Author Talks: Forge your power

Deepa Purushothaman pays homage to the women of color who cracked open corporate America and prepares the next generation to take their turn.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with former senior executive Deepa Purushothaman about her new book, The First, the Few, the Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America (Harper Collins, March 2022). Drawing on more than 500 original interviews, Purushothaman takes a candid look at the myth of meritocracy and the difficult reality of being the first, the only, or one of a few women of color at work. An edited version of the conversation follows.

What makes this book particularly relevant to corporate America now?

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I started writing it a few years ago. I started writing it prior to George Floyd’s murder, so when I was writing it, I was having to explain a lot more about race at work and why it was an important topic. Now, as it comes out, I think we’re in a different place. We are absolutely evaluating the place that work takes in our lives with COVID.

We’re seeing such a high number of women, and especially women of color, leaving the workforce with the Great Resignation. We’re seeing companies really struggle with topics around diversity and inclusion, and although a lot are trying, they’re not necessarily working or solving.

I also think we’re finally having conversations about race at work and how it is a different experience for women of color. All of those reasons make it a perfect time to have this kind of discussion. I thought I’d have to be describing and really defining things, but I’m not finding that I have to.

I think we’re in a moment where we’re realizing that work isn’t working for anybody, especially for women and especially for women of color. This book is an attempt to describe what it’s like to walk in our shoes, why it’s difficult, and why there are extra layers to it.

What does the term ‘women of color’ mean to you?

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The term women of color is a term that I use in solidarity, as a definition of power or as a word of power. It’s something that I spent a lot of time talking about. I talked with many, many, many experts, and it’s probably the biggest question, the biggest concern, the biggest thing I toiled and really struggled with as I was writing the book.

There is so much focus we place on language, and getting the language is so important as we write books like this. For me, women of color became something that I ended up speaking about with a lot of people. Is it a term I can use as an Indian woman? Is it okay for me to use? Who should be writing a book like this? What does the term women of color mean?

There can be power and strength and even some unifying properties of using the term people of color, but it doesn’t necessarily diminish who they are as individual groups. I saw that, and I wanted to take that to corporate America. What that means is that I understand, as an Indian woman, that my experience is completely different than, maybe, a Black woman in the same company. But, at the same time, some of our experiences as women of color are shared, and I want to focus on those shared challenges because together we can make change, and it’s going to take all of our voices to make change.

So, that’s really where it comes from, but it’s something that I struggled with quite a bit. It’s a little bit of, “who has permission to write books like this? Who has permission to talk about topics like this?” And “how do we bring more voices to bear?”

Is corporate America really a meritocracy?

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I think the idea that corporate America is a meritocracy is a setup. It sets us up to think that if you come into the system, work really hard, try really hard, do all the right things, perfect, conform, and produce in all the right ways, you’ll get ahead.

Many of the women of color I’ve spoken with really struggled with that message, because when they didn’t [get ahead], when they hit up against something, they internalized that, right? It became about them. It became about how they should alter—how they should be different.

A lot of them, myself included, ended up getting sick. A lot of the stories in the book are the challenges, how we internalize that, and what that shows up as for us. What I wanted to do was to redefine power so that women of color felt powerful.

There’s so much that happens to young girls of color—to women of color in systems—that takes power away from us, that tells us we’re not the ones that are powerful, we’re not leaders. If we start to redefine those definitions, if we start to think about power differently, if we start to allow people like me to be seen as powerful and to see me as a leader, we can start to expand what those definitions look like, and we could start to really think about these things differently.

I wanted to do that because I think the idea that corporate America is a meritocracy really sets women of color up to struggle. It really sets us up to believe that we have to perform and behave in a certain way to rise, and I think that doesn’t allow us to be our full selves.

It doesn’t allow us to bring the unique properties that we have and the power that we have to the workplace. I think we need those things, [not just] for ourselves—corporate America needs those things if we’re going to continue to innovate and make change.

I think the idea that corporate America is a meritocracy really sets women of color up to struggle. It really sets us up to believe that we have to perform and behave in a certain way to rise, and I think that doesn’t allow us to be our full selves.

What does ‘find your power, feel your power,’ and ‘forge our power’ mean for companies and business leaders, most of whom are still men?

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I wanted to write a book that was for women of color, and I wanted to do that because I didn’t have that book when I was rising, when I started in my career. I continually looked around for leaders that looked like myself, and I didn’t find that.

Part of what I wanted to do was make sure I wrote something that spoke to the next generation, so that they could see themselves. That was really important to me. In that conversation, I was really focused on the power of me and the power of we: that as women of color, you have to find your individual power.

How I find my power is going to be different than how the women of color sitting next to me find it, but at the same time, if we work together, through the power of we, that’s how we change structures. As an individual, it’s very hard to change structure, to change beliefs around us, if we don’t work together as a collective.

That’s really what the book is about for women of color, but what I’m realizing, what I’m finding as I keep talking about women of color, so many allies and what I call “co-conspirators” are showing up. They’re saying, “We want to make change.”

Does the book speak to leaders, especially men?

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Part of what we have to recognize is it’s hard for others to understand what it’s like to be a woman of color. I’m a little bit biased, but this book describes in a really thorough way what it’s like to navigate corporate America as a woman of color.

It’s ten chapters on that. That gives leaders—White leaders, White men sitting in seats of power—a view into what our experience is like. I start the book with this story about Walter. Walter was one of my best friends and someone who made partner at another firm around the same time I did.

On a day that we were celebrating, he said to me, “Well, you’re a two-fer. You are a woman and you’re a person of color. Everything is going to be golden for you. You’re on all the tracks. You don’t have anything to worry about.”

[He said this] without understanding—again, as one of my best friends—what that did to me, what that did to my psyche, and what that did to my confidence. I wrote this book, although for women of color, for people like Walter, who might be well-intentioned, but don’t really understand what their words, what their actions, what they’re doing does to us and how it feels for us. It’s a great framework to understand, to make change, and to be more conscious about how the words and the actions you take have impact on women of color and their advancement.

What are your biggest takeaways from writing this book?

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There were two really big takeaways for me from the research I did for the book, and I’d spoken with over 500 women of color to write this book.

One was that so many of them were physically ill. The challenges of navigating a structure had a physical toll on them, and there’s a whole chapter around that. There are challenges around speaking up to the system, and retaliation, and process breakdowns.

The second biggest thing that I found was, I would ask at the end of each of my interviews, “Is there anything else you want to share? Anything else you want to tell me? Anything else I didn’t ask you?” And every single woman—99 out of 100 women—their voices would drop, they’d get really quiet, their face would change, and they would say, “I want you to know that we don’t help each other.”

What they were saying to me is that White women don’t help women of color but also women don’t help women of color; Indian women don’t help Black women, and among Black women, they’re not helping each other.

I wanted to really unpack that. I did a little bit of that in the book, and what I found is it comes down to things that we believe about leadership and things we believe about opportunities. The research we did with Billie Jean King really unpacked that.

The biggest message that we need to undo is this idea that we’re competing for one seat at the table: the idea that if I’m going to get it, then the next woman or the next woman of color is not going to get it—that there’s one designated seat.

We ended up speaking with over 1,700 women in trying to understand why that is the case, what that means. And if we’re not helping each other, how we are changing the system? At the end of the day, the biggest message that we need to undo is this idea that we’re competing for one seat at the table: the idea that if I’m going to get it, then the next woman or the next woman of color is not going to get it—that there’s one designated seat, one seat on the board, or one seat in the C-suite.

We need to get rid of that idea, that there’s one seat. In addition, I want to get rid of the idea that there’s limited seats, because it suggests that there’s a pie that we’re constantly redistributing.

In that sort of mentality, there’s always going to be winners and losers. I think the biggest challenge we have around DE&I [diversity, equity, and inclusion] work is this idea of winners and losers, the idea that White men are going to lose something if people like me end up in seats of power, or as we rise. That’s the mentality.

The scarcity mentality is really what came out of the research with Billie Jean King, but also it came out of the research of the book. That’s some of what we have to reprogram, or some of the delusions underpinning corporate America that we need to redo, because it doesn’t help anybody.

What would signal sustainable progress to you on this issue?

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I do think the numbers are getting better. There is more focus on women of color advancing, on hiring women of color, than ever before, so I’m optimistic. At the same time, I would tell you—and this is not the story that gets told often—how many women of color will end up in a new position, whether it’s on a board or in a C-suite, and within three months, they’re calling me off the record and saying, “I’m not happy here either,” or "I’m not set up for success,” or “All the things I was promised as a chief inclusion officer are not really here.”

They’re not set up to really make the change that they were hired to do or that they were promised they were going to be given. For me, real change is understanding the system challenges, starting to address intrinsically what’s broken, and having different conversations about what leadership looks like, how we progress, how we work, and even the space that work takes up in our lives.

Specifically, around women of color, it’s not just on the number that get to the seat, it’s on how long they stay and the impact that they have. One of the biggest lessons from the book is from the many women of color I spoke with, and I spoke with more senior women than I did rising women. I didn’t see many books out there that talked about the trailblazers: the first, the few, the only, and how they got to the seat.

The challenge for a lot of those women is once they got to the seat, they weren’t able to be in their full voice. They would do all of these things, sacrifice all these things, thinking once they got to the seat, they would be able to do it their own way, and they weren’t able to.

For me, success is, yes, we have more numbers, we have more metrics, we have all the things that we look at, and there’s actually space for women of color to show up in full voice, to lead with their power, to make change, to innovate, to really ask different questions. That’s why you want us, but you need to allow us to have the space to show up if we’re going to be in our full power and bring everything we can to the table.

I think it’s a positive story. I think it’s an optimistic story. I think women of color have so much to offer, but I think until now, we’ve been put in this seat and have had our wings clipped. I’m asking everybody to give us the space to allow our wings to unfold and watch what we do.

I think it’s a positive story. I think it’s an optimistic story. I think women of color have so much to offer, but I think until now, we’ve been put in this seat and have had our wings clipped. I’m asking everybody to give us the space to allow our wings to unfold and watch what we do.

How have systemic design flaws in corporate America impeded women?

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The story we’re talking about is Vernā Myers. She’s the chief inclusion officer at Netflix and a good friend. When I asked her, “what’s the challenge for women of color?” we ended up talking about airplanes and airplane design, and we talked about how when airplanes were originally designed, they weren’t designed for women.

I’m five one and a half, so I’m little, right? When I have to go into an airplane and put my suitcase above my head, it’s a real challenge. I start worrying about that 20 minutes before I get on the plane. I get to that location where I have to hoist it, and I’m looking around to see if anyone’s watching because there’s a good chance I’m going to hoist it and it’s going to fall back. It’s a whole process.

Part of what we talked about was how the plane itself was not designed with moms in mind, was not designed with women in mind, was not designed with people who are vertically challenged in mind, but it wouldn’t have been that difficult [to do].

Part of what we talked about was why you would design something where within the first five minutes of getting on, it makes you feel so uncomfortable. You don’t translate airplane luggage to belonging, but it is a sense of belonging.

I feel very unwelcome in the first five minutes I get on a plane, because I have to do that process that I know was not designed for me. In the same way, my message is that corporate America wasn’t created by women of color and wasn’t necessarily made for women of color. We weren’t in the seats doing it.

In fact, sometimes we’re tolerated, not even supported, when we’re actually there today. That’s part of the message, that if you’re not there in a design process, there are going to be inherent flaws around belonging, around inclusion, and around how it shows up for us. We need to talk about that and then make space for us to redo it, and redo it in ways that not only will make it better for me but will make it better for all of us.

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