Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It isn’t fun to realize that you or someone you love has biases. It’s not an easy conversation to have with yourself or anyone else to acknowledge those biases and challenge them, but we simply don’t have a choice if we want to build a better world. Self-reflect: What are your biases? What does an equitable society mean for you? Ask the difficult questions: Why do you say that? Would you say the same if the person wasn’t ___? Do you know that you do ___ every time you come across a ___ person? Encourage others to do the same and welcome the uncomfortable conversations. It’s the only way to grow.
Aspart of our series, “5 Steps We Must Take to Truly Create an Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society,” I had the pleasure to interview Neha Gupta.
Neha is responsible for True Office Learning’s product and technology vision, strategy, and growth. Prior to her role as CEO, Neha served as Senior Director of Learning Solutions & Strategic Initiatives at NYSE Governance Services, leading all product strategy and development initiatives for the business. Neha has also served as Citigroup’s Chief of Staff for the Institutional Clients Group Technology organization, reporting directly to the CIO. In her time with Citigroup, Neha led a number of strategic change management efforts involving critical, multi-million dollar initiatives across industries.
Neha holds an MBA in management and business strategy from Rutgers Business School and a BE in computers and electrical engineering from the Honors College of Engineering at Rutgers.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Sure. I had a pretty global childhood, and while New Jersey is home, I spent some time in India and abroad. My upbringing is a mix of Eastern and Western philosophies, and my parents come from big families, have very different personalities, and love to travel. Always surrounded by people, I was fortunate to have many diverse perspectives and experiences growing up. Education was very important in our household, as well as family, traditions, and giving back to the community, which got me in the habit of juggling multiple priorities early on.
As a girl of South Asian descent, you can be weighed down by gender roles even more than usual, but fortunately, my father always encouraged me to believe that I can do anything. I often say that like Icarus, my father gave me my wings, and I am blessed that my mother always made sure I didn’t get too close to the sun.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
It’s difficult to pick one, because I love to read. If I had to, despite having read many amazing literary works, it would be Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. It brought to life many things I had read in other great texts and philosophies with a simple real-life story, showing that it’s possible to apply those concepts to daily life.
Growing up, one is dealing with a lot of change, and for me, that conflict was even higher in reconciling who I wanted to be versus what was culturally expected of a “good girl.” As a young person, one rarely thinks about dying and taking a big-picture view of life, making it easy to get lost in the complexities of the moment, feel isolated, and perceive problems bigger than they truly are. Tuesdays with Morrie taught me a lot about managing unexpected change, remembering what’s important, and navigating being different with grace while feeling connected to the world around me.
Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
My favorite life lesson quote is the one by Charles Swindoll: “Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it.”
As a kid, I was always amazed to see how differently individuals deal with the same situation, especially adverse events. Great tragedies would break some people, while really making others into incredible individuals that achieved great things. I’d see some people invest their energy dwelling on “how’s it possible,” “why did this happen,” “who is to blame,” “why me,” while others went to “what’s next,” “what’s the silver lining,” “what can I learn.”
When I came across this quote, I understood the difference and the power of mindset. Ever since, it has served as an elegant reminder that change is inevitable, we don’t control everything, but one’s attitude and actions can have a profound impact on shaping one’s life. Be it work or personal life, I’ve seen time and again how much better the outcomes are when one is in the latter group [asking “what’s next?” and looking for the positives]. This quote has made it easier for me to take curveballs and challenges head-on.
How do you define leadership? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership to me is about catalyzing change and empowering others to achieve more than what they believe is possible. It isn’t about rank or title or authority, but rather, more simply, about making a conscious choice in service of a goal or mission to encourage, inspire, and switch people’s attitudes from thinking of all the reasons why something can’t be done or why it won’t work, to how and why not.
We each have our own circle of influence, and we can each choose to lead. The most humbling examples of leadership and its power to drive change I have experienced are in my travels abroad, in countries where law, order, and infrastructure aren’t cohesive. From the person who decided to get out of their car in the rain to begin to push the fallen tree across the road relentlessly, inspiring others stuck in traffic to do the same, ultimately getting critical mass to clear the road while the cop on-site waited for help, to the human chain started by an individual to rescue a child fallen in a ditch, what we can achieve together is incredible.
Be it these daily living examples or how Amazon invented one-click buying, leadership is about actively choosing to challenge the status quo, reminding people how much they can achieve and asking the right questions to unlock the true potential of the group.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high-stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
Being busy should lead to physical or mental fatigue, not stress. It’s really worrying about lack of preparation or all the outcomes we don’t want that causes stress. Worrying has become such a common part of our modern consciousness that we don’t recognize the difference. If we can keep this distinction in mind and not consider worrying a regular part of the process, we can focus ourselves on objective action instead.
If the mind gets out of control with worry, listening to music or meditating can help rein it back in quickly. I had the good fortune of reading Gita for Daily Living very early in life, which has changed my entire perspective on this topic, so the three steps that I commonly take are:
- Take a deep breath and remember that life is much bigger than any meeting, talk, or decision. It is better to focus on what you control (i.e., your actions, not the outcome).
- Do a rapid visualization of achieving success and furthering the mission. Having a confident mindset does wonders for letting you put your best foot forward.
- Smile before walking in, because as my favorite life lesson quote suggests, I will succeed or I will survive (and adapt to find another way irrespective of the outcome).
OK, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality, and inclusion. This is, of course, a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
Social change is rarely easy, and its pace is always difficult to reconcile between those demanding the change and those being asked to change. While diversity, equity, and inclusion are values we should all be deeply committed to, as a relatively young country, these are still emerging concepts for many who grew up with a different value system.
Segregation was a part of the American fabric until the 1970s. Less than four decades ago, women didn’t have the right to take a business loan without a male relative co-signing for it. Same-sex marriages weren’t legalized in all states until 2015. There is a big delta between the society we wish to create and the society we inherited.
Changing perspectives and aligning hearts and minds requires more than laws — it requires dialogue, education, and intercultural commingling to help create experiences that eliminate fear and misinformation and show individuals the benefits of building a fairer world. In the absence of these, for individuals seeking the change, it simply isn’t happening fast enough, and for those that are being told to change, it is too much too soon. That gap and the display of resistance to change is what has brought us to the boiling point that we face today.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
Personally, I’ve led initiatives before to foster uncommon dialogue to help individuals understand why race, gender, age, background isn’t a good predictor for abilities or success. As a company, we focus on promoting diversity and inclusion across global enterprises through education, especially bringing to surface unconscious biases and how people navigate everyday business situations.
Rather than just spreading awareness, our technology provides behavioral insights that drive dialogue within a company about why, collectively, people made certain choices and decisions. This shifts the conversation as the challenge with diversity and inclusion initiatives is that it is easy to agree to their importance in principle, but it is much harder to apply them in practice — especially when that requires changing behaviors or beliefs that people have taken for granted or don’t even realize they need to change.
Our biases, conscious and unconscious, are real, and it’s easy to forget that especially if we consider ourselves fair and progressive. I recently had my own humbling moment when a friend sent a riddle that I couldn’t solve correctly. It showed me that even though I don’t really believe the bias, it is still my first instinct because of things I’ve commonly seen in the world. Through our solutions, we help individuals identify their own biases and understand how to make different decisions in real life. I encourage you to try to explore your own — it is definitely a moment you won’t forget.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Outside of the significant bottom-line performance gains (as proven in many studies conducted in the last few years), having a diverse executive team is really about creating the most comprehensive set of skills possible on your leadership bench to solve complex problems. From understanding your customer base better to attracting diverse talent to creating a richer sense of belonging for employees of all different backgrounds, having a diverse executive team pays great dividends. It not only makes you better equipped to mentor and motivate employees of all diverse backgrounds, it also helps create multicultural competencies within your leadership team and the organization as a whole, which can be incredibly valuable in today’s global world.
OK. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take to Truly Create an Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society.” Kindly share a story or example for each.
I wish we could achieve this goal in just five steps, but here are some steps that [will] give us a strong start:
- Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It isn’t fun to realize that you or someone you love has biases. It’s not an easy conversation to have with yourself or anyone else to acknowledge those biases and challenge them, but we simply don’t have a choice if we want to build a better world. Self-reflect: What are your biases? What does an equitable society mean for you? Ask the difficult questions: Why do you say that? Would you say the same if the person wasn’t ___? Do you know that you do ___ every time you come across a ___ person? Encourage others to do the same and welcome the uncomfortable conversations. It’s the only way to grow.
- See something, say something. Silence is too easy, but nearly the same as doing the behavior yourself. Every time we permit something to go on, we inadvertently support it. Respectfully call out the behavior that isn’t inclusive or equitable to the individual engaging in it. Don’t just ignore it as a joke or a passing comment. Encourage the awareness that this is how stereotypes get formed and reinforced, in turn shaping behaviors consciously and subconsciously.
- Practice empathy. It is too easy to not understand the other person’s grief or the opposing side’s emotion and stick to labels of right and wrong. Don’t disassociate from the dialogue. Try and put yourself in their position and feel what they are feeling. It will make for a richer conversation and increase your ability to understand what is needed to drive change.
- Actively support the change. Whether it’s driving diverse recruiting efforts, mentoring different individuals, engaging in more multicultural experiences, or signing petitions and joining marches, be present, listen, and participate actively in the initiatives in your communities and your workplace.
- Establish checks and balances. Humans are inherently prone to error. Identify the fail points and try to put systems in place that raise flags when you are starting to deviate from this mission. Businesses should align their values with goals that address systemic problems, such as establishing a supplier diversity program, conducting a recruitment or pay scale analysis, and utilizing scalable processes and systems to ensure there are checks and balances to keep you on track.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
There is no such thing as a resolution — a fair and inclusive world is not a destination but rather a never-ending journey of doing the right thing despite the changes around us. I am optimistic that we will continue to get better and good will come out of the rough period we are experiencing now.
The civil rights era was another such period of unrest and divisiveness, and we took great strides forward as a result of it. It is especially heartening to see the youth of this country stepping up and having them become so aware of these issues, as they will be a key part of moving the needle forward as we evolve as a society.
Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S., with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
In the U.S., I would really enjoy having breakfast or lunch with Indra Nooyi. As we talk about diversity, inclusion, and equity, she was a big part of changing my view of what is possible in terms of executive leadership in corporate America for a woman of South Asian descent. I’d love to thank her, get some tips on navigating the road ahead, and chat about some ideas to accelerate the change in the leadership ranks.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!