Ruchika Tulshyan: Creating Purposeful Spaces of Inclusion and Belonging


What does it mean to create a culture of “belonging” within your collective work? How can we encourage an environment where the wide spectrum of stakeholders you collaborate with—your partners, staff, funders, and community members—can feel included, recognized, and valued?

At the 2023 Collective Impact Action Summit, we dove into these questions and more in a keynote conversation with Ruchika Tulshyan, award-winning inclusion strategist, speaker, and author of the bestselling book, Inclusion on Purpose: An Intersectional Approach to Creating a Culture of Belonging at Work.

In this fireside chat, Ruchika Tulshyan and Melody Barnes (Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions) discussed practices that can support and operationalize inclusive, equity-centered collaborative cultures. They also shared about the importance of elevating the voices of women of color and those historically underestimated within collaborative work.

Participating in this discussion are:

  • Melody Barnes, Chair, Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions
  • Donna Ellis, ASL Interpreter
  • Megan Meiris, ASL Interpreter
  • Cindy Santos, Senior Associate, Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions
  • Ruchika Tulshyan, Founder, Candour and author of Inclusion on Purpose: An Intersectional Approach to Creating a Culture of Belonging at Work

Please see further down this page for a list of related resources and a full transcript of this discussion.

Related Resources

Discussion Transcript

Cindy Santos: In this next section we are going to be joined by two phenomenal leaders who will help us to dive deeper into inclusion and belonging and how to really create of belonging especially those that’s kind of women and people of color.

So to moderate this discussion we have Melody Barnes. Melody is a wonderful colleague and the chair of the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions. I have to smile when I introduce Melody and the Opportunity Youth Forum. She is a co-founder and principal of MB2 Solutions, LLC, a public affairs firm. From January 2009 until January 2012, she was an assistant to the president and director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. Feel free to read more about Melody on Whova, there’s so much more to know. Joining Melody is Ruchika Tulshyan who will be introduced by Melody. So Melody, I’ll hand it over to you.

Melody Barnes:
Great. Thank you so very much, Cindy. It is wonderful to be here with you and to be here with everyone in the audience and particularly after that beautiful musical transition which I think no matter what kind of day any of us was having we are all in a better place now, so thank you so much for that. As Cindy said, I’m Melody Barnes. I’m chair of the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions and the Opportunity Youth Forum.

It is such a pleasure to be in community with all of you today and it is an honor to be in conversation with our keynote speaker, Ruchika Tulshyan. I can tell you right now that you’re going to thoroughly enjoy this. I had the opportunity to engage with Ruchika one on one a few days ago and it’s going to be a great conversation because of all that she has done.

As you probably know, she is an award-winning inclusion strategist and speaker and author of the bestselling book, Inclusion on Purpose: An Intersectional Approach to Creating a Culture of Belonging at Work. In fact, Dr. Brené Brown called the book transformative. I know others have already said to her because I’ve heard it with my own two ears. I read your book and it’s amazing. So if you haven’t read it, I suggest that you do so.

She’s also the founder of Candor, an inclusion strategy practice and a regular contributor to The New York Times and Harvard Business Review. Close to 50,000 learners have benefited from her first LinkedIn learning course, Moving DEI from Intention to Impact, and Ruchika wrote, co-wrote, a paradigm-shifting article, and I love, love, love this. And we have to talk about this at some point whether today or another time but the article was called, “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome.” And she wrote that for the Harvard Business Review with Jodi-Ann Burey. And the article was named among the 20 most impactful HBR articles of all time.

She’s previously adjunct faculty in communications at the University of Washington and Seattle University, and the recipient of numerous awards and honors. She’s also a global citizen and another wonderful fact that I love about her, a Singaporian foodie who’s also lived in four countries but currently calls Seattle home. Welcome, Ruchika.

Ruchika Tulshyan: Melody, thank you so much. I just want to start by saying how I am so honored to be here. It’s so incredible to be with likeminded people just hearing the land acknowledgement at the start of our conversation and the definitions of equity, belonging, and then Sean’s beautiful, beautiful serenade, oh goodness. I am so energized. I hope all of you are as well. Thank you.

Melody Barnes: Just to set the stage a little bit, we’re here at the Summit to talk further about the work of collective impact and the collaborative work that is so heavily relational and requires stakeholders from varying backgrounds and experiences to work together toward a common purpose. Those spaces are in cultures are different, as different as all who are involved, all who are engaged. When they’re not designed within intention inclusion they can often pull from and replicate existing exclusionary practices from legacy organizations. That’s part of what makes them so complex.

And Ruchika your book and your work focus on workplaces cultures, but we’re excited to take the heart of what you do and to explore how those principles that you have so wonderfully outlined transfer to collaborative spaces that don’t have those same traditional boundaries of authority and accountability. That will be the heart of our conversation and we’ll engage for a bit and then we’ll open the floor and take questions from others.

Before we dive in more deeply, in some ways we want to model what was done earlier and define some terms. But before we go there, I want you to start out by just telling us a little bit about yourself and what brought you to this work that’s dedicated to creating spaces of inclusion on purpose.

Ruchika Tulshyan: Thank you so much, Melody. I’ll start by saying, and really relating it to how we kicked off this summit today. What does it mean to belong? So much of what brought me to where I am today and pursuing this career of writing and really elevating and advising one how to create equitable, inclusive workplaces and really that extend out into society. It’s because of facing that, what it feels like to not belong from a very young age. I grew up in a country, grew up in Singapore. It’s a formerly colonized nation. We still really feel the impacts of that today in many different ways. Being a minority, a person of color, an Indian person in a country where I lived as a racial minority as well as having very strong stringent definitions of what it means to be a woman and what is your place in society, I really saw what it’s like to not belong very early in my life.

That theme sort of followed me along every journey that I have been on. I’ve lived in multiple countries and one of the things that really brought me to where I’m at right now is I started my career as a business journalist. I wanted to tell stories of people making these really important decisions affecting our community in many different ways. Again and again, I kept hearing, you know, we really just want to center a very narrow subset of people in power. We really only care about what people in power think about, where for me, I was seeing all these amazing vibrant stories all around me feeling like the newsroom was really missing out on where the real action was happening. Finally, I’d say the biggest driver that I really had into transitioning into inclusion, equity, and belonging work apart from my own personal experiences was really witnessing it in society, witnessing injustice. I spent time in the technology industry. Right now, I’m an angel investor. I feel really lucky to be able to do my small part in investing in organizations that are founded by underestimated founders and I’d love to talk a little more about this terminology with you. But really observing how much harder it is if you are a woman, a person of color, a Black woman, a Black woman with other intersectional marginalized identity.

The more you really dig into it, the more you realize the data is undeniable but also the lived experiences are undeniable and so I became deeply focused in how do we create a collective, a collective way to tackle these very deeply entrenched systems of oppression and inequality. So I’m really thrilled that we get to have this conversation today. I’m thrilled to learn from you given your amazing background and history, so thank you for having me.

Melody Barnes: No, thank you. Thank you for that. In listening to you you’ve described being a writer in the business sector where you felt like there are these amazing stories that just weren’t being paid attention. It’s almost like, “Look over there. Look over there.” And people refusing to avert their eyes. And also, the tech industry which is notoriously like that. I imagine also, correct me if I’m wrong that you’re stepping into that space as a business writer that there must have been also people who I don’t know, didn’t take you seriously or didn’t think that you should be there or why are you writing about this? You should be writing about something else.

Ruchika Tulshyan: All of that, and I think what’s really important to realize about the media is, and now there’s research to back this up but really we are looking at the erosion of democracy when you do not have people of all variety of backgrounds having a voice and being able to tell stories and be part of the conversation, and I think especially at the time we’re in right now in history, especially here in the United States, it becomes very, very clear that if we want to create a community, a world, a culture where truly everyone’s needs are centered. The people who are most marginalized are centered in our democracy. We really have to center the voices and leadership of people who have been most marginalized, and so, yes, you’re right. I was laughed at. I was told by editors we don’t care about these stories. Our leaders don’t care about these stories. We have seen the disastrous consequences when I teach communications and journalism—I’m taking a sabbatical because the book has definitely kept me very busy but when I would teach in my classes, we would really discuss what is the impact when you see certain communities as predators and people who deserve penalization and punishment, and what happens when the media doesn’t confront its own biases. What are the disastrous consequences in society, and I know we’re living a very hateful traumatic time to that end as well.

I think the last point I want to make is we—a statistic that, again, because I grew up outside this country, finally, like everything clicked into place for me, and I say it often because I want every person to know this statistic, PRRI research found three quarters of White Americans don’t have a single friend of color, and 91 percent of the average White American’s social network is White, and the first time that the majority of us actually meaningfully interact, that means have more than a passing conversation with someone who is a different race or ethnicity than us is in the workplace so do I think that this work needs to start early? Absolutely. It needs to start in our schools. It needs to start in our neighborhoods. We know we have lived through segregation our neighborhoods even until today, especially here in the Seattle area. PRRI researched the person who—sorry, PRRI, Public Religion Research Institute, and I think this is really important because I think what we’re going to start to see is if we don’t confront how we live such separate lives and feel the biases and stereotypes which we’re all conditioned with—I’m not here preaching from a podium saying like I have figured it all out and you over there haven’t. I’m really—so much of my work is me saying I was conditioned with these very same systems of sexism, of racism, of inequity, of hypercapitalism, of hypercompetition, and it’s really turning that around and saying where and why must I uncondition and unlearn this and be on a lifelong journey to unlearn and uncondition this so that we can build better systems for all.

Melody Barnes: I think that’s a great transition. As we think about systemic change and we want to talk about that in a second but as I said, maybe starting out with defining some terms because you made the case so beautifully as to why, for example, inclusion and equity are so important, and those are terms that are used often right now, and by some derisively right now but they’re certainly terms that are getting a lot of attention in the social sector and in the private sector. To make sure that we’re all on the same page, I’m wondering if you could define inclusion, and also tell us what you mean when you use the expression Inclusion on Purpose.

Ruchika Tulshyan: Thank you so much, Melody. So one of the reasons why I deeply care about the use of inclusion because I have spent a lot of my time in corporate spaces, and in my technology experience, and then in advising organizations, and we can say that academia is fairly corporate too in its own way and has its own way of doing things as well.

Melody Barnes: Yeah, two thousand years old, a lot going on in academia.

Ruchika Tulshyan: Very institutional, and what I will say that I think is really important is a lot of times I would hear euphemisms which make perfect—I mean it’s great to say I want to create a culture of respect, I want to create a culture where everyone is able to speak up. We want to create a culture where everyone is happy but when you don’t center the experiences, when you don’t name, what we really want to do is make sure that people who have been historically marginalized and underestimated are able to be represented here. That’s diversity to me. Diversity doesn’t mean we put four people of the same background, of a dominant group background from four different college graduation years and we say, oh, there’s diversity. No. Diversity to me very deeply, meaningfully centers who in this community are the most marginalized, and I say that really taking a global perspective.

There are—and I have described this in the book and I use research to show there are certain—without a doubt there are ways that we have seen certain systems replicated around the world, right? I write in the book very cleanly anti-Blackness is a very sadly, devastatingly global phenomenon and so is White supremacy and White dominance so I write that very clearly in the book, and I think we really need to know that and we need to be able to name it very boldly. So when I talk about terminology, when I say diversity, I mean the diversity of people from underrepresented backgrounds being represented at the table. Inclusion is are these folks from historically underrepresented, underestimated communities able to contribute and lead, right? So then we’ve talked about inclusion.

And taking it one step further which for me is really around belonging, is are these folks from historically overlooked, underestimated, and underrepresented communities able to make decisions? Are they able to lead? Are they able to feel like they can really bring their whole authentic selves to work? And so for me, as much as—you know, I’m thrilled actually personally to see proliferations of diversity, equity, and inclusion now become the norm. When I started in this work 10 years ago, it was not the norm. And I remember going to organizations, I remember trying to have these conversations and people would say, oh, diversity, let’s just talk about the experience of White women in the workplace, right? And now I think that we have really shifted gears a little bit which is really important. There’s a long way to go but I think we need to boldly name these are the communities that are missing here. This is the leadership that we don’t have. Here are the perspectives we’re missing. Now what are we going to do to make sure that we can change that.

Melody Barnes: Picking up on the and now what are we going to do to change it, talk a little bit more about how the focus on inclusion fits with work on equity.

Ruchika Tulshyan: Yeah, lovely, thank you, and so at its core, equity for me isn’t an outcome, it is a process. Diversity and inclusion in many ways are outcomes, depending on who you ask. I do see it as an outcome. You can very much make it a goal to measure and change the number of people who are from underestimated communities who are represented at the table at the institution, within the community, etc. You can measure inclusion. You can measure belongingness but what is the harder thing to do and what really makes effective long-term sustainable change is facing up boldly to the reasons and the structural barriers and oppression that has kept people of color, people from other underestimated identities away from being able to be represented, away from being able to participate and belong, and recognize what are those structures of oppression and then work to dismantle them. That is the harder work. That is not what is going to give you, hey, guess what? We changed our representation of women, like check the box here, or, oh, we came in and we had a conference on racial equity in the workplace but really what we just meant is just a one-off thing and check the box. No, it really means boldly confronting what are those systemic barriers. In the work that I do, often it will be things that people don’t even think about.

I’ll give you an example. I worked with a tech organization to do a DEI analysis on where they had opportunities for change and creating greater equity and inclusion. So one of their policies, and again it really depends on which side of the—sort of what’s been your life experience and then developing more empathy which I know we’re going to talk about but when we ran our analysis, what we found is for a lot of people from historically underestimated communities, this company’s policy of basically reimbursing you. You know, you would go, you would pay for your professional development, you would pay for your tickets to the big conference, you would pay for your hotel, all of that, and then a month or two or three months down the line after you’ve submitted your receipts, you would get reimbursed. Again, it was like, well, we’re a tech organization, we pay you so well. What wasn’t being said and what wasn’t being considered is what does it mean if you come from a community that has historically been left out of creating generational wealth. What if you come from a community where you have a whole group of dependents or you have huge student loans, all these things, and I think that is really at the core of it.

That’s one of the very small examples I can show and illustrate of what equity really looks like in action. It’s you think—I may have thought because of my perspective, because of my dominant group or privileged perspective, this was the right thing to do. Now I recognize that this is a systemic barrier to a lot of the folks whom I really deeply want to center in my work and then make changes accordingly.

Melody Barnes: So I think that this starts to point us into this idea of what practices are going to help us get there. In the book you talk about individual behavior and organizational behavior, and I want to start with some of the individual behaviors that you explore, and I really encourage everyone who is listening to this conversation to think not only about how you show up in your own organization but how these ideas apply as you work across organizations in your collaborative and collective impact work.

Ruchika, on individual behaviors that drive inclusion on purpose, you talk about several different practices. You talk about seeing past privilege, developing an inclusive mindset, developing empathy as an inclusive leader, and shining the light to getting out of the way. Now I want every single person who hasn’t already purchased your book and read it to do so but maybe this is a sneak peek. This is a trailer. If you could just tell us a little bit more about what you mean by empathy which you’ve referenced and shine the light.

Ruchika Tulshyan: Thank you, Melody. I think when we think about empathy and the reality that when we look at the statistics, I’m sure if we did an audit of our social circles off the media, we can do whose voices we most look to for inspiration. For those of us who are in positions of leadership, who are our top five names in the drawer in terms of who we want to promote or who we think are our successors, we’re going to find that often we really do live in echo chambers, even if it comes from a place of like we are making grants to affect this community we are not part of.

When it really comes to whom we look to for inspiration and leadership, most of the time it is going to be people who look like us so what this really requires us to do, what real empathy when it comes to leadership and then groundbreaking, effective, sustainable, long-term change, it is really focusing on whose perspectives do I not have today, and how can I got about getting those perspectives and really building understanding in terms of how those experiences are being impacted by the decisions that I in my organization, in my leadership, in my influence makes, right? And I think sometimes when we think about empathy, we think of it as a soft skill whereas research study upon research study finds that it’s actually the most—it’s the number one leadership skill trait that most jobseekers look to, most high-performing individuals look to from their manager.

I also want to say one more thing around empathy, and I think that one of the difficulties with empathy is it is a social science, and in social science we have managed to figure out like, OK, this is what empathy looks like, there are some of the traits but I think for a lot of us, if I ask you when was the last time you worked for or worked with someone who is a very empathetic leader, we could probably—I think most of us could probably think of an example of working with someone who is really empathetic or being around someone who is really empathetic. The challenge sometimes is being able to then communicate that on, right?

And so this is where I think for folks who have the ability to make a change, to influence within their organization or their sphere of influence, where they operate, I think it’s really important to define what does empathy mean, and really focus on how do people in positions of power and leadership really demonstrate making space for and considering and really taking action for the needs of people that perhaps they don’t have the experiences of. So I think that’s really important.

Now I love shine the light and get out of the way because I think that is very much related to empathy. A lot of what happens in collective impact work is like, oh, I have heard the perspective of someone who is going through, you know, has been historically underestimated, and I’m going to go and do something on their behalf. Now what shine the light and get out of the way really says, what the perspective that I was trying to put forward in the book is people of color and people from marginalized identities aren’t voiceless. Most often we are silenced. We are overlooked. We do not need other people to speak for us. Most of the time we need someone to pass the mic and get out of the way.

I’ll give you an example since we had such a beautiful musical introduction to our forum, to our summit, and I think this is a part of the book that I would say is my favorite example to find so in the chapter about shining the light and getting out of the way, I use the example of the amazing Ella Fitzgerald who was finding that she often wasn’t getting an opportunity to—this is when she was starting out—she wasn’t getting the sort of opportunities to play at some of those really big venues and clubs, and historians debate whether is that because she wasn’t considered glamorous enough, was it because she was facing racism, probably a combination of both, and so what Marilyn Monroe did who had heard, Ella Fitzgerald, sing, and who had been inspired by the queen of jazz who wasn’t the queen of jazz yet was she called up the biggest club in Hollywood and she said, you know, I promise I will be there every single day right in the front row if you let Ella Fitzgerald sing. So it wasn’t like she was—it wasn’t going to be the Ella and the Marilyn Monroe show, right? I was going to be I am going to sit in the front row, I’m going to use my influence and privilege. I understand who I am, I understand the influence and privilege I have. I’m going to sit in the front row because we know that that’s going to make a big difference but the stage is going to be Ella Fitzgerald. So I was trying to find whether this story was true or not. I couldn’t get a hundred percent confirmation but I think it is a perfect illustration of what it means to shine the light and then get out of the way.

Melody Barnes: That is a great story. I hope it is true but either way it’s a great illustration of what you’re describing because I was going to ask you how people, regardless of their position, can lean into these principles and contribute to inclusive cultures so I think…

Ruchika Tulshyan: I love it. I mean I just remember—I think of like what are those ways that we can really figure out where do we have influence, where do we have power, where do we have privilege. I just want to say for a second like when I—again, when I do this work apart from the learning in public and sometimes failing in public, the approach I like to take is really the recognition that I don’t do this work coming from the perspective of I have faced so much exclusion or bias. I have. I definitely am very much informed by my perspective as an immigrant to this country, as a woman of color, as a mother, all of these perspective certainly, definitely inform what I do, and I think there’s a lot to learn about—and a lot to center the voices of folks who have been historically underestimated in this country for generations, well before people like me even got here, and I think that’s something that I think often gets missed out in the diversity, equity, and inclusion discourse.

Melody Barnes: Absolutely, absolutely. I want to ask you one more question before we turn to some questions from the audience, and as I mentioned before, there’s individual behaviors but the second section of your book also focused on behaviors to drive inclusion in organizations, and these are great but as you know, we’re focusing on collaborative work and work across organizations and across those boundaries and across sectors in fact as part of the community-based collaborative work, and in collaborative spaces things like authority and accountability which contribute to the inclusion on purpose in organizations are established and upheld through relationships and persuasion, peer pressure. There are other ways that these structures get held up, more so than official organizational policies and practices. In other words, I haven’t yet found the HR handbook for community collaboratives.

So this is different and I’m wondering if you can share with us how these principles that you write about and have talked about translated to spaces that aren’t governed by formal lines of accountability and management.

Ruchika Tulshyan: Thank you, Melody, and I will say that in all the years that I have done this work and even when I was an employee in the past at some very well-known institutions and organizations, I’d say that none of this work really happens in any formal way, even in an organization that may have a very comprehensive HR handbook. It is really in the day-to-day interactions. I write a chapter about psychological safety in Inclusion on Purpose. Psychological safety, simply put, is the ability to speak up, take risks or fail without feeling really like you’re going to be penalized or lose status. It doesn’t matter where in the organization you’re in. The work that Dr. Amy Edmondson has done around psychological safety is really focused on can a nurse, for example, challenge a doctor’s diagnosis, right, and in organizations where there’s psychological safety or in health care settings where this is, that can have amazing outcomes for patients for example.

So the point I’m trying to make is that often the biggest change really happens in those day-to-day interactions. Do we have a culture here where everyone has an opportunity to participate? What action do we take? I’m thinking of chapter 8 on psychological safety, do we reward toxic rockstars? Just because someone is an amazing performer or they’re hitting all the organizational goals but they’re treating people with disrespect, they are perpetuating bias. They are perpetuating racism and sexism and other forms of oppression which sadly I wish I could—I wish I could say that I have never faced this but I have certainly seen this many, many times where we’ve had to go in and really discuss with the organization, with leaders in the organization, what are you going to do? Which do you prioritize? Your handbook says, you employee handbook on page 66 says, you know, that we want to create a diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization. What really is happening on the ground here is very different. So I think in terms of thinking about this term of community impact perspective, it really does come down to those relationships that we build.

A lot of what I try and offer in Inclusion on Purpose is organizational structure or policies to really guide those interactions to be more equitable, to be more inclusive, and even so, some of the interventions that have the biggest differences are the ones that, again, come down to how people treat each other. When we work with a team to create more inclusive meeting norms, it was incredible how interventions like, hey, we don’t interrupt people here because research shows women and people of color get interrupted at much more than twice the rate of our White counterparts in meetings so if we create a structure where actually we don’t interrupt people here. If you see someone being interrupted, here’s something you can say. It does come to how individuals are being treated by others. How are people in dominant groups practicing allyship. I’ll end by saying that I don’t believe—I don’t use the word ally as a noun, I use it as a verb. I don’t call myself an ally. I think about how I can practice allyship in every moment or what are the ways that bias or discrimination are showing up and where have I practiced allyship or where have I not.

Melody Barnes: I mean I think that’s an interesting way of thinking about it because it requires you to constantly be in process and active as opposed to kind of stamping yourself with the official gold star of allyship and saying, you know, I’m done but it’s a constant journey. It requires constant thought. I want to turn to some of the questions that we’ve been getting, and there are some really, really great ones here. One person says Ruchika’s comments so far seemed to be geared toward in power positions. What might she offer to folks from marginalized groups in this conversation or does she mean for her comments to be universal?

Ruchika Tulshyan: Great question. I definitely focus on making sure that people in positions of power and influence have an opportunity to really face up and do the work, right? What is really hard and what research shows and what my own anecdotal evidence shows is the people working the hardest, the ones who are experiencing the burnout and really the exhaustion from doing this work day in and day out, and facing those barriers day in and day out are people who are historically underestimated. So in a lot of what I want to do is create a toolkit and really have people who have historically benefited from the system or who have had the privilege of not confronting their privilege or even thinking about it to really get engaged in the conversation.

So I want to start off by saying that. I get asked this question a lot. I’m facing like how do I get my manager who doesn’t understand or how do I get someone who, a donor or a funder or whatnot, how to get someone who is in a position of power to care about DEI work? I’ve been really engaged in this, and I always want to validate like I see you, I know this work is hard, and it isn’t your responsibility to fix systems that have for so long oppressed you and others like you.

At the same time, I do think there’s an opportunity for all of us to get together and really build community, and one of the ways—I know you, Melody, we talked—in the introduction briefly you mentioned the imposter syndrome article. Why I’m so proud of that is because where the genesis of this work around imposter syndrome and for those of you who aren’t familiar, I wrote this article with my coauthor, Jodi-Ann Burey. We’re two women of color, HBR is a hundred-year-old brand. There aren’t that many women of color who have written for it. There aren’t that many women of color who have managed to have an article that is so widely accepted and loved by the community that it really was named the top 20 most impactful articles in HBR’s hundred-year history, and as proud as I am of that, I really am, what really mattered the most is it helped people change the paradigm. It helped people make a huge paradigm shift between I feel imposter syndrome. There is something wrong with me or I feel confidence issues to is this workplace or is this community I’m part of or is the situation I’m part of built with me in mind or not. Is what I’m facing imposter syndrome, an individual diagnosis, or am I facing collective and systemic barriers, and so when this person who asked this wonderful question, what advice would I offer to people who have faced marginalization or who are not in positions of power, summits like this, forums like this are really necessary to build that collective power to be able to really rise up and step up against  these systems of oppression, and I hope that’s helpful.

Melody Barnes: I see another question that is related. I think your comments speak to it but I don’t know if you might want to add anything more. The person says how do you speak about women in a way that includes both the White experience and BIPOC women? How do you ensure your input includes and addresses both, and you’ve been talking about the creation of an environment that includes me but I don’t know, and I mean—I’m speaking not me but we—the me in this context, and I’m wondering if there’s anything that you want to add through that lens on that question.

Ruchika Tulshyan: I think when I get questions like this by White women, I always say that it’s important to investigate why or if—not even why but if it’s so, why are conversations around women that center women of color, are they making one feel uncomfortable, are they making you feel uncomfortable as a White woman, and by the way, I don’t know who asked this question. It’s more I’m having a larger sort of exploration of this, and in my work what I’ve found is for so long, especially when I was a business reporter and wrote about women in the workplace, what I was doing when I said women and when I wrote women was perpetuating White feminism. What I really meant when I was talking about women in the workplace was White, mostly college educated, mostly White, fairly high-powered women, and what were the challenges these women were facing in the workplace.

I think a big part of me learning in public, a reason why I focused Inclusion on Purpose on the experience of women of color is because what I find time and time again, and this is not new for me, right? I really want to center people like Ijeoma Oluo who has been doing this work for a long time. We have a history in this country from scholars such as bell hooks and so many more, and I just want to say that I want to build on that foundation to say that when you center the needs and the voices of folks who are most marginalized by the system, everyone benefits. Truly a rising tide lifts all boats, and again this sounds beautiful, it is beautiful, and I’ve seen it in action. I mean even the example I used of meeting interventions that were basically like, you know, if you see a woman or a person of color, most of the time the woman of color will be interrupted or not being able to finish her sentence or more often not even being considered at all, it is saying, hey, I’m going to stop that and I’m going to make sure that everyone gets to finish but when we would go back at these organizations or these teams and check in, how are these interventions going, a lot of times White men with a lot of privilege would say but I’m also an introvert, and what I started realizing is when we allow people, when we make it a norm to let people finish, I benefit too. My introverted self also has an opportunity to shine, and generally I haven’t had that.

So I think we have this belief that if we just—if we talk about women but we need to separate the needs of White women and women of color, and I think what we really need to realizes is when we center women who are most marginalized by your systems, Black women, trans women, immigrant women, refugee women, what you start finding is those changes and those—as we aspire to create more equity, everyone benefits.

Melody Barnes: When and where I enter, and there’s so many great questions. Here’s one going in a slightly different direction. Part of the challenge regarding empathy is that some people see it as a weakness and take advantage of the empathic leader. How do we interrupt this behavior and support that kind of leader?

Ruchika Tulshyan: This is really interesting. I think one of the things that I really want to say is what gives me hope and comfort is that I think that we are entering a newer paradigm of leadership. I think a lot of older systems and a lot of the existing systems that didn’t consider diversity, equity, inclusion, empathy, vulnerability as very key leadership traits, I think we’re starting to see that time being phased out slowly. I look at research in terms of millennials and certainly GenZ, would you rather take a pay cut to work for an empathetic, inclusive leader or would you not, and I think more and more we’re starting to see that generations coming up after the last few generations in the workplace are really changing and reimagining culture and what we expect, what are the changes we want to make, who do we want to work for so I think there is a part of that happening already on a larger scale.

I think on a smaller scale, I think we’re starting to see whether you see all this talk of the great resignation, the great reimagination, quiet quitting, and we’re really starting to see people care deeply about the type of leaders and cultures that they work with, in collaboration with, work for, work to manage. I think we really are seeing a change. I think for those people who see empathy as a weakness, we’re starting to see people leave those organizations. I don’t want to name ones but there’s one very big social media app that I have slowly been pushed out of, and you know, we see that, that command-and-control style of leadership is really not working. What the research finds again and again is how important it is to have empathetic, inclusive leadership to guide us through the challenges we have really lived through in the last few years, specifically especially with the pandemic and the new challenges that are coming our way.

Melody Barnes: I’ll ask this one final question that came up because I think it’s related. Someone asked how you think about class in the context of the work that you’ve been doing.

Ruchika Tulshyan: I wish we didn’t have one minute. I think of it a lot, and I think class is really important here in this country specifically because we know it is so deeply tied into racism and racial segregation we have seen here in this country. I would love to see more of us boldly walk towards naming how class differences and class discrimination shows up in our communities and our societies. Living in other countries, what’s interesting is there’s a very deep and real acknowledgment of class differences and how class creates barriers. I feel like in the United States we have a lot more work to do to own up to those class differences. Very quickly because I know we’re out of time, I think the myth of meritocracy has a big reason, had a big part to play in why we shy away from class, right? Like the idea is no matter who you are, you can thrive and you can rise when again the research is very clear. There was one study I read recently where a White high school dropout over the course of their lifetime will still have a higher household income than a Black college graduate, and there’s so many important datapoints like this so I think we really need to walk boldly into it. What I worry about sometimes in early class discussions happening is we try and extricate it from race, and I think again when you really center White, Black, indigenous people of color, you really start to see and unpack how class and race and racism have impacted opportunities to thrive in this country.

Melody Barnes: Well, obviously we could talk a lot, lot longer. I want to thank you for being with us. I encourage people to read your book, and to access all the good work that you’re doing in so many different places. Thank you, thank you, thank you, a real pleasure.

Ruchika Tulshyan: Thank you to all of you. I hope you have a wonderful summit. Thank you for bringing me here.


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