Redefining Power in the Workplace

Hands-on Management 3.0 leadership workshops focus on tangible practices to help managers, team leaders, middle management, and C-level executives increase employee engagement and foster transformational change within their organizations. Start Your Leadership Journey Today!

Finding happiness at work isn’t easy. It can take years of self-discovery, risk-taking, mistakes, and perseverance. Today’s guest did all of those things and, after 20 years, finally had what should have been her dream job. She was the first Indian American woman – and one of the youngest people ever – to make partner at a world-renowned professional services firm, and she was a pioneer for women in her field. But what should have been the happy ending to her story, turned out to be an awakening to the realities of her position. And it became the first chapter of an entirely new journey.

We sit down with Deepa Purushothaman, a celebrated author, speaker, program leader, and visionary champion for professional women of color. She discusses her work, her journey, and her powerful book “The First, The Few, The Only.” Learn more about Deepa here.

In this episode we talk about the essence of diverse teams, bringing everyone to the table to solve complex problems. Modern organizations should try to increase diversity, beyond acknowledging gender differences. Diversity can be about age, ethnicity, where you’re from, where you grew up, skills, experience, education, and much more. At Management 3.0, we have a practice named ‘The Diversity Index.’ This easy tool can help your team and organization acquire insight into how high its current diversity level is. A downloadable template is available on our website. To learn more, visit here.

Key Points

  • Diversity and inclusion
  • How to be an ally
  • Women’s rights in the workplace


*Please note that the transcript has been automatically generated and proofread for mistakes. But remains in spoken English, and some syntax and grammar mistakes might remain.

Elisa Tuijnder: [00:00:00] Finding happiness at work isn’t easy for many of us. It can take years or even decades of self-discovery, risktaking, mistakes, and perseverance. Our guests today did all of those things and after 20 years, finally had what should have been her dream job. She was the first Indian American woman and one of the youngest people ever to make partner at a world renowned professional services firm, a visible pioneer for women in her field.

But what should have been the happy ending to her story turned out to be an awakening to the realities of our position and the first chapter of an entirely new journey .

Before we dive in, you are listening to The Happiness At Work Podcast by Management [00:01:00] 3.0 where we are getting serious about happiness.

I’m your host, Elisa Tuijnder, Happiness Enthusiast and Management 3.0 team member. In this podcast, we share insights from industry experts, influencers, and thought leaders about what it takes to be happy, motivated, and productive at work. So that loving your job becomes the norm and not the exception. We will be publishing every fortnight on Friday, so be sure to tune in and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Our guest today Deepa Purushothaman a celebrated author, speaker, program leader and visionary champion for professional women of color. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Deepa Purushothaman: I’m excited to be here. Thanks for having me. [00:02:00]

Elisa Tuijnder: Great. So we’ll get into your incredible career and your ongoing work in just a moment, but here on the podcast, we always ask and always start with the same question.

What does happiness mean to you?

Deepa Purushothaman: Love that question. I have to say I feel like it’s changed over time. I think today as a result of doing the book and leaving my corporate career and going through some health issues, I think that happiness is freedom to live the life that I want to design.

But I also think happiness is being healthy. I think for some people that’s wellness. For me, I was very physically sick for a good couple of years, and so happiness is being in a place where I don’t have to worry about those things and I get to live the life that I want.

Elisa Tuijnder: Yeah. I’m sorry to hear that.

And yeah, I think it’s something when you’re healthy, you take for granted. Yeah. That’s what we always hear, yeah. I’m very happy that you’re back and good and feeling, yeah, feeling great. So we mentioned in, in the introduction that you were one of the youngest ever [00:03:00] employees and first Indian American woman to become partner at Deloitte, an international firm with a staff of more than a hundred thousand. For those listeners who might not be familiar with Deloitte, but can you tell us a little bit about your journey , your journey towards there and what your experiences were like? And what was it when you got to C-Suite?

Deepa Purushothaman: Yeah.

So just a little bit of background. So I was born and raised in the United States. I grew up in New Jersey on the east coast. We grew up in a very small farm country town. And so when I went to school, I was probably one of four or five students of color. And I say that because that sense of belonging or there’s something different about me was there, or very early on, I don’t know that I understood it, but we, ate Indian food at home.

We spoke a different language at home, like there was a lot that was just different about how I grew up and yet I, when I went to school or hung out with my friend, they didn’t necessarily have that sort of counter. And so a lot of confusion, I think, around identity. I went to very elite [00:04:00] schools and so that sort of sense of being an only followed me there.

And then, yes, I ended up at Deloitte. I thought I’d be there for a year or two cuz I, my background was policy and politics. I was not an MBA, not thinking I wanted to do business, but I wanted to do a little bit of private sector experience. And I ended up there for 21 years and so I left in 2020. In the early stages of the pandemic before in the US we called it the Great Resignation.

Some countries use that term more commonly than others. And I left in the early stages of that and I was told, you can’t leave because this is the most unstable time. How can you be leaving this high paying, very secure sort of job? And I just knew it was time to go. And for me it was a combination of purpose, like I, I just felt very called after some of the political things that were happening in the United States and also health, like I was traveling so much. The work that I did was very high burn. A lot of travel and so it wasn’t working for me health-wise, but my path of rising or getting to [00:05:00] the chair was great.

I was very supported. I was very accelerated. I made partner in my early thirties, like you said, I was a first. I had a lot of sponsorship and a lot of mentorship, but I served a lot of tech and telecom clients and so there was always this constant, being the only person in of color or the only woman in the room.

I was constantly, I look younger than my age, and so there was always this, you can’t be the senior person, whereas the partner who’s in charge, those kinds of things. There was a lot of that I think, proving myself and feeling like there was a lot of responsability when you were a first. That I don’t know that I knew fully when I was in the role, but I think now looking back, that was, there was a lot there.

Elisa Tuijnder: Yeah. Do you feel you have to shoulder that, that you were breaking a path for people to come after you?

Deepa Purushothaman: It’s interesting. Because I never thought I’d be there forever, I don’t know that I felt that responsibility, but I remember early on thinking I’m good at this and if I’m gonna stay and do this, I’d love to be a first.

So it almost became like an extra thing to aspire to. [00:06:00] But I will share, it came up for me more in the end. So here I am sitting in the seat. I have this career. I probably have 20 more years in front of me and I’m thinking I wanna leave. And it took me about three years to leave, even though I knew, it was probably time.

And I think I sat in the seat longer because of that sense of responsibility, and again, I don’t think I knew it at the time. . But I know now that at the time I felt like my leaving or saying that this is too intense for me. The travel and the hours and the stress would signal my own failure potentially, but would signal to other people for women of color, or Indian women or women even that this is challenging, and so I think there was a lot of that. It’s actually how the book and even my company started now because in attempt to figure out what I should do, here I am sitting in this seat. I know I don’t wanna do it anymore. I’m not sure where to go. I’ve spent 20 years almost in this bubble, so you don’t even know where you can go.

I started meeting with women of color. Started one-on-one. I was just meeting them for dinner to talk about [00:07:00] networking. And then it turned into about a dozen dinners across the country with 20 or 30 women of color each. And again, we were just networking, I thought we’ll be there for an hour or two and we would sometimes be there for 6, 7, 8 hours because there were such shared stories.

And most of these women were senior women in their industry, they had never had these conversations around race at work or what it’s like to be a first few and only, right? And so one woman said something in the first meeting or this first dinner, and that became, I think the fodder for the company in the book.

She said, I sit in a seat of power. I should clarify. She was a public company, CFO, so very senior black woman. And she said, I sit in a seat of power and I don’t feel powerful. And it was as if the entire room quieted and everyone started finishing each other’s sentences. And I wanted to explore that cuz I felt a little bit of that.

Here I am in a really senior seat and yet I’m dealing with major health issues that might even sideline me completely for a very long time. What’s going on that I’m so out of alignment. And so that’s what I studied and that [00:08:00] became why I interviewed 500 women of color to write the book.

Elisa Tuijnder: If I’m not mistaken, you ended up in the in inclusion role as well at Deloitte.

Deepa Purushothaman: Yeah. As should also share that. So in the last couple of years, my career, probably the last three, four years, I ended up as the women’s initiative. So our win leader for the us which, in that role it was overseeing a hundred thousand employees and it was the women’s initiative and Deloitte had created women’s initiative in the seventies.

It was one of the first firms very globally renowned. And so I sat in a seat also where I got to really influence policy and positioning and strategy for a lot of women. And it started, my work and inclusion has been decades long as I think of who I am and what I am. But I think that role in particular was a very formal way to really think about, what are we doing to recruit, retain, and advance women in general.

And was a great place to learn and think about some of the things I talk about now.

Elisa Tuijnder: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Deloitte is good in, in trailblazing some of these things. Like we know they have a Chief happiness officer as one of the only big firms like that in, [00:09:00] in the globally. So That’s great.

So the, was the pandemic for you? Like you said, you were thinking about this for three years. Did you have a clear path out of it and was the pandemic then the Kickstarter or okay, this is it now or never kind of situation?

Deepa Purushothaman: No, it wasn’t like that. So I did those dinners. Like I said, that, that question about, I sat in a seat of power and not feeling powerful.

That became I just wanted to learn more and more as I had those conversations. Again, this was even a little bit before the pandemic, I started to see the patterns and so I almost knew I wanted to do research or do something around that sort of topic. And then I think the pandemic, if anything, it gave me some early space to see what it would like to not be in that role.

So part of it for me was I spent 20 years there. It was my entire adult kind of life. It was my entire identity. I was really scared to leave and why I would leave at that juncture, cause I was leaving very early. I think the pandemic may maybe gave me a little bit of I wasn’t on the [00:10:00] road, I was out of the role.

Like I, it was just, it was almost as if I knew I was something else other than the role. So it was almost like a little bit of respite from what I was to be able to go do, try something else. So I think it, I think the pandemic helped me in the sense that it was quiet time. But I had already decided I was leaving even before some of the real pandemic at the time I left, we were just thinking it was early.

It was gonna end like it wasn’t gonna be as long as it was.

Elisa Tuijnder: Yeah. Yeah. We all thought that. Yes. So in, in 2020, what a great time. You also co-founded something called N Formation, a membership based community for professional woman of color. So why was that work the priority? Or the continuation for you after Deloitte and tell us a little bit about it.

How does it work? How does it support you color?

Deepa Purushothaman: Yeah. It’s really, I think, the continuation of those dinners that I mentioned. So we did those dinners at two or three o’clock in the morning. We’re in parking lots, like saying goodbye to each other cause they like the restaurants or the spaces of [00:11:00] kicked us out.

Like you have to leave. And then women would say, when are we gonna get back together? This was the best conversation I ever had. I think in the US context also in early 2020, we also had George Floyd’s murder. And so that conversation also started a conversation on race and then race at work. And so I left Deloitte six weeks before his murder, and I sold the book six weeks after.

And at the time I knew I was gonna do this work. I did not know it was gonna be the global, especially in the us like the, national conversation it is. So I stepped into a space knowing that I wanted to do this work and understand it more, and then all of a sudden it became one of the topics of the moment.

And so I would say to you like the company originally I thought we, we thought it was gonna be more dinners, more events, more meeting with companies and helping them have conversations with their senior women of color to stay and what do they need. It has evolved and all gone online and turned out to be very different than we first envisioned because of Covid and also because of where the conversation is. [00:12:00]

Elisa Tuijnder: Yeah. So you’ve mentioned your book a few times now. So let’s let our listeners know a little bit about this book. So you wrote a book about youown experiences, but also the experiences of many other women. And your book is titled The First, The Few, The Only. So from what you’ve seen, have things gotten better for women?

Have they gone worse? Are we actually now having that conversation? Is that leading somewhere? And what does that mean for the workplace as is.

Deepa Purushothaman: Yeah, I think it’s mixed. It’s a mixed answer. I would say that I think for the first time some of these conversations are happening. I think women of color have always known them, but they’re happening en masse in the US in a way that I don’t think we’ve ever seen before.

And so I think that’s positive. At least the conversation is happening. I think this summer has been really hard for women in the US. With Roe v, Wade and some other things. I think there’s a real feeling that we’re actually losing ground in general as women and in our power not actually gaining it.

So that’s actually been hard. I think companies are more wanting to do things, but [00:13:00] there’s also a lot of data that’s come out this summer that suggests we’re now two years into some of these inclusion conversations. And although, there’s been money allocated and probably a lot of spend. We’re not seeing a lot of results.

There’s actually an Edelman report that came out this summer that said trust in companies and trust in executives is at its lowest point ever, even lower than, two years ago on topics like an inclusion. So I don’t think it’s a positive place. At the same time, I do think the pandemic opened up a larger conversation, and so my book came out March 1st, and so it’s been out for about six months now.

I’ve done it like talking, sorts of talks at 300 companies. I think there’s a real willingness in wanting to talk about this in a way I’ve never seen before. But I also think the moment they’re we’re in, I think people are realizing that work isn’t working for anybody, not just women of color.

That’s why, they’re great resignation or even quiet quitting, which is like the topic of the summer. I think that’s all about, it’s not really about quitting. It’s not about, I don’t think it’s any about what most people are writing. It’s about boundary setting, right? It’s about the fact that we have let, especially [00:14:00] in this country, but I think in a lot of places, work overtake our lives and how do we take some of that back?

How are our identities more than our work, which is so much of what I write about and I talk about.

Elisa Tuijnder: Yeah, there was such a moment of hope throughout the pandemic that some of that would come back in and, the empathy was coming in and there was support. And it seems as if now that the pandemic has waned off and we are still facing many challenges.

The cost of living crisis is a really big problem. Not just here in the US but also in Europe and. Yet that trust base that taking back control over employees is all of a sudden back in swing almost. Yeah. Even the conversations that are going on around quiet quitting a lot of that, what I see is very negative.

It’s all about, oh, these are just people with bad work ethic, and I don’t think that’s what it is. It’s not what it’s,

Deepa Purushothaman: I think if companies see it that way, they’re missing something. There’s absolutely, genuinely a flag going. That workers at all levels in all places [00:15:00] really want to rethink work that it’s almost been a situation where companies have had full advantage, right?

And I’m not saying it’s not gonna sway back a little bit, but I don’t think workers or employees are gonna go back to where it was. You’re still seeing a lot of women of color quitting and leaving, that was a big part of the great resignation was it was women and women of color that were leaving moms who were leaving.

So I think it’s affecting certain groups even harder. And I think, yes, I mean we’re seeing the backlash to some of that. And I think with all the talk of the looming recession, I think that’s where, companies are taking their power back. You should be thankful and grateful, but that’s part of what has been broken, and I don’t feel like you’re seeing those voices silenced necessarily.

So yes, it swung back a little bit, but I don’t think it’s gone back to where it was. Is that not us are speaking about it, that it stays.

Elisa Tuijnder: Yeah. Yeah. I think it’s the things that we’re seeing. I think that the New York Times just came out with this big report on workplace surveillance and how per like pervasive it actually is.

And those kind of things hit me a little [00:16:00] bit because I talk about, we talk about trust all the time and about, giving people agency in their jobs and that’s the best way they can do their jobs. And then these kind of things come at you like, That feels like a step back .

Deepa Purushothaman: Yeah, no, absolutely.

And where I see it the most is what the women of color I work with is the hybrid or the in-person. Working as we go back to in offices or some in-office, most of the women and women of color I work with don’t wanna go back cuz it’s not, the workplace is harder for them. There is microaggressions or racism and other issues.

And so they want the flexibility of home. But what does that mean? And does that create a second class sort of citizen amongst the workers who work from home? And what does that look like? To me, to your point, it’s all related to trust, right? And we saw that work could get done, but why do we still, now we wanna revert back to some of that.

Elisa Tuijnder: Yeah. And all the science says the opposite, right? Yes. It’s counterproductive. Yet something in, as in this work environment keeps saying we have to manage for people who are actually not gonna do the right job [00:17:00] or something like that. Although most people will actually get the job done. So you said also I wanna pick up on something that you said earlier that, that the pandemic was a movement and a stride forward. But was it also, the burden of care often? On, on females during the pandemic, which also led to a number of people having to quit. So did that also have a reverse kind of side to it? A reverse coin to it?

Deepa Purushothaman: Absolutely. All the data suggests that women have lost ground, significantly.

We see, numbers and statistics saying that this is the biggest dip since in, in some cases, the forties and fifties. Like it, it’s huge, right? What we’re seeing. And so I think that is significant, but I also feel like it’s unpacked. This conversation that was always there and the way I describe it is I think there was always this line we had to draw around our personal lives and it was as if we, most of us in different ways and to different extents, but we would hide our personal lives, right?

We would come to work and not talk about the kids, or not talk about what was going on at home, or if we had to rush to a doctor’s appointment or a [00:18:00] childcare, issue that was all masked. And I think the pandemic and zoom, put all that front and center and so all the messiness of our lives came undone and became clear and we blurred all the boundaries and the lines and so I don’t think that can go back.

So I guess, yeah. Yes. I think for women and moms like it, it’s basically blown up and we’ve seen how messy and how broken it is. And in those cases, I think a lot of women have just opted out. And I. They’re starting their own companies, they’re doing other things. So I think there’s positives in that way, but it’s a negative story.

It’s, again this, I think this telltale like we’ve all fit in. Like I, I, so a lot of my work is about the conforming nature of workplaces, especially corporate culture, where it requires you to behave in a certain way. It defines leadership in a very narrow sort of way that doesn’t make space for people who are different than that definition.

And I think from what moms women of color or people of color, like we’re, we’re not going back. But it’s also, it’s broken, right? And yes it’s not all positive, but I’m trying to be [00:19:00] positive about the opportunity that exists as a result of the conversation.

Elisa Tuijnder: Yeah, I like that point of the silver linings of women starting their own businesses to make it work for them because we know we can work, we know we can work around our personal lives and do all of those things. We’ve been talking about some advances, as we said, the toxic work environments and the microaggressions, et cetera, they’re very pervasive still in work, in, in workplaces across the world.

So what advice would you have for someone who is in this kind of toxic work environment and whether or even like hostile environment would you say leave or try and influence it? Change it? Yeah. Can you give us some? Some, maybe some,

Deepa Purushothaman: yeah. My advice is different to different people, right?

And what I mean by that is, I don’t think there’s one answer to that question. My, my research and my data suggests that women and people of color, women of color, tend to stay in situations that are not good for them longer than other groups, because most of us growing up were [00:20:00] told stability and security are more important and are important values over happiness or over, wealth and health and those kinds of things.

There was a real sense of being, A lot of the women I interviewed were taught to be grateful, right? And be thankful and not rock the boat. There’s a sense that we have to work harder, right? Women have to work harder to even get to the seats. So there’s a lot of data that suggests for those groups.

Once you get to the seat, you end up sitting in toxicity longer because you’ve been told you have to put up with it. So I want us to understand that, that there’s some sort of meta narratives and some sort of indoctrination that happens that makes us believe those things. I really, what I counsel women on is pick up your head and look around you’re not gonna know your value and your options if you don’t look around.

And even if you’re happy in your job every few years, you should just see what your market value is. Because it’s always helpful. And then thirdly, I would say if you’re in a truly toxic situation that’s hurting your, health and all the rest of it, it’s time to go. And that we need to be clear about that, that not all cultures are created equal.

And that you can’t fix everything and it’s not our [00:21:00] responsibility to fix those things. Like some of that has to be on the leadership and on the company itself. And so it’s understanding where you are in that journey, but you can’t fix everything. And it’s okay to walk away from certain situations if you try.

I also, last thing I would say is I got advice from Michael Bush who’s the CEO of great companies to work for. And one of the things he said to me is that if in two to three years the situation doesn’t improve, his data suggests it never will for an employee. And so I think that’s really important.

If you are two years into a toxic situation, it’s probably time to look around. Whereas if you’re in the first month of it, or it’s only been a few months, like it’s a new manager, maybe wait it out a little bit and see if there’s other options.

Elisa Tuijnder: One of the things we are talking about is the essence of diverse teams bringing everyone to the table to solve complex problems. At Management 3.0, we have a practice named the Diversity Index. [00:22:00] Modern organizations should try to increase diversity beyond technology and gender differences. Diversity can be about age, ethnicity, where you’re from, where you grew up, skills, experience, education, and so much more.

This easy tool can help your team and organization acquire insights into how high the current diversity level is. A downloadable template is available on our website. For more information, go to

Let’s flip that for a second. Have we got advice for people who are working alongside women and women of color and, if they’re seeing some stuff like that, like their coworkers, is there anything they can do to be more effective allies, basically? Yeah.

Deepa Purushothaman: So two things. So one is I did a piece a few months [00:23:00] ago with a co-writer, Lisa.

and it was called toxic rock stars. It was for HBR and it went viral. And the piece is all about how many of us are in situations with toxic rock stars, like one individual who behaves badly, but he is a big producer. It’s usually a he, that’s why I’m saying he usually a pr, a big producer and the company rewards, that’s sort of production over culture, over, behaving properly. And over and over again. This is not just women of color, but women are in those situations where that toxic rockstar is really abusive and the company doesn’t do anything. So I would say to the companies, it’s understanding that sort of thing can’t continue to happen because by keeping them in a role and rewarding them, you’re showing them that, although you’re saying values matter and how we treat each other matters.

You’re keeping him there, right? Yeah. And that is signaling something. So our processes and our procedures have to, I think as far as like individual allyship, I call allies co-conspirators cuz I want them to be more active in the conversation. I think sometimes we think a [00:24:00] lot of inclusion work is people of color, like women of color, people of color, marginalized groups, that’s who should be doing the work.

But we all have roles to play. So if you’re in a meeting absolutely, and someone says something inappropriate that doesn’t feel right to you, don’t put it on the woman of color or person of color to speak up. You can say something, you can say. That didn’t sound right to me, or I’m a little bothered by what was just said.

Could we unpack that? There are ways you can intervene in the moment, and by the way, that’s the most important thing you can do because all the research and all the data suggests that most people who don’t feel like they belong, it’s because of those individual incidents where no one did anything or no one said it.

Elisa Tuijnder: Yeah I am gonna have to find that article that you wrote, cuz that, that

Deepa Purushothaman: sounds very rockstar. HBR sounds this summer. Yeah. It literally went viral and I had all these women messaging me on LinkedIn saying, yes, that’s super. Cause I wrote it about women of color, but all these women. Yeah. It’s to me, across industries,

Elisa Tuijnder: across levels.

Yeah. And it’s that, again, that, that prioritizing. [00:25:00] The productivity and the gain over the culture. Yeah, which is in the long run very detrimental for the business. So one of the things or one of the topics you’ve also spoken about is what you call the new rules of power in the workplace.

So can we unpack some of those rules? Yeah, I’d love to hear your take on these.

Deepa Purushothaman: Yeah. So much of what I did in the book, The First, The Few, The Only was really, it’s about power. So the subtitle is How Women of Color Find Power in Corporate America and so I wanted to study power. Cause part of what I think is we have all been taught by about a dozen books what power is right about machiavelli’s prince, etc.

There’s like a doctrine that we are, many of us are, given I was a philosophy major, so I read a lot of those works and they don’t work for a lot of women. So I interviewed white women, women of color, I interviewed a lot of different people and when I would ask about power, women tend to coward. THey don’t have a great relationship with power. For a lot of us it’s negative. For a lot of us, we think it’s exploitative when we don’t want it. And this idea that women [00:26:00] don’t want power is challenging because we need more of us to go, lead because I believe we also would lead differently.

And so I wanted to unpack that. And so the last chapter is my start of what would new power look like, especially for women of color. And it’s things like that power can be shared power can be used for good power can be collect. So I tell a story where I interviewed Stacy Brown Philpot, and she was the CEO of TaskRabbit.

And I interviewed her the week that her family got a new puppy and she did not want the puppy at all. The rest of her kids and her husband wanted the puppy. And so she, they got the puppy. The puppy was Fifi. And what Stacy was fascinated by is that Fifi was following Stacy around, even though Stacy had wanted nothing to do with this puppy.

And she was following Stacy because Stacy said, I think I’m stern and I set boundaries, but I’m also doing it in a way that is approachable. I’m not yelling at the puppy. I’m not, I’m just like, no, don’t do that. . And she said, I think that’s really what being a good leader is about, what [00:27:00] power is about.

It’s about making people feel safe so they can be their best selves and maybe power isn’t about top down and, telling people what to do. It’s about creating psychological safety. And I love that as an example of new power. That new power is really about making space for other people to show up versus telling people what to do.

And we have too much of the telling people what to do. So that’s really what an example of how I see power is different than what we’ve been taught.

Elisa Tuijnder: Yeah, absolutely. One of my favorite podcasts is the Guilty Feminist by Deborah Francis White. And she talks a lot about, should we not give women the chance to rule?

Let’s see, cuz you guys have been doing this for thousands of years. Let’s see if we can do this differently. And I do think. People always say power is intoxicating. I’m not sure if I like, if I would be in that, if that’d be the case for me if I did be in that position.

But yeah, let’s try and find a new definition of power. I really, I think that’s a very important [00:28:00] step forward and

Deepa Purushothaman: Yeah. But I also think what you just said is so important. I think many of us can step into power and do it the same way. And part of what I think you and I, and even this conversation is teaching is that there are different ways of doing it, but we have to unlearn what we have been taught and decide we wanna lead from what comes inside.

So much of what came out of the pandemic is research that women do lead differently, and that empathy is important and all these qualities that we don’t make space for, especially in the workplace, and that those qualities are probably what we need in this moment. So it’s a little bit of leaning into what we know, but we’ve maybe not been taught to lead in that way.

And so I think if it’s not just women taking the seats, like I don’t know that just by itself will change anything. But if women take the seats and lead in their, in natural ways, I do believe it would be different.

Elisa Tuijnder: Yeah, absolutely. And not pretend. To do it the proper way. Play the game. Lead from the heart.

Yeah. Play the game. Exactly. . Hey, so you’re also a found member of Iasara, which is India’s Yes. Yeah. Sorry for not pronouncing that correctly. So that’s [00:29:00] India’s first leadership academy exclusively for young women. So how does the professional environment in India differ from, say like Europe or the UK or the US.

And how does that, how do those experiences that you have there apply to, working with women across the world or across the world?

Deepa Purushothaman: Yeah, again, I keep using, we should have said this at the beginning, I keep using even the term women of color that doesn’t work in a lot of countries, and there’s actually a negative term true in some parts of Europe, so I totally appreciate that. And I’ve had calls from global companies saying some of what you do is applicable to our market, even though in Japan it’s more homogenous. I think what I’m really talking about is in groups and out groups, right? Like in every country, in every setup, there are people who sit in power and they tend to look the same, and they tend to collect power.

And how do groups or people that look different than that established sort of power make space or rise and actually behave differently once they get to those seats? That’s what really what the work is about. So in India, I think, when I go back and forth or I work with women there, the [00:30:00] challenges are slightly different cuz the expectations of home life are different than they are in the US And even when I talk to women here who are immigrants, right?

From India, there’s more different expectations. I was born here and I’m married to someone who was born in Australia, even though he’s a Sri Lankan of background, like he’s very western, right? And I have a lot more space to do what I want and show up how I want. But a lot of the Indian women that I interview in the US have obligations at home.

Like they’re expected to cook and clean and that can’t be outsourced in India. There’s a lot of priority placed on being a mom and a wife over what you do at work. And there is a real prioritization that happens even from in-laws and the extended family in a very different sort of way.

And so understanding that, so I think there are different dynamics. And so the work that we do with the. Girls and young women that we work with is really showing that they can be leaders and they can be leaders in their local society, in their local communities. And that leadership can be done locally.

It doesn’t have to be these, different visions, but sometimes these girls aren’t one helped with [00:31:00] funding. If there is only limited funds, it’s the boy child that’s educated and so showing that they can also make change. And then just teaching them to leadership skills that they don’t often get to learn in other settings.

And so it’s been really transformative. We started. In a full earnest in a number of years ago and two years ago, we had our first group of girls graduate and start to go to universities in Europe and US and other places including India, but other places as well. And so we’re starting to see the impact as they get older on how they lead and what they think they can do.

Elisa Tuijnder: Do you think? Cuz you know the, that’s correct. The home life is there’s a lot of pressure there, but there seems to be additional pressure now to also make it in the professional sense. So I’ve worked with a number of women in Nigeria where it’s really like they have to do everything at home, but they now also have to get a high power job and a high power education.

It’s, it feels like the pressures are just mounting on women instead of diminishing, like they’re not changing for, at least [00:32:00] for a lot of parts of the world. Yeah,

Deepa Purushothaman: I think that’s true. I think also by the way, I think economy has changed. So you almost need two incomes in household, even just make it in some of these countries.

And yes, I think that’s all true. I think it’s, I think it’s getting harder to To find time and find, I often people say, how do you find balance? And I don’t even know that it’s balance. It’s like how do you juggle better? And I think a lot of what we found with the pandemic is a lot of women, a lot of people are at their breaking point.

That’s really what the conversation is about, is I think what we’re realizing is we can’t continue to push people that they have their human limits and we are close to pushing people, over the edge in a lot of situations and how we work and what we value and what we prioritize as


So I agree that’s.

Elisa Tuijnder: Yeah. And we’re constantly being tormented and with new challenges and there’s new things coming at us, and the news is constantly negative and it’s really hard to get away from that. And on top of that, if you are, if your responsibilities [00:33:00] just keep mounting and mounting, we, yeah, we’re gonna crack at some point under all this pressure as a society.

But I think, yeah, women will feel that first. So in your book you also offer advice for business leaders who want to learn from your experiences and the experiences of other women and view their companies through a new lens. So what kind of changes or approaches do you recommend for those leaders who want to avoid the mistakes of the past and create more positive work environments for their employees.

Deepa Purushothaman: Yeah, I think the biggest thing I would say for leaders is, and I this is a little bit US and maybe Europe focused, but I think it’s true probably everywhere. I think we’re in a moment with social media and other mechanisms that’s, there’s so much visibility when someone says something wrong or someone does something wrong.

And on topics of, particularly around inclusion or women’s advancement. There’s almost a fear of saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing and much more reporting and one sort of wrong sentence and it goes viral. And so a lot of what I work with executives to do is to [00:34:00] understand you’re not gonna get it right every time.

And it’s as important to know how to apologize as to try. But if more leaders don’t try and aren’t willing to put themselves out there, especially on topics like inclusion, like it is personal, it is hard. It’s also really unlearning some of the, I don’t wanna say values, but the things you’ve been taught from childhood, right?

Around how the world works and what you should think, and you have to reprogram and change those things. And so I would say these kinds of topics are harder than just learning. Finance or some of the things you can, this is really personal deep work and you’re not gonna get it right the first time.

But please be willing to try cause we can’t improve society and create, improve work cultures if we don’t try.

Elisa Tuijnder: Do you think it’s also very individual what works for one person doesn’t work for a different person, so you have to maybe have different types of strategies

Deepa Purushothaman: absolutely. I, this again, people are in different parts of their, like places on their journey based on how they grew up. The most surprising thing I found in my research is that most of the [00:35:00] women. All, almost all the women did not talk about race as much as they thought they would at home. So some women didn’t, majority of the women didn’t talk about it at all. So if you’re from Asian or Latina descent, there was not a lot at all talked about with the black women I interviewed I expected it to be talked more. And even amongst those women, it wasn’t always talked about, especially race at work. It was like you’re gonna fac, racism at work, but you just have to deal with it. But there wasn’t a lot of what you should do, and I think that’s true for white leaders. I think that’s true for everyone.

We have not been taught about some of these issues, what to do when it’s difficult, what to do when someone does something wrong, what to do when you do something wrong. And so it’s really learning things that we probably should have learned in childhood, but that we never learned. And yes, it’s very different.

And even where you grew up, how you grew up, who you were exposed to growing up, all of those things affected.

Elisa Tuijnder: Up until certain, few years ago there was also the norm of saying, I don’t see color, pretending like it wasn’t there. And at least now there’s like [00:36:00] we are acknowledging that there’s differences and we are embracing these cultural differences.

But before it was just let’s pretend they’re not here.

Deepa Purushothaman: No. Absolutely, I can’t, there’s a couple paragraphs in the book about that, but yes. I’ll be honest with you, some leaders still say that to me. See color. I wanna see a world where we don’t see it that way.

That’s not like from the people of of color, I talk. That’s not the world we wanna see cuz we know, we see something different. There’s positive aspects to being different. So we’re not trying to whitewash everything, we’re trying to have more honest conversations. There’s a different,

Elisa Tuijnder: And better decision making comes from diversity.

And, complex problems are only gonna be solved with a number of different views as well. That is definitely what all the people listening here should embrace diversity and in their businesses as much as possible. So here on the podcast, we are very big fans of tangible practices, so things our listeners can start implementing tomorrow.

So what recommendations would you offer workers in the field now who either want to [00:37:00] avoid some of the negative experiences you’ve encountered or try and stop them all together.

Deepa Purushothaman: Yeah, I’ll share the one around microaggressions cuz I think it’s, I found it to be the most useful. So I have a whole chapter in the book where I talk about women of color, be prepared for the microaggressions and the racism you will face.

And I say to women, because they weren’t taught what to do when they were younger, I want you to literally practice right now what you’re gonna say. Cuz most of us face the certain, the same sort of thing. So for me it was age related, right? You look too young, you can’t be the leader. Or I often get, oh, you speak English so well, where did you learn?

Speak it even though I was born here in this country. So it’s like I know the four or five, six things that are coming up cause they always come up. And so knowing what, writing out what you’re gonna say. But I also tell women if I to practice saying them out loud, because in the moment when there’s shame and payment involved, it’s sometimes hard to say those things.

But I tell allies or co-conspirators is you are also gonna be in rooms where a racist comment is said or you’re gonna feel uncomfortable, you should practice writing things out and then saying out loud too. Oh wait, I need to stop the meeting. [00:38:00] That was really offensive. Or can we pause because I feel uncomfortable?

Or three, I wanna check in. Cause you know what was just said, I’m not sure. I’m not sure I heard it correctly, whatever that is for you, but that it’s important that you also practice because in those moments with high emotional intensity , and that’s what usually happens when there’s moments of racism or microaggressions or sexism, we don’t know what to do and we tend to be nice. We tend, we’ve all kind of been taught that in work cultures you should be kind to your colleagues, but there’s a difference between being kind and saying something is actually hurtful. And so that, that really practicing is what I advise co-conspirators and allies to do.

Elisa Tuijnder: Yeah, I have that so many times when I come out of a situation where that happens and, or has happened and I’m like, oh, I should’ve said this or should’ve said that. So I like that. I like having your answer ready is yes, it’s good practical. So where can I’m sure some people here that have, are listening, are now inspired to go and read your book and your story.

So where can people find The First, The [00:39:00] Few, The Only,

Deepa Purushothaman: IT’s being sold everywhere books are sold. So I think a lot of people are buying it off Amazon. But anywhere you buy your books, please go buy it there. It’s also an audio book. So in all form, all formats.

Elisa Tuijnder: Any other ways where people can get in touch with you Yeah.

And connect with you?

Deepa Purushothaman: Yep. So I am most involved or personally I do a lot of my writing on LinkedIn, so that’s a great way. And then my website is And we have a lot of information about speaking about the book about what else I’m doing. And there are things that we do that are open to the public where we host just conversations.

So I’d love to see people participate.

Elisa Tuijnder: Amazing. Yeah, I’m definitely gonna check out that article that you mentioned and yeah, go through the blog, go look what you do. Yeah, and I hope a lot of people follow me on this as well. So thank you so much for coming onto the podcast Dipa. And good luck with the promotion of the book and I changing the world, but all of us together, ,

Deepa Purushothaman: thank [00:40:00] you.

Thank you for having this conversation with me. I appreciate it.

Elisa Tuijnder: Thank you. You’ve been listening to The Happiness At Work podcast by Management 3.0 where we are getting serious about happiness. Be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and if you enjoy our shows, don’t be shy. Write us a review, share the happiness with your colleagues, family, or friends. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn under Management 3.0.

Have a listen to more of our insightful podcasts