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Making Your Invisible Visible to be a Better Inclusive Leader: An Interview with Dr. AJ

As one of only 34 advanced certified practitioners of professional development assessment tools around the globe, Dr. Aparajita (AJ) Jeedigunta is a trained social-personality psychologist, a certified professional executive & leadership coach, an author, a podcaster, content creator, and a spouse and a parent. She is a two-time Traumatic Brain Injury survivor turned Mental Wellbeing Warrior and Advocate.

Aparajita Jeedigunta
Aparajita Jeedigunta

Dr. AJ is an award-winning Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belongingness (DEI & B) & Leadership strategist, consultant, trainer and coach. She is the Founder of AJ Rao, LLC, a boutique firm whose motto is Making the Invisible Visible for Better Equity and Belongingness, that offers comprehensive strategies, solutions and trainings in Equity, Inclusion and whole-person leadership development to teams, groups and individuals.

Companies most often hire Dr. AJ when the status quo "best practices" don't work for them. She works with leadership teams and decision-makers to help them create customized and comprehensive strategies and solutions for intentional equity and inclusion in their culture and operations. On the individual front, Dr. AJ loves working with high performing visionaries with big dreams to help them radically increase their leadership presence, social impact and income while permanently eliminating the discontent of being overworked and underappreciated.

Dr. AJ is also the creator of the Culturally Competent Conversations for Equity and Belongingness (C3EB) Summit & Brand.

What has been the most impactful occurrence in your life in 2020?

I’ve had to go through COVID as an entrepreneur, a spouse, a daughter with immunocompromised parents, and a mother. To add to that, I’m also an Asian American woman living right outside of Detroit, which is predominantly black. It’s been heartbreaking to witness the aftermath of the gruesome murder of Mr. George Floyd. And then on top of all of that, to also see an invisible pathogen wreak havoc on global health and economy… It’s been devastating overall.

Yet, through all of this uncertainty and liberal distribution of fear, 2020 helped me remember and reinforce that bad things will always happen, but how we respond to it determines our future. We're never going to have a perfect society. In many ways, perfection is an abstract ideal because we never truly get to that point of perfection. But it doesn't mean we get to stop striving towards the ideals of progress, innovation and the elevation of our consciousness as leaders.

You experienced Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs) that seriously influenced the course of your life. And you’ve recently talked about them as blessings in retrospect. Can you tell us about that?

I've had two. Before the first TBI, I was groomed to be a medical doctor by my family, just like many other Indian and Indian American kids. That was the path that was laid out for me. There were no other options.

I was a stellar student, extremely motivated, checking off the boxes on all sorts of accomplishments and accolades. With my first TBI, which was a concussion, it changed my life because, all of a sudden, nothing I was doing in life was making sense anymore. I realized I wasn't happy or fulfilled. I wasn't tapping into my purpose. My first traumatic brain injury helped me realize that. That’s why I call it a blessing in retrospect.

After that, my life trajectory completely changed. I was determined to break past the boxes of others’ ideas of my success and create my own.

I was in grad school when the second TBI happened. It was two days after I declared my doctoral candidacy. Again, I was working my butt off, doing everything right, checking off all the right boxes, albeit this time in the field I wanted to be in. In many ways, I was slated to be the next “big expert” in my niche that came out of that department.

And then, I got hit by a car that ran their red light. I actually checked out of life for what felt like days but was only a few minutes before they brought me back. I had multiple clots in my brain, three skull fractures, a subdural hematoma, and my orbital socket around my left eye was damaged. When the medical team stabilized me, I didn't know my own name. I didn't know who my parents were. I knew I was in a hospital. I knew I was a doctoral candidate, but none of that made meaningful sense to me.

In retrospect, I got an incredible opportunity to build my life from scratch, exactly the way that I wanted to. Not many people get to say that. I saw all of the boxes I once again put myself into, all of the ways in which I let other people dictate who I ought to be. In the building process, I got to permanently put all those outside expectations aside and focus on what brought me joy and a sense of purpose, what the source of my determination and inspiration is and so on. This launched me to where I am today.

Did the medical treatment you received at the time influence any of the changes you ended up making?

My business and life motto is “Making the Invisible Visible For Better Belongingness.” The way the medical community treated me was my first realization of all the ways in which I, as a whole human being, had been rendered invisible.

I was on grad student insurance, so they stabilized my vitals and told me to go home. They did not give me a recovery plan. They did not give me any sort of outpatient therapy or rehab other than a 3-month follow up and a 6-month follow up with the same ER neurosurgeon who seemed peeved that he didn’t get to cut my brain open. My only option at that point was to figure out how to rebuild my life on my own. I had no other options.

It was a lot of trial and error, pain, crying, migraines, cognitive symptoms that I had to figure out how to work through, and little tips and tricks for when I had aphasia. Grad student insurance covers almost nothing. And, I still had bills to pay. So, I ended up going back to teaching about 3 weeks after I got out of the hospital. I had to teach, work on my dissertation, be effective, and function. I couldn’t focus on recovery and healing.

I figured out most of the functional stuff out in the first month. In many ways, I was able to do it because I didn’t have any parameters put on me by therapists, occupational therapists, psychiatrists, or neurologists. I didn't know my own limits. I didn’t realize there were limits.

Can you tell us about your motivation for creating the C3EB summit, the Culturally Competent Conversations for Equity and Belongingness summit, with your first inaugural hosting in August 2020?

C3EB came out of a pipe dream I had for about two years. I kept thinking about how we need to have more conversations about equity and belongingness and not just about business cases for diversity. I kept seeing companies or individuals say they're committed to DEI work, but they stopped once the boxes were checked. That's not the way to do it. In fact, that's harmful for the company and the personnel in the long term because stopping at checkboxes ends up minimizing or completely missing the real value of people’s contributions. Long story short, as I was working on this issue in my business towards making the invisible visible, 2020 happened!

First, an invisible pathogen showed up and brought our previously unaddressed problems of inequities right into the front of our faces. It shed light on the intersectional and interconnected nature of healthcare, economic conditions, professional growth and just life in general.

Then Mr. Floyd's murder happened. This heinous atrocity was seen all over as a catalyst or a rebirth of this social justice movement for Black communities. Even though this movement has been ongoing for 450 years because things have never been equitable for Black communities, after his murder, the majority of conversations and threads on social media that I saw were along the lines of, “Wow! I can't believe this happened. This is so atrocious. I thought racism ended.”

And I was left thinking, “Inequities, disparities and discrimination have always been happening. This is just the first time we’re actually paying attention to them.” Historically, the structures and institutions we build in society have always marginalized the voices of some groups so that their stories don’t get heard. We’ve never had a diversity problem; we’ve had a seeing and hearing problem.

So, I decided to bring some historically marginalized voices together and shine the spotlight on them so that all of us could see, hear and learn from these people with lived experiences and insights. This way, we could at least begin to have these conversations together because we're all shaping our collective future together. We could break free of the silos and vacuums we’ve been operating in.

And I decided to flip the script on traditional conferences and summits with the mostly white male speakers, the 1-2 white women and the token non-white representatives, because I could as the creator. The C3EB roster was very different. Out of the 46 speakers we had, 41 identified as BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and/or people who managed visible/invisible challenges. We had corporate professionals, entrepreneurs, educators, nonprofit founders, marketers, coaches, doctors, lawyers across the board.

So, what does the future of the C3EB summit look like?

The response was phenomenal. I couldn't be more thrilled. And the biggest thing I realized is that the C3EB platform is a great vehicle to address two huge problems in the DEI space as we develop it to be self-sustaining.

The first problem that happens in DEI work, especially in corporate spaces, is that equity and belongingness are not considered. Most people still call it D&I, but you can't have inclusion without equity and belongingness. The truth is that diversity has always existed in the spectrum of the planet. The entire world was built on diversity, whether you're looking at rocks, plants, animals, people, whatever. It's the equity and inclusion piece that's been the problem throughout human history.

The other problem is that most traditional D&I trainings tend to happen as a singular seminar or workshop once or maybe twice a year at most, or they’re offered selectively to a select group of people. In a nutshell, they’re not accessible regularly.

These are both big problems in the space. For it to be effective, DEI work has to be a part of the daily routine and operations. That's why the once-a-year conversations don't get results! With C3EB, I realized we had the opportunity to build that sustainability, that foundation where these conversations become regular, and not just as mandatory meetings that nobody gets anything out of.

So, the new model going forward is that in addition to the big “hackathon for DEI” in Q3, we’re having targeted “mini” summits. We’ve started on this already with the next summit coming up on November 19-20, 2020. We are going to continue to showcase leaders from historically marginalized groups talking about critical issues, even the tough ones. We want to show that there is no shortage of diverse talent in our talent pipelines; we just need to fix the seeing and hearing problems that society has been conditioned to have. And, we’re going to offer annual access passes to the nearly 100 hours of yearly content so that those who are interested in becoming intentionally inclusive leaders, advocates and allies can learn and grow to be inclusive leaders at their own pace.

What are your top 3 recommendations to help people approach leadership in a self-aware and centered way?

First, take the time to think about how DEI & B principles can become a part of and the foundation of all your business goals and personal goals. Don’t relegate it to the storage closet of your “extras.” If it is not a part of daily work or keeps being just a box that you check off, that's not intentional commitment and will never lead to intentional inclusion.

What are the things that you need to think about to make DEI&B a part of your daily operations? Where are you with DEI&B right now? Why are you doing whatever it is you’re currently doing? What are the gaps – both seen and unseen? What is stopping you from addressing the gaps right now? What resources can be created or reallocated to make DEI&B a part of everyday life? These are some of the first conversations I have with my clients – individuals and corporate – at the beginning of our professional relationships. They’re tough questions that provoke a lot of introspection and candid, blunt realizations, and, they’re often the most fruitful beginnings of phenomenal intentional change.

Secondly, step past diversity and focus on belongingness. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion principles are all rooted in belongingness – a need that has to be fulfilled in all human beings for them to thrive, connect and contribute their best work. The Need to Belong is a human imperative.

Think about it. You must have had at least one moment in your life where you felt like you didn't belong, where you’ve felt othered, alienated or marginalized. All of us have had such moments no matter who or where we are in life right now.

When you realize how you felt in that moment and amplify it, you’ll realize that’s how members of historically marginalized groups feel every single waking moment of their lives. Once you realize this, you can start getting focused and strategic about your personal accountability and responsibility to create intentional inclusion in all the spaces in your life. You realize you can’t and don't have to fix everything because you don’t need to be a hero. Nobody needs you to be the savior; the world just needs you to be conscientious, ethical and intentionally inclusive in your own way.

At the end of the day, real progress in Equity, Belongingness and Intentional Inclusion can only happen when you focus on your own whole-person, conscientious leadership development. It starts with you. It always starts with you. That’s the work I do.

Finally, I see that a lot of people start this journey on their own only to give up because they get exhausted. It can be exhausting on your own. Get the support you need. That’s why people like me are around. Our entire work was literally created to support you on these tough journeys, so take that support. Don't shy away from it. You’re not the lesser person for seeking that support. In fact, you’re a great role model for those around you. When you do seek that support, and you say, “I want to be very committed and intentional about DEI & B, and I can't do it on my own.”, you can help other people realize that they don't have to do it on their own either. Everybody needs help with DEI & B. I wasn’t born a DEI & B and leadership consultant. I had to put in an enormous amount of work and have an entire support system built up so that I can be effective at what I do.

We're having a lot more conversations right now, but I think a top struggle is that people refuse to hear different perspectives, especially in the D&I space. As a professional who works in this space, how do you stay so persistent in the face of such obstinance?

When I first started out, I felt a great sense of uncertainty and hopelessness and fear of things never changing for the better. This happened precisely because I thought I had to be a hero. But then I realized that because I am just one person, the best thing I can do is to hold myself personally accountable to do what I can to make things around me more equitable and inclusive for my clients and my community. My optimism emerged from this determination.

Usually, the resistance to be open to new perspectives comes from a place of fear; a fear that including those new perspectives somehow means excluding our own. This is a myth because equity, inclusion, and belongingness are not zero-sum games. This falsehood gets perpetuated through the fear of not having a seat at the table if we invite more people to it. The other big fear is the possibility of saying or doing the wrong thing as a leader, especially in this cancel culture trend we’re currently living through.

Both of those fears, however, are textbook symptoms of a fixed mindset. I am very intentional about not operating from a fixed mindset. I do my inner work every single day so that I spend the majority of my day in a true growth mindset. That means stepping out of that fear by realizing that I’m a work in progress, understanding that including other perspectives doesn’t mean excluding myself, and, that I'm still going to learn something even if I do the wrong thing. The growth I gain from participating in the DEI & B space daily is far more beneficial than sitting back in fear of the emotional costs I think I might incur.

And in a very real sense, being an intentionally inclusive leader and business owner is far more beneficial for me as a person and for the business. Would you be afraid to make money? No, right? Understanding the benefits of inclusion in my entire ecosystem in a holistic way empowers me to step out from a space of fear to compassion, conscientiousness and love. That's the space I operate from. I think that's why I'm able to persist day in, day out.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Exactly here, just as an even more evolved, aligned, and impactful version of me. That may be a boring answer, I know. I’ve finally built my life to where I truly love what I do. I get so much joy from it that I don’t want to imagine doing anything else. I'll probably be speaking a lot more because I’m getting more speaking engagements as a subject matter expert on this, but I’ve found my lane in life and I’m sticking to it.

I will have grown exponentially. My team will have grown exponentially, so we’ll be able to impact even more people who are committed to this greater movement for equity, inclusion, and belongingness. I want to be a brand that people know they can come to and get the value they need to make themselves and our communities more equitable and inclusive. I'm always going to be an advocate for whole-person leadership development being the most sustainable path to equity, inclusion and belongingness.

Speaking of always striving towards that personal and professional development, what's the first small step that people can take to become more conscientious and inclusive leaders?

The first is realizing that being a leader means looking inward to develop yourself into the best version of a human that you can be. Leadership literally boils down to our humanity. Oftentimes leadership development initiatives and programs focus on the 9-to-5 and the processes instead of the people. They’re not too effective, in my opinion.

Leadership involves inspiring, energizing, empowering, serving and taking care of people in all aspects of life. This also goes into the whole work-life balance thing, because that's a myth too. Work is a part of life, not separate from it. It’s life-life balance. When you realize that you get to be a leader and inspire, serve and lead conscientiously and inclusively, and that it entails all of your spaces in life, you balance yourself in ways that reduce or erase time and energy conflicts. The analogy I like to use here is that you can wear 15 different hats over the course of the day, but all of those hats go on the same head; that's whole-person leadership development. It’s only when you work on that head that you can begin your journey to becoming a more conscientious, inclusive leader in all of your spaces.

You have to work on yourself first before you can make an impact on the world. Because even when we fix current problems, some other problem is going to come up. We're always going to have problems. That's the reality of life. Something's always going to come up. Focusing on the problem, however, is a band-aid solution. At the end of the day, our problems matter less than how we choose to respond to them. I'm here to help you reframe and rewire how you think about these things, so that when problems keep coming up, you can come up with sustainable solutions themselves. Of course, this is a bit of an oversimplified answer. I actually have a framework that I use to give away to those interested in going on this journey. If you want it, all you have to do is text “INNER FIRE” to 411321 (+1-909-741-1321 for International and Sprint US Subscribers). I use this text-triggered education tool powered by a company called ecoFiles® that came up with this environmentally friendly, beautifully accessible way to share documents. After all, if you’re reading this, chances are you have access to a smart phone or device with texting capabilities

Have you experienced any obstacles as a minority and woman-owned business?

Absolutely. Right off the top of my head, the most obvious one is access to equitable pay or capital. Then there’s the visibility and acknowledgment issue; it has to be noted here that Black women get dealt the worst of this type of treatment because of all the ways in which they’re stereotyped and marginalized. I’m not comparing oppression levels here, just stating a known fact in our society.

It has to do 250% to be even 50% seen to get back to the visibility and acknowledgment inequity. It is a constant uphill battle to get recognized in ways that are even to the same levels of visibility and acknowledgment that our white, male peers and contemporaries get for their work.

This is a sentiment felt by a majority of people who are in that “minority box” in any way, whether BIPOC, LGBTQ+, or people with visible or invisible challenges. I mean, in that sense, I check off almost all the boxes. So theoretically, just based on the diversity checkboxes, I should be on top of the world. Many of us should be. We should be at the Simon Sinek or the Tony Robbins level off the top of my head. Notice how those are two white men. Granted, those are two giants in the field, but how many women of color can you think of to put in the same category as those two? And how hard did you have to think to come up with this list? Because again, the problem isn’t diversity; it’s equity.

The fact is that members of marginalized groups are overworked and underappreciated. It’s the definition of marginalization. It is also the biggest reason why employees leave their jobs.

In my case, it was because I experienced these barriers that I knew I had an entrepreneurial mindset and that I could provide the solutions for them based on my experiences and subject matter expertise. This is how my business came into existence. These are the exact issues that I provide solutions for through my services, whether it’s an individual contributor, an individual leader, or groups or teams from within businesses.

Looking at the DE&I space, I’ve heard there's a severe problem with companies hiring consultants to help them with DE&I, when those consultants are not part of these marginalized communities. What do you think about that?

I think this is a serious problem in the space and that hiring someone who doesn’t have the expertise and experience is the wrong move for the business to make. A lot of companies are hiring consultants who don't have the lived experiences of marginalized groups but have gained expertise on DEI&B topics through their education. On the other hand, there are also companies who are hiring people from marginalized groups who aren't formally qualified to address the issues at hand, just to check off that performative box. In addition, it seems like a vast majority of companies are still dichotomizing inclusion and marginalization as a Black-white or a gay-straight issue when it's not.

Just because you're an expert, it doesn't mean that you understand the nuances of lived experiences, especially lived experiences of systemic marginalization; and just because you've been marginalized, it doesn't mean you're qualified to be a DE&I expert.

The best-case scenario is to hire an expert from a marginalized group who also has the education and qualifications to be a DEI & B driver in your company. And, the best-case scenario also means hiring someone who understands that inclusion initiatives have to make sure they make space for all perspectives, even those that fall out of the traditional Black-white or gay-straight dichotomies.

For the clients/companies you work with, at what point will you consider a company to be authentically inclusive and equitable?

In terms of the specifics, it really depends on the client and what their goals, benchmarks, and KPIs are. But overall, you have to make the investment towards it. Don't just be an information gatherer; be a doer by investing in it financially, and ideally in those experts who have been historically marginalized. You're going to get more value and return on your investment. Your buck is going to go further. It's also a very clear indicator that you're not just talking the talk; you're walking the walk towards inclusion and equity. So, make the investment.

Then, actually listening while being open and vulnerable. When I point out problems and ask questions, “Why didn't you do X, Y, and Z? What stopped you from doing A, B and C?” I'm not coming from a place of judgment. Effective coaches don’t come from a place of judgment. If somebody feels judged, that's their internal stuff happening. You have put that aside, make the investment, and actually pay attention to what’s being asked from a nonjudgmental space.

After that, you have to act on it by implementing these suggestions in your people and processes while understanding that change doesn’t happen overnight, and it requires consistent, persistent practice. That's when I know that they're committed to authentic inclusion. That's when I get a good indication that this is not performative. This is possibly uncomfortable as heck for them and they're still doing it because they're that committed.

For more information, follow Aparajita on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and visit her website!



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