In Episode 75, Deepa Purushothaman, author of THE FIRST, THE FEW, THE ONLY: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America, joins Melinda to discuss the structural and cultural dynamics of what women of color are experiencing in the workplace, how women can get comfortable sitting in positions of power, and why it’s important to shift away from a scarcity mindset to allow more women of color a seat at the table.
- Read Deepa’s book THE FIRST, THE FEW, THE ONLY: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America.
- Learn more about Deepa’s work on her website.
- Find out more about Deepa’s community for women of color at nFormation.
- Check out EP21: “Overcoming Imposter Syndrome” With Dr. Adia Gooden.
- Check out EP30: “Want To Be Inclusive? Support Women Of Color As Leaders In The Workplace” With Deepa Purushothaman and Rha Goddess.
- Check out EP71: “How To Heal From Racial Trauma In The Workplace” With Minda Harts.
- Subscribe to the Leading With Empathy & Allyship newsletter to get notified when EP77 with Ruchika Tulshyan will be available.
This videocast is made accessible thanks to Interpreter-Now. Learn more about our show sponsor Interpreter-Now at www.interpreter-now.com.
- “Who told us there’s one seat? If there are 12 seats, why is there only one designated for a woman, or half of one designated to a woman of color? Where did that come from?”
- “Shed messages that you’ve been taught, like ‘work harder,’ ‘do more,’ ‘over-perform,’ and instead carry forth messages that work for you. And that is really a lot of work to shed those messages and take on new ones, but I think women of color have such powerful stories and powerful histories.”
- “You can be anything if you believe you can be anything.”
- “We ended up doing about 10 or 12 dinners across the country with 20 or 30 senior women of color each, and we ended up meeting 300 senior women of color. We would get into these rooms, and we thought we were going to meet for an hour or two to network. And instead, five, six, seven hours later we were still talking about the shared experiences: about the microaggressions, about the racism, about the extra work, about the code switching…So this book is in some ways an attempt to show that we’re not alone because those stories show we’re having similar experiences, but we don’t talk about it.”
- “There’s individual power and there’s collective power, and we need both if we’re going to change the structure. So I call it the power of we and the power of me.”
Author of THE FIRST, THE FEW, THE ONLY: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America
Deepa Purushothaman is the co-founder of nFormation which provides a brave, safe, new space for professional women of color. Deepa is also a Women and Public Policy Program Leader in Practice at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Prior to this, Deepa spent more than twenty years at Deloitte and was the first Indian American woman to make partners in the company’s history. Deepa was also Deloitte’s national WIN (Women’s Initiative) leader, the firm’s renowned program to recruit, retain, and advance women.
Deepa has degrees from Wellesley College, Harvard Kennedy School, and the London School of Economics. Deepa is an Aspen Fellow and speaks extensively on women and leadership. She has been featured at national conferences and in publications including Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and Harvard Business Review.
MELINDA: Welcome to Leading With Empathy & Allyship, where we have deep real conversations to build empathy for one another, and to take action to be more inclusive, and to lead the change in our workplaces and communities.
I’m Melinda Briana Epler, founder and CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How To Be An Ally. I’m a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion speaker, advocate, and advisor. You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc.
All right, let’s dive in.
MELINDA: Hello, everyone. Today I’m talking with Deepa Purushothaman, co-founder of nFormation and author of THE FIRST, THE FEW, THE ONLY: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America.
This episode builds upon some fantastic recent episodes with Ruchika Tulshyan, and Minda Harts, as well as many other women of color we’ve spoken with about this topic. Hello, Deepa. How are you?
DEEPA: I’m great. Thank you for having me.
MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. Good to see you again.
DEEPA: Yes, it’s been a while, but it’s great to see you. And I love that you already mentioned Ruchika and Minda because we’ve become fast friends and been on this journey together. And they’ve been wonderful to do this kind of work with.
MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. They’re amazing. Okay. So, Deepa, let’s start at the beginning about you. Can you please share a bit about your story—Where you grew up, how you came to do the work that you’re doing now?
DEEPA: Absolutely. I grew up in a very small farming town in New Jersey. It’s called White House Station. And I’ve aligned in the book that even the title of this city had the name “White” in it. I was one of the only people of color in my town, in my school. There were maybe four of us total in a school of five or 600. So, I always had this question of what makes me different? And why don’t I feel like I belong?
My parents were immigrants to this country. They came in the late 60s from India. They didn’t talk about race, right? They lived the American dream, and there was this philosophy or this teaching that if you just work hard, everything will be okay. I didn’t encounter that. I didn’t necessarily face that as I navigated spaces where I was and only even as a young child. And so, I think that questioning, that confusion that is it me versus what’s happening around me? Why does everything from what we eat to how we speak to what we do on the weekends feels different to my friends at school was always a question from very early on.
The other interesting thing is that my father and I are darker-skinned. My mother and my sister are very light-skinned. And so, there was also a lot of confusion more from other people than from us on just are you one family? Why is that? Are you all Indian? What are you even, right? I was born in the 70s. And so, being Indian wasn’t as common as it is now in the United States. And so, people used to ask me if I was Italian, if I was South American. You name it, and I was asked that, but Indian was a very rare thing back then. Also, people not understanding what part of the world my family came from and the culture that I came from.
MELINDA: Wow. And so, how did you get from there to starting information and writing this book? What was that like?
DEEPA: So, I worked really hard and studied hard. I think it’s part of what happens when you grow up in the States and you have Indian parents of a certain background. There was a lot of pressure on doing well in school, and going to known schools was really probably the most important thing that they drilled into my sister and I. Some people just have two girls.
There was some conversation around the fact that we were both girls. Even though my parents raised us as feminists, especially my dad, we come from a culture where being a girl isn’t always valued in the same way as being a boy child would be. And so, that’s also there—just important kinds of themes. I played soccer when I was little on boys’ teams. And so, there was always the sense of I can do anything and be anything and, you know, break barriers in that sense. Like, I didn’t have to be defined by what I saw around me. And that is a theme and a lesson that I’ve taken with me.
I did well in school. I went to all the right schools, all those things. And then, I thought I would go work in the private sector for a year or two. My background was politics. I did not do an MBA. I did two master’s degrees back-to-back with a focus I thought eventually of working in politics, and then policy, not necessarily running for office, but being more behind the scenes. And so, I wanted to get a year or two of private sector experience. And so, I recruited with Deloitte and a number of other firms out of Harvard Business School. That’s where they did the recruiting at that point. I wanted to do investment banking or consulting.
That was really important to me to go spend a year doing that to just kind of get those credentials. I ended up staying there for over 20 years and rose through the ranks. I was our first Indian female partner. I had a lot of responsibility for inclusion, so I led our women’s initiative. Towards the end of my career, I also lead a lot of inclusion strategies. And so, I had some amazing opportunities and grew quite quickly. I’ve made partners really relatively quickly and young as well. And so, there were a lot of things that came with being a first.
About a year and a half ago, I left the firm. So, I left her in COVID. I decided I wanted to focus solely on women of color issues. We can talk about why and how. And in the last year, I have written this book that comes out shortly and also launched information. So my work, my total work now is focused on helping women of color rise and thrive in the workplace.
MELINDA: Awesome. Who is the book for? Is it written for women of color?
DEEPA: It is. And I love that question, Melinda, because I was just sharing with someone earlier today. I wrote the book for women of color. I was very intentional about that because, as someone who navigated spaces in corporate America, I didn’t see people that looked like me. I didn’t see leaders that looked like me. I wanted to write a book that I wish I had had when I was coming up in the firm. And so, it’s very much written for women of color, but what I’m finding is that it’s mostly allies who are showing up to date, really wanting to read it, and really leaning into it.
There are a lot of White male leaders reaching out asking me how they can do better. I have never seen the volume of stories. So, one of the interesting things about this book is I interviewed 500 women of color. I’ve tried to put as many stories as I could in the book. So, it’s not one story per chapter. There are multiple stories. And so, I think what I’m finding and the feedback I’m getting is the volume of stories is surprising to a lot of leaders because there’s no denying how the experience for women of color is different, just in the volume and the totality of what I’m able to demonstrate with the number of stories.
MELINDA: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I think there’s a lot of power. In my work on allyship, I talk a lot about being a better ally, stepping into spaces, stepping into books and events that are created for people who aren’t like you because you can learn so much in that space, too. Yeah. And it’s obviously very important and very healing in the work that you’re doing, particularly for women of color. Yeah.
DEEPA: Yeah, absolutely. I’m excited to see that. It’s a little bit of a surprising turn of events, just you know, again, the volume of who is showing up and the discrepancy in number, but I also think as it comes out, and more women of color read it as individual readers, I think that that’s also where it’ll maybe balance out a little bit. I mean, it’s just been interesting to see who’s sitting in podcast seats, who are the journalists, and who’s calling? I mean, that’s part of, I think, the conversation around the book, right? Who is sitting in those seats asking the questions?
Just right now, I think in the world that we live in, there tends to be a lot of White male leaders or allies or people who want to learn but are not necessarily the women of color sitting in those seats. And so, that’s also part of what I’m realizing as I navigate and have more of these conversations.
MELINDA: That’s interesting. Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense.
DEEPA: Yeah, I hadn’t thought about that when I started this.
MELINDA: Editors, publications as you work in your articles. And yeah, absolutely. Yeah. The structural changes need to happen as well. Yeah.
DEEPA: Which is I mean, nothing wrong with that, right? Because I think, the main point is we need everybody if we’re going to create change. I don’t think women of color can do it by themselves. We need to work together to change the structure. So again, it’s all positive. It’s just not how I thought I’d add to this phase of the book process. I thought after I wrote it, like, I’ll be talking to a lot of women of color about what needs to change.
And although that’s part of it, it feels like really, the conversation is more and that the main theme of the book is that corporate America is not a meritocracy and really explaining why that’s the case for women of color with data, with stories, and really showing how it’s different for us. And so, I do think it is a conversation for everybody, but just how I’m having the conversation and who is part of the change is maybe a little surprising in a good way.
MELINDA: Yeah, that’s cool. Many listeners and watchers on YouTube have probably found themselves as the first, few, or the only in the room, especially as women rise in organizations were increasingly likely to be the only or the few as we rise up in those organizations. I certainly have found myself in that position. It changed the trajectory of my career substantially due to the daily messages of microaggressions and exclusion and that trauma.
And this is especially the case, of course, for women of color, who live and work in majority-White spaces, and usually experienced being the only foreigner earlier in their lives, right as you read in your book—a lifetime of not belonging. So, let’s talk about healing. How do we heal from those scars and really shed the messages that hurt us? What are some ways to do that?
DEEPA: Yeah. I think the first step is really allowing ourselves to acknowledge that the structure does show up differently. I think what’s been so interesting in my own work, and part of why I wrote the book was because I felt alone, and I felt alone as I navigated this. And so, as I was late in my career deciding if I wanted to leave, I started gathering women of color. I started doing that one on one, eventually, with my business partner, who you’ve met, Rha Goddess.
We ended up doing about 10 or 12 dinners across the country with 20 or 30 senior women of color each. We ended up meeting 300 senior women of color. We could get into these rooms, and we thought we were going to meet for an hour or two to network. And instead, five, six, seven hours later, we were still talking about the shared experiences, about the microaggression, about the racism, about the extra work, but the code-switching, so happy to talk about those things more. It was really fascinating.
And so, this book, in some ways, is an attempt to show that we’re not alone because those stories show that we have similar experiences, but we don’t talk about it. And so, that’s really where it started and what I’m trying to show in the volume of stories, but it is hard, and part of the healing is one, first, understanding that it does happen. So often, women of color are taught from early childhood to just push through, to just work harder, to kind of push it aside.
And depending on who you are, how you grew up. If you’re from an immigrant family, first-generation, there are some nuances that I found in my research, but for the most part, we’ve just been told like it is either how it is or again, you can outwork it, but just don’t pay attention to it, and just perform and it’ll be okay.
MELINDA: Suck it up a little bit more. Yeah.
DEEPA: Suck it up, right. And so, that’s really the challenge. And so, in a lot of cases, the women of color, I mean, the most surprising thing in my research, hands down, is how sick the women of color I’ve met are. We used to call it trauma. I think we now have better language to call it trauma in the workplace.
When I was doing the research, I was just surprised at how ill the women of color I met were, and I’m talking senior C-level C-suite women are ill, and they’re carrying these indescribable illnesses that are undiagnosed and things like skin rashes, headaches, stomach problems, fertility issues, from the stress of being in structures that don’t see and acknowledge them and where they’ve had to conform or adapt who they are, edit who they are.
So, a lot of what I say the work is about is first understanding what’s happening to you so that you can take on the parts that are yours and kind of give back the rest. And once you understand that as a first step, then you can work through and understand what is happening around you. And you know, what can I truly change.
In the book, I talk a little bit about letting go of messages that don’t serve you. I call that shedding and carrying. So it’s shed messages that you’ve been taught, like work harder, do more, overperform, and instead carry forth messages that work for you. And that is really a lot of work to kind of shed those messages and take on new ones.
I think women of color have such powerful stories and powerful histories. And we come from cultures where a lot of our power exists, but as we assimilate, as we navigate corporate spaces, we’re meeting some of those things. And so, part of this work is really about not taking what doesn’t work and finding our inner power, and really pulling forth those messages about our culture and who we are.
MELINDA: Yeah. So, that extra work, the code-switching. I love that you also quote Ruchika’s HBR article she co-wrote with Jodi-Ann Burey on Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome. We recently spoke with her. She has a new book as well.
MELINDA: Yeah. So, how does imposter syndrome fit into this work and finding your power?
DEEPA: Yeah, I love what they did and how they talked about the imposter syndrome, really, in some ways, it is a hoax, right? Or, in some ways, this idea that we’re not enough and then it’s women’s fault is really part of the setup. And it so amplifies and so validates the research I found as well, right?
As women of color, we think it’s us. Because the message is, again, they come from childhood, and they come from schooling, they come from our families. And so many of the women of color I met thought they weren’t enough.
One of the stories I tell in the book as Rha and I were doing a photoshoot early in our process for information. We had maybe selected a dozen women of color to do this COVID-friendly photoshoot early on in COVID. And as we got closer to the photoshoot, like literally two days before the photo shoot was going on, the women slowly started to back out. Some women thought they were too light-skinned, or they weren’t necessarily old enough, or they weren’t qualified enough, or they weren’t something enough. And it was really fascinating to watch that experience.
I share that because I think that is probably one of the biggest things that women of color have to reprogram is this idea that they’re not enough. It’s tied to this idea of imposter syndrome. When you’re told that, it’s totally understandable that maybe you come from that place where you’re not enough, and you have to over-perform and over-question and find a very different type of self-confidence. And it’s happening to us.
And so that’s, again, that structural understanding of knowing what’s happening in the structure and being able to acknowledge it and let it go. That’s why I love Ruchika and Jodi-Ann’s work is because I think it really speaks to that. It’s the structure, too, and if we deny that, then we’re taking on so much responsibility that’s not ours to fix. It’s a freeing sort of, or maybe even a liberating sort of process to understand what the structure is doing.
MELINDA: Yeah. For those of you listening or watching, we did dedicate a full episode to imposter syndrome. So, if you haven’t yet, do go check out Episode 21 – Overcoming Imposter Syndrome with Dr. Adia Gooden, where we really talk, we break down imposter syndrome. What are the different ways that it can show up? I learned a lot in that episode.
My executive coach, Susan Geear, would say that it’s not enough to focus on shedding, that we have to replace it with something positive. Once we shed, we move forward. You focus on carrying the wisdom that feeds us. What does that look like?
DEEPA: Yeah. So, I think for a lot of the women of color, it’s really doing a lot of shame reduction work. It’s really acknowledging that messages around just tell us to let go and edit who we are. So, one of the stories that I talked about is Roty, and she’s an executive at Adobe. She was born with some physical limitations, cerebral palsy, and some other challenges that she was working through. She was born in India.
And so, in this culture, there is even an extra burden, extra bias on folks who are born differently. When she came to the United States, a lot of her message and a lot of why they left India and came here was because of this belief that she could be anything, but if she had grown up in this small town, she was in that their limiting beliefs would have limited her. She has this mantra that I love, and it’s that anything is possible. And so, in the book, I talk about the story, and she lays out this whole series of events that led her to her path. But part of what she has done is really step into that belief that you can be anything if you believe you can be anything.
And so, leaving aside the messages from her extended family and her culture in her town that told her she couldn’t and that she had to really think about a much smaller life because of how she was born and where she was born. Instead, she’s reprogrammed that to I can be anything.
Another example of a story that I love is this woman named Lisa. She was a senior partner in a large firm and left to start her own company called Croc Toss. She talks a lot about having to let go of the shame that she felt, kind of navigating spaces that were all white as a woman of Asian descent and really trying to figure out and trying to understand, like, why does she feel uncomfortable? Why does she feel shame? Why did she feel pain inside?
And so, a lot of women that I work with, it’s really about understanding what is it that you’ve been taking in? What is it that makes you feel like you’re not enough? And how do you really step into a different message around that? And so, you know, one of the examples I talked about is things like beauty, things like skincare. We come from cultures where now everyone is going and poaching those potions and those recipes of those natural elements. But as an example, we come from cultures where that is, by the way, I’m from Kerala. It’s a big part of how my parents grew up, and their parents grew up. And yet, when you come here, you’re not encouraged to use natural products. Coconut oil in your hair 20 years ago was not a cool thing to do. And now everyone’s doing it.
And so, it’s an example of this idea of how you let go of so many things that I think now that they’re cool, we’re coming back to but are really tied to a culture that we really had to stunt or stop. And so when that happens, when you go through that process, there’s a lot that comes up for women of color around compartmentalization and alienation, and separation. And this work is really about coming home to yourself and figuring out for yourself. What do you want to accept? What makes you feel powerful? What do you believe? A lot of the messages are also around success.
So again, I interviewed corporate women who are really fast-rising and high achievers. And so much of what they had taken in, including myself was ideas of success was very much tied to what my parents saw as success, right, going to the right schools and rising in a company and sacrificing your health to get to security and stability. And what I’ve learned from my own journey is I got very sick and had to take a big pause and really ask big life questions. Is that definition of success serving me? Does that even make sense for me?
And so, I think that’s the process a lot of women of color are on. The structure and the system of corporate America ask us to give up so much more, in addition to the things we’ve already given up. Is that a sacrifice we want to make? And how do you stand true to who you are and your boundaries so that as you navigate these spaces, you’re not giving up even more of yourself? That’s really what caring is about.
MELINDA: There’s so much on what you just said. I think one thing that stuck with me is their limiting beliefs would have limited her. And also, early last year, I think Episode #43. I’m looking at it now. I talked with Two Eagles Marcus, who’s indigenous and grew up completely separating from his indigenous identity and is now kind of working on getting that back. And that is something that we don’t talk very much about is that disconnection and that healing process to kind of reconnect with your culture.
DEEPA: It’s especially when those values aren’t always seen or thought of as important in the workplace, right? So, being humble and being more communal is a lot of what Asian culture is about from the women I spoke with. And yet incorporate structures that are not really valued, that’s actually seen as a negative. And so, how do you reconcile those two things as an example of just navigating the workspace, for example?
So, I think there’s just a lot. I mean, of who you are as an identity and a person, but even how you work and how you show up and what’s even valued is sometimes in conflict. So, these are really big, complicated questions.
MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. So, you focus on power in your book. Let’s talk about power. First, why is it important to really focus on power? And then second is, what does it feel like to feel your power? What does that feel like?
DEEPA: I really wanted to talk about power because, to me, it’s very tied to success. We get so many messages. Similarly, from the outside world of what power looks like. All the books that I was asked to read in school and in college were about this very assertive, aggressive, top-down sort of power. And as I rose in my own journey and got to seats of power, I didn’t really want to do power that way. That didn’t really sit with me, didn’t really fit with me, didn’t really resonate.
And as I meet with more women and women of color, I think more of us are asking questions on, can it be more communal? Can it be used for good versus this sort of top-down winner take all sort of mentality? And so, that’s where some of the questionings started.
I now define power as really freedom. It’s really the ability to leave what doesn’t serve you and kind of step into values and understanding some practices that do. I think power is about alignment, and it takes a lot of work. It’s not work that you are running around doing. It’s quiet work. I think we all know what makes us feel powerful, but we’re not often taught to lean into that. We’re taught to lean into other things. And so, this work is really about understanding for you.
Melinda, your definition of power is going to be slightly different than mine because of how we grew up and what’s important to us. And that’s good, and that’s okay. And that’s what the world means. I think, unfortunately, we’re so often told that the power that we should all aspire to is that seat at the top of this very sort of aggressive sort of power. And so, the book is really asking us to think about that differently.
And especially for women of color, you’ll hear some new power rules. Here are some different things to think about. I talked to Stacy Brown-Philpot, who is a former CEO and sits on a number of boards. You may have chatted with her. She’s a wonderful storyteller. She was telling me. I just happened to chat with her a week or two after she got a new puppy. I think the puppy’s name is Fifi. I think she was talking about how Fifi really gravitated towards her and her family. She feels like it was because she’s stern, but she’s still warm and welcoming. And part of being a leader we talked about with this dog. At the time, I had about four dogs. But leadership, that leadership is about making people feel comfortable. It’s not that sort of top-down, I know all the answers, and I’m going to tell you what to do.
And so, part of what I think this book is really asking us to do is what does leadership look like as we come out and emerge from COVID and have different thoughts on what is really needed and, on a planet, and our world? And how, as women and women of color, do we get comfortable with sitting in seats of power? A lot of us shy away from historical definitions of power. Can we reframe it so that we are able to really step into those problems and step into solving things in a very different sort of way? That’s really what it is about. But I think we all have to define power for ourselves.
Ultimately, what I talked about in the book is there’s individual power, and there’s collective power. We need both if we’re going to change the structure. So, I call it the power of me and the power of we. And so, it’s getting clear for yourself, what do you need to shed? What do you need to carry? What roles do you want to take on? What is success for you? Big questions like that. And then, it’s finding your sisters or finding community so that you can actually learn from each other, share when microaggressions or racism happens, and also talk about the world we want because we’re in a moment where we’re still taking down structures or questioning things. I think we’re still figuring out and reimagining what’s possible. That work can only happen in community. So, that’s really what, for me, power and remaking power, that’s what it’s about.
MELINDA: Yeah. That’s a good segue actually into the “we,” the bigger “we” of allies, and how we can support each other as allies. And so, I will say here that I’m thinking about allyship, especially for White men and White women to step up and be there for women of color and support women of color. I also believe that we can and should all be allies for each other, not gender non-conforming folks, people of color, everyone because when we heal, we thrive faster when we work together.
As a part of what you just said earlier, is that redefining power is really important for all of us, and all of us to make space for what power and what leadership looks like. And it looks different for different people. I think part of the trauma that women of color and White women as well, but especially women of color, experience as they rise up in organizations, become leaders in organizations that that is trying to conform in those spaces, to what power should be, what it looks like, and replicating what has been.
DEEPA: Yes, exactly.
MELINDA: Yeah. Yeah. So, let’s talk a little bit about how we can support people around us. What does that look like? What does that support look like?
Absolutely. I should say, like, I wrote the book for women of color, and it has the title of women of color, and the stories are women of color, but at the end of the day, I think we’re in a moment to your point where everyone is questioning the space that work takes in our lives, what leadership looks like. I think the themes in the book and the questioning are applicable to anybody. So, I do want to say that.
Even many of the White men that were my peers of my age group were struggling with some of the same questions of how do they spend time with their children? How do they make work work? And so, I agree with you. I think this is a much bigger question. I just wanted to put some stories around women of color because we’re so often ignored, but I think there are many more things and many more groups that also need to be talked about. That’s important to say.
I think the first part is listening. I think there hasn’t been space for the conversation that the workplace shows up differently for each of us. It’s only in the last year and a half since George Floyd’s murder that I feel like there’s been permission to talk about that in a very sort of open way. I think that’s really important. I think the second thing is listening in a new way.
A lot of executives, I’m sure Melinda, you get this too. Well, my employees will tell me everything, or my Black employees will tell me how it is. When I then go and meet with them afterward, it’s a whole different set of stories and a set of conversations. We don’t have a structure, at least right now, that really rewards telling our truth and really sharing those stories. And so part of it is listening, I think in a very different way. I think we can talk about what that looks like. But structurally, the system doesn’t necessarily support that, from our HR processes to all the other things that are in place. And so, that’s part of it.
I think for allies, it’s realizing that listening is probably the most important part. Yes, we need to take action, but you don’t need to solve everything. You don’t need to save everything at the moment. And that allies need to understand it’s your work too. I mean, when I’m the ally, it’s my work too. It’s not just upon women of color or whoever is being talked over or talked around in a meeting to speak up for themselves. If we see something, I’ll feel responsible for changing the culture at the moment. None of us can afford to be bystanders anymore.
I think what you’re saying is also really important because the second most surprising thing in the book, and I tell this story, is at the end of all my interviews; I would say to the women of color, “Is there anything else you want to share?” And their voices would go quiet, and they get really uncomfortable and shift in their chairs. And then they’d say, like, “I really want to talk about how we don’t help each other as women.”
White women don’t help us. But even as women of color, like as Indian women or Black women, we don’t help each other. Even as Indian women, we don’t help each other. And I think that all comes down to this idea. And Rha and I have done this in talking through the TED work that we’ve done, and also with Billie Jean King, but the idea of scarcity and that there’s one seat, and as a result, we’re competing for it. But I think that’s also there as well.
So as allies, I think part of our work is understanding just because someone gets an opportunity doesn’t mean it takes away from us. And that’s probably the biggest thing I think that needs to shift in corporate settings and workplaces if we’re really going to make a change because you can’t be in a situation where some large portion of the population feels like they’re losing. That’s not expansive. That’s not really growing. And that’s really where I think the work has to be.
MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, there, there are multiple pieces within that too that I think there’s often a resistance to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work to working to support women of color to thrive in the workplace from White men who feel that that’s scarcity, and then I also think, probably partly as a result of being the only in the room so many times that women, women of color, also don’t do enough to support each other as well.
DEEPA: And part of what I want us to ask is who told us there’s one seat, right? If there are 12 seats, why is there only one designated for women? Or, you know, half of one designated for a woman of color. Where did that come from? Right? And that’s part of the reprogram we have to do. What do we think of it as a leader? I have this exercise in the book of like, think of a CEO or think of a leader. And unfortunately, when I was doing that to myself early on, I would think of a White male executive in a power suit because we’ve all been taught that. And so, part of the work is also us reprogramming the number of seats and what we think leadership looks like. So, I agree.
MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. So, as it’s come up a couple of times, this is not the first conversation that we’ve had. And anybody who’s listening or watching the first episode where we talked with the amazing Rha Goddess is Episode #30 on supporting women of color in the workplace. So, if you haven’t listened to it or watched it, go ahead and check that out.
I was thinking about that. And I believe it was actually the day before I finished writing my book. I was like, frantically writing. And I was like, “Wait. I have to have this podcast episode.” And then, I went right back to writing and got into bed, right through the night, and then turned my manuscript in the next day.
So, within that last time that we spoke, you were just embarking on nFormation, so I want to check back in with you. How is nFormation going? Well, actually, first, for those who haven’t listened to the episode, maybe just say a bit about what nFormation is and then how is it going? What are you learning? What’s happening?
DEEPA: Yeah, absolutely. So, nFormation was born out of those dinners that I mentioned early in this conversation. We had these amazing dinners across the country. Rha and I did them together. And the women would say, “When are you coming back?” We knew there was something magical we had uncorked in those conversations. And so, early in the pandemic, I would say even part of the pandemic, we knew we wanted to do something. We thought it might originally be a dinner series. It has transformed because of COVID, and what’s possible and what’s necessary. And so, that’s a little bit of the business model and what we had to come to.
We opened our doors a year and a half ago. And so, we are relatively new. We started programming a year ago, and we create safe, brave, and new spaces for professional women of color. What that means is we do classes, we do Safe Space conversations, we share. There’s an active online component to what we do. And what’s been amazing is just a quarter in, we pulled the women to see how they were feeling. Almost a quarter of them had asked for bigger jobs, more responsibility, bigger pay, just as a result of being a community, and it’s not anything magical that Rha and I did. I think it’s just that they saw each other and felt like we could ask for more. We can do more.
MELINDA: I think there was some magic in what you did too.
DEEPA: Thank you. I’d like to believe so too.
MELINDA: We always end with a call to action. So, Deepa, if there’s one action that you wish people would take after listening to our conversation, what is that one action?
DEEPA: I want them to make space to listen to the stories of women of color. When we say it’s different, I want you to ask why and then just listen. I also want people to understand and believe that we can change the structure if we do it together. I love this story that I was told. And the line in the story, I was meeting with a lobbyist, a Black lobbyist. She was saying to me anything that’s been created or anything that’s done can be undone. I just love that. I think it’s how we have to think about things.
I think so often we feel beaten by the system or by the structure. I’m not saying it’s not hard, but I believe together with allies and the moment that we’re in, you know, with everything we’ve uncovered over the last few years, change is possible. And if it was ever going to be, it’s now. And so, let’s work together to make work work for everybody.
MELINDA: I love that. I love that. And I will take a cue from your own interviews and ask you one last question, which is, is there anything else that we haven’t covered that you really think is important to get across?
DEEPA: I just think, maybe having more grace with each other. I interviewed a number of psychologists and a number of therapists as I was doing research for my book. And the one thing that I didn’t know before, and it makes sense, but I just didn’t put two and two together, is it’s one thing to know that racism or microaggressions are happening. But it’s another thing to finally be told that they’re happening. And for there to be space to kind of acknowledge it and let your body feel it.
And so, I think what a lot of women of color and people are going through before it was maybe an outward or outside thing. And now we’re letting it come in. And we’re realizing that it’s really affected us. And so, it’s just really having grace with each other and understanding how deeply affected certain people are, certain groups are. I just think we have to be more thoughtful, helpful, and want to work together right now more than anything, but just really understanding that moment that we’re in right now.
It’s different to know something, and it’s then to feel it. I think that’s really the space we’re in or the timeline we’re in now. People are feeling it. And so, that’s a different sort of energy and a different sort of process.
MELINDA: Thank you. Thank you for this conversation. Thank you for the work that you do. I appreciate you.
DEEPA: Thank you. Thank you for being such an amazing ally and having these conversations because I think we need to have more of them if we’re going to solve what we need to solve. So, thank you too.
MELINDA: My pleasure. I absolutely agree. Absolutely agree. More conversations, more action. So, where can people learn more about your book and your work?
DEEPA: So, if you can, go to DeepaPuru.com. There’s information about the book, information about nFormation, all the speaking, everything that’s coming, so everything is there.
MELINDA: Awesome. Awesome. And as I mentioned, this is our second conversation with Deepa, so if you missed the first, go check out Episode #30 on supporting women of color in the workplace. And again, you might also check out Episode #21 on overcoming imposter syndrome with Dr. Adia Gooden. So, thank you again, Deepa. And thank you all for listening, and please take action.
MELINDA: To learn more about this episode’s topic, visit ally.cc.
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Leading With Empathy & Allyship is an original show by Change Catalyst where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, and events. Appreciate you listening to our show and taking action as an ally. See you next week.
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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