In the 20 years she worked her way up the ladder at Deloitte, Deepa Purushothaman racked up a long list of accomplishments: She was the first Indian American woman to make partner and one of the youngest partners in the firm’s history; she was named head of the firm’s WIN women’s initiative and national managing partner of inclusion.
On paper, Purushothaman looked like she had “made it,” but about three years ago, some health issues and an overall feeling that she needed to find her life’s purpose drove her to make some big changes. “I got really sick, and I think a lot of it was the stress of travel, pressures of the nature of the [corporate] world, and a little bit of having all eyes on me,” she says.
Purushothaman took eight months off to recharge. “That time really made me ask myself different questions about what I want for my life, and what space I want to work to take up in my life, because up to that point, I was living to work. Everything I was doing was about working and advancing. My identity was my work, and I’d reached this juncture where that was no longer serving me.”
After that leave of absence, Purushothaman decided to take the leap and leave her stable corporate job. She’s since published her first book, The First, The Few, The Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate Americaand co-founded membership community nFormation with her former coach Rha Goddess.
On International Women’s Day, Purushothaman sat down with Entrepreneur to discuss entrepreneurs, writing and making space for women of color in corporate America.
You conquered a lot of “firsts” at Deloitte. What was the biggest challenge you faced in reaching your goals, and how did you handle it?
When you don’t see a role model that looks like you coming before you, you question if you belong. I had to find my own way in a lot of situations — everything from what I dressed like and how I presented myself, to how I gave feedback and even how I asked for what I wanted. Those weren’t models that had been shown to me, so I was always trying to figure it out, because I didn’t see myself represented. And that’s not just at Deloitte. That’s in corporate America, on television, everywhere. When you’re in institutions that tell you that leadership doesn’t look like you, you have to do your own work to rewrite your message that you belong.
How did you approach finding mentors?
I did this program with the firm where they matched us with senior partners, and mine was a man named Jerry. We both walked into the room where we were supposed to meet, and you could tell neither of us was really excited about it, but it ended up being one of my most beneficial relationships. Early on, I shared all the things I was worried about, because I had a lot of impostor syndrome, which is true for a lot of women of color navigating spaces they don’t see themselves. But he shared with me — an older white gentleman — that he had it too, and it was this really interesting walls-down conversation. I wanted to see myself represented physically, demographically, ethnically, but you can also have a lot of kindred conversations with people who don’t look like you. We need more white male sponsors for people who look like me.
What convinced you to finally take the leap into entrepreneurship?
It was not easy to leave. As a woman of color, I felt really responsible sitting in the seat. I felt like people were going to look at me and say, “She couldn’t hack it, what does that mean for others who look like her or have similar experiences?” I felt really responsible. But I started to gather women of color for one-on-one conversations and dinners, and there was so much shared experience, and such a need coming out of those conversations, that it made me want to create a safe space for women of color , write this book and talk about it.
How did you get your book deal?
I wanted to write a book, but I never thought I could write a book. But that space of eight months thinking about those dinners made me want to tell those women’s stories. I wanted to give women coming after me the book I wish I had. I sold the book six weeks after leaving Deloitte. When you’re following your path and purpose, things click — it just clicked and went fast.
You’ve described this book as deeply personal, and you speak a lot about isolation and burnout. How did this affect your career?
It was really my health experience. I was meeting with my 14th doctor for the fourth or fifth time, and she’s run hundreds of tests, and she says, “I think your job is killing you.” And she asked me three life-changing questions: “What would you do if you didn’t do this job? Do you feel like you have to have a big job like this? And would you see yourself as worthy if you just did nothing?” It took everything in me not to break into tears, because what she said felt so right. It took me over two, three years to get well, but I’ve learned to listen to my body.
Since leaving Deloitte, you founded nFormation, which is a community for women of color, by women of color. People often say being an entrepreneur is a 24/7 job. How do you marry that with the fact that you’re trying not to burn out again?
I’m really clear on how much space I can give things right now. We’re doing business a little differently, part of that is teaching people that you can burn yourself out if you say yes to everything. If I’m trying to create a business that’s helping women do things differently, I have to do it differently. We try to live what we preach.
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs who want to focus on diversity but don’t have the resources that large corporations do?
We need to ask questions and listen in a really different way. Women of color need to tell their truth. There’s an understanding that it’s not working, but I don’t think a lot of it is fully shared because it hasn’t been safe to share, and I think a lot of white leaders are afraid to ask. We need to meet each other in the middle and give ourselves permission, on both sides, to know we haven’t had these discussions. But there has to be a desire and a willingness to want to explore these conversations.