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- Introducing My Next Book: Uncompete
I had the best July EVER! July is a special month for me––it marks the month I moved to Seattle (a decade ago!) and when I first experienced the delight of drip-down-your-chin-juicy peaches at my favorite produce vendor at Pike Place Market (a weekly tradition now in all the years since!) It’s also the month where I officially became a mum, and somehow seven years have passed by. But this July was especially magical because it was #AmplifyJuly. I turned over my social media to elevate amazing creators whose stories we should all know. Some people thanked me for my generosity, but in all honesty, every single day we posted about an amazing writer, speaker, podcaster, entrepreneur and all-round rockstar–people who are making a significant difference in our world–I benefited. I learned so much and found my own mind and heart expanding, and at a time when it’s so easy to lose hope, being reminded we are in community and in solidarity felt more welcome than ever. Look out for regular features on my social media over the next year – and be prepared to continue being seriously inspired! Caption: Me at Penguin Random House’s NYC HQ, loving being surrounded by books. What I’ve Learned About Scarcity and Abundance Many told me that it was extremely uncommon for someone with a decently large social platform to want to use it to elevate others. Someone even said: “Every day? Why not just post about someone else once a month? After all, you have books to sell too!” I believe it’s not because we don’t want to help others, but more often because scarcity rears its ugly head: I worked hard to build my following, why should someone else benefit? If I elevate their book instead of mine, what if their sales outdo my book sales? Nobody shared their platform with me, why should I share mine? I really, really get it. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say all this didn’t cross my mind at some point or another. After all, a campaign like Amplify July takes a lot of time to pull off (more logistics than I ever imagined!) and there were moments I wondered if it was worth having so many members of my team dedicated to uplifting others’ work. But, as I’ve been reflecting on this premise of scarcity and competition in the context of all my work in DEI, it’s become clearer to me: systems of oppression want to foster competition, stir up jealousy, and discourage collaboration with others. We are conditioned by capitalism, racism, the patriarchy, and the systems of oppression that want us to fail—to believe there’s only room for one person, or a small handful, to succeed. And the further you are from the centers of power and privilege the sharper those elbows should be. This can be particularly true in marginalized communities. Here’s the problem—that mentality and approach is hurting and harming us. In many cases, it’s killing us. Most of us are lonelier, more depressed, more disconnected and more financially insecure than any other generation before us. Much of the success that hyper-competition and “working harder than anyone else” promised us…didn’t materialize. Nothing makes my day worse than when a woman of color displays a scarcity mindset with me, because I know firsthand how much more powerful we would both be if we collaborated and approached each other with an abundance mindset—the belief that there’s more than enough room for us all to win. So this July, I shared that I’m writing my next book: “Uncompete: Dismantling a Competition Mindset to Unlock Liberation, Opportunity, and Peace.” I’ll admit: this book that I want to write doesn’t have neat answers. I don’t know, for example, if there’s a straightforward response to: “Does uncompete mean not applying for a promotion that will only go to one person because I’ll be pitted against my favorite coworker by my manager?” I do know that a system that pits people against each other isn’t working. But in the short run, I can’t definitively say, “Don’t aim to be ambitious.” Instead, what I hope this book helps more of us do is ask better questions of ourselves and our communities, rather than operating in the zero-sum game mindset we have been socialized to believe. I hope we investigate deeper: What does success look like for me? Are there different ways to define it than the way I’ve been taught? What is the cost of competition? Is there a better way to live, work and be? My fervent belief is yes, and the answer most likely lies in us intentionally choosing to uncompete. I’ll be spending the next year writing this book, so apologies in advance for my disappearance from normal social life. I’m also taking the rest of August officially off—eating my mum’s cooking in Singapore and snuggling with my baby niece while hanging around the island at my favorite childhood spots, with my own child in tow. You won’t hear from me until September. Wishing you a joyful, restful and peaceful summer month. In solidarity, Click here to subscribe to the Inclusion is Leadership letter.
- 7 Leadership Lessons in 7 Years
This June, I returned to Leadership Tomorrow Seattle, where I graduated from their leadership program in 2016. In a surreal turn of events, I was invited to give a speech to the graduating class of 2023! Thank you to Ben Reuler for this photo of me delivering my speech at Leadership Tomorrow’s 2023 graduation! To mark the seven years since my graduation, I shared seven key lessons that I’ve learned from my time at LT and the seven years since. Lesson 1 Relationships matter. Community matters. When I graduated in 2016, I said that your network is your net worth, when I was graduation speaker that year (the first speech I’d ever made in my life!) I was wrong. Your COMMUNITY is your net worth. Networks focus on deliverables and tasks and opportunities, while communities focus on relationships with people. Every relationship that you form and nurture has a significant impact on you and can be the difference between success and loneliness. I’ve learned to never underestimate the power of investing in community. Lesson 2 Inclusion is the #1 Leadership trait today, tomorrow and forever. Leadership Tomorrow taught me how to build deeper roots and include those who have been wilfully marginalized. I’ve learned that this skill alone will take you unimaginably far in your leadership journey. To create justice and space and opportunity for all (especially those who have been overlooked, underestimated and ignored) is the greatest leadership opportunity of our lifetimes. It is leadership in action to be able to include all. Lesson 3 To walk fast, go alone, to walk far, go together, as an African proverb teaches us. What I found at LT was a community of people who believed in me and saw a vision for me I’d never seen modeled for myself. Then, they rose up and championed me every step of the way so I didn’t have to walk this path alone. I started my company in 2017 with LITERALLY no experience in running a leadership consulting practice, nor pitching to clients. I had been in Seattle for just over 3 years. My classmates and the Leadership Tomorrow community recommended me for opportunities, made connections and cheered me on. As those of us who are entrepreneurs know, it’s the biggest gift. Lesson 4 Kindness matters more than titles. My class consisted of many people who could stop a room by job title alone. I came to Leadership Tomorrow with no title, I’d left my last job the year prior and was basically self-publishing a book about gender inequality in the workplace. Yet, I was never made to feel less than. No one questioned my ability to lead, no one side-stepped me to talk to my famous-by-titles peers. That was a huge aha moment for me. I realized that what makes people leaders is not their titles, but how much kindness and respect they have for others. If we’re creating leaders for tomorrow, then how we show up as leaders today has everything to do with propelling others to become the best version of themselves. Another photo courtesy of Ben Reuler of members of the LT class of 2016 who came to graduation to cheer me on! Lesson 5 Being able to have the big, uncomfortable, vulnerable conversations today has a huge impact on tomorrow. More since 2016, even more since 2020. I was able to find my voice and speak up, even when my voice wavered at first, to work to decolonize and build antiracist behaviors in myself, and then use my voice to speak up for others. In the years since, I’ve found the greatest strength and professional and personal success in being able to navigate tough, tough topics on race, gender, oppression, systemic and institutional barriers to opportunities and more. Lesson 6 Find out the stories behind the scenes and always be curious to dig deeper. At LT, we had Possibility Days focused on educating us on equity and justice (and the lack thereof) across a variety of subjects: how our neighborhoods were set up, health, economic disparities, etc. When I was choosing to move to a new home during LT, having a neighborhood Possibility Day centered around the history of Seattle’s Central District (a red-lined, historically Black neighborhood now facing rapid gentrification), made me really thoughtful about making sure the CD wouldn’t lose its essence grounded in communities of color when I moved there. I’ve lived in the CD for the past 7 years, and I’m a proud and vocal neighbor and supporter of CD’s Black-owned business and community endeavors. Lesson 7 When you get a choice to remain neutral or take action in situations of injustice, choose action. Here’s the thing: many people I meet are already leaders by title. You already have a seat at the table. Many of you are a few steps away from, if not already, leading the way in government, businesses, nonprofits, or a combination of these. So my message isn’t to boost you in your personal leadership trajectory – that’s inevitable, and I can’t wait to cheer you on. I urge all of us to continually ask: who isn’t getting a seat at the table? Whose voices aren’t getting heard? Who isn’t being represented in leadership? And how can I change that? Not just acknowledge it, but take swift action, no matter how hard, to correct it? In the last few years, I’ve often reached for this quote by Desmond Tutu: "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor." So, I humbly request you…do NOT remain neutral. Claim your seat at the table, and then make sure there’s room for others, especially for those who look nothing like you. Who don’t have your life experiences. Who don’t have your privilege. Because it takes ALL of us, and all our voices to make change. Click here to subscribe to the Inclusion is Leadership letter.
- Why “be authentic at work” is bad leadership advice
I recently joined Ramaa Sharma and Stéphane Mayoux on the first episode of the Reuters’ Institute and University of Oxford podcast: Authentic Leadership, where we discussed, “What does ‘authenticity’ mean?” While we were specifically exploring it in the context of the news industry (which all three of us have had experience working in), our conversation ended up being broadly applicable across industries. This remains a question that stumps me. I think of my childhood. For many of us who were born outside the country of our parents’ origin or moved at a very young age to a culture that was very different from the one we’ve seen at home, we’ve had to cultivate strongly disparate versions of ourselves to "fit in" in different places. Essentially, we learn from a young age how to present ourselves in different ways in different contexts. It's like putting on armor or a heavy coat, sometimes many types. My example: I grew up with Indian immigrant parents in Singapore, before going to a British elementary school, then an international school in Asia, which was run mostly by western (European and American) educators. So, of course, this brought about so much confusion on "authenticity" for me navigating many cultures and ways of being since I was a small child. Was my authentic self the one who spoke Hindi at home? Or the one that was taught that a British accent was the best, as I was at school? Was it the “rebel” me as an adolescent that I learned is common in western cultures or the more obedient “good Indian girl” that my mother expected me to be? I never fully understood, and perhaps never will, who my most authentic self is. How do we navigate authenticity in these different spaces when we’re expected to conform to our different environments? Everyone can relate to this questioning as we develop from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. But it can be particularly complicated for those who have found themselves underrepresented or underestimated or both, especially in adulthood and then in the workplace. More so, when a value judgment is placed on which "way" is better, like when I was taught that western accents were more professional than the Indian accent I had at home. I felt so “seen” when I learnt there's a name for it: code-switching—it’s when someone alters their language or cultural expression to better assimilate to their environment. This can serve as a survival tactic, and it may not even happen consciously. This area of study was developed by academics researching the experience of Black professionals in the workplace, who would often feel immense pressure to change themselves to fit into white-dominant workplaces. Side note: Check out one of my favorite podcasts, the aptly-named, Code Switch. (I joined this episode to talk about the long-term implications of having your name mispronounced!) We navigate the pressure to conform while also balancing the truth that authenticity makes for better leaders. “Organizations that foster authentic behavior are more likely to have engaged, enthusiastic, motivated employees and psychologically safe cultures,” according to the Center for Creative Leadership. Authenticity allows room for innovation, creativity, and overall increased satisfaction and happiness. When we feel safe to be ourselves and speak up at work, everyone benefits. My point here isn’t to tell people who’ve never felt fully comfortable at work to be more authentic. It’s to encourage leaders who have found their ways of being (over)represented to be intentional about ensuring that all of your employees feel safe in their authenticity. It’s much like my thoughts on imposter syndrome, which I’ve written about with Jodi-Ann Burey. The onus shouldn’t be on women (particularly women of color) to learn how to "conquer" imposter syndrome, it’s on organizations to stop telling women they don't belong. Check out Jodi-Ann’s amazing TED talk on authenticity at work! So how can leaders encourage authenticity among all? Stop giving women and people of color feedback to become “better, more authentic” leaders. Instead, we need managers and leaders who say, “Don’t feel pressure to conform. I appreciate this part of you that is clearly a very deep core part of you, your leadership, and the frameworks that you bring to the workplace.” I also love prescribing storytelling as a lever for inclusion. (You know I will always recommend reading works of fiction by those with different backgrounds and experiences from ourselves!) When we amplify and hear stories from others, it makes us feel safer when sharing our own stories. As writer Akwaeke Emezi says, “The first step to creating a better world is being able to imagine it. Stories can create a bridge between what is possible and what we actually make happen.” When people see my Indian features and expect me to conform to a stereotype they have in their head of how Indian women should act, I feel less safe bringing my Singaporean identity, what feels like my authentic self, to those interactions. It’s also why I want to amplify more voices and celebrate so many more authentic leaders. What can you do to encourage and celebrate someone else’s authenticity today? Click here to subscribe to the Inclusion is Leadership letter.
- What Pico Iyer taught me about home and belonging
Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to interview famous travel writer (and brilliant human!) Pico Iyer for Seattle Arts & Lectures. With decades of “criss-crossing the globe” under his belt, Pico weaves storytelling with his own observations on cultures that demonstrate his genuine love for people. He does it in lyrical prose, but also with a humility that I find so lacking in many travel “experts.” Our connection was instantaneous and our conversation stayed with me long after. Like Pico, my roots span countries and cultures. So what really struck me about his work is his explorations of seeking travel AND finding home. I’ve struggled to define “home” for me as an Indian-Singaporean-British-American global citizen. When I asked him how he defines home, he responded: “Home is not really connected with a piece of soil as much as a piece of soul.” I love this idea—that home isn’t a physical place, but a piece that lives within us and a connection with the people we love. We may be constantly searching for the place that feels like home, but it doesn’t have to be a physical place, no matter how much the world and passports and our colleagues want us to choose a neat box and category. Pico told stories of traveling to places like North Korea and Yemen, parts of the world where he risked imprisonment for the way he folded a newspaper and feared being kidnapped as he traveled through the countryside. And as he took us to these corners of the globe that were so fraught, what he focused on was the common humanity and generosity of all the people he encountered. His storytelling is remarkable, truly. Ruchika Tulshyan and Pico Iyer sitting on blue chairs with microphones in front of them. Image courtesy: Seattle Arts & Lectures He brought up the example of how people in North Korea could be executed for just glancing at a foreign newspaper, for being curious about the world. He’s met many people who would give anything to visit Seattle or New York or any number of cities outside of their own, but face barriers to even reading about it. But what is our excuse for not being more curious and informed about the world and seeking stories of it beyond a narrow, western lens? It is so easy to surround ourselves with people who are just like us. (You know I’ve talked extensively about affinity bias.) And Pico brought up a point that meant so much to me—perhaps the illusion of living in the digital, smartphone age can trick us into believing that we know more about others than we do. But “the world is always richer and deeper and more interesting than our ideas of it.” And then there is our fear of the unknown which prevents us from seeking stories beyond ones like our own. I draw inspiration from his approach: “It’s wonderful that we know so little.” When we know so little about the world, there is opportunity to get curious and explore. So how do we do so responsibly? As we gear up for summer and, possibly, travel, I encourage people to travel while also considering that there’s a line between cultural appropriation and appreciation. Learn about where you’re going, educate yourself on cultural norms, and treat everyone you meet with respect. For some places, this may even mean planning a trip elsewhere. Hawaii, for example, does not encourage visiting many parts of the state that have been negatively impacted by tourism. Pico and I talked about how I’ve learned so much about the world by frequenting restaurants and shops in Seattle owned by people from cultures around the world. Sometimes, the greatest adventures come from exploring new cultures in your own backyard. I’ll close with another favorite quote from Pico: “Travel has very little to do with movement and everything to do with being moved. You don’t have to go far to be transformed.” Click here to subscribe to the Inclusion is Leadership letter.
- What “Lift As We Climb” Means
Remember when I wrote about why good people aren’t always inclusive leaders? In that letter, I covered how to use our privilege for good. One of the most significant ways to do this? Amplify the voices of others with less privilege If you have a platform and influence, you have a responsibility to use your privilege in a tangible, actionable way to amplify the voices of others. This could be in a meeting: “Ruchika had a great idea, I wanted to echo it.” It could be selecting someone who is fully qualified but often overlooked to lead the client presentation. And it absolutely could look like using your social media platforms to shout out people and stories and products that should be elevated. When we amplify others, we not only ensure that more voices are heard, but we create a culture of success. People feel safer and more confident speaking up and sharing ideas. We establish an environment where we can learn more about each other and the world, particularly when it comes to experiences that are different from our own. Underestimated people often get overlooked because (technology) platforms and people are biased. A small example: A reader wrote to me that when she searched for a book on leadership and inclusion on Amazon, the algorithm suggested three books for her to buy, all by white men. My own book had to be explicitly searched, because the algorithms are coded to show that women of color don’t write leadership books. Turning over the mic to others is so crucial in building an inclusive, equitable society. Not to speak for others, but to create opportunities for them to speak for themselves. I am lucky enough to have a combined follower count of over 50,000 people across all of my social media platforms. So this July, I’m turning them over to you! Here I am holding a few copies of Inclusion On Purpose with the text, "Social Media Takeover #AmplifyJuly! Want to reach 50,000+ social media followers? For all of July, Ruchika is turning her socials OVER TO YOU! Apply to be amplified: bit.ly/AmplifyJulyRT" Every weekday in July, I’ll be highlighting a new person. Please submit to be featured here. How Can I Amplify Others? I often get asked about how to "be an ally" (and if you're a regular reader, you'll know I use "ally" as a verb, not noun). To practice allyship consistently and meaningfully, it's necessary to use any and all platforms and privileges you have to amplify others who don't have the same ones -- particularly those from underestimated communities. That means giving credit to the woman of color who often gets talked over in meetings. It means sharing great content created by and featuring folks from overlooked communities. It means frequenting and praising and buying from great restaurants, cafes, vendors etc...from marginalized entrepreneurs. We all have an opportunity to amplify others, even if we think we don't. I'm trying to be intentional to do this right with Amplify July. Can you reflect on ways you could amplify others within your spheres of influence? And in the meantime… I’ll be taking August off, inspired by the brilliant work of Tricia Hersey in Rest Is Resistance. So can I amplify you? I can’t wait to see your submissions! Click here to subscribe to the Inclusion is Leadership letter.
- On Practicing Allyship with the Trans Community
After posting this AMA (Ask Me Anything) last month, I was thrilled to see how many of you were excited about engaging in conversation! Several reader questions stood out, but I wanted to dedicate this newsletter to one question in particular, which really boils down to: How can we support trans people, even when we don’t fully understand the trans experience? It’s no secret that TGNC (or transgender and gender nonconforming) people around the world are under attack—physically and legislatively. The first step in educating ourselves and moving toward positive change is having honest conversations and learning in public. I’m grateful to the person who asked this question for coming forward from a place of vulnerability, who also shared they were working outside the U.S. Growing up in Singapore, I never knew anyone openly gay or trans. Not because (as you'll read later on) TGNC people don't exist the world over, but because it's unsafe for many to exist, and in the societies I grew up in, that is more so because of the legacy of colonial rule. I'm absolutely delighted that in my life now in Seattle, my 6-year-old kid has had multiple teachers from the LGBTQ+ community, a few classmates that don't identify with the gender they're assigned at birth and many friends whose parents are same-sex partners. It's wonderful and inclusive. Firstly, as a cishet woman, I can––and must––acknowledge that I don’t understand all of the nuances of moving through this world as a TGNC person. So, I do not speak as a member of the community, but rather, as someone who deeply believes in trans rights and that we are all under attack when trans people are. Below is what I've learned in my journey as someone who didn't know an openly TGNC person in my formative years, to someone who now is regularly in community with trans leaders. Photo by Karollyne Videira Hubert via Unsplash Trans stories are not monolithic Trans people are not a monolith, and everyone’s experience is nuanced and unique. But we can all educate ourselves on trans rights and amplify TGNC voices. One way to do this is to familiarize ourselves with what vocabulary to use. For example, when I say “cishet,” that’s a new-ish term meaning two things: “cis” - short for cisgender, or I identify with the gender that is typically associated with the sex I was assigned at birth and “het” - short for heterosexual, or I’m only attracted to people of another gender. Planned Parenthood has a great glossary here. While these terms are new-ish (and still evolving), there’s a rich history of trans and non-binary people. India, where my ancestors come from, has long recognized a gender beyond "male" and "female." The Human Rights Campaign put together a list of 7 Things About Transgender People That You Didn’t Know, and number one on the list is that trans people go back to at least 5,000 B.C. Understanding that this isn’t “new” or a “fad” is central to supporting and advancing trans rights. In fact, that’s the journey I’m currently on. Ask good questions Another question we must all investigate is when was the gender binary invented? And why? Gender is a spectrum which was fortified as a binary to benefit powerful people, intrinsically tied up in systems of oppression like racism, late stage capitalism and the patriarchy...AND especially more so when homosexuality was criminalized by British colonizers all over their colonies. Do check out The Patriarchs by Angela Saini for a fascinating read on the origins of the patriarchy, which was fortified by imposing a strict gender binary. In tandem, we must also investigate—why has the LGBTQ+ community historically been attacked? Why would those attacks be targeting trans people now? Why is LGBTQ+ literature (along with literature centering folks from other historically underestimated groups—particularly Black people in the U.S.) being taken off library shelves? The LGBTQ+ community has historically been painted as one to fear. But once more of us who were socialized to believe in very strict definitions of gender and sexuality (not the same thing!) learn about the truth of both as beyond narrow binaries, it is so liberating. It’s so thrilling and joyful to learn that there are possibilities for us beyond the binary. It’s liberating to teach my kid that there’s no such thing as “boy” colors or “girl” colors and that love is a feeling inside your heart, not based on who society tells us to love (like I was). And that, in itself, is a radical attack on white supremacist ideals. How can we meaningfully support trans people? Because it isn’t always safe (or even legal) for trans people to advocate for themselves, anyone who practices allyship with the TGNC community needs to be well versed on ways that they can help: Support TGNC people in conversations with friends and family. Learn about and from trans leaders. There’s a great Netflix documentary on Marsha P. Johnson, and I’ve learned a lot from Alok Vaid-Menon. (I love this clip of them in conversation with Jonathan Van Ness.) Respect people’s pronouns. This website is really helpful for people who want to learn more about what different pronouns are and why they matter. Consider donating to an organization that supports trans people like the Okra Project (providing food for Black Trans people), For the Gworls (raising money to assist with Black Trans people’s rent and gender affirming surgeries), Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (ending discrimination based upon gender identity and expression through education and direct legal services), or many more. Seek out your local LGBTQ+ organizations and learn how to best support them. And when it comes to the workplace, be sure to invest in DEI that’s intersectional and inclusive of people in the LGBTQ+ community, hire TGNC people, respect people's pronouns, and accept that mistakes will be made. It's important to acknowledge those mistakes, apologize, and make positive changes. I recommend checking out Lily Zheng's work, particularly their book DEI Deconstructed: Your No-Nonsense Guide to Doing the Work and Doing it Right. Advocate for what you DO believe in As for the second part of the question, it’s okay to not understand all facets of any issue or take a strong position on an issue you're still learning about. It's more important to vocally support what you DO—the right for anyone to choose whom they love, marry who they want, wear what they want without fear. And as always, center the voices of those most impacted. As you self-educate and build your awareness, your comfort with speaking up may change and expand. I've personally seen children as young as 3 and 4 already know for sure they're not the gender they were assigned at birth and witnessed the struggle they've had when they aren't supported or loved....and conversely, the peace and joy when they were accepted for who they intrinsically knew they were. That experience alone reformed biased beliefs I was conditioned with about being trans, and I’m continually learning. Oddly enough, I’m comforted by Republican state senator Daniel Thatcher’s stance on the GOP’s treatment of trans people. In his interview with Lulu Garcia-Navarro, he says, “They’re being told this is a social contagion, these kids are popping up because we’ve made it popular. Bullshit. It’s becoming more common because it is becoming safer. It is not safe. But it’s safer.” Thatcher has built a reputation for himself as one of the few Republican representatives standing up for TGNC rights. This is where I really think change can be made—when we remove political rhetoric from what should be basic human rights and respect. It’s true, we are seeing and hearing from more TGNC people––though not nearly enough. The more space trans people have to safely express themselves across all binaries and spectrums, the more comfortable people will feel just existing as their most authentic selves. Isn’t that what we want for everyone? I love these words by Alok Vaid-Menon: “I want so badly for the world to feel entitled to its joy, to its pleasure, to its delight. I want so badly for people to give themselves permission to try, transgress, transcend. I want so badly to be able to walk down the street without having the joy punished out of me. I want so badly to share this with you. This (un)becoming. This invitation. This joy.” Trans people have been here since long before the gender binary, long before we had the word “trans” and any misconceptions of what that means. It’s up to us to make sure everyone is safe, supported and free. Because until all of us are, none of us are. Not really. Click here to subscribe to the Inclusion is Leadership letter.
- Making Meaningful Land Acknowledgements
On a clear, sunny day in Seattle, I get to marvel at a giant, snow-peaked mountain right in my line of sight. I know y’all (out of Seattle) believe it’s always rainy here, but Seattleites leave that story unchecked so the traffic doesn’t get worse. :) As you can see, she’s absolutely breathtaking. Photo by Lalit Gupta via Unsplash For the first 8.5 years I lived here–I can’t believe I moved in 2013!–I knew this majestic beauty as Mount Rainier. Then, I read an article that described not only how Mount Rainier was the colonized name for what was traditionally named “Tahoma” in the Puyallup language of the Coast Salish people indigenous to this area, it was arrogantly renamed by George Vancouver to honor his friend. A one Mr. Rainier was an English naval officer who had never seen this mountain. A person who hadn’t even ever seen the mountain in real life, nor visited this region had it renamed for him. I was astounded by the hubris, the arrogance and the reminder that even 230 years since a white colonizer carelessly rewrote thousands of years of history, we are still upholding white supremacy by calling the mountain “Rainier.” Sadly, most people still know it by its colonized name. But one way I’m practicing resistance is by saying “Mount Tahoma is out,” gently correcting others who don’t, and teaching my 6-year-old to say “Tahoma,” not “Rainier.” Don’t applaud me for this I’m in the very early stages of a lifelong journey to understand the extent to which white settler colonization has brutally and systematically erased Native and Indigenous history and tradition in this region. One simple, yet significant, way we can keep the original history of this nation alive is by acknowledging the traditional occupants of the land. The closest I can come to empathizing with the “why” is reflecting on how the road I grew up on in Singapore–Mountbatten Road–was named after the English man who ripped my ancestors’ country in two–the Partition of India and Pakistan. It’s still called by his name. Names matter. History matters. Whose histories we remember by keeping their names alive matters. Sadly, what links so many people of color around the world is our shared history of being colonized, enslaved and the present experiences of being non-white in a global system of oppression. How do we even get to right hundreds of years of historical wrongs as leaders? By acknowledging that there was a story, a history and a culture that predates us. By learning. By paying rent to Native and Indigenous tribes. By continuing to learn from people who are Native and Indigenous to this land and boldly acknowledge what was stolen and lost by white settler colonization. A Land Acknowledgment To Remember In March, I attended an internal D&I Summit of over 2,000 attendees in Canada. The CEO of this large organization, a man of color who was once a refugee to the country he was now at the helm of one of the premier institutions of, sat in the front row. And the Summit kicked off with a detailed acknowledgment that the land we were on was not ours. The speaker who made this acknowledgment was a Native woman. She beautifully and humbly recognized that the land we were on that day traditionally belonged to many nations including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples and is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. She also reminded us that we were guests on the land and our role was to protect and honor it. I had tears in my eyes, reflecting on how quickly thousands of years of history is routinely erased, the painful reminder of all that’s stolen in plain sight. The comprehensive land acknowledgment set a powerful stage for the rest of the Summit, humbling us with gratitude and setting us up to be intentional with the power that came with being up on stage. I’m learning that land acknowledgments are necessary and should be the norm, not the exception. If land acknowledgments are new to you––as they were for me––there may be a period of discomfort, shame, questioning and/or defensiveness. We must push past it and learn from those leading this work who are from Native and Indigenous communities. Here’s a fantastic primer I’ve learned from on how to make a meaningful land acknowledgment from, by Sicangu CDC. In my awareness-building and education on Native and Indigenous rights, I’ve come across some devastating facts on disparities in healthcare, economic security, children’s and women’s rights and safety and more faced by communities that were brutally oppressed by white colonization. The past traumas continue to inform the present realities of so many Native and Indigenous communities. We have so much work to do to even think of reaching a just and equitable reality. We should never forget all that was stolen and lost to get us to where we are today. Another way we can materially contribute is by donating to organizations dedicated to serving Native and Indigenous people. Two organizations that have long served Indigenous people is Chief Seattle Club and the Native American Rights Fund. I live in Seattle, land that has been stewarded by the Salish and Coastal Salish Peoples—the first peoples of what is now called Washington State. The land I live on is traditionally home to the Duwamish Tribe, the Muckleshoot Tribe, the Spokane Tribe, and the Yakama Nation. I try to remember this every day, especially when I see Mount Tahoma in the distance on a twinkling, sunny day. Devastatingly, Mount Tahoma has not been officially recognized by its original, non-colonial name, despite ongoing efforts from Puyallup and other tribes. We have a real opportunity to right a historical wrong and I will do everything I can on my part to advocate for it. If you have any leads on organizations working to restore our mountain’s original name, please let me know! In solidarity, Click here to subscribe to the Inclusion is Leadership letter.
- Ask Me Anything: 3 Inclusion Questions From Readers
This month, Inclusion on Purpose turned one! I had no way of knowing how it would be received or where it would go, and I was overwhelmed by the amount of comments, messages, and emails I received from readers around the country. One question I get asked often: How does it feel. It’s complicated—It’s heartbreaking to hear stories from so many women of color who face bias in the workplace, but it’s encouraging to know that Inclusion on Purpose has resonated with so many people who want to make changes. I also get asked a lot of questions on what this change should look like and what more we can do. So today’s newsletter is devoted to some of the questions that I’ve gotten most often from people who reached out after reading my book. And if, in reading these, you’re inspired to ask a question, please don’t hesitate to send me your own! I grew up in an environment that shared advice about working hard and making good grades being the only factors that count toward achieving your goals. How do you think that advice (which is a myth) needs to change? A: Advice about meritocracy and hard work alone being the indicator of progress and success is harmful to everyone. For people who grew up with privilege and access, they may wrongly believe that others with less privilege and access (typically people from historically underestimated backgrounds) aren’t able to progress due to a lack of their efforts, when in reality, some face systemic barriers while others benefit from privileges that help us progress. For people who are from historically underestimated identities, they may reach a ceiling no matter how hard they work or how much education and experience they amass, which can cause cognitive dissonance, mental health issues, questioning of self-worth, and other harmful consequences. That’s why my focus is on educating and building awareness of systemic barriers that can hamper growth. When people are armed with the reality of bias existing, they can navigate these issues by naming them, building coalitions and communities, and most of all, preserving their own sanity and sense of self. I never say “don’t work hard.” My focus is: “hard work alone won’t get you there. Understand how to navigate systemic barriers that are very much in existence today until we all own up to them to dismantle them.” In your book, you mention limiting your use of the term unconscious bias. Can you please talk about your point of view? A: Just because an action wasn’t intentional, it doesn’t mean there wasn’t an impact on the person harmed. “Unconscious bias” is too often used to justify repeated harmful behaviors or prejudices because they were (apparently) not perpetuated consciously. Consider this example: I once worked with a team that practiced what felt like an egalitarian decision-making process. We would meet, discuss challenges, and collectively come up with strategies to move forward. But over time, I noticed something odd: a few days after our team meetings, I would return to work to find the decisions that we made were moot, and the manager was moving in a different direction. At first, I had no idea what initiated these changes, but eventually, I solved the puzzle: Turns out, my male manager and certain members of our department were having additional, informal get-togethers after work at a local bar. There, they would talk shop and new decisions were made about who to hire, promote, and assign to important projects. Though I was never invited, I learned that it wasn’t gender-based. White women at all levels in our department were invited, but I never scored an invitation. Later, I figured it had something to do with being the only woman of color in my department. I don’t believe they excluded me because they disliked me, per se, but I do know it was because I was different from the “in-group.” While I don’t believe they were being discriminatory on purpose, I hesitate to put my missing invitations down to “unconscious bias.” When we chalk biased behavior and actions down to being “unconscious,” those in positions to change these behaviors often feel less responsible for identifying and correcting it. That’s why I now call these behaviors exclusionary or biased, rather than “unconscious.” How can we build cohesive teams while also eliminating affinity bias and cultural fit? A: I have a chapter in my book dedicated to inclusion and psychological safety, but essentially, we have to create teams where people have each other's backs, regardless of their position, status or identity. (Please see Dr. Amy Edmondson’s fantastic book The Fearless Organization for more on psychological safety.) I like to see leaders model vulnerability and honesty about barriers to inclusion and take personal responsibility for creating a more inclusive work environment. Better feedback mechanisms are also key to this (which I write about in my book!) as well as naming that you’re specifically hiring for culture add, not culture fit. Any more questions? Send them my way! These are just a few of the questions that I often get, and I love being in conversation with people who are just as excited as I am about cultivating inclusion on purpose. Click here to subscribe to the Inclusion is Leadership letter.
- Why Good People Aren't Always Inclusive Leaders
I was recently invited to be a guest at Big Think, where they featured Inclusion on Purpose as the January book club! (Check it out here.) Big Think is awe-inspiring; you can learn from authors and thinkers like Neil Degrasse Tyson and C. Nicole Mason, so I was honored to be asked. In this week’s Inclusion is Leadership, I wanted to share some key takeaways and highlights from my session with Hannah Beaver. The TL;DR is this: In a world full of leaders with great intentions, without being inclusive on purpose in practice, none can achieve the diversity, equity, and inclusion outcomes that we aspire to, in theory. And not only does inclusion need to happen on purpose, it’s an active process. It’s not just a one-and-done fix. I like to underscore the “on purpose” part of the title. Inclusion is about continuous, intentional, daily work. That’s why so many people struggle to achieve inclusion in the workplace. We’ve found time and time again that the impact of actions matter more than good intentions, especially when it comes to inclusion. I believe that most people have good intentions. I really, truly believe, the vast majority of us don’t want to be sexist, racist and/or hurt our peers, colleagues and loved ones by using biased language or demonstrating exclusionary behaviors. But just calling yourself “a good person” isn’t good enough, in fact that’s why bias is rampant today—we believe that if we don’t intend to be biased, we simply won’t be in practice. It’s rarely so simple. Good intentions don’t always lead to good outcomes and that’s why “good” people (including myself) need to back up our intentions with action and awareness that leads to inclusive outcomes for all. We can’t talk about inclusion without talking about privilege, and a lot of conversations around privilege today are founded on shame. Shaming and blaming people is not going to be the thing that changes minds (thank you, Brené Brown!) The more shame that people feel, the more they shut down, and then they won’t participate in actions to make their environment more inclusive. As such, I always return to the systemic factors that create exclusion and bias. I once tweeted this: “The problem isn’t men; the problem is patriarchy. The problem isn’t white people; it’s white supremacy. The problem isn’t straight people; it’s heteronormativity and homophobia. Recognize systems of oppression before letting individual defensiveness stop you from dismantling them.” And only by examining and understanding our privilege within these systems—especially if our identities allow us to benefit in these rigged systems—can we make change. I understand that examining your own privilege can be uncomfortable, bring up feelings of shame, and cause defensiveness. But the first step toward inclusion is acknowledging that all of us have inherent privileges. Then, you can understand that your privilege is not your fault, but it’s certainly your responsibility to become aware of it and use it for good. The goal is to dismantle systems to create a reality where everyone can belong. So how can you use your privilege for good? Give Credit Where Due The Washington Post reported that, in the Obama administration, some of the women on staff noticed that they were being spoken over and ignored, and that men on staff were taking credit for their ideas. These are issues that are unfortunately all too familiar for most women. So they banded together and used a strategy called amplification. They agreed that, when they noticed another woman being interrupted, they would support each other by amplifying one another’s ideas and giving credit to the women who made key points. Another one of my favorite examples of this is featured in my book. Yamiche Alcindor, the US White House correspondent for PBS News, was often at the receiving end of racism and sexism as a Black woman covering the last US presidential administration. On August 4, 2020, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany refused to let Alcindor ask a question. Seeing this, a Boston Globe reporter, Jess Bidgood, raised her hand to ask a question, and when summoned, passed her turn over to Alcindor to let her ask the press secretary her question. Bidgood realized that her own privilege as a white woman would likely ensure that she was called upon by the white woman on stage, So she used her position to get the mic and then passed it on to a woman of color. If your voice carries farther because you are part of a dominant majority, you can use your privilege in a tangible, actionable way to amplify the voices of others. Rethink Culture Fit Hiring for culture fit is among the most widespread and exclusionary hiring practices today. The problem with a very loosely defined, subjective term like “culture fit” is that people still tend to favor other people who look like them, which, in many workplaces in the United States, is largely white and largely men. In Lauren A. Rivera’s book Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs, she interviewed 120 hiring decision makers, finding that 82% of managers said culture fit is one of the most important qualities that they look for, yet only half had a clear idea of what their culture was. Rather than focus on culture fit, organization leaders must concentrate on culture add to be inclusive. Data proves again and again that there are really good outcomes in investing in underrepresented pools of talents. Of course, business outcomes shouldn’t be the only focus when it comes to building a more inclusive workplace, but they’re certainly a benefit. According to a McKinsey study, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile, and companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity were 36% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. The greater the representation, the higher the likelihood of outperformance. AND. The business case has been done. I’m done with the business case. As we’re going through this challenging time in history, leadership and representation from people from underestimated, underheard, and overlooked backgrounds is what will create change and drive us toward the innovation we need to navigate today and the future. Moreover, it’s the just, moral, right thing to do. End of story. Click here to subscribe to the Inclusion is Leadership letter.
- Inclusion On Purpose Turns One
This time last year, I had huge butterflies in my stomach and probably hadn’t slept well in a few weeks. My book, Inclusion on Purpose, launched on March 1, 2022 and I was navigating the reality of how an idea that I had spent developing over two years mostly alone–in the depths of a pandemic––was now out in the world. For public consumption and for public review. Would people hate it? Would it resonate? Would I get angry reviews? Would it be helpful? Most of all, would it add to the changes we were so desperately waiting to see around creating more inclusive workplaces and societies…or further harm the cause? I spent the week before launch doing what most authors don’t do. I took a vacation and spent very little time asking people to pre-order the book. Pre-orders matter immensely to a book’s success, and I was surprised to return to my office on this day last year, to learn that Inclusion on Purpose had the second highest pre-order numbers in the MIT Press’ history. Honestly, the “buy my book” narrative doesn’t work well for my personality, but what does is telling myself I need to market my work because my goal is to be helpful, educational and authentic. I, like many women, have a complicated history with being socialized not to speak up but later, in workplaces being told I would be more successful if I was more confident. Eek. When I reflect back on this period last year, I’m glad for my mental health that I chose offline time and vacation over heavy book promotions. Being away from it all for a bit gave me the fortitude to be in full book promotion mode when it launched…and that meant a total of podcasts and media interviews in the hundreds and addressing thousands of people in person and virtually through presentations and book talks, as the year went on. Did my book become a New York Times bestseller? It did not. That was on my vision board for 2022 and it did not happen. What did, which wasn’t anywhere on my vision board, were the thousands of comments, direct messages and emails, organic posts from strangers sharing the book, book clubs being formed all over the country and an overwhelming outpouring of support and love for Inclusion on Purpose. What I learnt quickly is that the metrics of success we assign to ourselves because we believe the world tells us it's the most important measure of success, isn’t quite what you can feel in your soul. (To be fair, I haven’t had the NYT bestseller accolade, so maybe I’m wrong.) But I can confirm that the individual notes I got still beat out the other press mentions and accolades that the book got. On a hard day, I’ll go back to my “Read to Smile” folder in my inbox, not visit the link to where my book was named a top leadership book or one to watch. Then, there were the personal victories. It was the moment when my (then) five-year-old told me he wanted to write a book when he grew up because “mum is a famous author and I want to make her proud.” It was the moment I saw a picture of my 85-year-old Nani’s (maternal grandmother’s) reading glasses on the cover of my book, after she had fallen asleep with it by her bedside. It was the moment I saw it in my mum’s hands and the pride in her voice of me being the first person in my entire lineage to be a traditionally-published author. It was in carving a path in my marriage where my husband stepped up to take care of my child and me, as I traveled multiple times last year to promote the book; something both of us growing up in Indian households had never seen modeled for us. It was in hearing from various friends and colleagues around the world that my voice mattered and that they were so proud of knowing me. And that many had felt inspired to take a leap in their own careers: leave jobs that didn’t serve them, support other women of color, write a book proposal, make a speech. I learned that professional successes are meaningless without personal connections and victories. That could be the pride in a loved one’s face when you get your first job or promotion. The way a colleague turns to you and says you inspire them. The way a child in your life says they want to be just like you when they grow up. I believe we can never fully enjoy professional victories without the personal context. And so, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for making 2022 a transformative year! Despite a very painful year from a macro-perspective, my little world was transformed forever. In solidarity, Click here to subscribe to the Inclusion is Leadership letter.
- Playing 'Devil's Advocate' is Harmful to Advancing Inclusion
Happy Love Day! If I don’t say it enough, thank you for showing up for me with compassion, curiosity and love. I hope you feel the same from me. In the past decade, I’ve been working on creating inclusive, equitable workplaces, there are few words that make me more angry or exhausted than: “I’m just playing devil’s advocate.” Sadly, I hear it often enough that I'm writing this piece on it. Look, I’ve been called some really mean things (as many women of color are on the internet), but when someone tries to make a “logical” argument for why racism isn’t real or doubles down on trying to disprove peer-reviewed data around the existence of bias in the workplace, I find it more harm-causing to advancing equitable places than when someone calls me a "woke idiot." Hearing or reading the “devil’s advocate” phrasing fills me with dread. Here we go again. By definition, the devil’s advocate is someone who, regardless of their own beliefs, is going to counter anything you say for the purpose of… Well, what is the purpose? In my experience with devil’s advocates, they often demand proof that bias is real. And often, when offered proof, they double down on trying to disprove the proof. See the problem? Add to that, asking for facts, data, and hard numbers that support my argument disregards a few things: I am an expert in my field with years of experience and a best-selling book on inclusion, replete with data and anecdotal evidence. The facts, data, and numbers that I provide are almost always dismissed by these "other siders." When we’re talking about bias, it isn’t necessarily quantifiable or even provable, especially when our systems of measuring and understanding harm were not built with historically underestimated communities in mind. In 2017, The New York Times rightly got criticized for hiring Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist. Reading his work (I forced myself for research purposes) is a glimpse into the devil’s advocate’s brain that I never asked for, but for me, it highlights the dichotomy between perpetuating harm and dissent or disagreement. In much of his work, Stephens ties himself to the strongest pillar of the devil’s advocate: the right to free speech. He criticizes colleges and universities that cancel events with speakers who are known white supremacists and calls protesting “bullying.” Free speech is a great principle in theory, but it must be practiced with caution and an equity-informed, anti-racist lens. Calling me a "woke idiot" is rude, but I'll concede your right to free speech (and your wrongful opinion). Calling me a racial slur that has a long history of harming communities and inciting racial violence....? Hate speech that has a huge cost to people who have already been traumatized over generations. Ergo: not free. And not all words (and their contexts) are equal–no one knows this more than people who argue about their right to free speech precisely so they can use hateful words. When I talk to people I love from marginalized communities, the fear is real when public speakers with white supremacist, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Black, anti-LGBTQ ideologies make their thoughts public. Free speech isn’t free if it harms large swaths of the population. Identity Politics and "Both Sides" It doesn’t take Stephens long to cite “identity politics” as a problem, arguing that issues like same-sex marriage wouldn’t be so polarizing if the two sides could have a reasonable conversation. This is another tool of the devil’s advocate. He’s dismissing that there is one side, a historically underestimated community whose safety is being jeopardized, and another side who has historically violently attacked and dehumanized the LGBTQ+ community. To suggest that reasoning with people who deny your humanity is even a possibility is yet another way the devil’s advocate perpetuates harm, and it’s no surprise that these arguments often come from people who have not had their humanity brought into question. Maya Rupert wrote a great response to one of Stephens’ lectures here: “As a concept, the devil’s advocate is incoherent. If a position is really as unpopular as the name indicates, there is no need to argue for it...In order for it to be effective…It’s the other person who must be willing to treat the discussion seriously on the promise that the person arguing with them will not.” I have another word for the act of playing devil’s advocate: gaslighting, or a form of psychological manipulation that hinges on creating self-doubt. The objective here isn’t to have an informed discussion or to help the target of the devil’s advocate. It’s for the devil’s advocate to plant self-doubt, invalidate, and ultimately manipulate the other person to acquiescence. Because I do have the expertise and data on hand, sometimes I drop a quick note to the trolls. But this isn’t always what’s best for me, as the devil’s advocate will almost always insist that the harm that I know is present isn’t there, an issue women of color often face in the workplace and the world, and repeatedly explaining why others have caused harm can be retraumatizing, especially when the person you’re speaking to refuses to see this. Plus, people are prone to confirmation bias, which is why one set of data may mean very different things to different people. Devil’s advocates seem to see themselves as soldiers, always ready to defend what’s right, when their “advocating” so often aligns with the oppressive messaging of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism. Maybe they are trying to help, as they so often insist. But in the words of Lilla Watson… “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Gratitude to Shahzia Noorally for reminding me of this quote and sharing some highlights from our conversation on The Power in the Collective - Standing in Solidarity as Black, Indigenous, and Women of Colour. She writes: “There is liberation in working together and moving away from a divide and conquer mentality that upholds racist systems that keep all of us back. Standing in solidarity allows us to overcome hurdles, shatter barriers and unveil opportunities as women.” By the way: I don’t use “divide and conquer” in any other context: it was a colonial strategy used by the British to brutally pit communities against each other to weaken them and build the British empire on their backs. Everyone knows that our power multiplies when we are together, in solidarity. Most of all, those who try to disrupt it by playing devil’s advocate to divide us. Click here to subscribe to the Inclusion is Leadership letter.
- Imposter Syndrome Turns Two
It’s hard for me to believe we’re close to the two-year anniversary of the publication of my Harvard Business Review article co-authored with Jodi-Ann Burey, Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome (among HBR’s top 20 most popular and impactful articles in history!) As one often does on anniversaries, I’m reflecting on its impact. While I’m thrilled that the sentiments of “fix workplaces, not women’s imposter syndrome” have resonated with so many, it’s continued to remind me how difficult it is to navigate workplace cultures as women and people from other marginalized communities. Women are told over and over again that it is their responsibility to combat imposter syndrome, build confidence, and signal that they are capable leaders. But as we write in our article, “what’s less explored is why imposter syndrome exists in the first place and what role workplace systems play in fostering and exacerbating it in women.” Women of color particularly, are expected to constantly reestablish their presence and authority at work. This is known as “prove-it-again bias,” termed by the brilliant Joan C. Williams. As Williams writes, basically, women are expected to, “exhibit a specific blend of masculine and feminine behaviors, support her female colleagues and somehow avoid letting motherhood affect her working life at all.” Ooof. It’s a lot to balance, especially when women can feel forced onto a narrow tightrope between being viewed as competent or likable. Confidence and Women One study found that the majority of women senior leaders said confidence (or lack thereof) was central to lack of progress in theirs and other women’s careers. For men? Confidence only mattered in the case of women’s career progress. Urgh! Here’s something even cringier: One of the male leaders criticized women in his workplace for lacking self-confidence, then called them aggressive and suggested they were “overcompensating for something” when they did exhibit confidence! Another criticized a woman for trying to act like an “alpha male.” He said, “She was extremely capable and if she had the confidence to match, she would have been more successful.” Can you see the double standard? Jumping through these hoops while feeling pressure to prove ourselves over and over again is exhausting, fuels overwhelm, and leads to fewer women in the workplace. Then, we too easily diagnose women with imposter syndrome or confidence issues so that we don’t have to question workplace norms and biases. Eliminating imposter syndrome should be a key inclusive leadership priority. If you’re interested, Jodi-Ann Burey and I wrote a followup article on the how: End Imposter Syndrome in Your Workplace. The last few years have seen many organizations racing to take the first steps to understanding DEIB, which is somewhat of a success. But inclusion is not a one-and-done fix. (If only it were that simple!) It requires intentional and sustained work to address and reduce bias, especially with regards to women’s leadership. The recent Jacinda Ardern controversy was a case in point. But while silly (sexist) headlines saw the former New Zealand Prime Minister’s resignation as an opportunity to revive tired “can women have it all” and “can women lead” tropes, I saw it as a masterclass in leadership: I’ll step back when I know I need a break, because I’ve led like a boss through a global pandemic. I don’t see any confidence issues at all – just pure, sheer, competence and leadership. Click here to subscribe to the Inclusion is Leadership letter.