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Using Challenges and Obstacles as Fuel, with Deepa Purushothaman

Using Challenges and Obstacles as Fuel, with Deepa Purushothaman

We sit down with Deepa Purushothaman, author, speaker, and co-founder of nFormation, to discuss being a woman of color in the workplace, taking care of your health and wellness, and her book, "The First, the Few, the Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America."


0:00:00.1 Maricella Herrera: Where leaders go, learning follows. Harvard Business School Executive Education offers more than 60 in-person and virtual programs. Learn more and apply at That's


0:00:19.0 Megan Oliver: Welcome to the Ellevate Podcast: Conversations With Women Changing the Face of Business, and now your hosts, Maricella Herrera and Megan Oliver.


0:00:35.5 MH: Hi, all. Welcome to the Ellevate Podcast. I'm Maricella Herrera and I'm here with my co-host Megan Oliver. Megan, what's up?

0:00:47.5 MO: Hi. It's all good here. It's not as good where you are. I know. We just had behind the scenes. We just had our one-on-one, and you're currently blow drying your boot because you broke your toes or something.

0:01:00.7 MH: Yeah. It's been non-stop. So as you probably heard in the last episode, I had a little accident at the gym where I dropped a 15-kilo weight on my toes and broke three toes, so yesterday... To update you on what's going on with that. Few things, one is I'm still in London and I'm gonna stay an extra week because I am dreading an 8-hour flight back to New York with broken toes, although I will still have broken toes by then, but the doctor who I went to see yesterday said that in the first two weeks is when it's really painful, and it's really... It's not. So I today decided it's been a few days since I haven't washed my hair. It might be a good idea to go do that, so I did that and tied a plastic bag around my shoe, boot, foot situation, which then proceeded to get inundated with water. So it is not fun. I had to change my dressings and bandages, and it was not fun at all, plus my sister-in-law had to do it. That poor woman has had to be with me through everything, and she has a one-year-old baby, so she's still not... She's a mom, but still not at the point where she's dealing with injuries except mine.

0:02:29.9 MO: I love that.

0:02:31.8 MH: Yeah, she's like, "Oh, I'm a nurse." I'm like, "No, you're a mom." And she... Yeah, and so now I'm supposed to go to afternoon tea because again, when in London, except that my shoe is completely drenched in water and I am blow drying it and hoping for the best.

0:02:53.4 MO: Yeah, meanwhile over here, I'm still... I'm back in New York. Hilarious that I'm back in New York, right, as you've left it.

0:03:03.8 MH: Yeah.

0:03:04.5 MO: But I guess my body is still adjusting to the time zone difference because as you know, I slept right through both my alarms this morning and woke up 20 minutes into when you had rescheduled our one-on-one to and I was like, Um, I'm so sorry.

0:03:22.1 MH: It's totally fine. I did a thing that I hated when people did this to me, or when people do this to me, which was moved the meeting in the last minute, and because of the time difference, the last minute was really your 5:00 AM.

0:03:39.0 MO: Yeah, exactly.

0:03:40.2 MH: So totally fine.

0:03:41.8 MO: Yeah, so I woke up at 9:52, which is way later than I ever wake up, obviously, and my first thought was, Oh, well, at least my one-on-one wasn't until 10:30, so I'm okay. So I just go into Slack to be like, did I miss anything, did I whatever, and the first thing I see is like meeting at 9:30 and I was like, oh God.

0:04:03.1 MH: Totally fine. We keep it chill at Ellevate plus if anyone understands what it's like to oversleep, it's me. I am very well a night owl and the mornings do not work for me, which is why I really love working from London.

0:04:23.1 MO: Yeah, that's true, and you're so much more... I imagine this would be true with me too, 'cause I'm exactly the same way. You're so much more chipper in morning meetings now because you've already been at work for like three hours.

0:04:36.6 MH: Right.

0:04:40.1 MO: You're just like, "Alright. Let's go." And we're all like, "It's like 9:30. What's happening?"

0:04:47.1 MH: Yeah. It's an interesting dynamic, but it also works out really well, and I think that that's the power of flex work. I just posted this article on LinkedIn about flex work and how things... It is a norm. It's not that it's what's left over from the pandemic. It is what I believe work will completely come to in the future as well, and it will continue to be that way, and I've been thinking about this a while because it's part of our human nature to want to have that autonomy on how we work, and it's important because if you know yourself and if you... The more you work, the more time you've been in the workforce, the more you learn about yourself and what you like, when you're better, what things are better for you, the better you understand how to set yourself up for success. And so for me, I know that I am much better when I can have a run in the morning, but I don't like waking up at 5:00, 6:00 AM to go do that. Not that this is gonna be a problem for the next six to eight weeks 'cause I can't run, but regardless, here I can do that. I know that the timing works for me in this place, and that's why I'm much more energetic.

0:06:05.2 MH: And I know that Allison and Rebecca, for example, who are two people I work really closely with at work are huge morning people, so we would always have different schedules of when we were good. So when I'm in London, it actually really works for them. So we just had a meeting at 8:00 AM New York time, which I would absolutely never have agreed to, but for me, it was like later.

0:06:30.7 MO: Yeah, and shout out to Jess, who, well, is in France right now. Is she still in France?

0:06:37.7 MH: No, she's back in LA.

0:06:40.2 MO: She's back in LA. She's a world traveler really, but she's in LA and most of the rest of us are on Eastern Time, and so we try our best to move things around to accommodate her schedule, but half the time, she's just like, "It's fine. I'll just wake up. I'll just do a 7:30 meeting." And I'm like, "Are you sure?" And she's like, "Yeah, I'll do it."

0:07:01.2 MH: Yeah. Jess is one of the most energetic people I've ever met. It was very, very, very impressive. I don't know how she does it. She also, like you said, was working from France, has worked from Australia and that's... We do this a lot. We have currently one of our coworkers is in Bangkok, and she's working different hours too, and I'm in London, I'm working different hours too, and we adapt, and again, that's the beauty of having a team that... Where we understand that we are all humans, and the three of us have family in different time zones, and we seldom see them. When we see them, we want to be able to see them for a significant amount of time, and that means adapting our work hours, and it works for us, and it works for the team because we've found a way to structure it that is consistent. I think that's the big... The word that needs to go out there, it's consistent. I have my days blocked off, and if anyone goes to my calendar, they can see this is the hours that she's working, and we've managed to make it work.

0:08:15.6 MO: Yeah, very useful for a podcast scheduling on my end.

0:08:21.9 MH: Well, that's a different story. [laughter] Anyway, what have you been up to lately?

0:08:31.6 MO: So it is officially college gymnastic season, so that's like almost...

0:08:35.4 MH: That's where you've been most of the time.

0:08:38.0 MO: Yeah, that is most exclusively what I've been watching, college gymnastics. If anybody has even a passing interest in gymnastics, college gymnastics is probably the most fun version of the sport. A, if you've watched any elite gymnastics like Olympics or anything recently, you'll notice, we moved away from the perfect 10 in 2006. So there hasn't been a perfect 10 in gymnastics forever. Just open scoring, but college gymnastics still uses the perfect 10, so you'll frequently see people get a perfect 10 and the whole place will erupt. It's so cool. But one of the big storylines of this year that we're all just really excited about is Fisk University became the first HBCU to have a gymnastics program, and they started out and every single team, every single team in their first few years has a rough go of it, because it's really hard to recruit, it's really hard to build up that longevity and that balance of a team in your first year. And so their first meet, they had their messy moments, they had their everything, but they had so much potential, and I just wanna shout-out Morgan Price from Fisk sticking the ever-loving crap out of her vault and getting a 9.9 in her first college vault.

0:10:02.5 MH: Jeez.

0:10:03.8 MO: Yeah, I was like, oh, Fisk university didn't come to play. They said, "Watch out for us in a few years. Once we can build up a really good team," they're gonna be serious.

0:10:15.1 MH: That's amazing. That's really exciting. I don't know anything about college gymnastics, 'cause clearly I don't, but it is really, really interesting to hear it from someone who's as passionate as you are, because I can feel the...

0:10:35.4 MO: Oh yeah, I love it. I love gymnastics, and I got into a league first, like Olympic level gymnastics, and college came later, and then I just kind of fell in love with it because college is the only time you really get a season, like a gymnastic season because it's every single weekend. You've got 30 different meets going on and you're trying to frantically watch as many of them as you can. You've got the heroes of gymnastics community who have them on triple screens so they can watch them all out there. I've done the double screen. I've done one on my laptop and one on my TV before, but I don't know. I think my brain would explode if I try to do the triple screen.


0:11:18.4 MH: Yeah, I could see that.

0:11:21.5 MO: Yeah. No, it's wild, but it's so much fun, and if anybody... They play it on ESPN, they play it on ABC, they play it on the SEC Network, Big Ten Network, Pac-12 network. They play them on all over, so if you have any of those networks, just look out, especially on the weekends, especially on Friday nights, they do a little thing. The SEC Network does a thing called Friday Night Heights as opposed to Friday Night Lights. Yeah, and it is Roku and the SEC Network will play two back-to-back, and ESPN2 has the last few weeks played like one or two meets each on Friday nights. So keep an eye out on Friday nights for college gymnastics if you want just to like have fun time.

0:12:06.3 MH: Yeah, I'll take a look. Meanwhile, I haven't been doing much, much anything interesting. Lots of work, no running, no exercising. Hang out with my nephew. That's interesting, I guess. And I have been...

0:12:23.4 MO: That's cool.

0:12:25.4 MH: Yeah, it's been fun. I have been watching this show on Netflix. I don't know if you've seen it. It's called that Leftover show, and it's about... It's a competition where three people or three home chefs or home cooks get to do dishes based off of leftovers, and it's been fun. It's like an entertaining little background kind of thing that inspires me to think about... I'm not cooking here, but when I go home, being more creative with all the things I find in my fridge that at some point I'm like, oh, what was I supposed to do with all this? Yeah. So it's...

0:13:04.3 MO: Yeah, I love that. I have not heard of that. That's such a cool concept for a show and using everything. As somebody who... I watched half a documentary recently at my parents' place 'cause that was all I had time for about saving the oceans and now I'm running around trying to save the world.

0:13:21.1 MH: The amount of food waste we produce as humans is ridiculous, so that's why, and I know I'm very culpable of that. I do try to compost, but still that's not the solution to everything. There are many, many more things that I could do with the food waste or the leftovers or food that is in my fridge, and it's become interesting to see it. And I also wanna try... So we've been playing around with ChatGPT and AI technology, and talking about the Leftovers show. Someone told me to just try and give it like, these are the things I have in my fridge. Make up a recipe for me and see what it does and apparently you can come up with some interesting stuff.

0:14:03.4 MO: That's so cool. I know there are websites that do that too, where they'll literally just tell us, even if you have like... They'll include like, "Do you have a packet of soy sauce?" You know how everybody keeps their little sauces after Chinese food?

0:14:16.3 MH: Oh yeah.

0:14:17.6 MO: So they'll just throw them in there and, "Just tell us what you have and we'll make something for you. Like we'll tell you what you could make."

0:14:23.1 MH: That's really cool. I have seen those before, but yeah, I've been thinking about it. Anyway, we've been chatting and chatting and chatting away, and the truth is, the conversation today is one that I really wanna get to because you guys are going to love it. I really hope so because I loved it. I talked to Deepa Purushothaman. She is fantastic. A former partner at Deloitte, was there for 20 years helping clients grow. Was managing partner of their US Women's Initiative, and was the first Indian-American woman and one of the youngest people to make partner at the firm's history. So that's her corporate way, which is really big, really impressive and really great, but what I'm really passionate about is what she did after that, which is she left. She founded nFormation. It's a community for professional women of color. She focuses on what are the leadership obstacles women of color face, and a lot of them are internal, a lot of them are our own thoughts and feelings and things that we've been socialized with. So she is fantastic. She wrote this book, "The First, The Few, The Only: How Women of Color can Redefine Power in Corporate America" based on tons of conversations and interviews with women of color in the workplace, and we go into it. We talk about her experience, my experience, what she's heard from others. You're gonna love it. So let's go to my conversation with Deepa.


0:16:11.5 MH: I'm here today with Deepa Purushothaman and very excited for a conversation. I was just telling Deepa before we started recording that I was looking through one of her articles and I couldn't help myself but go, yes, yes, and nod, and yes. So you'll get to hear all about what I mean when we get into this conversation, but first, Deepa, so happy to have you here.

0:16:39.4 Deepa Purushothaman: Thank you for having me. I'm excited to be here.

0:16:44.7 MH: So I know your focus is on women of color, which I highly appreciate, but before we go into all that, tell us a little bit about you and some personal background.

0:17:00.8 DP: Sure.

0:17:00.9 MH: A little bit about your story.

0:17:01.4 DP: Yeah. So I was born and raised in the United States. My parents immigrated from India in the late '60s, and again, born and raised here, but I grew up in a very small farm country town in New Jersey. I think we didn't have a full stop light until I was in high school, that kind of small, small country town. And so we were one of maybe four families of color in the community, and I think growing up, there was a lot of confusion for me and what that meant, and why I always felt different. I think when you're first generation, there's a lot of confusion around identity, so I share that to say, I think my work around women of color now comes from some of those conversations even as a child. And so I've always kind of struggled with identity and where do I belong, and how do I wanna show up, and that followed me on to college. I went to some pretty big name universities and all of that, and I thought I would be in policy and politics. That was kind of what I studied in my background, and I went to Deloitte, I thought for a year or two, after grad school just to get some private sector experience, and I spent over 21 years rising in the firm, so much longer than I anticipated, but I always felt like I was growing and learning and so it was a great experience.

0:18:15.5 DP: I focused in tech and telecom, so industries that are predominantly male, and I worked actually in IT and network spaces, so on top of that, even more male to the sense of, again, being I'm the only woman in the room. Definitely the only woman of color in the room was always there. I made partner relatively young and early, and so I also had a lot of thoughts around what it meant to lead and be in a big role early, and so those were always topics I talked about. I left two and a half years ago, so right in the early stages of the pandemic before we called it the Great Resignation, and I got a lot of feedback like, "You have to be leaving to something," and I was just leaving because I was tired, I was burnt out, I was sick. It was a combination, I think, of two things, and then I'll pause 'cause this could be the whole hour, but it was a combination of, I think, I had this growing question around I went to school for policy and politics and what's happening in our world and am I doing the work I was meant to do? So this growing question around purpose, and then I started to get really sick, to be honest with you. And so for the last couple of years at Deloitte, I was really struggling with some big health challenges, and I just decided I had to get off the road and it took me a while to leave and I'm sure we'll talk about that.

0:19:27.0 DP: A lot of my identity was invested in rising really quickly and taking this seat and so it was hard to step away, and then I stepped away. For the last two years, I've been focused on topics of women of color, as you said. So quite a long corporate role, but really excited for this new phase.

0:19:46.9 MH: Oh my God, I have so many questions. [chuckle] Well, I identify a lot of what... On a lot of what you're saying and I think that's why I keep nodding. I have heard... I'm not first generation. I'm an immigrant. So I was born and raised in El Salvador. My family is still there, but I've heard from first generation individuals that it is very hard, the sense of identity, because you're kinda being raised in between two cultures.

0:20:15.6 DP: Yes.

0:20:17.6 MH: It's different from what is my experience in which that I do talk about, which was when I came to the US, I didn't know I was a minority. It didn't even cross my mind because where I was from, I was the majority. So the first time someone asked me, "Oh, so how's it being a Latina in business?" I was like, "I'm a what now?"

0:20:45.2 DP: Yeah.

0:20:45.3 MH: And it does mark your work, and it does mark how you see things. How did that kind of growing up between two cultures manifest in your work life?

0:21:01.2 DP: Yeah. It's interesting. So I interviewed 500 women of color in writing the book, and now I've interviewed thousands as I continue to do research in this space. And so I think what I have found is what I thought was unique to me is probably much more universal for a lot of us. There's a woman I interviewed in the book, and she talks about it, Noni Allwood, and she says, first generation, people who come over as immigrants I think are more integrating or kind of keep a lot of their culture and sometimes a little bit more, and to your point, know who they are. Don't even really understand what it means to be different as they enter American society, where she says, first generation born here, she says, for a lot of folks, you're paying a translator role. A translator role for your parents, but also a translator role for yourself. So I think for me, there was this confusion around my parents wanting to raise us with some of the Indian culture and religion and some aspects of it, but not enough that it made a lot of sense to me, and yet at the same time, trying to assimilate into the culture around me. And I think we're having more conversations about why and what that looks like, and the messages we get, especially as people of color in this society of that success is sometimes tied to whiteness, but growing up, I didn't understand any of that, right?

0:22:11.3 DP: And so there's just the sense of like, Something feels different. My home life is completely different. We speak a different language, we eat different food, and yet I'm out in the world, and I also, in my family, had darker skin. My father and I had darker skin, and my mother and my sister had very light skin. And so when we would go out in our community, I think there's also people look at us and be like, "Are you one family?" You also just all look different. And so I think there was a lot of not knowing is it what I look like or is it what I am or where does that even come from? And I don't know that my confusion was pain and shame, but when I work with a lot of the women I work with now, I think it manifests as mostly pain and shame for most people. I think for me, it was a lot of confusion in our community.

0:22:50.7 MH: Right. And those words are so... When you say them, pain and shame, that will stop you from doing so many things.

0:23:02.1 DP: Yeah. Absolutely, absolutely. I think for me, and this is... I tell the story often. It sometimes comes across as a hard story, but my dad had two daughters. I'm the oldest of two. And sometimes in Indian culture, there's a strong emphasis on patriarchy and wanting boy children, and that's part of the culture that I grew up in. Wasn't so much in my household, but whenever my dad wanted something done around the house, he would say, "If I had a boy, he would cut the grass. If I had a boy, he would... " And so I'd go cut the grass, I'd go climb the tree, I'd go... So in some ways, it's really interesting 'cause I think I grew up with this sense of like, I can do anything. I'll show you, I'll break those barriers. And so for me, that's why it's a little bit hard around the pain and shame because I didn't necessarily... It didn't stop me. It actually motivated me to prove myself, but I also am now in a place in my life where that's also not how I wanna live my life. Constantly proving and pushing and striving, that takes a lot... That takes a toll on you at some point.

0:23:57.1 MH: I love that story so much, because my first reaction is probably the reaction you hear from people where it's like, eee. That's what you heard, which is, I always say how my grandmother always told me to go get water for my brother and my dad because they were the men and they have legs. But then the way you flip it into I can do anything, that's...

0:24:21.0 DP: And I belong anywhere, right?

0:24:23.4 MH: And I belong anywhere, right.

0:24:24.9 DP: Yeah. Absolutely.

0:24:27.1 MH: It's so... I hate this word, but it's so empowering. It's such a different mindset, but you had that, and I don't think a lot of people necessarily have that innately, if I can say that. It is something that you learn to and you grow into, but it's certainly... Just hearing you say those things like, it's something I could do, it's something where I belong, no wonder you were growing into the firm and becoming partner young, 'cause you were putting yourself out there in two different situations.

0:25:01.1 DP: Yeah. I hadn't thought about it that way, but I think that's true. I think the other thing that really played into it was I always played soccer. So even as a little girl, I thought I could do it all and I was the only girl that played 'cause I'm a little bit older. There were... Now I think there's girls leagues and all that. There wasn't when I was growing up. And so I was often the only girl on the field amongst like 20 teams playing. And so, again, that sense of like, I belong anywhere and I can do anything. So yeah, it's interesting. I'll have to think about it some more, but I think that's definitely there.

0:25:28.8 DP: But like I said, I think that I only know this after writing the book and a lot of reflection. I tend to see challenges as fuel as opposed to hardship. Part of why I left the firm is 'cause I got really sick. I spent eight months in bed. Very long story short, late-stage Lyme disease, and I think a lot of people would look at that and see that as a stopping activity. And for me, it actually made me go inward and really question like, how do I wanna show up and what's important to me? And I can't do this travel anymore, so what do I want my life to look like? And I actually see it as a blessing. But I think, to your point, there's... I think people sometimes, if you see challenges as obstacles, it can stop you, and I know it's really hard, but, yeah, there's something in my growing up that allows me to see challenges and obstacles as fuel, and I think I appreciate that in a lot of ways.

0:26:21.3 MH: Yeah. That's amazing. I'm trying the Adam Grant, Think Again mentality of I'm trying to see failures as one step closer to getting things right 'cause I am very... I'm the type of person who's very hard on herself when things go south.

0:26:39.4 DP: Totally.

0:26:40.8 MH: So it's kinda the same thing, right?

0:26:41.5 DP: Yeah.

0:26:41.8 MH: If you're looking at challenges as opportunities, can you look at failures as also opportunities?

0:26:47.2 DP: Absolutely. And we tend to learn more from failure than we do from our successes, and so absolutely.

0:26:53.7 MH: Well, I wanna go back. You were saying that it took you a long time to leave. Why was that?

0:26:58.6 DP: Yeah. So here I am, rising. I'm sitting in a lot of seats. I led the Women's Initiative for Deloitte. I had a lot of opportunity and a really fast-tracked career, and I think that growing sense of purpose, like I mentioned, was really there, and then I started to get sick, and it didn't all hit it once. It kind of... The symptoms mounted over a number of years, and I share this story more freely than I might have a couple of years ago, 'cause one of the most surprising things in my research is that most women of color I interview are actually physically sick, and I think a lot of it has to do with stress and not being seen in systems and structures. And so I think it took me realizing that I can't just keep plowing through, and that this was maybe more of a universal issue that I needed to address. I also think I don't think I realized the sense of responsibility I felt. So I was our first Indian female that made partner and so I felt like there were a lot of eyes on me, even if I don't know that I knew it at the time. And so I think I felt like this need to stay in the seat, even though I knew it wasn't where I was supposed to be anymore, 'cause I felt like everyone was watching me, and that my leaving, my quitting might signal not only failure for myself, but failures for others around me and coming up after me.

0:28:10.1 DP: And I don't know how I got to this, but I, early on, started meeting with women of color when I started really feeling like I need to pick a different career, and there's a huge story behind that that I can tell. But I started to think like, I need to do something else, and I started meeting with women of color one-on-one over lunch or dinner, and then it turned into a dozen dinners that my now business partner and I did across the country just with women of color gathering. She was my coach at the time. And I ended up meeting 300 senior women of color in business and we were just meeting, networking. I was trying to figure out where do I wanna go, what's an interesting alternative after 20 years in the consulting bubble, and what we found at these dinners is we would be in the rooms I thought for one or two hours. Instead we'd be in there for six, seven, eight hours 2 and 3 o'clock in the morning, 'cause we were finishing each other's stories. They were such universal shared experience of being a first, a few or an only, which is the title of a book. I didn't know it at the time.

0:29:02.2 DP: And so that's really, I think, what gave me freedom to leave. So I think I started to see that a lot of women of color are people who are first or who have broken barriers. I think you end up feeling really responsible then, and it's not... It stops being about what you need and this universal or community need and I had to step away and realize this isn't serving me being on the road, eating out all the time, not sleeping. This level of stress, I can't do it.

0:29:25.2 MH: I do understand that for women of color really it's... 'Cause I felt that too. You tend to bear a responsibility that you've put on yourself somehow for the rest of the people that are coming behind you, 'cause you do hear like, "It's great that you're the first. Just don't let it be the last."

0:29:47.1 DP: Yes.

0:29:49.1 MH: And it feels like it's a big burden to carry, but it's also... I've heard it from people who stay in their jobs long time. I'm one of those. I've been with Ellevate for 10 years, and...

0:30:03.1 DP: Oh, wow.

0:30:04.4 MH: Yeah. And I sometimes think, would I have left if I didn't think I had that responsibility for our team?

0:30:10.4 DP: Yeah, yeah. I think that's really real. So the research, and again, all these stories and the women I've met with, I think a lot of us, again. I think this is true for women, to your point before, but I think that it's more true for women of color. I think a lot of us have been taught to be thankful and to be grateful and to not rock the boat, and there's these things that we've been taught from our families, from growing up that these opportunities are so unique, so you have to stay in the seat even if it doesn't serve you. So I think some of us end up staying and I think that's a little bit of what we've seen over the last few years coming out of the pandemic. I think more and more women of color that I work with, at least, are raising their hand and saying, "Maybe this job isn't even what I want to do, but I just did it 'cause it was what I thought I had to do, and now I wanna figure out what do I wanna do, and is the culture that I'm in the right culture for me, and does it help me thrive, and am I just surviving versus thriving?"

0:31:01.3 DP: So I think those are all really new conversations for many of us because we were just taught to push through and show up and work hard, and it'll all be okay, and we're realizing, no, there's more to the conversation. We need to be honest about that, and that's what honestly those dinners were, I think, the start of some of that conversation for me.

0:31:17.4 MH: It was also interesting how you said everyone was... You were listening to the conversations or you were there with people and you started hearing the same thing.

0:31:25.2 DP: Yes.

0:31:27.4 MH: Sometimes we feel so alone, and yet we are facing such similar challenges, and the power is to just feel seen.

0:31:36.6 DP: Yes. Absolutely. I think that's the most surprising thing. That's what I wanted when I started this work, is I wanted to help women of color feel seen and heard, and I do think that that's what's happening when people read the book or read an article and come back to me. They're like, "I feel seen." and I hadn't seen that sort of perspective articulated before 'cause again, I think most of us have been taught, if you just work hard, keep your head down, it'll all be okay, but there are structural biases. There is racism. There are other way, stereotypes. The ways that work shows up around us that just working harder, which is what most of us have been taught to do as women of color, isn't gonna be enough, and once you understand that, there's real freedom. And I don't tell everybody to quit, that's not my message, but you can show up currently in the structure once you know what yours to take on and what's not yours to take on.

0:32:22.6 MH: What is the advice that you give people when you think about the research of your book and what you've learned?

0:32:28.7 DP: Yeah. I call it shedding and carrying. So you need to figure out how to shed the messages that don't serve you and carry forth the ones that do, and figure out for yourself like, how do you define success? How do you define happiness? So for me, my story came out of, I was at my 14th doctor, and she's one of the last doctors I saw before I got my final diagnosis, and she looks at me, and this is now the fourth or fifth time I'd gone to see her. She's in San Diego, so she's a doctor I saw when I traveled, and so she looks at me side-eyed 'cause I've literally come to the appointment with my suitcase, and so she's looking at me like, "Why are you coming to a doctor's appointment with a suitcase?" And she spreads all the reports across the desk, and she says, "We can keep running tests or I can tell you what you already know. I think your job is killing you." And she didn't mean the job is killing me, but she said like, "I think you're not taking care of yourself." And she said, "What would you do if you didn't do a big job like this? Do you feel like you have to do a big job like this to be worthy, and don't you just see you're worthy being you?" And...

0:33:27.0 MH: Wow.

0:33:27.6 DP: Huge, right? I tell...

0:33:30.0 MH: Huge.

0:33:31.5 DP: Yeah. I tell the story in the book where I willed myself not to cry in that moment, not because she had said anything wrong, because she had seen me, truly seen me. My work was my... Such my identity in my whole life at that point in my career, and I think what I ended up doing after... And then I progressively got a little bit more sick and was forced to make some really big decisions and then have these dinners, and it just became clear to me, but I say that... I'll say, I had to really rewrite for myself what is success. I think a number of years ago, success was rising, success was even more money, more title, more opportunity, not in a selfish or a self-centered way, but I was giving back, I was having all these amazing opportunities, I was mentoring all these women... Other women and women of color, but I had to stop and say that success for me now is very tied to health, it's tied to wellness, and that I can't compromise, or that can't be the trade-off. And that's a really new way of thinking, and I think a lot of us are rewriting messages like that.

0:34:25.8 DP: So for me, and what I tell women is you have to figure out for yourself how do you wanna show up, what is success, how do you wanna lead, and then you have to figure out how do you reprogram how you show up to really work in those ways, because I don't think most of us do that. Most of us work based on what our parents taught us, and some of that doesn't work anymore for us.

0:34:46.2 MH: Yeah. And if you're first generation or an immigrant, what you've been taught is very, very specific about the things you have to do...

0:34:52.6 DP: Yeah. Absolutely.

0:34:53.5 MH: To be successful. [chuckle]

0:34:57.1 DP: Correct. Yeah. And some of the data suggests that. So for Latinas that I interviewed, it was a lot of like, "Don't bring attention to yourself." Asian women, it was like, "Just keep your head down and it'll be okay. Just be thankful." And then for the Black women, the message was very much like, "You're gonna have to work not only two times as hard," but in a lot of cases with the women I interviewed, it was four times as hard just to get to the table.

0:35:17.2 MH: Oh my God.

0:35:18.7 DP: Right. And so, yeah, if we really accept that, if the women I work with accept that they have to work four times as hard, how sick were they getting, how depleted are they? I want them to consciously pick that if they believe that they need to and they want the seat, but I also want them to believe like, "That can't be the standard I have to live up to because that's too high a price to pay."

0:35:38.4 MH: Yeah. And just as you were talking about the definition of success, that's something I struggled with a lot too, former banker.

0:35:45.8 DP: Yes. [chuckle]

0:35:47.8 MH: So changing to what I do now is like it was very hard, but the way we use words too. You were saying, "I had this big job, or my doctor told me, like you have this big job." But if I could argue that you have an even bigger job now because what you're doing has so much impact on people's lives.

0:36:15.4 DP: I think that's fair and I think that's part of the programming or part of the structure and part of the messaging and part of where I had to realize how I was evaluating my worth was probably based on things that came from the fears of my parents being immigrants, right? That money and stability and a prestigious job is how they saw security based on what they had grown up with, which wasn't very much, but that way of living isn't how I value my worth or how I wanna live my life, and I wasn't willing to do that anymore. And so, yeah, again, that's the work of realizing like, is... Do I... It's fine if I accept that, but I realized there was a misalignment for me, and I believe that's a lot of why I got sick, because I was living this very misaligned sort of life, right?

0:37:01.5 MH: Yeah, it's... We sometimes forget to take a step and really get to know ourselves.

0:37:09.2 DP: Yes, yes. Especially...

0:37:10.0 MH: And I think that's big.

0:37:11.2 DP: Banking, it's a perfect... We don't have time. We're just I think trying to rise and do all the things that are expected of us and maybe have a relationship, just have groceries in the refrigerator. That was my example 'cause I was always travelling. Yeah. So there's not time to do that, some of the work that I believe that we need to do, and I think that's part of why we're seeing so many women in this moment leave the workforce, and not leave the workforce period and not do anything, but opt for other kinds of working because I think they're realizing that they don't wanna make those trade-offs, they don't wanna make those choices and are starting to look at it differently for themselves, and picking jobs and cultures and ways of working and flexibility that allow them to figure out who they are and what works for them.

0:37:58.0 MH: 100%. And it's something I think about a lot because I think very similar to the way you view what you do, which I read a sentence that you had, and it said like, "A company that helps women of color find their power through safe space and community." And it's very similar to what we do at Ellevate. We try to create these safe spaces where you can be seen or you can be heard and a lot of it really is I love the, find their power, because I opposed about the empower, because no one's giving you power. You have power. You just have to realize it, but when we talk about women leaving their companies or leaving the workforce because of these things, because of the lack of culture, because of not feeling seen or not belonging or feeling like they're working themselves to death, you have to wonder, will then the workplace ever change if we're just leaving?

0:38:54.5 DP: Yup. I think that's the hard... That's a million dollar question and I don't think everyone's leaving. I think that there was a moment where...

0:39:01.7 MH: Right. No, no, no.

0:39:03.9 DP: COVID kinda just showed us there are different ways of working and I think where I'm seeing many women leave is where companies are forcing them to come back and give up some of the flexibility that they earned or learned over the last couple of years. I think we're in a moment where change is possible, but I think this is where it feels really important what we do in 2023, because we are "coming out of COVID or returning to normal." I hate those words, but as we do it that is normal what... How we used to work ourselves to death five years ago, I don't think that people wanna go back to that. So I'm hopeful that we are rewriting and re-envisioning and rethinking, and I think some of that has to be led by women who I think felt a lot of the brunt of the last couple of years because of their caretaking roles and all the other things they were balancing, so many moms in the workplace.

0:39:56.1 DP: And so I just think we're in a moment where change is possible, so I'm still helpful, but I think it has to come this year. If we revert, then, yeah, and I feel like we've lost a huge opportunity to really remake work. And by the way, not just for women, but I think remake work for everybody. We have just kind of ended up in a situation where I don't think it's healthy or happy or fulfilling for most people. When I meet with younger men, they're struggling too, 'cause they don't wanna work that way. And so I think the models are outdated and need to be updated, and there's a chance to do that if we were ever gonna do that now.

0:40:30.1 MH: I agree with you 100%. I was on a podcast today, so I was taping a podcast and they were interviewing me, and they asked me, "Who is responsible or whose job is it to further gender equity?" And I don't know. It was like everyone's. [chuckle]

0:40:53.4 DP: Everyone. Yeah. No, I think that the answer is everyone.

0:40:56.5 MH: Every single person.

0:40:58.0 DP: A lot of my work also touches on race, and people ask me the same question, do you think this is just on people of color or women? No, because we didn't create the structures. We need White men to participate.

0:41:07.9 MH: Exactly.

0:41:08.5 DP: We need White men to realize it's not working for them either and I do see this generationally, and I'm not saying older White men don't see it, but I just think there's a... It's almost like a... Yeah, it doesn't work at all when I speak with the next generation of men. So yeah, how do we get... And I think a lot of this conversation is also about, how do we get people to understand we're not talking about just taking power away from one group and giving it to people like you and I? That's not what this is about. This about changing it so it works for everybody and I think if we can have that conversation, then change is possible.

0:41:40.4 MH: Yeah. That's very important. That is absolutely important, the fact that there... It does affect everyone. It's the system that's broken, and... Or not even broken. It was just not built thinking about most people. So how do we make it more human?

0:41:58.6 DP: Yeah. Absolutely. I think that's the work, and so I, again, am helpful and unfortunately had to see a lot of things break to get to this place, but I feel like more companies are having the conversation than ever before. There's more openness around some of this discussion than ever before, and more women are willing to walk than ever before. So I'm hoping all those things together will make it so that there's real change this time.

0:42:22.7 MH: Deepa, as one of the things, we've talked about your book, we've talked about your time at Deloitte, but we haven't really gone into nFormation, which is your community for women of color. Can you talk a little bit about what you're doing there?

0:42:34.3 DP: Yeah. So it actually came out of those dinners that I mentioned before. We would end the dinners where we... Where I was meeting with women of color and we would be, in some cases, on the street or in their parking lots, and the women would say, "What do you... When are we gonna get together next? When are you coming back?" And at that point, we didn't really know 'cause we were just having dinner in Atlanta or Chicago or New York. And originally, I think we thought the company would be more event-based. We'll just... We'll travel the country or work with companies. Then COVID happened, so we had to reimagine, what am I?

0:43:05.1 DP: So a lot of what we've done over the last two years is online programming, online community building for women of color. We kinda target mid-career and more senior. And a lot of the conversations around things like, how do you stand up for yourself, how do you find your power, how do you negotiate for more? And it's been a really powerful community. We are now at a point where we're re-envisioning again, as women are returning to the office and online programming. I think there's a real desire for people to meet in-person, so we'll... I'm curious to see where the next configuration will go, but it's been a really powerful community, I think at a time when these issues were just starting to bubble up, and also a time when I think, in general, women are seeking more community. I mean, even the work that you do, women are looking for more spaces where they can learn from each other and learn how to lead differently from each other.

0:43:55.8 MH: Absolutely. And I think it's very important to understand the nuances of our intersectionality. Ellevate is big, and it's allowed us to see the different type of experiences from the women in our community because it's so diverse, but it's also allowed us to realize that it is important to have safe spaces for people who have a certain affinity, and to have those conversations where you can really get into things of experiences that might not... That are not the same for everyone. Yeah. We just launched our community circles, and these are spaces. We have one for Latina professional, one's for Asian Pacific Islanders, one for Black women, one for LGBTQ+ community, and some others, but they are carving the space within the larger community for those experiences to be shared. So I think the work you're doing is extremely important.

0:45:01.3 DP: I'm glad to hear that. Yeah, I think sometimes the specific experiences of women in certain groups gets lost and I think we're in a moment where we need to realize that not all women's experiences are the same, and how do we try to solve for some of the groups that are most affected or most marginalized or most voiceless in structures and systems is also part of what has to happen.

0:45:26.5 MH: 100%. I love it so much. Thank you, Deepa. This was fun.

0:45:31.1 DP: Thank you. Thank you for having me and thank you for the work that you do.

0:45:34.8 MH: Thank you too. But first before we go, we'll go through our lightning round. So I'll ask you these questions. You can answer in a sentence or less, and there's a whole list, but I'll ask you about five, and see where we go.

0:45:51.9 DP: Okay.

0:45:54.3 MH: If you could time travel, where is the first place you would go?

0:46:00.5 DP: Oh, I'd love to go 25 years from now just because of all the work that I'm doing, and see where we are on some of these issues around women and women of color in the workplace. I'm fascinated.

0:46:12.1 MH: Yup. That's a good one. If you could have any super power, what would it be?

0:46:20.3 DP: I think invisibility just because you can creep up on people and see what's happening. [laughter]

0:46:27.8 MH: Talk about hearing people's inner thoughts. [chuckle] If your house caught on fire, what's the first object you would run to save?

0:46:38.8 DP: I have four animals, so they're all going with me. Nothing else matters.

0:46:45.9 MH: Yeah. I said the same thing when they asked me... When we asked them. I have a cat. The cat goes.

0:46:51.3 DP: Yes.

0:46:51.7 MH: What are your pets?

0:46:53.5 DP: We have three dogs and a cat, so yeah.

0:46:58.8 MH: I love animals.

0:46:58.9 DP: So do I.

0:47:00.8 MH: What's the most used app on your phone?

0:47:03.7 DP: That's a great question. We have a gate on our house, and so it's probably the gate to let people in and out, which I sometimes love and I sometimes hate.

0:47:13.8 MH: What sport would you compete in if you were in the Olympics?

0:47:21.1 DP: That's a great one. I'd love to say figure skating or something really elegant that I watch that I have no skill in 'cause I've never been on the ice, but given I played soccer for a really long time, why not? Why not soccer? [chuckle]

0:47:34.5 MH: Yeah. Well, great. And what's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?

0:47:43.6 DP: One of my sponsors when I was at Deloitte said to me when I was a new partner, "Never need a client more than you want a client." And I love that. I apply it... I applied it. At the time, I was single, and I applied it to men and everything else in my life, right? But never need... Never be in a situation where you compromise or that you... He was kind of saying it 'cause I was in a challenging client situation. Yeah. Be choiceful.

0:48:09.3 MH: That's a great piece of advice. Really, really great.

0:48:14.0 DP: Thank you.

0:48:14.7 MH: And finally, what's one thought you'd want to leave with our listeners?

0:48:20.1 DP: I think it's that we all have power and that sometimes in moments or in situations or even in work situations, we may not feel it, but what we say and what we do and how we show up matters, and so to really think about how you wanna show up and remember that you have power.

0:48:37.1 MH: That's a great one. Well, thank you for that.

0:48:41.2 DP: Thank you. Thank you for those... That wasn't too painful. [chuckle]

0:48:44.6 MH: I'm glad.


0:48:54.2 MH: And we're back. Isn't she great?

0:48:58.7 MO: She's amazing. That was so good. I just love her. She's done about a billion TED Talks. Can we just talk about that?

0:49:06.6 MH: Yeah, you can.

0:49:09.6 MO: Yeah. And I was just so excited when I think she was pitched to me, 'cause there are some that... I've said it before, there are some that I get pitches and there are some that I reach out to them, and I was like, "Yes, she sounds amazing." And then she frankly was even more amazing once I actually got a chance to hear her interview and Maricella got to talk to her, 10 out of 10.

0:49:28.8 MH: Yeah. It was a lot of fun, it was a lot of fun. I'm so lucky to be able to have these conversations with these amazing women.

0:49:36.5 MO: Yes.

0:49:37.4 MH: So thank you for organizing them, Megan.

0:49:40.3 MO: No problem.

0:49:42.2 MH: So what's happening at Ellevate?

0:49:44.8 MO: Well, we have our Ellevate Roundtables coming up. This week's Ellevate Roundtable is, Making your Workplace Diverse, Equitable and Inclusive. That's gonna be happening at Thursday at 12:00 PM. Our entrepreneurs will also be meeting to discuss branding that can make or break your business Thursday at 4:00 PM, and our executives are meeting next Tuesday at 1:00 PM to discuss preventing quiet quitting, which is a huge topic right now, everybody knows.

0:50:13.1 MH: Yup. And if you wanna hang out with me, come to that executive roundtable, I'll be there. So hope to see you over there. We are also hosting our community circles. As we told you a couple weeks ago, we just launched a few more community circles. These are spaces where you can come to be with others who are facing similar experiences, and our Asian and Pacific Islanders Group is meeting next Thursday at 10:00 AM Eastern.

0:50:43.3 MO: And then we also have some in-person events coming up in a few of our cities. In San Francisco, they're going to be discussing Courageous Resilience, From People Pleasing to Empowered Boundaries. That's gonna be next Tuesday at 6:30 PM. In New York, they're doing a Happy Hour all about asserting your influence, and also next Thursday at 6:30, and in Cincinnati, they're doing two. They're doing a Galantine's Wine and Chocolate Pairing next Thursday at 5:00 PM, and an Ellevate Business Connect: Coffee Connect & Networking next Friday at 8:45 AM. So if you're in any of those cities, San Francisco, New York or Cincinnati, or you're nearby, or you're gonna be there for business, be sure to check those out.

0:51:25.2 MH: Oh yeah, it's almost Valentine's Day.

0:51:27.0 MO: It is. A bunch of our chapters. Be sure to search Galantine's Day. If you're searching the Ellevate website for events, search Galantine's Day. There's like four or five chapters doing Galantine's Day events in the next few weeks.

0:51:42.5 MH: Yeah. Awesome. And coming in to celebrate our History Makers, they're exciting for... Sorry, can you hear my little...

0:51:56.8 MO: Yeah, I do.

0:51:56.8 MH: Screaming in the background? The beauty of remote work. He is not happy. I think he just woke up from his nap and is not very happy, but he'll be happy. We're going for tea. Anyway, our History Makers segment, this one is very exciting for me as someone who lived in this country for quite a few years. Norma Piña became the first woman Chief Justice of Mexico Supreme Court.

0:52:29.4 MO: So exciting. Yeah, I knew you would be excited for that one as a former resident.

0:52:33.9 MH: Yeah.

0:52:37.7 MO: Yeah. Kelly A. Martinez became the first woman Sheriff of San Diego.

0:52:42.0 MH: Shiva Chauhan became the first woman Officer from the Indian Army to be deployed at Siachen Glacier.

0:52:49.2 MO: Cinthia Ramirez became the first woman in the regular US Army to become an M1A2 Abrams Master Gunner.

0:52:58.9 MH: Heidi Lueb became the first woman Mayor of Tigard, Oregon.

0:53:02.7 MO: And Millie Thompson Williams became the first second chief for the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas.

0:53:08.5 MH: That's awesome. So keep breaking glass ceilings, although I will... I hate that phrase, but keep just making history and we'll keep celebrating you. Next week, we'll be talking to Dr. Carol Parker Walsh. She is a great peep to know. She's a leadership coach, helping clients really shine in their career and create a life that really matters. She's a TED Talk presenter, she is a best-selling author, has written in different publications, Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, etcetera. She's really, really great, and I hope you can join us because we talk a lot about things that I think we all need to hear, particularly when it comes to shining our light.

0:54:01.8 MO: Yeah. I can't wait.

0:54:05.4 MH: Cool. Have a great week. Bye, all.

0:54:09.8 MO: Bye.


0:54:10.4 MH: Join an exceptional peer group to sharpen your leadership skills and advance your career. Harvard Business School Executive Education now offers in-person and virtual programs. Learn more at That's

0:54:31.8 Speaker 4: Thanks so much for listening to the Ellevate Podcast. If you like what you hear, you can subscribe, give us five stars and share your review. You can learn all about Ellevate membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website, That's E-L-L-E-V-A-T-E, and special thanks to our producer, Katharine Heller. She rocks. Thanks so much and join us next week.