white leaders in various industries and various capacities trying to figure out what to do. In some cases people who had never been open to this conversation. This is one of the things that we’re underscoring and we’re in a new moment. There’s an opening that just didn’t even exist 8 months ago to really want to have these conversations and begin to interrogate the realities of people who maybe just were never even aware of the fact that other kinds of realities existed. And so, the work of Wide awakening is to really recontextualize the way we think about this work. We have tremendous respect for the scholarship that exists. And there is incredible scholarship that exists in terms of helping us understand historically how we got here. And what we’ve recognized is though, we need to really populate the field and build the field with more opportunities for helping us figure out how we get out. Right? And part of the reason why — and it’s important to own this — is that has taken so much to even get us to look. That we haven’t even had the ability it to start to figure out, okay. What happens once people are looking? And so, on some level, you and I both know this, Melinda, there’s a little bit of a scramble on the part of the field. Because now people are willing to look. It’s like, wait a minute. Okay. Now that you’re willing to look, how do I meet you? So, all of that to say that the context of our work is re-humanization. Because we fundamentally believe that all of us have been dehumanized by this. No matter where you are standing in this equation. That this is the conversation of dehumanization. And so, it’s important for us to understand how we got here and it’s also incredibly important for us to understand how we make our way out. And so, the work of Wide Awakening is the awareness piece. Begin with helping people understand how we got here, but then also helping people understand, what is it really going to require in order for us to get out? And that is the work of re-humanization. And so, there’s an assessment. There’s a webinar and then there’s a digital course that supports that work.
Melinda: Awesome. So, this kind of — we have a question from somebody who wanted to remain anonymous around allyship. And they say, I have a very hard time trying to provide advice to my female friends of color when they have issues in the work place. I’m in my 50s, so, I understand part of what they may be experiencing, but I really don’t feel I have the tools to help them. Help! This person says, so, any thoughts/advice for this person?
Deepa: I can go, Rha. I think I would want to know what it is they’re trying to help solve for. Because I think the specificity of, you know, what the challenge is really important. I also think, you know, I got to a point in my career where I was looking for other women of color, to be honest with you. And I think as an ally, what you can do is listen, provide advice, you know, give suggestions. Really validate the feelings. Because I think — I think so often what I’m hearing women of color hear is, oh, that’s not that bad. Or I had something similar. Even though I’m a white woman. I don’t really understand how that happens for you. So, really making sure, one, that you hear and validate. I think — but secondly, I think it’s encouraging women of color to find other women of color. I really do think — I know that ties to information. But I’m not meaning it to be. I genuinely think there’s something happening right now, women of color are having the conversations they’ve never had. Especially across groups of women of color. There’s power in that, learning in that and experience in that. And I think when issues come up, just to be able to call upon another woman of color makes a huge difference. There is data that suggests that when you hear something negative, you carry that for much longer than if you hear something positive, right? It’s a psychological fact. Knowing that. We tend to carry these had negative things or these issues or these tensions much more than a positive comment. So, knowing that, if you can find a group, even if it’s a small group or just one or two people, you know, to really share that with and to let go of it when an incident comes up. That’s what I would really encourage. Without knowing the context of what we’re talking about here.
Rha: I would also add listening goes a long way. I think sometimes we feel like we have to solve it. But the truth is that listening is what builds that trust. Is what builds that capacity to really be able to understand. And empathize and really take in what’s happening and what’s occurring. I would certainly say to that woman, to listen. And to just say, I’m here, you know? And I may not know exactly what you need, but if there is something that I can do, please don’t be afraid to ask me. I stand with you. And I know that this is important. And I know that this has been hurtful. Or, I want to see you succeed. And I would like you to know that I’m a resource for you. So, if there are ways that I can be supportive. Because sometimes I think we want to suggest without permission. And sometimes I think there’s something different that happens when you lead with listening and you lead with the offer of support and allow that woman or those women to guide and lead those conversations and what that support could look like.
Melinda: Awesome. Awesome. And this person just chimed back in and said, the person she was thinking about is experiencing possible discrimination in the work place and it’s race-related so that helped. Yeah. And Stephanie in the chat says, amen on the listening! Rha, maybe you could — based on your work, you could just answer this question. Jamal asks where microaggressions and macro aggressions are coming from. Are they coming out of a lashing out of embarrassment? Or what is that?
Rha: Yeah. It’s interesting. I mean, I think often the microaggressions come out of an awkwardness. And sometimes even a genuine curiosity. A curiosity with not a lot of skill or capacity for how to explore that curiosity with another person in a way that feels honoring and safe is one of the things I will say in terms of what shows up in the context of microaggressions. In the context of macro aggressions, we have real work to do. And I think sometimes we assume that, oh, there’s probably far more microaggressions than there are macro aggressions. I have to say to you, in my listening, I have seen a tremendous particular resurgence in the last couple of years of macro aggressions. And in those particular cases, there is a threat, a fear or threat to someone’s quality of life. A threat to someone’s status. A threat to someone’s power or influence. And this is the place where we need to have bigger conversations about even how we understand power. We right now interact with power as if it is this finite pie. And there’s only so many slices. And if you get more, I automatically get less. And anything that represents itself or feels like a loss of power is threatening. And there is the instinct to want to survivor. And any time anyone is in a place of survival, whether they are consciously aware of is or not, they will lash out. They will get aggressive. They will do things that may even be way outside of their normal character because they are in a place of survival. Whether they are conscious of that or not. And so, part of what our opportunity is, is going to be to really talk a little bit about and, again, creating safe spaces where the anger and the fear can be unearthed. And can be dealt with in a way — I’m gonna say this because this is bold, I get it — loving and compassionate. And I say this because oftentimes we — we villainize white men. Or we villainize even sometimes white women in seats of power and we forget their humanity. And that is just as problematic as not recognizing or honoring the humanity of women of color. We are all human beings in this. And unfortunately, so much of the way that we have been indoctrinated in organizational culture has taught us to leave our humanity at the door. And we can no longer do that and expect to be healthy. No organizational culture can expect to be healthy if you are suppressing the humanity — your own humanity, or the humanity of others. And so, we have to work through that. And we have to create spaces where other people who are feeling the temptation to lash out or who may be lashing out, we have to create spaces where they can understand what’s going on with themselves so that they can then examine how they want to show up in the context of their own life and their own leadership.
Melinda: Yeah. Powerful words, Rha. And really important. I want to — we have just one more minute left, but I want — you both have very powerful women that have really stepped into power and into leadership roles. Could each of you just say in a few words how you would have wanted allies to step up for you as you — as you kind of navigated your own leadership and your own power? Deepa? Do you have a thought?
Deepa: Yeah. You know, I will share that — it’s funny, I was thinking about this earlier this week. I had a lot of white male leaders step up with me and as I talk to women of color, that’s common. Who sits in the seats of power. There is, and we don’t have time to unpack it, a lot of tension between women and women are not always supportive. And I hear that talking with women. I want to change that. But that’s a different show. I think just listening, like Rha said, I think asking more questions. I think you mentioned, Melinda, kind of, I call it sharing your shine. So, if you are sitting in a seat of power, you know, taking a woman of color with you, you know? Asking what else you can do. Inviting them to a meeting. Intervening on their behalf. I think those are all really important things. And I would just share something for — I’m talking to a lot of high potential women of color in particular. I think they feel that pressure. I think they feel a lens of success on them. I think that for them, when something goes wrong, they are looking for people to really intervene and step in and help them. And I think that doesn’t always happen. So, you can’t, on the one hand, be a company saying you want to advance women of color. And then when something happens that seems a little bit off, not really help them. That’s what I would really ask for. What I would say is really different in what we need right now. We need companies to do what they’re saying they want to do. But really show up in a totally different way.
Rha: I think the — so good, Deepa — I think the other thing that I would say is be willing, you know, being willing to be vulnerable and uncomfortable. And bearing witness to my experience has gone a long way. And I think sometimes when we feel indicted in what someone is saying, we want to shrink back or change the subject. Or we want, to Deepa’s point, minimize it. But growing our capacity to be vulnerable and uncomfortable in situations where maybe usually we’re the one with the answer or we’re the one leading the charge, being willing to kind of put that down for a little bit. And just be human-to-human, person-to-person. And really bear witness. Which means really not only hear what I’m saying, but feel what I’m saying. Emotionally take it in. Be willing to see the impact that it’s had on me. And then, I think, you know, when we’re ready, go to strategy. You know? When we’re ready. But not sort of jump to strategy immediately. Because I think often the experience can be stepped over. Which does not deepen and strengthen our capacity to see it when it happens. And to know and actually understand a little of what it feels like.
Melinda: Yeah. Well, we’re a couple minutes over and thank you all for sticking with us. And for your great questions and your chats too. Where, Rha, Deepa, where can people learn more of that information? Deepa?
Deepa: Yeah. They go to n, the number 2, formation.com. They can find more information about nFormation.
Melinda: Okay. Awesome. Awesome. Thank you, both. Thank you for the work you do. Thank you for being here. Thank you for being you. Rha, as always a pleasure. And Deepa, I’m so glad that we had a chance to connect and talk together.
Deepa: And thank you for your work in doing this. It’s so important, especially right now. So, thank you so much.
Rha: We appreciate you, Melinda.
Melinda: Thank you. Thank you.
Deepa: Go celebrate!
Melinda: Yes, go celebrate. I turned in my manuscript. Exactly, exactly.
Rha: We cannot wait to read the book. Cannot wait.
Melinda: Thank you. So, everyone, I’ll leave you all with this question: What action are you going to take — what action will you take to be an ally for women of color moving forward? Join us each week, Leading with Empathy and Allyship. Each Tuesday you can RSVP and sign up for the newsletter at changecatalyst.co. And we have one more in this series and starting again in January. Please subscribe to the podcast and the YouTube channel. Give a like, a thumbs up, a review, whatever platform you’re on and share it with colleagues and friends that could use it. All right. Thank you, all. And I’m seeing thank yous in the Q&A and in the chats as well. Appreciate you all too. Thanks.
Deepa: Thank you.
Rha: Thank you. Bye.
Host: Melinda Briana Epler
Melinda Briana Epler has over 25 years of experience developing business innovation and inclusion strategies for startups, Fortune 500 companies, and global NGOs.
As CEO of Change Catalyst, Melinda currently works with the tech industry to solve diversity and inclusion together. Using her background in storytelling and large-scale culture change, she is a strategic advisor for tech companies, tech hubs, and governments around the world. She co-leads a series of global solutions-focused conferences called Tech Inclusion, where she has partnered with over 450 tech companies and community organizations and hosted 43 solutions-focused diversity and inclusion events around the world.
Previously, Melinda was a Marketing and Culture Executive and award-winning documentary filmmaker – her film and television work includes projects that exposed the AIDS crisis in South Africa, explored women’s rights in Turkey, and prepared communities for the effects of climate change. She has worked on several television shows, including NBC’s The West Wing.
Melinda is a TED speaker. She speaks, mentors and writes about diversity and inclusion in tech, allyship, social entrepreneurship, underrepresented entrepreneurs and investing. She has spoken on hundreds of stages around the world, including SXSW, Grace Hopper, Wisdom 2.0, the World Bank, Obama White House, Clinton Foundation, Black Enterprise, Google, Indeed, Capital One and McKinsey.
Watch Melinda’s TED Talk
Change Catalyst Co-Founder Melinda Briana Epler has spoken across the globe in hundreds of venues and virtual events. Empathy, Allyship, Advocacy, Microaggressions, Inclusive Leadership, and Building Inclusive Teams are just some of the topics Melinda has spoken on. Let us know about your next speaking engagement needs! Melinda has also spoken on how to build organizational capacity to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as how to lead behavior change or how to build allies and advocates.
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