AmpEquity Speaker Series with Deepa Purushothaman

On March 21st, 2023, the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership (EGAL) welcomed Deepa Purushothaman on campus as a featured speaker for the AmpEquity speaker series. A panel discussion followed, where Colby Sameshima and Emani Holyfield, two first year MBA candidates at Berkeley Haas, spoke alongside Deepa, about their personal experiences and the overall dynamics and challenges of being women of color in corporate America.

Deepa, a former senior partner at Deloitte, was the US Managing Partner of Deloitte’s renowned Women’s Initiative, and the first Indian-American woman and one of the youngest people to make partner in the firm’s history. Her remarkable accomplishments, however, came with side effects. Working 100-hour weeks on large-scale, high-stake projects took a toll on her mental and physical health, at one point leaving her bedridden for months. When her doctor finally gave her a wake-up call, with the shocking realization that her job was slowly killing her, Deepa realized that she had to make major changes in her life.

After making the difficult decision to leave her job, Deepa decided to study the phenomenon she had experienced: the unique and often unspoken challenges of existing as a woman of color in corporate settings. She hosted over 500 dinners across the country with women representing senior leadership in several industries — and regardless of their background, organization, or tenure, recurring themes emerged in these intimate conversations. Women of color reported feeling inauthentic, powerless, and unseen. At the same time, they felt an immense pressure to succeed, and to represent their race and community — the additional burden felt like “a job within a job”. This burden manifested, as it had with Deepa, both mentally and physically: 2/3rd of the women Deepa interviewed reported feeling sick due to the stress of the many roles they were taking on.

During the panel discussion, the speakers dove into these topics further, starting with a question on how they experienced the paradox of both invisibility and hyper-visibility at work. Emani reflected on the fact that she was often the only Black woman in meeting rooms and on her team, and one of few in her entire department. She recalled that her appearance was regularly scrutinized and exotified, while at the same time, she was mistaken for other Black women, and her individual work was at times erased or relayed as team contributions, even when she was the most tenured on the team. Colby, having grown up in Hawai’i with Chinese and Japanese heritage, also spoke on the experience of exotification, where others would often wrongly assume her culture. When she spoke up about sexist and racist comments she had received, she was met with gaslighting and was suggested to address the culprit directly — there was no internal structure for Colby to do this without jeopardizing her own workplace safety. These experiences tied into overall power dynamics and double standards that both had experienced throughout their careers, such as balancing the act of speaking ‘too much’ with holding back, managing not only their work but others’ perception of them and their work, and trying to take care of themselves without being perceived as ‘slacking’ on the job.

In recalling a conversation she had, during one of the restorative dinners she hosted, with Vernā Myers, VP Inclusion Strategy at Netflix, Deepa reflected on the fact that workforces hadn’t been designed with women, especially women of color, in mind — they were designed decades ago, for largely white-male-dominated environments. One byproduct of this in today’s world is that women often feel a sense of scarcity, like there is only one seat for them at the proverbial “table” of power. This was often reflected in Deepa’s dinner conversations as well, where many women expressed a deep desire for solidarity and support from one another, rather than competitiveness. Emani and Colby both shared this desire, and spoke about what reclaiming and building collective power meant for them. Emani shared a tactical piece of advice: the importance of documentation. Documenting both accomplishments and contributions, as well as experiences of discrimination gives one credibility and visibility during difficult conversations and confrontations- it helped Emani advocate for herself and reclaim power at work. Beyond that, advocacy and authenticity were also top of mind for her, with the key to successful advocacy being the ability to build authentic relationships with the community, and harness vulnerability for deeper connections with others. For Colby, seeking community with one another was most important, along with self-rest and regeneration.

Deepa ended by quoting Nicole Ananda, a women’s empowerment coach in simply saying: “I don’t even want the table to be there”: meaning that for women of color, a large part of reclaiming power in the workplace means breaking down existing power structures, changing their relationship with power, and ultimately, changing the face of power itself.

Photos by Jim Block

Deepa Purushothaman

Deepa is a former senior executive and a corporate inclusion visionary. She challenges and redefines the status quo of leadership, success, and power by centering the experiences of Women of Color. As a senior partner at Deloitte, Deepa spent more than 20 years helping clients grow. She was also the US Managing Partner of WIN, Deloitte’s renowned Women’s Initiative, and was the first Indian-American woman and one of the youngest people to make partner in the firm’s history. Deepa left Deloitte in 2020 to co-found nFormation, a membership-based community for professional Women of Color. She is an Executive Fellow at Harvard Business School, and a board member of Avasara, India’s first leadership academy for girls. The First, The Few, The Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America, Deepa’s debut book, was published by HarperCollins in 2022 to international acclaim.

Deepa is a TED and SXSW speaker and has been featured in TIME, PBS, Forbes, Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Financial Times, and Harvard Business Review. Her TED talks have almost 3M views. She has degrees from Wellesley College, Harvard Kennedy School, and the London School of Economics, and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their four fur kids.

Emani Holyfield

Emani is a first year MBA Candidate at the Haas School of Business and serves in the MBA student government association as the VP of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. At Haas Emani is also a lead for the Race Inclusion Initiative and is the VP of Admissions for the Black Business School Association. Prior to business school, Emani worked in Google’s People Operations organization. She brings to Haas her expertise in People Strategy and Innovation, talent development, and organizational effectiveness with an emphasis on closing gaps across student and employee retention and progression, wellbeing and belonging. In her ‘sparks joy’ time you can find Emani trying new boba tea shops, salsa dancing with classmates, or reading the latest in clinical psychology.

Colby Sameshima

Colby grew up in Honolulu, HI. While she studied Earth & Ocean Sciences and Environmental Studies at Tufts University with the goal of becoming climate change scientist, she discovered entrepreneurship + social justice her senior year, and was hooked. After graduation, she helped tech startups in emerging markets scale before bringing what she learned back home. In 2019, she joined a new Hawai’i startup accelerator, building its e-commerce brand/strategy and venture capital fund. She eventually launched her own digital marketing business to help local women-owned businesses in more impactful ways. At Haas, she is a Consortium Member, EGAL Co-Chair, Terner Housing Innovation Fellow, and Co-President of the Native & Indigenous Business Association.



Center for Equity, Gender & Leadership (EGAL)

At the heart of UC Berkeley's Business School, the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership educates equity-fluent leaders to ignite and accelerate change.