Six Ways to Embrace Workplace Inclusion (Plus Three Uplifting Takeaways for Women of Color) with Deepa Purushothaman – Virtual Gathering Recap

On March 8, 2022, Conscious Capitalism, Inc., had the pleasure of welcoming Deepa Purushothaman, founder of nFormation and author of new book The First, The Few, The Only: How Women of Color can Redefine Power in Corporate America, to share her perspective on redefining leadership and embracing a counter-narrative for women leaders in the workplace.

In conversation with our very own Melissa Doolin-Koehne, Deepa offered countless ways for women and allies alike to take a new approach to inclusivity in the workplace. Here, we offer six of our takeaways for allies from this pivotal conversation taking place on International Women’s Day—plus three uplifting insights for women of color.

For Allies

1. Accept that discrimination is likely happening in your workplace.

Racism just isn’t a problem here. That’s a statement that Deepa has a heard a lot in working with senior leaders on their DEI efforts. She recounts that, oftentimes, she will then go on to talk to the women and people of color at that company and hear exactly the opposite.

“There’s still a gap between what we believe we’re being told and what’s truly happening,” Deepa says, noting that it’s not always safe to talk about racism and discrimination at work. “So part of what we have to recognize and what we have to do is to find a different way to hold space, to have those conversations, to have an awakening that it’s highly possible that racism is happening in your workplace.”

2. Create space.

One of the reasons Deepa began writing The First, The Few, The Only was to provide a platform for women of color to tell their stories. A collection of hundreds of interviews conducted by Deepa, the book offers an intimate look into the unique and shared experiences of Black, Latin, Hispanic, and Asian women leaders in life and at work.

Part of what Deepa hopes others will take from these interviews, is that conversations like these need to happen more often, and more freely, especially in the workplace. And the culture must be one where women feel they can speak without worry of judgement or retaliation:

“I don’t know that we’ve really had space as women of color to really share how [our experiences are] different… It’s hard to talk about the challenges, it’s hard to talk about what’s wrong with the system because you’re not always rewarded for that.”

“In order to change culture, we have to do it together.” 

3. Be an active ally…

“In order to change culture, we have to do it together,” Deepa asserted as she talked about helping women of color feel less alone in navigating workplace challenges, like sexism, bias, or microaggressions.

While there are a number of professionals today that may identify as allies, it’s important to put action behind those words, too. Meaningful change will be born out of our collective actions to improve the workplace for all. Many professionals have shifted away from the term ally and towards the concept of being an accomplice, someone who actively works alongside their diverse colleagues and friends in addition to cheering them on from the sidelines.

4. …but avoid performative action.

To determine whether or not your efforts are making a tangible difference, ask yourself the question, why am I doing this?

“We’re still struggling with a lot of performative measures, where companies are doing things but it’s not really having an impact… you have to give yourself permission to get it wrong before you get it right,” Deepa shared.

As an example, Deepa offered her experience working with a senior leader in the wake of George Floyd’s murder to help him craft a public response making his stance clear. When Deepa sent him a first draft, he immediately responded that the message was too provocative. In response, Deepa asked him, “Why are you doing this?” By asking him why it was important to respond to racial injustice, Deepa illuminated that effecting systemic change can require provocation and condemnation in no uncertain terms.

While this was a big step for that senior leader, Deepa saw it as a way to move beyond performance and assume the risk stepping out of your comfort zone for the sake of equality.

5. Practice what it feels like to stand up for others.

Many of us have seen or heard something that was at the very least inappropriate—or perhaps, in some cases, overtly racist, sexist, or otherwise—but felt helpless in not knowing how to respond in the moment.

Deepa recommends coming up with at least three statements in response to scenarios where you’re witnessing discrimination towards another at work. More importantly, Deepa says to actually role play and practice your responses aloud so that those moments are not passing by where fellow colleagues are being silenced, belittled, or made to feel unwelcome because of who they are, without consequence.

6. Embrace unconventional modes of leadership.

A lot of what drives Deepa’s current work is changing the way we talk about leadership and offering a counter-narrative for women of color, in particular. In addition to recognizing the more traditional hallmarks of leadership, like rational or analytical thinking, Deepa also wants us to begin to celebrate the less conventional traits of exceptional leaders, like empathy and intuition, which women tend to embrace more openly and more often.

For Women of Color

While Deepa dedicated a good portion of the conversation to helping leaders in our conscious community become stronger supporters, allies, and accomplices at work, she also took the time to share ways women of color can rewrite their narratives, tap into being fully themselves, and embrace the power and wisdom that come with authenticity.

1. Shed narratives that do not serve you and embrace your inherent value.

In talking to Black, Latin, Asian, Hispanic, and women of mixed races for her book, Deepa learned that each of these unique communities of women all shared narratives that have been assigned to their gender and race. For example, Deepa heard from Black women that they feel they have to work harder than everybody else just to get a fair shot and from Latin women that they feel they should never rock the boat by bringing too much attention to themselves; overall, the women of color Deepa spoke to shared they rarely feel like they’re truly enough.

In response, Deepa says, “Those are messages I feel that we have to shed… messages that don’t serve us, and we have to replace those messages with things that do.”

“The ‘power of me’ is really getting clear on what you believe and what your boundaries are and how you redefine for yourself what is possible.”

To do that, Deepa talks about embracing a ‘power of me’ mindset. She implores women of color to embrace the value in being full themselves and what makes them them outside of work, outside of their professional reputation, and outside of others’ opinions:

“The ‘power of me’ is really getting clear on what you believe and what your boundaries are and how you redefine for yourself what is possible.”

2. Your health is your wealth.

Speaking from her own experience, Deepa shared that she learned the hard way that she could not truly be successful if she was not taking care of herself. She recalled a time where she was constantly sick and could not identify the cause or reason; but after visiting thirteen doctors, the fourteenth offered the insight she needed. With the mentality that she had so much to prove through her work, Deepa was constantly traveling, working nonstop, not eating properly, and not sleeping, and it was taking a noticeable, physical toll on her body.

The last doctor asked her, “What would you do if you didn’t do a big job like this?” This led Deepa to realize that she placed so much emphasis on her work—because that’s what she felt like she had to do and because society often tells women they have to choose between work, themselves, their families—that it was to the detriment of her mental and physical wellness.

“The big learning is I used to think about success and health as two different things. Success for me was more metric driven or about advancing; now I have a new definition of success that I don’t think I can be successful if I’m not healthy. … It’s a little bit different than what I think most people think about when they think about corporate America, there’s a lot of sacrificing your health, your family, and your time to get ahead and that’s part of what I want to rewrite for us, for everybody.”

3. Embrace the leader you are.

A consistent message throughout this conversation was for women of color to not be afraid to tell their stories, share their experiences, and embrace what makes them different and strong.

As an accomplished woman of color, and a first—the first Indian American woman partner at Deloitte—Deepa explained: “We know that there’s some path we’re supposed to walk. It doesn’t feel exactly right for us because it wasn’t made for us or by us, but we’re also not sure what constitutes going off of that path… which is why I think more of us need to tell our stories, because I think real power for all of us, all groups that don’t have a voice, is finding ways that we can be true to who we are.”

We’re in a time where change is happening rapidly and all around us. Now is a unique moment where we can begin to think about leadership, inclusion, and equity differently, embracing women of color as leaders in their own right.

To get the full conversation, watch the recording of this virtual gathering.

Our Virtual Gatherings are designed for business leaders, investors, and advocates who are looking to level-up their practice by learning from and connecting with Conscious Capitalists around the world.