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How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America

Deepa Purushothaman offers insight and strategies for WOC navigating the workplace

By Nancy Collamer

Women of Color (WOC) are one of the fastest-growing demographics in corporate America. Yet despite their growing presence, many still struggle to flourish in the workplace.

A woman wearing a yellow blazer and a bright blue shirt underneath. Next Avenue, women of color corporate america, "The First, The Few, The Only" Deepa Purushothaman
Deepa Purushothaman  |  Credit: Sheldon Botler

As the first Indian American woman to make partner at global services firm Deloitte, Deepa Purushothaman knows how challenging it can be for "the first, the few and the only."

"It's a question of believing it, finding it, and pouring yourself into it."

Her 20-year run at Deloitte was filled with successes, and feelings of isolation and burnout. But over time, she came to appreciate that having the unique experience and perspective of a WOC was also an invaluable source of strength and power.  

"We all have power," she told me. "Whether you're a woman of color, or at the legacy point of your career, it's a question of believing it, finding it and pouring yourself into it."

Insight and Strategies for WOC

Today, Purushothaman serves as the co-founder of nFormation, a membership community by women of color, for women of color. And, she recently wrote an excellent book, "The First, The Few, The Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America" that shares hard-won insights and strategies for WOC navigating the rapidly changing workplace.

I spoke to Purushothaman recently by Zoom to get her advice on how WOC can move forward during this challenging time. Highlights of our conversation below:

Next Avenue: Can you clarify what you mean by 'Women of Color?'

Deepa Purushothaman: I have to admit this was a dilemma for me. As an Indian woman, I struggled with whether I could use the term women of color. Ultimately, I concluded that as WOC, we share so many common experiences. That said, we're not a monolith, so I'm careful to highlight when differences are based on race, as well as other factors, such as cultural differences, class or age.

Women of color often face 'microaggressions' — anything that is said or done that makes people feel like they don't belong. What's the best way to respond to microaggressions at work?

There's a spectrum of microaggressions. Some are out and out racism, while others are less hurtful. And they're not just about race. I'm sure some of your older workers have encountered ageist microaggressions. The problem is that people aren't taught how to effectively respond to microaggressions, so they can catch you off-guard.


Use These Three Phrases

I teach WOC to have three phrases at the ready for when these situations arise. For instance: "What you just said hurt me" or "What you just said didn't land how I think you wanted it to" or "Can we pause this meeting because I need five minutes? What you just said really startled me."

Book cover of "The First, The Few, The Only" By Deepa Purushothaman. Next Avenue, women of color corporate america

Pick a phrase that resonates and rehearse it. And know that you don't always have to react in the moment. I usually wait ten minutes to decide if I'm still bothered by the comment. Sometimes I'll ask friends for their perspective before I respond. It's also critical that our allies in the workplace learn to speak up in these situations as well – this shouldn't just be the responsibility of WOC.

You're a big believer in the power of community. How can WOC build their support networks?

Too many of us sit in our worry by ourselves, whether it's ageism or racism. Having a community, and engaging in meaningful conversations about our shared experience, can make an enormous difference in our lives, and our careers. You share a common language and get each other in a way that other people struggle to understand. The good news is that it is easier than ever to connect with people. So, reach out to contacts on LinkedIn, old colleagues or classmates. Don't hold back. People are looking for connection, now more than ever.

Rethinking Expectations of Extra Roles

In the book you discuss all the extra roles WOC are often expected to fill (mentors, recruiters, etc.) as one of the "first, few or only." Can you share some tips for handling those asks?

It's tricky, because tasks like mentoring tend not to be valued as much as other responsibilities. For example, at Deloitte all of the partners did some mentoring. But as one of the only women of color in leadership, I did more than my fair share. I loved it, because I believed that helping other women was part of my legacy. But I also had to learn to be smart about it. Over time, I had to decide which extra tasks excited me, and which to decline.

"Think about whether or not those old scripts still serve you and if not, what messages can replace them."

The last two years have encouraged all of us to rethink how we work and the role it plays in our lives. How can we successfully do that?

We are in a moment right now that everyone is questioning the role work plays in their lives: What do I want? What do I believe? What's next?  Unfortunately, WOC often have well-worn scripts, or self-talk, that can make this process even more complicated.

For example, my parents were immigrants who continually emphasized the importance of hard work, stability and financial security. As a result, I believed that I couldn't walk away from a "good" job, even if I was exhausted or unhappy. Eventually, I learned to "shed" those messages, in order to move forward in a way that reflected my values.

It helps to quiet yourself and lean into your intuition. Think about whether or not those old scripts still serve you, and if not, what messages can replace them. I've found writing or working with a coach to be very helpful.

Finally, do you think the increased emphasis on corporate diversity and inclusion is real, or just window dressing?

There's a lot of window dressing, but I'm still optimistic. More companies recognize there's a problem, so that's progress. Changing culture is a big, hard thing — it takes time.

Photograph of Nancy Collamer
Nancy Collamer, M.S., is a semi-retirement coach, speaker and author of Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit From Your Passions During Semi-Retirement. You can now download her free workbook called 25 Ways to Help You Identify Your Ideal Second Act on her website at (and you'll also receive her free bi-monthly newsletter). Read More
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