Deepa Purushothaman is an author, speaker, leader, and Co-founder of nFormation. Deepa challenges and redefines the status quo of leadership, success, and power by centering on the needs and experiences of women of color. Deepa shares her journey from executive to thought leader and how her sabbatical to recover her health, combined with her study of policy led her to interview over 500 women of color in senior positions about the microaggressions and racism they have experienced in the corporate world. She gave them a voice in her book, The First, The Few, The Only: How Women of Color Redefine Power in Corporate America. She talks about her experiences teaching leaders to listen carefully to the women of color in their organizations to learn how work is not working for them, shares her suggestions to women of color on how to react to racist situations, and explains to executives how to talk about them when they occur. We are in a moment where people are open to uncomfortable conversations, and willing to change what should be changed. Deepa is excited for the work of the future where women of color will feel included and heard.
[1:45] Jan shares Deepa Purushothaman’s background. After leaving Deloitte, Deepa co-founded nFormation, a membership-based community for professional women of color, helping place them in C-suites and on boards. Deepa’s first book, The First, The Few, The Only: How Women of Color Redefine Power in Corporate America, was published in March 2022 to international acclaim.
[2:28] Jan welcomes Deepa to The Leadership Podcast. Deepa left corporate America during the pandemic, just before the Great Resignation. People told her she was crazy to leave a secure position. She says you leap sometimes and it just works out.
[3:37] Deepa tells why she left the corporate world. She was done with her corporate career and needed a break. She wanted to do something around women of color. At the time, people thought COVID-19 would be just a couple of weeks.
[5:03] Deepa spent 21 years in corporate roles at Deloitte. Toward the end of her career, she was very sick and spent eight months in bed. She started to see the importance of health and asked herself what place she wanted work to take in her life. She had a big value shift.
[7:18] Deepa shares her tips for living a good life in a corporation. It takes very intentional work, protecting your time, and accepting that you may not rise fast in the company.
[8:38] Before resigning, Deepa had taken an eight-month leave of absence for illness. After 15 doctors, she was diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease. Eight months of unplugging from the system helped her see she could have a family and other things outside the firm. She figured out how she wanted to redesign her life and what she needed to recharge. Being able to do that was a gift.
[11:18] Deepa had had a growing sense of purpose about policy — that was her major in school — and that, combined with her sick-leave sabbatical, gave her a new direction for her life.
[13:08] Deepa found similarities between working at a large corporation and a small to medium business. She interviewed mainly VP-level and above. The women would say they had finally gotten to their seat of power and they didn’t feel powerful. A lot of the women of color Deepa interviewed talked about erasing or hiding parts of themselves to get to the table in any size of business.
[14:02] Many women of color grew up as “onlies” and didn’t see themselves represented in the media or among leaders. So there’s a question of belonging and having to find your voice. We’re trying to figure out what leadership looks like for us because we don’t see it around us.
[14:55] Deepa listed in her book twelve different challenges that women of color executives face. At the top of the list, it’s not seeing yourself represented and having to find your voice. The sense of “first, few, and only” is really different. There’s a deep sense of isolation. Deepa lists other differences that affect women of color more than anyone else, including chronic illnesses and the extra work they have to do.
[18:19] One woman of color Deepa interviewed edits how she talks, dresses, styles her hair, and what she eats because she is the only woman of color in her company and her community, and she wants to present all black people in the best light possible. Executive women of color are asked to mentor many women of color because they are the only ones in their company or industry in senior positions.
[22:08] Deepa interviewed Vernā Myers of Netflix, who told her how offputting airplane overhead storage compartments are for women with small children who might get hit with falling luggage. Deepa notes similarly that workplaces weren’t designed with all people in mind. The corporate model of the family, with one person working and the other raising children, has never been updated.
[24:11] Many of the women of color in the book shared microaggressions that had been said to them. Deepa notes a few that were said to her two or three times daily. Some women were told they were “articulate” on a daily basis. It made them feel like they didn’t belong. No one heard people say to a white man that he was articulate.
[26:16] About the Senate Panel Vote for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. Deepa has written an Op-Ed about it that drew a lot of attention. Despite being overqualified, her credentials were questioned. Most of the women Deepa interviewed said they had to be two or four times as good as their counterparts just to be credible or to get the opportunity. Judge Jackson had to smile through derogatory comments.
[28:33] Deepa tells how she handled it when people asked her if she was in a meeting to take notes or pour the coffee when she was the senior person in the room. She contrasts that with how she would handle her feelings about the same situation today.
[31:56] How does Deepa address systemic issues at a Fortune 100 company? She meets with an executive team and is very open and blunt. Some executives tell Deepa they have solved these problems, then Deepa speaks with Black and Brown employees and hears a list of challenges and concerns. Deepa talks with companies about starting on a journey that will take a while.
[35:12] Deepa is optimistic that executives are listening differently and if we are to change how work works for everybody, now is the time. Deepa wants leaders to give themselves permission to try different things. None of us have been taught how to talk about race. Deepa talks in the book about things women of color can do when they face racist incidents. Practice and have statements ready.
[36:38] Deepa also encourages white male leaders to practice dealing with incidents, such as saying, “That didn’t sit right,” “I’m afraid that probably didn’t land the same way for everybody,” or “Can we stop the meeting and talk about what just happened?” We all need to learn what to do about racism. Give yourself permission to try. It’s more important that you try than that you don’t do anything.
[37:15] In the two years it took to write the book, the language has progressed so much in how we talk about these topics. The terms are changing. You’re not going to get it right every time. That’s OK; it’s more important to try and to give yourself grace. Deepa notes that the employee voice is on the rise and she wants people to be happy in their jobs.
[39:45] Deepa talks about “the power of me,” and “the power of we.” In order to create change, it’s going to take other people. Deepa sees a lot of delusions about how work has to be.
[41:02] Leaders should learn to know the values that women of color hold, such as community. Women of color tell Deepa they have negative feelings for the word “Power.” She asked Stacy Brown Philpot, CEO of TaskRabbit, about power and she suggested leadership and power could be about making people feel safe and that they can bring all of who they are to the table, with some boundaries and guardrails.
[44:36] Deepa has learned through publishing this book that you have to be ready but you also have to trust that the universe will meet you where you are. She is also excited about the future and the possibility of the moment we are in. Change is possible if we band together and have hard conversations. If we are ever going to have a better world of work, it is now.
[46:28] Deepa’s final thoughts: We all have power. We all have the ability to find our voice and some of this is about doing the hard work to figure out what’s important to you, and what your values are. How do you want to show up? How do you want to lead? Who do you want to be? When you know that, there are ways to change the places where you work. We have a lot more power than we realize.
Quotable Quotes“[When I left my career] I didn’t have a book deal. I didn’t have the company founded. There were a lot of questions around that, so … It kind of speaks to my risk-taking. You leap sometimes and it just works out.” Click To Tweet “I had a very visible job. I was known in a hundred-thousand-person organization by my first name. … When you make it relatively young, and you make it quickly … — I’d sacrificed a lot to get to that seat.” Click To Tweet “I thought you could have success and health is important but it wasn’t top-of-mind. … I started to get really sick. … Part of my journey was getting healthy; part of my journey was asking different questions. … What space do I… Click To Tweet “I interviewed over 500 women of color to write the book and so their stories are in there. … One of the statements that kept coming up over and over again is this pressure to conform, perform, and produce.” Click To Tweet “You almost have to unplug for at least six months to even understand … what the values are and look in your life and see what makes you happy.” Click To Tweet “I grew up in a very white, very small farm-country town where I was one of five students of color in a school of 500. So you’re always kind of wondering, ‘What’s different; where do I belong?’” Click To Tweet “When I get that angry or that upset, I carry that for a long time. … I have research that suggests that we carry negative comments four times as long as a positive comment or a compliment. Those kinds of things really weigh on… Click To Tweet “We have not created safety in companies. We have not created places where people are able to tell the truth and women of color can share everything that’s happening to them.” Click To Tweet “There are a lot of challenges. Speaking with 500 women of color, … there is … a lot of trauma. I’m really optimistic because I feel like we’re in a moment where people are listening differently and that if we were ever going to… Click To Tweet “I think we’re just in a moment where employee voice is on the rise. And so, if companies and leaders don’t start to pay attention to that, I think they’re missing something. … I want people to be happy in the jobs that they have.… Click To Tweet
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- Deepa Purushothaman on LinkedIn
- The First, The Few, The Only: How Women of Color Redefine Power in Corporate America, by Deepa Purushothaman
- George Floyd
- Lyme disease
- Vernā Myers
- Ketanji Brown Jackson
- Fortune 100
- Stacy Brown-Philpot
- Maya Angelou