How Women of Color Can Redefine Identity and Power in the Workforce with Deepa Purushothaman

Reading Time: 20 Minutes

In today’s podcast, we’re joined by Deepa Purushothaman as we explore how women of color can redefine identity and power in the workforce.

About Deepa Purushothaman

Deepa Purushothaman was one of the first senior partners at Deloitte, where she spent more than 20 years focusing on women’s leadership and inclusion strategies to help women of color navigate corporate structures. She was the first Indian-American woman and one of the youngest people to make Partner in the firm’s history.

After leaving Deloitte in 2020, Deepa co-founded nFormation, a membership-based community for professional women of color, offering brave, safe, new space and helping place women of color in C-suite positions and on Boards. 

Deepa is a Women and Public Policy Program Leader in Practice at the Harvard Kennedy School where she concentrates on research to combat systemic racism in corporate structures to help women of color rise. She is also a founding board member of Avasara, India’s first leadership academy exclusively for young women. She has degrees from Wellesley College, Harvard Kennedy School, and the London School of Economics. She lives in Los Angeles.

Read the Transcript

Allison: Welcome back to the Deliberate Leaders podcast. I am your host and executive business coach, Allison Dunn. I’m very excited to introduce our guest today. We have with us Deepa Purushothaman. She was the first senior partner at Deloitte, where she spent more than 20 years, focusing on women’s leadership and inclusion strategies to help women of color navigate corporate structures. She was the first Indian-American woman and also one of the youngest people to make partner in the firm’s entire history, which I think is amazing.

 After leaving Deloitte in 2020, Deepa co-founded nFormation, which is a membership-based company community for professional women of color, offering a brave, safe new space in helping women of color in C-suite positions and on boards. Deepa is the author of The First, the Few, the Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America, where she shares stories from other women of color and lays the groundwork for how women can unearth their power and channel it to redefine success for their most authentic selves. Deepa, thank you so much for joining us here today.

Deepa: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Allison: It’s my pleasure. I love to kick these off with a deliberate conversation and I’m hoping that you will share a deliberate leadership tip, your number one tip that you would give to leaders.

Deepa: I think it’s that we just need to listen more and maybe listen differently. So many of us think we listen, but we’re just in this day and age where I think listening is very different and listening is empathizing. But listening is also really trying to understand and put yourself in the other person’s shoes. So I think that would be my feedback. We all need to listen better and we’re in a moment where listening I feel is evolving and is very different than what it meant 10 years ago.

Allison: Yeah, I would agree. I feel like listening is one of my superpowers and I feel it’s a way that I get to show a lot of love and energy to people. Yeah, I completely agree. That’s awesome. So you write about the fact that the structure of corporate America was not built for us or by us. What does that mean for women of color trying to navigate their careers?

Deepa: I think in a lot of ways, and it’s funny. I also talk about corporate America not being a meritocracy, and I feel like sometimes when I say that, people’s eyes get really big, but there’s more openness, I think to that conversation now than ever. And all I’m trying to say is that the spaces that have been created didn’t necessarily consider I think women by the way, in general, in mind when they were created. So I don’t think I’m saying anything very shocking, but I think as a result of it not being created by women of color for women of color, there are ways in which the system just doesn’t work for us. And there’s just changes that need to be made so that more of us are not just surviving, but thriving.

 You know, when I open the book, I talk about a conversation I had with Vernā Myers and she’s the VP of Inclusion at Netflix and basically their chief inclusion officer. She’s a good friend and when I asked her about inclusion, I expected her to talk about workplaces, and instead she started talking about airplane design. She said when her kids were young, she used to really struggle because putting the luggage overhead and when there was turbulence in particular, it would really stress her out and she would white knuckle the entire ride. I jumped in right away, because when I was a partner with Deloitte, I sometimes traveled three cities a week. I lived on a plane and I’m 5′ 1″. And so for me, I wasn’t traveling with children. My issue was my luggage, getting my luggage overhead. When you’re 5′ 1″, that is such a process. If you’re tall, you don’t even think about this. I’ve shared this story a few times and if you’re over 5′ 6′, I don’t think people think about this, but it’s a real struggle.

 It’s interesting because I worry about it before I get on the plane, and I usually worry about like a half an hour before I get on the plane. And I jumped in with Vernā and I think it’s such a great example of how systems and how processes, and even places and environments are designed because I worry about not belonging before I even enter this really small space.

                     We had this really great conversation because Vernā is a tall black woman, and so here we are as two women of color even, having different experiences. And if we were sitting next to a 5′, 10″ gentleman or taller, he might not be thinking about his children and he may not be thinking about the suitcase issue either. And so it’s a great example of how things weren’t designed, I think for all of us in mind.

 I went and did some research and found that when that was designed decades ago, there were only 2% or 3% of designers who were actually women. So part of the conversation really needs to be that if we’re not sitting in the design seats, things like temperature, size, height, comfort, we’re not considered in the same sorts of ways. I think there’s so many examples of that, but I just love the airplane example because to me it’s such a small space. It speaks to how environments weren’t really made for everybody, and we now are in a process of trying to make them work for all of us.

Allison: It’s interesting that you bring that up, having gone back to travel again recently and recognizing that there is something about the plane landing and the luggage moving around above you. It is a fearful feeling.

Deepa: It’s interesting, isn’t it? Isn’t it? I also love the example because it’s also something when I used to really struggle when that would happen to me and I would go to put the suitcase up and I would really feel like everyone was watching me. I’d have a huge level of embarrassment. I’d start to go into my inner voice of why did I pack so much? Why am I wearing high heels? Why did I do all these things and make it about me? And that’s also in that statement of not made by us and for us. I think women, we tend to internalize a lot of things where the system wasn’t made with us in mind. And I want us to get out of that internalizing because we end up thinking we’re not enough and we did the wrong thing, versus maybe there’s just some things that need to change. Had we been sitting in the seats or half the design team, we might have put this suitcase under our seats versus on top. Again, I’m not saying that’s the right answer, but we would’ve had a different conversation because that process alienates so many people upon just entering within the first few minutes.

Allison: It absolutely does. Do you have some insights or things that you’d like to share about what does need to change?

Deepa: We brought up listening when we started this. I think part of what needs to happen is companies need to really listen differently. And so I think what we have found after George Floyd’s murder, there were a lot of companies that did soundings where they would get with their black and brown employees, hold court for an hour and hear feedback. And when I meet with executives now sometimes they’ll say, well now I listen to my employees. I’m hearing what they have to say. I’ll go then meet with those same black and brown employees an hour later and hear a completely different set of stories. And so I think part of what we need to understand is yes, maybe we are starting to hold space differently, but this took decades and centuries to put in place and we’re not going to fix it in two years. The process of creating safety, psychological safety, of creating open conversations, of creating space takes art. It takes time, it takes trust, and so I think part of my feedback to people is that there is a lot of give and take. There’s a lot of patience we need and we are very early in the journey of creating truly safe spaces for people.

Allison: Yeah, definitely. In the bio that I read, you kind of indicate being a first. How did being a first shape your own workplace experience?

Deepa: Yeah, so a lot of my own discussion, my own navigation was growing up. I was born and raised in the United States. My parents are immigrants from India, so growing up at home, we spoke a different language. We ate different food. I grew up in a completely white town. I was one of maybe 4 or 5 students of color in a school of 500 so there’s always this sense of being different, but not really fully understanding because my parents also didn’t talk about race at home. There was this conversation of we came to this country to make a better life for you, so just work harder and everything would be fine, which is great, but it also sets you up to not really understand what’s happening around you. And so part of what I have always felt as I navigated spaces was they weren’t necessarily again made for me, but I also didn’t see myself represented.

 Even as a young girl, I didn’t see myself on television. My teachers didn’t look like me. There weren’t a lot of examples around me. And as I entered the corporate world and rose, there weren’t a lot of examples around me. So when you don’t see yourself, I think you inherently innately start to question do you belong, which I think would happen to anybody. And then secondly, you start to question how is your leadership going to look because you don’t see it modeled in front of you. So I found that I had to pick and pull from different leaders to create a voice, to create a style, to figure out how to show up in a very different way because I didn’t have that one exact model. I’m not saying it works that way. I think there was a flawed logic in that if there was another Indian woman who looked like me, then maybe I would just model that.

 But had I had a couple of more examples of that, I think I may have come to that understanding a little bit faster, easier. And so it was a little bit of a sense of kind of stumbling and not really having places I could go to ask questions. I did well and I had a lot of support and a lot of sponsorship, but it came from older white men and there were just things that we probably couldn’t connect on that I had to figure out on my own. You know, things like giving feedback, getting feedback. I think it’s different as a woman of color. It’s different for women. How you actually give people hard feedback. You can’t give it in the same way that I think white men can give feedback. You have to think about how it comes across and your tone and how you are delivering it, just because of the tight range that we get and it’s even tighter for women of color. So that’s what I would say. It’s a different process when you’re a first and you know what? We don’t talk about it enough and I interviewed 500 women of color to write the book. There’s a shadow side to trailblazing. There’s a shadow side to being a first. There’s responsibility and burden. There’s also a lot of benefit and a lot of glory, but there’s this negative side that we don’t talk about. And I think that’s the part I really want to unpack because if we don’t deal with those challenges, we can’t make the first few and only the many, which is really what the goal is, I think for most companies.

Allison: Right. Thank you for being a first, first and foremost.

Deepa: Thank you.

Allison: You talk a lot about how we can begin to reframe the whole fitting-in or leaning-in mentality. But it has kind of left just women in general feeling burnt out and isolated in the workplace. So how do we do that?

Deepa: So much of what we’ve heard for the last few years – and I don’t mean the last 2 years; I mean the last 5, 10 years – was do more, lean in. If you just try harder, if you work harder, everything will be okay. And it’s interesting because that’s a lot of the feedback that most of the women of color have received. There were these messages that they had to do more and be more just to get to the table. So I think as women, we are already working harder. I think as women of color, we’re feeling like there’s all eyes on us because there’s so few of us, we can’t mess up, we can’t step out of step. And so there’s a real intense sense of perfectionism, of conforming, because the models don’t look like us so we’re kind of fitting in to get ahead.

               We’re sacrificing parts of ourselves, erasing parts of ourselves, and so I call it conforming, performing and producing. There’s a lot of effort on those three characteristics and I think in a lot of ways it makes it really difficult. And so this idea of do more, fit in more, work harder, be more perfect challenges us and it causes many of us … 2 out of 3 women that I interviewed were sick and I don’t mean sick like with cancer or a clear diagnosis. I mean with the things that doctors found really hard to diagnose – skin rashes, headaches, stomach aches, heart palpitations, you know, things that I call mysterious illnesses. And I think it comes from the stress of trying to be perfect, trying to do more, to not only get to the seat, but once you’re in the seat preserve the seat. So many of the women I interviewed also would say things like I got to the top, but I didn’t feel powerful. And so this real struggle with how you introduce the whole session, how do you rise and thrive? How do you rise and stay authentic to who you are? I think it’s a struggle candidly for a lot of women, not just women of color, but I think it’s more acute for women of color.

Allison: In being a first at Deloitte, what would be your number one challenge that you felt at that time?

Deepa: My biggest challenge was less around race and gender and more about age because I made partner in my early 30s, and as an Indian woman, I already look younger than my age. And so to kind of put those two things together, there was constantly this: where’s the partner? You can’t be the most senior person here. Oh, are you here to get coffee? And not within my firm, but I serve clients, so I was always in a different client setting every few months, if not every few weeks. And so there was this sense of … that really used to chip at me until I got older and now I actually want to stay looking younger.

                     When I was younger, that really used to bother me, and I used to really feel this need to defend it and a real need to overproduce or overcompensate for that to show them that they were wrong, without realizing I don’t have to internalize that. That is not me. So for me, it was more in that respect of always looking younger and having to prove that I deserve to be there and who I was and pull out my credentials every time. That would happen sometimes two or three times in a day. So I think you end up with this really deep sense of imposter syndrome, which again is another issue that a lot of women and women of color face.

Allison: What advice would you have for women who are the first, the few or maybe even the only?

Deepa: In the book I talk about the power of me and the power of we. I think there’s work that we have to do on ourselves to decide how do we want to show up? What does success look like for us? How are we going to navigate because the conforming behavior is not going to make us happy in the long run. That’s kind of the gist of the book. You really have to kind of pave your own way and really take care of yourself. So that’s the power of me. But I think an even more important part is the power of we. We have to find each other, whether that’s working moms, whether that’s women, whether that’s women of color. There are things that are more difficult for us as we navigate these spaces. And so finding community, finding advice, finding your sister so you can lean on each other is part of what we need to do. And so that WE is just so important, especially for women of color.

 The whole book started because I was really struggling with leaving. I had known for three years my health had been failing me. I knew it was time to leave. As a first, I felt really responsible for staying in my seat. I felt like all eyes were on me. Leaving wasn’t just me. I was letting people down. And so I started meeting with women of color. It started one-on-one and then eventually turned into these dozen dinners that we did across the country. And we would get in these rooms, I thought for one or two hours and these were senior women of color. I was just networking. I was just trying to figure out how do I leave. Where do I go?

                     Instead, what happened is 6, 7, 8 hours of conversation of what it was like to be a first, few and only. What it was like to navigate in these spaces. And it was so unique because most of us didn’t have conversations like that. So I think it showed me and now my work is really built on this sense of community that I think once you have each other, once you realize that the obstacles are shared, once you realize that it’s not your weight in the suitcase, that there are some obstacles that are for everybody, then it frees you and it liberates you and you can kind of take what’s yours and give back the rest. But that takes community and takes us working together and talking about it.

Allison: Fantastic. Congratulations on the release of this book.

Deepa: Thank you.

Allison: That just happened last month. I know that this is an important time to share this message. What do you hope that this book means to women of color?

Deepa: Again, I wrote the book for women of color. I’ll just share with you. I’m really surprised who’s picking it up. It’s a lot of white allies and white leaders who are picking it up. A lot of white male leaders, who I did not expect to pick up the book. They were all the early readers and so it’s been really exciting that there is this desire for a greater conversation. And I think a sense that the workplace is different and does show up differently, but there has not really been the space to understand how and where, and it’s hard to ask those questions, like tell me how it’s really different. I think it is hard for a lot of white male leaders in particular to ask, so that’s been really surprising.

 For women of color, I wanted them to see themselves. There’s so few business books written by us for us. Less than 11% of books are written by women of color. When you look at all the thought leaders out there, they’re usually white men, and I wanted us to see that we have ideas, we have differences, that we have perspectives to put out there, and that there are different ways of leading and different ways of doing business, and that once they saw themselves, maybe they would let go of some of the challenges and stop the internalization and the self-doubt and see that they can free themselves.

Allison: Yeah, talking about the internalization of that and how we – not we – but how you’re saying that people feel like they need to work harder. What suggestions or what advice do you give to help them move past the idea of working harder to get ahead?

Deepa: I think I have the conversations around the studies and the data around how so many of the women are burnt out. And by the way, we’re in this moment where the last few years I think it made many of us question the space that work takes in our life and questions around burnout. So I usually start with that sort of data and ask questions about where they are in their own process. And then I think I share with them, what are you really trying to accomplish? What does success look like for you? What do you want your life to be like?

                        And so it’s almost a little bit of a visioning process and figuring out what is working for you and what is not working for you. And if you could create your ideal workplace or your ideal role or your ideal life, what would that look like waking up in the morning and going to bed? I think we don’t often let ourselves think those things. We don’t often let ourselves start with a blank sheet of paper and really dream. And we’re in this moment where so much of work is being redone and we get to ask those questions. We get to do things differently, and so I think it starts there. It starts with realizing you don’t have to keep doing the same thing. That you can ask yourself different questions, because if you don’t know what you want, how can you go ask anybody else for it? You can’t.

Allison: Yeah.

Deepa: You can’t.

Allison: I resonate with that. It’s a very big coaching moment with almost every leader, executive business owner that I work with, and it’s a very powerful exercise to go through of how do you want to design it? How do you want your life to be, especially because work is such a big part of it?

Deepa: Absolutely.

Allison: Yeah. Love that. Deepa, we’ve talked specifically about the ‘woke’ so far, but the truth is much of what you’ve shared is relevant across the full spectrum of underrepresented groups. What commonalities do you see?

Deepa: Well, I did speak to a lot of men of color. I did speak to different groups trying to understand what am I talking about. In the book I even pull apart this is different for black women, this is different for Indian women, and I try and explain where possible, where there are nuances so it’s not the same. I want to be clear about that. What I found is I think men of color also struggle with their voice. They struggle with how to show up. They struggle with the stereotypes, the microaggressions. They struggle with some of the challenges even at home. One of the biggest findings that I found is there’s a different life experience at home for a lot of the women I interviewed, their family expectations.

 A lot of the women I interviewed were expected to raise their children and cook and clean themselves. That wasn’t something that they could outsource because their family saw that as a negative thing, especially in some of the Asian families that I spoke with and so really understanding that. I think some of the challenges are the same for the men of color that I spoke with, but I also found that there’s a different layer. There was a different layer of sexism. There was a different layer of sexual harassment. There was a different layer of patriarchy that was there for the women of color. So I do think some of the challenges of navigating a space when you’re not in the majority or the examples that have power is different, but I think some of the nuances for women of color are really different and not something that we’ve really openly talked about and I think that’s also what’s changing right now.

Allison: Thank you. You mentioned that it’s hard to emulate what you can’t see. How do we begin to overcome our own limiting image of leadership?

Deepa: Yeah. Part of this is I call them delusions. I think there are things that we’ve been taught, and I talk about in the beginning of the book these 10 delusions we’ve been taught about corporate America, and then I also talk about delusions that we’ve been taught within our own families. So one of the ideas around you can’t see what you can’t be, or you can’t be what you can’t see is a little bit of a delusion. Part of what I ended up having to teach myself is I could be it without seeing it. It’s easier to see it and I wish I had had it myself, and that’s part of where the imposter syndrome and the struggle comes from, but you don’t necessarily need to.

 Along those lines, another delusion that I think is really important for us to get rid of is this idea of scarcity. I mean, so much of what inclusion work is about, and especially as you asked me about women and men in general, is this idea that we are giving opportunities to women of color and that’s not at all what I’m talking about. I’m saying this idea that there’s even set opportunities, or that there’s 12 seats at the table, or that there’s this limited pie that we’re just constantly redistributing is a very flawed way of thinking and is a delusion that we’ve all been taught and we’ve all bought into. And why do we believe that? So some of this work is really about asking the things that we believe, not about ourselves, but around the system and then really working together in groups to change that and to think about it differently.

Allison: Nice. I know that challenging the status quo is a very powerful thing to do for sure.

Deepa: Yeah.

Allison: In just a final few questions, in what ways do you think that workplace cultures really must evolve?

Deepa: I think for a lot of workplace cultures, they’re trying right now. I think there’s a sense. As the book came out, like I said, I wasn’t sure who was going to embrace it and who was going to want me to talk about it. And there’s been a lot of acceptance and a lot of companies have asked me to come in and talk about it, and they’re not asking me to sanitize what I’m talking about in a way that I would’ve had to a few years ago. So I think there’s a lot of interest. I think, unfortunately, a lot of companies and a lot of leaders don’t know what the work is, don’t know what to do next. They want to do better, but they don’t know how. I think listening is the first step. I think really asking and having women of color and people of color help design the future is part of this conversation. I think really understanding that this is going to take a long time is part of this discussion, and educating ourselves and understanding our own biases, understanding what we can do better.

 I talk in the book a little bit about microaggressions and I tell women of color to be ready, because there are going to be racist incidents or microaggressions that happen around them, and we haven’t really been taught what to do when they happen. And what I’m realizing as I talk to more and more leaders and more and more companies is that allies who I call co-conspirators in the book also haven’t been taught what to do when those things happen. So it’s a little bit of we all just need to practice.

                     We all need to realize that we have not been given the tools around race and race conversations, and so how we all must be patient with each other as we’re all figuring out what are my boundaries? How do I speak up when this doesn’t work for me, and when do I intervene? And so that’s really my thought and my advice as part of this is we’re kind of doing the work on race as we’re improving companies all at the same time. But I also think it’s so important because companies are also where we actually interact with people who are different than ourselves.

 There’s a lot of research in the book, and one of the tidbits is that we tend to live next to people who look like us, who have similar backgrounds, and I won’t go into all that. But if work is one of the only places where we actually are around people who are different from us, that’s where we have to do this kind of work, even if some of us don’t think it’s actually part of our job. And so it’s really realizing that workplaces, this is where this kind of work has to happen, but we’re all just in the bidding stages of figuring out how to do it.

Allison: Right. I think that’s an excellent observation. My final question is how can we create cultures of belonging? What would we need to do to do that?

Deepa: I think the number one thing we have to do is really creating safety, so understanding what makes people feel safe. How can you be a leader that actually makes space for someone and really having different conversations than we’ve had before. I tell a story in the book where I interviewed Stacy Brown-Philpot, and she was the CEO of TaskRabbit. I just happened to interview her the week that her family got a puppy. And she said to me, you know, Deepa, I didn’t really want this puppy, but my family wanted the puppy so we got the puppy during COVID and the puppy follows me around, of all the people in the family and so she was a little bit dumbstruck by that.

 She shared with me that she thinks it’s because she is stern, but she’s also approachable, that she has a leadership style that makes the puppy feel safe. And we had this big conversation about power and about leadership. And she was saying instead of leaders telling people what to do and expecting them to follow or being top down, what if leadership and what if what we really are trying to create is spaces where people follow because they innately feel more safe. I just think that’s really what we’re talking about. To have belonging, you need safety and they need to go hand in hand. My sense of safety is going to be different than yours and that’s I think part of what makes this hard and part of why the listening and part of the conversations and the safe spaces are so important, because we have to figure out what is going to make everybody feel safe, or enough people feel safe that we’re having a different kind of conversation. I think that’s the first step to belonging.

Allison: Yes. Deepa, thank you so much for this conversation.

Deepa: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Allison: What is the best way for people to connect or follow you?

Deepa: Absolutely. So probably off my website.  and information about the company, about the book, and also all the speaking that I’m doing is all housed there.

Allison: Fantastic. Well, I am excited for your book and I’m sure it will be incredibly successful. Thank you so much.

Deepa: Thank you.


I'm Allison Dunn,

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