PeopleAfter moving to the U.S. from India, a diversity leader shares challenges and lessons during her career in Corporate America

Strategic global business leader, Rohini Anand helps professionals navigate less diverse work environments.
Rae OnwumeluFebruary 7, 202214 min

Growing up in Mumbai, India, Dr. Rohini Anand didn’t think much about diversity. She belonged to the majority religion in India, Hinduism, and was often surrounded by others who were just like her. Before moving to the United States, Anand had the privilege of not thinking about her identity, but suddenly she couldn’t ignore it.

“When I moved to the United States as a single woman, and a young immigrant, my identity shifted from being someone who saw herself as the center of the world and part of the majority, to being a minority, an immigrant and foreigner,” she said, “And I was unprepared for that,”  

When Anand entered corporate America, she faced the same systematic racism that BIPOC still battles today including lesser pay, few employers of color in the workplace, lack of advocacy support, and the perfection complex.  

Those very challenges became the catalyst for Anand’s work. She told Marcom Weekly, “My work became about leveling the playing field so everyone can succeed. This realization that identity is situational and fluid, informs my work.” 

Anand’s work includes over two decades as a diversity, equity and inclusion advisor, who has successfully transformed culture. Anand was the former senior vice president for corporate responsibility and global chief diversity officer for Sodex. She is currently principal and CEO of Rohini Anand LLC.  

Now a writer, Anand’s book, Leading Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: A Guide for Systematic Change in Multinational Organizations, offers several ways companies and individuals can advance in D&I.  

Anand shares with Marcom Weekly five challenges she faced during her career in corporate America and the lessons behind them: 

1. Feeling stuck or pigeonholed in a support role 

I was seen as a (DEI) subject matter expert, rather than a leader with transferable skills. I was very successful in my role; it had an impact and really sort of helped to build a brand. So as a leader in the space, I clearly had some transferable skills. But they weren’t necessarily leveraged beyond the diversity, equity, inclusion, and corporate responsibilities basis. To me, if someone else displayed and proved these skills, they would be seen as a leader with transferable skills that could be utilized elsewhere with someone who was not a woman, or woman of color.  

What I learned from that particular experience was to ask for what you want. I think it’s really important, particularly for women of color to ask for what they want. I also learned to seek out sponsors. It’s important to seek out sponsors who can advocate on your behalf and say, she’s proven this in this space. I think we should give her this opportunity elsewhere to expand her experience base.  

 According to Dr. Anand, a sponsor is a person within your organization who advocates for you. It should be a person within your workplace who’s talking to others about your capability and ability. It’s different from a mentor. A mentor talks with you and a sponsor talks about you.   

2. Not Receiving direct developmental feedback 

Another challenge would be not necessarily getting direct developmental feedback, which is important for growth and development. I got a lot of positive stuff. Everybody has areas they can improve in, but that was not always forthcoming. Maybe it was because of the level of discomfort with giving that kind of feedback to someone like me, somewhat different from who the leader was, I’m not sure. Certainly, the lesson for me was to ask for it. Seek it out both from your manager as well as from others around you, which I did.

3. Being Talked Over 

The third challenge I faced particularly early in my career was being talked over. I would be making a point in a meeting when a white male making the same point, somehow amplified an idea or it was heard differently. For me, the lesson there was to call it out at the moment, in a constructive way. I also sought out allies who could call it out. Getting others to speak, raises the awareness of others in power. So, I’ve heard white men in the room call it out. Still, I think it’s a fine line because, on one hand, you can see that as validation by the dominant group by white men, but on the other hand, it’s also about using power to up-end power, if you will. Still, I found that to be an important strategy. 

4. Dismissing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion 

Another challenge I faced was being in spaces that dismissed Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. My role was to be the change agent. So, when that was dismissed, it was, you know, dismissing what I had to say. There I learned the ability to use influence and meet leaders where they were because every leader has an ecosystem of beliefs of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and it’s very personal to everyone. It took understanding what the ecosystem of beliefs was, meeting them where they are, and then honing my influencing skills. Sometimes it was using what I call head strategies, which was data or, seeking out an ally who would carry the message for me, and leveraging the power of clients or customers.  

Ultimately, I found that you know, it wasn’t just the head strategy, the data and the facts of the business case, and all of that, but it is giving leaders experiences that shift their perspective and cause a disruption in their worldview. So, they see diversity, equity, and inclusion differently, the importance to themselves and the organizations. That happens through shared stories of lived experiences and putting them in experiences where they are, in fact, the minority.

5. Being the only one like you 

I think, you know, being the only one is hard. And being a double only is even harder, which is, you know, the only woman and the only person of color. I’ve been in situations where I was a double. You sort of have to watch what you say, you don’t always have this sense of belonging within an organization. I think being a double is lonely. Being on the outside, not having a sense of belonging, happens a lot, particularly if you are the only one. It makes you feel unable to make any mistakes whatsoever, because somehow if you made a mistake, it reflects poorly on your entire gender or your entire race.

What I’ve learned is to share your own lived experiences as a way to influence. Now I recognize it’s exhausting to time and time again, share your lived experiences, to educate the dominant group. So, you have to do it with a certain amount of discretion. I do think that there is an opportunity for individuals who feel like their organizations are not inclusive, to use a variety of strategies, whether it is to use their own lived experiences, or it is to get allies from the dominant group who can then have influence. I think if we walk away from organizations that are not inclusive, nothing is going to change. Honestly, change happens at the intersection of systems and people. Even if individuals don’t have the power to influence systems, they do have the power to influence people. And its people then who can influence systems. So, I would say, hang in there.  

Rae Onwumelu

Rae Onwumelu is a correspondent for Marcom Weekly. Onwumelu's writing and reporting have appeared in The Huffington Post, Blavity and CityBeat. She previously served as a feature writer for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and content specialist for The Educational Theatre Association.

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