Practicing Inclusion on Purpose with Ruchika Tulshyan 

July 27, 2022

Podcast Episode 17: Practicing Inclusion on Purpose with Ruchika Tulshyan

Ruchika Tulshyan is the author of Inclusion on Purpose: An Intersectional Approach to Creating a Culture of Belonging at Work. Along with Jodi-Ann Burey, she co-authored a paradigm-shifting article, “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome” for Harvard Business Review, which is one of their top most 100 read articles in history. 

Best of all, people all over the world have shared that it changed their relationship with the concept of imposter syndrome!

Join us by the Campfire Circle in this truly transformational episode to hear Ruchika’s wisdom and practices to create a more inclusive world – one where people from underrepresented communities, especially girls and women of color, can thrive and take up space.

“It’s not that there’s a lack of talent, ambition, or hard work. None of those things are lacking in communities that have been underrepresented. The biggest barriers that most of us face are certainly bias, racism, and sexism. But it’s also being overlooked and underestimated.” – Ruchika Tulshyan

Highlights from the podcast episode: 

We discussed:

[03:23] Ruchika’s story of becoming a guide in inclusion

While I will accept and I will own that, yes, I am a guide and an expert, it’s taken a long time for me to do that. I build in connection and solidarity with other people who have been doing this work for a long time and on the foundation of many, many experts and leaders. My real connection to this work began as seeds were planted a long time ago. 

I grew up as a person of color and a minority in Singapore. In every country I’ve ever lived, in any place I’ve ever called home, I was always the outsider and the other. That gives you a unique perspective – one that I’m both grateful for, and have obviously had a very hard time navigating, too. 

I’d say the seeds were planted early of being someone who could look into a space and say, who’s missing? Why is my voice not represented here? Why don’t I have role models who look like me? Why don’t others who are from other minority communities? Why don’t they have role models who look like them? Why are they experiencing discrimination or bias? I didn’t have words for it back then, but from a young age, I could see very clearly that there was a racial hierarchy. There was a gender hierarchy – the patriarchy – and it was reinforced much more as I grew older. 

I began my career to tell the stories of women, business owners, women leaders, and people of color leaders. I remember facing a lot of pushback from editors who said, “Are people really going to be interested in the story?” or, “Our audience doesn’t care about this,” or, “Our readers don’t really want to know what’s happening in terms of women in the workplace.” I was feeling really saddened by that. 

Going through a variety of other experiences, both in the technology industry and now as an entrepreneur, reaffirmed to me that we really need to rewrite and reframe the narrative that our stories don’t matter because obviously, they do. But also, it’s not that there’s a lack of talent or lack of ambition, or a lack of hard work. None of those things are lacking in communities that have been underrepresented. The biggest barrier that most of us face is bias, racism, and sexism. But it’s also being overlooked and underestimated, in every sort of interaction in society and in the workplace. 

[14:00] Recognizing systems of oppression as the cause of imposter syndrome

“My focus is always on understanding and dismantling systems of oppression rather than blaming individuals. The problem isn’t men, it’s patriarchy. The problem isn’t white people, it’s white supremacy. The problem isn’t straight people, it’s homophobia. Recognize systems of oppression before letting individual defensiveness stop you from dismantling them.” From Pg 26 of Inclusion on Purpose

The reason I came up with this framing and why I truly deeply believe in it is because largely I’ve been lucky. I’ve certainly met toxic people and people who have willfully tried to do harm, but largely almost every single person I’ve met, whether it’s an executive, a manager, a team leader, or an employee – and I’m now speaking specifically to the workplace – I’ve seen people really want to do the right thing. They don’t want to hurt other people. They don’t want to be the cause of someone’s distress in the workplace. 

And yet, they’re left to continue the status quo, which is built on these very discriminatory systems. Many people just don’t do the right thing. Many people aren’t inclusive on purpose. And that’s why the title of the book actually remained the same from the moment I conceptualized it until the moment of publication, which is generally not the case for most authors. I think this was very clear, that you have to practice inclusion on purpose. 

We are dealing with systems exacerbated by capitalism and greedy capitalism, which is very exploitative. It turns a blind eye to the state of the climate today, or how our workers live, or poverty and hunger and exploitation of different countries. Capitalism and hyper-capitalism certainly exacerbate all of that, but really, at its core, systems of oppression are rooted in separating people out by what I really call arbitrary markers of difference. 

I love the work of Angela Saini, I interviewed her for the book. I loved her books Superior and Inferior. Inferior looks at the science of our women and men. She’s much more inclusive in her book, but even if you look at the science of gender as binary men and women, are we biologically different? We believe that’s the reason why men succeed in the workplace and women don’t, but the science says, there’s actually very little difference, even down to the biology. The differences are so minimal. In her next book, Superior, about race science and the frightening return of race science, it is the same thing – between people of color and white people, there are very arbitrary differences when you bring it down to the genetic level. 

What she and I talked about is that there are often more genetic variants in the same “type of people.” For example, I’m South Asian, you can be South Asian, and there are often more variants genetically between you and me than there would be between me and, for example, someone who presents as white or presents as black. So, again, these arbitrary markers of difference have been completely overemphasized to create differences in society. So, I would say today, the two biggest systems of oppression that exacerbate and compound with each other are racism and sexism, and that’s why the book really focuses on intersectionality and the experiences of women of color in the workplace. 

One of the reasons why I wrote this book is because I want women of color to know it’s not in your head. Don’t gaslight yourself and certainly don’t let other people gaslight you into believing that you are being treated the same as someone else. That knowledge is really powerful because what most of us really need to do first is get really clear and comfortable in our own hearts and in our own minds that this is what I’m facing. 

From there, take action. Do you bring it up to your manager? Do you talk to HR? Most of the time the answer is no, do not talk to HR. Unfortunately, it can be very detrimental, especially for a woman of color. If you remember reading Ijeoma Oluo’s fantastic forward, really don’t go to HR. Then is it you stepping out of that workplace, that industry, or maybe out of a corporation and corporate life altogether? Is it maybe changing trajectory, maybe becoming an entrepreneur? 

I really wanted this book to tell women of color who are ambitious that they don’t have to contort themselves to such an extent that they become unrecognizable. I have been there. It’s important to get so comfortable in your own self, that when you’re facing these issues, you’re able to name them and say, “This is what I’m facing,” and then get comfortable with saying, “I want something new for my life.” I want to create the type of life that gives me joy and purpose and meaning. Because without all of us feeling that our work lives give us joy and meaning and purpose, we’re not going to be able to activate that for other people, and other women of color specifically.

[20:49] Supporting entrepreneurs and executives who are women of color 

For a number of years, the fastest growing demographic who are starting businesses in America are women of color. And this is not new information. What is new information, or what I think is finally getting talked about a little more is, unfortunately, a lot of these women of color-owned businesses often hit very, very low revenue goals. I think the majority of them make less than $50,000 a year. So that’s very little to run a business, honestly. 

And then on top of that, the majority of us have women of color-owned businesses that don’t get growth capital when we most need it. Growth capital is not venture capital. It’s not, “Can your company make millions and millions and grow exponentially in that way?” But rather, “Do you have the support you need to hire your first employee or invest in setting up a website, or pay for a business license?” These are the things that, unfortunately, women of color really, really struggle with.  I think a conversation that we aren’t having is, how do we support these women of color entrepreneurs as they clearly create jobs and build into the economy?

[22:56] Reframing mindset barriers around leadership and visibility 

Talking about myself is right up there with the things I enjoy doing least in the world, but I understand the necessity of being found and creating community. I think being in systems that tell us that our voice doesn’t matter is complicated. I grew up in a very traditional conservative (with a small “c”) household in Singapore as part of the Indian diaspora where specifically women in my community did not work outside the home. 

Compounded by going through school as a racial minority, then going through college in the UK as a racial minority, then coming here to the United States and still being underrepresented … I think for a lot of us women of color, not seeing role models like us and constantly being told our voices don’t matter and there’s no room for us here – there’s a real cognitive dissonance [when getting visible] because we’ve been told our voice doesn’t matter and we shouldn’t speak up. 

And then suddenly, you’re asked for your opinion, or you’re asked for your thought leadership, or you’re asked to bring your voice out into the world. I think overcoming that barrier is very, very hard, both emotionally and mentally. What helps me through it really is not only saying, “Yes, my voice matters,” but also the opportunity to find and connect with communities to find people who hear me, who see me. There’s nothing better than that.

[35:47] How to make inclusion a daily practice in your life 

One of the challenges I really struggled with was overeating, which was my response when things get hard, born out of major traumas I faced in my childhood. I was not able to have a healthy relationship with food. It took me decades to be able to get to any semblance of being able to name what was happening, and why I was not able to control and look at my food in a healthy manner. During the pandemic, it was clear what was happening, and I lost all semblance of control, of being able to be mindful about what was going on. And it’s taken me until early 2022 to really get back to that level of mindfulness of looking at a healthy relationship with food. 

What I realized and what I learned in my journey to get back to having a healthy relationship with food, and not turning to it immediately as a trauma response, was realizing how much of it is in that daily practice. I’m using food as an example, because hopefully, this is something that will resonate with everyone, and then we can extrapolate it into inclusion. There were times when I would be like, Okay, I’m going to be really mindful about what I’m eating. And then I would go off track of what I wanted to eat and what I knew would be healthy and nourishing for my body. Then I would say, “Well, I kind of lost the plot there. So I might as well keep on going, right?” Then you go into a downward spiral of thinking, this is just not going to happen for me, so I might as well not even try. I’m just gonna give up. 

With inclusion, I see people doing that, too. People – especially people in the dominant group – will say they tried, but then they get called out for something or realize they made a mistake. Now they say, I don’t want to engage in this work anymore. It turns into a downward spiral. 

What all of us have an opportunity to do – in a minute-by-minute practice – is develop the intentionality and the awareness of what’s missing and whose voices are missing. What are the experiences of people who have largely been underrepresented in terms of demographics and overlooked and underestimated because of those identities? What are their experiences in the workplace? What are the biggest barriers they face? And again, in a minute-by-minute and hour-by-hour approach, as well as a larger, longer-term holistic approach, understand the practices you can develop to be more inclusive. 

What does it look like to amplify someone’s voice who generally doesn’t get the platform, or whose voice is overlooked or silenced? I see this all the time in meetings when I see people practicing inclusion on purpose. What I’ll notice is that they’ll go out of their way to say things like, “To add to this brilliant thing that this person said…” 

These are the ways that we can practice inclusion without it having to turn into this big effort or get an award for it. It really is your daily way of being. My hope is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

[43:19] Ruchika’s big dreamy vision of the future

I think my big dreamy vision is, it would be amazing if no woman of color ever goes through life questioning if they belong or if they are good enough, or if their voice will be heard. And really being able to take up space in a way that often I see in dominant groups (being very comfortable taking up space.) 

I think for a lot of us women of color, we’ve experienced so much pushback for taking up space, we’ve been rewarded for being quiet and being seen, not heard, or sometimes not even seen. My dream is that we all truly take up space and feel like there is a reason why we’re here and that we completely belong. The other big dreamy vision is that nobody ever questions if these experiences are real without more data. “Could you give me more data? Could you give me more examples?” It would be great to get to a space where there isn’t pushback on this because this is real. It exists. There’s research and data that show diversity, equity and inclusion are good for businesses, good for people, and good for productivity and innovation. I think we’re really beyond that. So if nobody forevermore asks me to give them the business case for why we should do this work, I will be thrilled.

Resources from this episode:

Read Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey’s paradigm-shifting Harvard Business Review article: Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome. It has been translated into multiple languages and is one of HBR’s top 100 most read articles in history.

Don’t forget to also check out Jodi-Ann Burey’s TED Talk on The myth of bringing your full, authentic self to work.

Watch the TED Talk Ruchika says everyone should watch: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The danger of a single story

14 LinkedIn Content Prompts: Build your personal brand and thought leadership, show up for your target audience and grow your know-like-trust factor with your professional audience on LinkedIn.

Connect with Ruchika Tulshyan: 

LinkedIn: Ruchika Tulshyan

Instagram: @rtulshyan

Twitter: @rtulshyan  

Website: rtulshyan.com

Connect with Tania Bhattacharyya:

LinkedIn: Tania Bhattacharyya

Instagram: @taniabhat

Website: lumosmarketing.co

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