How Women of Color Can Drive Corporate Transformation

A new book examines the unique experiences women of color face in the workplace and offers insight on how to improve work for everyone.

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Deepa Purushothaman was one of the youngest people and the first Indian American woman to make partner in Deloitte’s history. But having ascended high up the corporate ladder, she realized that her work life wasn’t working. It took conversations with more than 500 other women of color leading in the workplace to clarify her next steps and make the tough choice to leave her role. In her new book, The First, the Few, the Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America (Harper Business, 2022), she explores her own experience as a “first,” shares stories from a host of women of color about their work experiences, and provides insight and guidance on how leaders can drive equity in their organizations.

Deborah Milstein, associate editor at MIT SMR, recently spoke with Purushothaman about her book and her work. What follows is an edited and condensed version of their conversation.

MIT Sloan Management Review: Early in the book, you introduce the idea of airplane design as a metaphor for corporate America. Airplanes were built by men with men in mind, as any woman who’s ever struggled to lift luggage into an overhead bin can attest to. There are countless examples of how corporate structures were not built for women, let alone women of color. What does this mean for women of color today?

Deepa Purushothaman: The corporate world was initially formed by a group of White men, most of whom had stay-at-home wives and reflected a now outdated social structure. We all fit ourselves into that model, but the model doesn’t fit many people’s lives anymore. The global workforce has changed enormously along with the social structure. It’s uncommon these days to find a couple with a distinct division of labor, in which one person is working and the other stays home and raises the children.

We need to rethink how work works for everybody. Although the book is written primarily for women of color, and the stories are primarily from their perspective, the insights and perspectives are valuable for anyone. We’ve had a system where, in order to succeed, you have to give up who you are — sometimes even your beliefs, your time, your health, or your mental wellness — and the structure rewarded that approach with more promotion and more pay.

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