Finding Personal and Professional Fulfillment with Deepa Purushothaman
Your job title does not define your value
As the co-founder of nFormation, a membership-based community, Deepa Purushothaman is committed to helping women of color navigate corporate structures and achieve personal and professional success. In today’s show, Deepa shares about a life-changing decision that opened new doors for her and others.
“You’re worthy of being you.”
Deepa Purushothaman was a “first” senior partner at Deloitte, where she spent more than 20 years focusing on women’s leadership and inclusion strategies to help women of color navigate corporate structures. She was the first Indian American woman and one of the youngest people to make Partner in the firm’s history.
After leaving Deloitte in 2020, Deepa co-founded nFormation, a membership-based community for professional women of color, offering brave, safe, new space and helping place women of color in C-suite positions and on Boards. Her new book, “The First, The Few, The Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America” was published by HarperCollins in March, 2022.
Deepa is a Women and Public Policy Program Leader in Practice at the Harvard Kennedy School where she concentrates on research to combat systemic racism in corporate structures to help women of color rise. She is a founding board member of Avasara, India’s first leadership academy exclusively for young women. She has degrees from Wellesley College, Harvard Kennedy School, and the London School of Economics. Deepa currently resides in Los Angeles.
“I am a person outside of my job.”
Michael: Hello. I’m Michael Kurland, CEO, and co-founder of Branded Group, an award-winning facility maintenance and construction management company that services multi-site commercial properties such as retail, restaurants, health care facilities, and educational institutions. Welcome to the Be Better podcast. Each week I interview thought leaders from a variety of industries who will share their stories and the lessons they learn as they strive to be better for their clients, partners, employees, and their community. Are you ready to be better?
Hello and welcome to another episode of the BeBetter podcast. I’m your host, Michael Kurland. Joining me today is Deepa Purushothaman. Deepa, Welcome to the show. Thank you for being here. Tell the audience a little bit about who you are and what you do.
Deepa: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here. I spent 20 years in corporate America and I left my job. I was a partner at Deloitte. I left in the early stages of COVID. So before we called it the great resignation to be honest with you, I wasn’t 100% sure what I was going to do, but I left to kind of find wellness. I had started to get sick and was asking bigger questions about purpose. And so I left and I wrote a book and I started a company both focused on inclusion and women of color in particular. And the book is about to launch. It’s called The First The Few The Only How Women of Color Find Power in Corporate America.
Michael: Yes. And my apologies. We went through this whole thing pre-show of how to introduce you. And Deepa is an author of The First, The Few, the Only, and also co-founder of nFormation, as you just said. And I botched that one, too. Sorry about that audience. So, Deepa, do me a favor. Let’s tell the audience where you came from. Let’s move back, you told us about this 21-year journey you were on before you got to where you’re at now. So let’s talk about that. What were you doing?
Deepa: So I mean, even a little bit more background on that, just given I do inclusion topics. So I was born in Ohio and grew up in Jersey. Important because I grew up in a really small farm country town. We were one of the only families of color, Indian families at the time. It’s much more diverse now, but when I was growing up, I think there were a lot of questions about identity. My parents immigrated from India in the late sixties and I think I always questioned my difference. So I was always navigating spaces where I stuck out and trying to figure out what’s going on. And we didn’t talk a lot about race at home. And so I think there was a lot of confusion for me. And so that’s always been a big topic. I went to really prestigious schools and did all the things like got all the degrees and the same sort of thing. Like I was in very white spaces, always kind of questioning like, why do I feel like I’m having to explain myself? Or Why don’t I feel as confident as I know that I could be given my background? And so that was really, I think, always a big question. And then I joined Deloitte out of grad school thinking I’ll do a year or two of private sector experience because my background was in politics. That’s what I wanted to do: work on big campaigns. And I ended up staying at Deloitte for 20 years and had a magical career. I focused on tech and telecom for a majority of it, but I also led the women’s initiative for the firm in the U.S. It’s a very prestigious, well-known sort of program because it was one of the first companies to focus on advancing women over 20 years ago.
Michael: So what made you want to get into the women’s initiative? I mean, besides the obvious and second, what were the things you were seeing in the workplace that made that so important to you?
Deepa: I had always felt like I progressed. I had a lot of support and a lot of sponsorship. But I was the first Indian woman that made partner and I made partner in my early thirties. And so there was always something about being a little different again, trying to navigate being the only woman in the room a lot of the time, but the only woman of color in the room and trying to find my voice. Right. And I think a lot of how it showed up for me especially was what I look like. So I always looked younger than I am. Right. I think it’s called the Asian curse. A lot of us look younger than our age. And so there would be a lot of questions like, you can’t be the partner, you can’t be the manager who’s in charge. And that happens so often, multiple times a day that I think I had to figure out like, what’s going on? Is that something I need to take on? Is that something I need to worry about? Is that something that’s going to wane my confidence? And so it kind of started with my questioning but just trying to help other women thrive and survive in a career that’s very dominated by men because there’s so much travel. So a lot of women opt out of careers like that. And it’s a pretty intense job like I did three cities a week for a good chunk of my career. So you live out of a suitcase. It’s a very different lifestyle. And so really just trying to support more women in advancing. That’s what I was focused on.
Michael: That’s great. And I understand living out of the suitcase. When I first started Branded Group I was the salesperson as well as the CEO. It was cross-country flights and I wasn’t gone three days a week every week, but I would go for weeks at a time. And I tried to do one week home, one week away. And it was grueling. I didn’t have any family or anything to worry about. So it was just me being single. And it was grueling for me to be single. I could not imagine. I do now have a wife and we have a baby on the way. And my whole year has been like besides the release of the book How do I do less? I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but there’s a scene in that movie where Paul Rudd is trying to teach the main character how to surf and he just keeps saying, let’s do this. So that’s what I’ve been telling myself in my head. Do less. But to your point, like trying to balance that and be these new things that you’re talking about, also dealing with being younger and a woman of color and trying to get all the other women to have, I guess, someone to look up to or something to look up to. Right. How to get there. I think that’s great. I think that’s great. What did you do?
Deepa: I think it’s about role models, right? Look, a lot of us don’t have role models that look like us, to put it simply. And so it’s hard to know that you belong. And it starts young, right? Like, I never saw myself on television. I never saw myself in a movie. I never saw myself in any of those roles. There were never executives that looked like me. So you just kind of don’t realize how much that affects your psyche. And so really trying to reprogram and change those messages that more of us feel like we belong. Because I think obviously once we get to the seat, we do well. But I think most of us opt out because we don’t even know that that’s an option for us. And so that was a lot of what my work was focused on.
Michael: You brought you just made me think of something. So I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of imposter syndrome. Yes.. So when I released the book, I felt really like I’m not an author. I don’t belong here.
Deepa: Same, by the way. I have the same things. Yes.
Michael: Okay, cool. So we can relate to that. And so when you don’t have role models or someone to look up to or feel like you, you can emulate that. I think that’s a thing that you mentioned psyche, right? I think that’s a thing that gets into most of our heads like, hey, I don’t belong here. And then what is the first thing you do? Right. Most people retreat. So I’m glad you didn’t retreat. I’m glad that I didn’t retreat. And I’m happy that you’re here on the show. So that’s great. That’s great so far. I appreciate everything that we’ve been talking about. So talk about your grueling schedule. You were doing three cities a week. And you were helping raise awareness and also being a partner of Deloitte, which is no small feat. And tell me where it started to turn and then.
Deepa: I got engaged and moved from the East Coast, the West Coast to San Francisco and I ended up leaving a really large tech account. So one, I had to kind of relearn this whole new industry because my background had been telecom. All of a sudden here I am planning a wedding, like getting married, starting over, even though I was with the firm. Like it was a completely different group of people I was working with because I crossed the country and I just found myself on the biggest project that I’d ever sold, doing probably 100-hour weeks, really struggling, like leaving my house at five in the morning because of traffic and getting home at like maybe one in the morning. And again, I’d just gotten married. So this really big project came up two weeks after I got married.
Michael: And so it was like a recipe for disaster, right?.
Deepa: Marriage survived. I’m still married. We’re happily married. But, I mean, he says, I don’t know that we could have survived it if he was a partner at Deloitte as well. So he understood the lifestyle. But a very long story short, that project was so intense that I think it triggered a lot of things that were latent for me. Like I had already been overworking, I’d already been exhausted, thinking the pressure of so much change had kind of taken root. And I started to get sick and for probably a year and a half it was like this mounting list of symptoms. It started as small things like headaches and hives. And then I was getting sick all the time. Very long story short, it ended up in a lot of pins and needles and almost numbness in my limbs. And so I’m on this journey with lots of doctors trying to figure out what’s going on. And I get to my 14th doctor. The 15th doctor is the one that figured out what it was, my 14th doctor. And I remember the story. I’m sitting in the office and she’s looking at me and she’s a doctor in San Diego. San Diego, because again, I travel all the time I had to see a doctor when I traveled. And she says to me, We can keep running the test because this was my fourth or fifth time seeing her keep running the test. I agree with you. Something is wrong. But, like it’s your job. And she said I think your job is killing you. She said that. And I talked about it in the book and then she said, What would you do if you didn’t do a big job like this? Do you feel like you have to have a big job like this to feel important or feel worthy? And don’t you see you’re just worthy of being you? And I tell you, Michael like I had to like myself not to cry because it was just like she had seen through me. I kind of live to work, to be honest with you. Like so much of my success and how I saw worth was an outside accolade and outside validation and progressions and promotions. And I had all those things going so well for me that I hadn’t stopped to figure out, like, what makes me happy and who I am and what success looks like for me. So I left that meeting or that appointment and went back to my hotel room and cried for like 6 hours and decided I had to figure out what was going on. And so that was kind of the start for me.
Michael: I mean, that’s what happened. But I was, as you were telling me this, I’m thinking you were pushing so hard because you just felt like you couldn’t fail. After all, you had so much expectation from not just yourself, but other people, because everything you’ve described up to this point sounds just like that.
Deepa: I mean, that’s exactly why the title is The First, The Few, The Only. I think that part of what we don’t understand and I don’t talk about it this way in the book but I can have the words now. I think we don’t talk enough about the shadow side of trailblazing. Like we look at these people who like making these things that we all kind of emulate. We don’t realize what they are sacrificing. And so much of what I focus on is when you say imposter syndrome like I think a lot of women of color are taught like you’re just going to have imposter syndrome, get on with it, right? Or fake it till you make it. And part of what we don’t talk about is how the structure and the messages create some of that, right? Like if you get messages all the time that you don’t belong or you get messages that you have to overwork yourself to prove yourself or you can’t fail. Most of us are in situations where we are overworking, we’re overproducing, we’re just trying to make it. And I think it takes a toll on us. And that’s actually and then I’ll pause. Like one of the biggest findings from the book is two out of three women I interviewed were sick with physical manifestations of illness from really overworking and all that pressure.
Michael: I’m not a woman. I’m not a woman of color, but I can empathize. So I’m sure it’s, it’s even harder for that aspect. But when I started the company and as I said, the dark side of a trailblazer, it almost became a badge of honor for me too, like, pull an eighty-hour week or a 100-hour week and be on three flights that week. That was like that was what I could do.
Michael: That’s what I thought I needed to do. Right? And it was working because I was seeing my bottom line go up. Right? So we were hiring more people and the company was growing. We were winning awards. But then to your point, I would come home and I would just be exhausted and I’d go see my therapist and she’s like, What are you doing? Like, What are you doing? You don’t even feel. Like I’d fly home after a week on the road on a Sunday and I’d take some downtime on a Sunday in that city. And I thought that was like me having some downtime, which it was. Yeah. And then I would fly home Sunday afternoon, I’d get up Monday morning and go to the therapist and talk to her. And I’d go to work and she’s like, Where’s your day off? Like, where’s your time? Where do you do your laundry? And I was like, I pay someone to do that, you know? So I get it. I get it. And I like to think about what I did ten years ago. I couldn’t. I couldn’t keep up that pace these days. Yeah. Couldn’t. I don’t want to, I have no desire to.
Deepa: But I think that’s part of what I’m trying to help women realize, and all women, right? And again, I think it’s all people at this moment. I think COVID has made us question that as a society, but like, why are we living to work and like, what’s the value and like how much space does work take up in our lives? I think that’s kind of come undone for a lot of people in the last few years because we got to see the messiness of people’s lives on Zoom as kids walk by and pets walk by and like the mailman rings the doorbell. Like, we’ve spent so much energy compartmentalizing our lives, right? And trying to be perfect workers. And I think what we’re realizing is it’s not working for anybody. Yes, women of color, but men, too. Like it’s not working for anybody.
Michael: It’s not working for anyone. And I think the way COVID when it first happened, I don’t know if you remember when we shut down and like that, the oceans were cleaning themselves up.
Deepa: Animals, all the stories.
Michael: I feel like that’s exactly what’s happened with the work as well. Like it to your point, it’s just we went remote and I will say our culture has suffered to an extent because we just don’t get that connection every day with each other in person. But I will say our productivity and our happiness as a company are as high as it’s ever been because we’ve eliminated all the stressors. Right. There are always stressors that come with doing your job, but all the ancillary stressors that come with doing a job whether you’re a single mom or a single dad or you’re even a dual income family, I don’t know. No, I couldn’t think of that. And one parent had to get the kid to daycare and the other parent had to, like, be at a meeting or hit the train station on time to not get in the traffic or whatever the case may be. Now, my biggest issue is, can you not show up to work in your pajamas and on screen, or can you just brush your hair like, yeah, that’s the biggest thing? So people have gone a little bit the other way. Anyway, I’m way digressing.
Deepa: So but I think I don’t want us to lose the learnings. I think that’s the important thing. And I think we’re in that moment, to be honest with you. Like I’m starting to see some of us revert. People are getting on calls with COVID, like they’re sick and they’re still getting, we’re back to getting on calls or I’m on vacation, but I know, I know you need this. Like we had stopped that for the last couple of years. And so how do we remember what we’ve learned, like the good parts of what we learned? I’m not saying all of COVID was great. But like, how do we remember the good parts and change how we work? And I hope we do remember. And we do take those changes then.
Michael: Absolutely. So you found out you were sick after 15 doctors and they diagnosed you with Lyme disease, is that correct?
Deepa: Like I think Lyme disease. It progressed pretty well. Yep.
Michael: So what does that mean, late stage? Is that?
Deepa: So I probably had it for a long time but it had activated. So like just taking a course of antibiotics wasn’t going to work, right? Like it had progressed pretty far. And so I spent eight months almost in bed, saw a lot of alternative healing and a lot of different creative things because Lyme disease is also not very understood in our country. And there’s a lot of myths and scares around it. And I think part of it was the rest and the stress because the stress does activate immune disorders or immune challenges. And that was really what was happening. And the eight months of leave of absence helped me really, I think, get up the gumption to leave. Part of it for me was my entire identity. Like it wasn’t that it was a job like it was who I was. And so it was really scary to leave. And so eight months away just kind of really showed me like I am a person outside of my job and outside of all these things I sacrificed to do. And it helped me figure out what kind of life I want to create. And so I started asking different questions. I think a lot of the questions that everyone’s asking themselves now, but I just happened to ask them a couple of years earlier because I had to.
Michael: So almost a blessing in disguise, right? Or.
Deepa: That’s how I see it. I know, I know that’s hard framing. But yeah, I see it as a blessing because I don’t think I would have walked away otherwise. I just don’t think. I was too wrapped up in what I believed. Right. All these. All these things that I thought were important to me.
Michael: I can relate. I was working on the East Coast in 2013. I was making great money as the sales guy for another VP of sales for another company. And I was married and my ex-wife had an affair. And I could have crumpled like a lawn chair and said, I always say that wrong. I made it my driver and I am not going to be a victim. So the point of what I’m saying is it was a blessing in disguise. And I don’t know how many people would say it to a spouse saying an affair is a blessing in disguise. Yeah, that’s how I look at it. So I can relate. So let’s talk about what that led you to do. You’re. Yeah. Gathering of three women. Let’s get into that.
Deepa: I was telling you that. So part of my challenge was like, here I sit in this really important role, a very visible role, right in this big company. I sacrifice all these things to get to the seat. I’m not feeling well now. I’ve taken some time away. And even before I took the time away, I started feeling this interesting pressure that I didn’t couldn’t fully articulate until probably a year into this conversation. But I felt like I knew it was time for me to leave and I couldn’t leave. And I now know I think I couldn’t leave because I was the first. Right. And when you’re the first, if you are the only one, you feel responsible. I felt so responsible in ways that I unpack in the book. But I think a lot of us feel responsible when we’re boundary-breaking. Right. And so I think I sat there feeling like I’m letting all the women down around me and letting all the women of color after me if I leave. People see it not only as my failure but as a failure for other women. And so I started gathering women, mostly women of color, to ask questions about what else I can do. And like, what do I do next and how do I leave? Started as one on one dinners. And then over time, that turned into about a dozen dinners across the country with 20 or 30 women each. They were not, like, hugely planned. I would show up in New York and we would host a dinner, very sort of casual. And those dinners turned out to be the most magical thing I’ve ever done because we would get in these rooms, I thought, for an hour or two, I’m just trying to figure out what else do I want to do that’s not going to have this level of travel and pressure and still be rewarding. And the women would finish each other’s sentences like there were such shared experiences, microaggressions, racism, just navigating all the pressures of home. And I thought we’ll be there for an hour to six, seven, 8 hours later, no exaggeration, to two or three in the morning. These women are saying, like, I’ve never talked about this, these topics like this.
Michael: So one question and this is all great. Were these women all from all walks of life? So did you hand-select them? Like how were they chosen?
Deepa: No, it’s a great question because people often ask me that. So it was mostly over LinkedIn or friends of friends. They were not women I knew because of what I found in the research of my own experience, I didn’t have a lot of women friends. I was so busy, so busy working. I didn’t have a lot of room in my life for just talking about these things or other women that I knew. And again, we’re so few and far, far between. Like, it’s just hard to find us. And so these were mostly senior women in companies, right? Because I was trying to get answers for myself. So they were VP level and above. So in that sense, they were like a certain segment. But all backgrounds, again, big cities like New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and it would be kind of like LinkedIn or just asking friends of friends like can you recommend people or people I’d heard of like that? I just wanted, like I knew someone who’d written a book or knew something and so and people showed up, I think it was again in this moment where everyone was curious. And so I honestly turned into the magic of the book and the stories. And I realized that enough of us don’t tell our stories and don’t talk about the negative side like that shadow side of trailblazing. But it also turned into the company I founded because I realized, like, enough, enough of us are not supporting each other. We’re also isolated in these big power roles. And like the thing that I would hear over and over again that became like what I focused on was these women are sitting in these big roles and they’re saying to me over and over again, I sit in a seat of power, but I don’t feel powerful. And I wanted to figure that out. Like, why? How? Like I was the same, right? I’m sitting in this really big seat, and yet I’m sick. Like I’m, like, withering away. And so that became kind of the impetus I wanted to answer that question. I didn’t know at the time it was going to be a book and a company, but I wanted to understand that more.
Michael: I mean, that’s amazing stuff and just kind of following the vibes, right?
Deepa: The breadcrumbs I call it. But yeah, I agree. Like, yeah, it was unplanned and I think so much of how we’ve been taught to work is so planned that sometimes like that’s when the magic happened. So many people told me I couldn’t leave my job again in the early stages of COVID because of the uncertainty there like you have to be going to something, you can’t just leave a big job that pays well without a plan. And I just needed space to figure out what I wanted to do. I didn’t know who I was anymore.
Michael: You were just figuring out who the next is. Next version of yourself.
Michael: So here we are. Let’s talk about the book.
Deepa: I interviewed 500 women of color in writing the book. I sold it to HarperCollins six weeks after I left my role. So it happened very quickly. And I spent a year and a half, almost two years writing it. And all the steps that happen when you write a book and mostly, it’s women’s stories. Like, I wanted to write a book that talked about, yes, what we can do individually. But I wanted to talk about the structural challenges. So the book is a big critique of the corporate structure and a lot of the values that it upholds. But it also tells a ton of stories and stories that we don’t often hear. And so, yeah, it felt really good to write, felt therapeutic, and I want to write again. Like I loved the writing process.
Michael: I think that that’s something we share in common. Like we talked about pre-show, no one’s ever going to be rich being an author. But we want to keep doing it right.
Deepa: So yeah, exactly.
Michael: And let’s also talk about nFormation. So you wrote the book. You’ve got all these great stories. We’ll circle back to that in a second. But I want to talk about the company, too. How did that happen? What exactly is that as well?
Deepa: It came out of those dinners. So I did the dinners with my then coach. Her name is Raj. She’s now my business partner and my co-founder. And we would end those dinners again, literally two or three in the morning, sometimes in parking lots because the restaurant had kicked us out of this space. And the women would say, like, when are you coming back? That was the best conversation I’ve had in a year. Like I’ve never discussed that. So we originally thought we were going to do a company where we maybe host dinners or help companies have conversations on topics of inclusion. Again, this is all before George Floyd, his murder. This is all before COVID. As COVID happened, as inclusion topics in the workplace started to change, the company pivoted. So everything went online. Over the last year and a half, we’ve been doing online programming, hosting Zoom communities with women of color, and doing the magic of the dinners. But on Zoom, it’s not where we started. We had to pivot several times because we thought we were going to be creating a company in a pre-COVID world. And that’s not what we found. So.
Michael: It’s amazing stuff. So back to the book. It came out when.
Deepa: March. March 1st. So, not so long ago, I finally feel like I’m maybe not exactly book launching. Like it’s not as hectic as it was and I’m getting a minute to think about it. But pretty recently.
Michael: Who and how’s it doing so far?
Deepa: It’s been great. I’ve been doing a lot of corporate speaking, which I was not sure about. I wrote the book for Women of Color. I think I shared that with you, thinking naively, like, again, if it doesn’t have a huge audience, I’m okay with that. Maybe the publisher’s not, but I’ve been surprised about who’s picked it up. And it’s been a lot of allies and a lot of white male leaders who are saying to me, I want to understand, what’s different. Like me, I don’t even know where to go. I can go ask questions. And so I think the book has turned into a real resource for people in a way that I wasn’t expecting. I just wanted women of color to feel seen and heard because there are not a lot of books for us that are written by us or even about us. And so it’s kind of cool that it got bigger than I imagined it to be.
Michael: That’s amazing. Congratulations on that. So it’s been great having you on the show. If the audience wants to get a hold of you, how can they do so?
Deepa: Yes. So the best way would be on my website. So that’s DeepaPuru. So, Deepapuru.com And everything about the book and the company, all the TED talks that I’ve done like a lot has happened in the last year. All those things are there and so please find me there.
Michael: And they can buy the book in the same place.
Deepa: All the links are there as well. Yes, you can buy the book anywhere you buy books.
Michael: So awesome. This is such a great story. Thank you so much for coming on and for the audience until next time. Thank you for tuning in.
I hope that today’s episode inspired you to become a purpose-driven leader in your career or your community. There’s no doubt that when we lead with purpose, we can change lives. If you enjoyed today’s show, I’d be grateful if you would take a moment to rate us on your preferred listening platform. To learn more about Branded Group’s be a better experience and how we provide industry-leading on-demand, facility maintenance, construction management, and special project implementation. Visit us at www.branded-group.com. Be sure to follow us on social media and you can also reach out to me directly on LinkedIn. Until next time, be better.