Tessa Vithayathil of Common Impact: 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society
Start with yourself: Each person’s understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion is vastly different. For people of color, there are so many lived experiences that might be shaping our perception of DEI, but we may also forget about our own biases, too. It has been eye-opening for me to see that I also have a long way to go in my own journey to understand the origins of DEI, how it shows up in obvious and not-so-obvious ways, and how to be an ally and advocate for others. Being mindful of how I am showing up in a space is a big first step in understanding the value and potential bias I might be bringing to the conversation.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Tessa Vithayathil.
Tessa Vithayathil is the Director of Programs at Common Impact, a national nonprofit that connects corporate employees to nonprofit organizations with proven skills-based volunteering models to tackle the greatest challenges our communities face. As the Director of Programs, she brings her expertise in program design and social impact to oversee Common Impact’s programming with key corporate partners and nonprofits across the country.
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?
I was born in Kerala, India, and spent the first few years of my life at my father’s family home. Our family immigrated to the United States and landed in the Bronx, New York, where we benefitted from a vast network of relatives and friends of friends who helped us get settled into American life. In many ways, my family’s story is a typical American dream: a family of four starting out in a one-bedroom apartment, parents who moved constantly to get my brother and I into the best school districts, scrimping and saving to buy a home, and using all the advantages of education to propel their children into meaningful careers.
But what I felt uniquely lucky to have is a family that always believed in the possible, and especially my “possible”. Many immigrant parents are seen as extremely traditional, especially when it comes to their daughters. While my family would still be considered traditional by some standards, they instilled in me a fierce belief that I could accomplish absolutely anything. I was lucky to always have a supportive network each time I conjured up another lofty plan or idea. Looking back, that support laid the bedrock for my belief that we all have the potential to achieve what we want — it is the access that is inequitable.
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?
The first time I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s, the Namesake, I felt so seen. It helped me understand just how truly important representation is, especially for women of color. The book recounts the individual stories of a family who immigrate to the U.S. and must navigate life between Calcutta, Boston, and New York City while confronting their cultures, past and present. That book introduced me to intersectionality and the complex navigation of identity that children of immigrants often experience as they find their place in a country that is both familiar and foreign. The book also takes great care to unravel the stories of multiple characters — the father whose trauma birthed inspiration, the mother who clutches to her culture and leads her family through challenges, and the son who resents his name only to reclaim it later in life. I had seen versions of these stories all my life, but reading it woven together by a South Asian author who could articulate the nuances and complexity of emotions was so illuminating for me at a pivotal moment in my life.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
One quote that I always return to is, “wherever you go, there you are”. I spent many years of my life believing that the next great version of myself lay in my next adventure, next job, next hobby, next extended trip abroad, etc. But after each adventure, I would return back to my life to find that, at my core, I was still the same person. As I have navigated my career and supported the career growth of others, I have found myself returning to this quote over and over again as a reminder that we contain multitudes, and there is no one thing (or one failure or success) that defines us.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is not just how you steer the ship but how you bring people along with you. I’m a big believer in Dr. Dorothy Height’s belief in “lifting as you climb”, which is why I find myself drawn to mentorship, coaching, and community in my personal life. Too often, I see that as leaders establish themselves, they lose the empathy that helped them become visionary, thoughtful, and strategic. For me, my empathy is what has helped me advocate for change, to center impact in what I do, and to inspire people to find their own purpose and path. I’ve found that as women progress into leadership roles, there is often a subtle pressure to lose this empathy and be more authoritative, incisive, and cutthroat. However, the best leaders I know masterfully balance empathy with thoughtful action. That is the type of leader I believe in and that is the leadership style I aim to lead with.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. In the summer of 2020, the United States faced 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 what made the events of 2020 different from racial reckonings in the past?
The summer of 2020 was a long-time coming. At the time, I lived in Brooklyn, NY. Every day leading up to that pivotal summer, I would hear ambulance sirens shuttling COVID-19 patients to the hospital, helicopters whirring overhead to cover protests, the silence of desolate streets, and the solidarity of neighbors banging pots and pans as they isolated themselves.
The pandemic, despite how differently it played out across the country, was something the entire nation experienced together. It showed for many people just how stark the inequalities in our system were. Many communities saw their economic outlooks change overnight. The lack of accessible healthcare and insurance literally meant life or death. So, when news of George Floyd’s murder spread, it lit a fire under people who had already been simmering with the very fresh and daily frustrations of systemic racism in their jobs, homes, cities, and educational institutions.
In the social impact space, I saw companies react to this in a way I had never seen before. Nearly every single company put out statements on racial justice and public companies were putting millions of dollars behind racial justice initiatives and funding Black-led organizations. It was the silver lining of a very gray cloud, but it finally felt like conversations about race and inequality were being discussed in the open, instead of being brushed under the rug. Now that we are two years out from that summer and economic forecasts predict some uncertainty, I have started to see companies go back to the status quo. Social impact teams at tech companies are often the first to be let go when profits are low and roles like Chief DEI Officer tend to have massive mandates that make their jobs impossible to accomplish. While the events of 2020 brought these conversations to the forefront, our mandate now is to make sure the issues are still being discussed and that companies and people continue to do the work, even when It is not “trendy”.
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?
I co-led a DEI Committee at Common Impact at the start of 2020. Obviously, we had no idea how relevant that work would be in the coming months. As a woman of color, I came into that committee feeling pretty good about my understanding of DEI. That is an easy to mistake to make when you are already a part of an underrepresented group. But I quickly realized that I also needed to put in the work to understand the origins of inequality in the workplace, the ways that white supremacy culture shows up in how businesses are run, and my own unintentional biases. One of our focus areas was increasing diversity in our candidate pipeline. The committee truly went on a learning journey about all the ways nimble nonprofits like ours can easily fall into bias traps. One thing that really stood out for me is the importance of not influencing the perception of a candidate by discussing their qualifications with other members of the hiring committee. It might seem like a no-brainer now, but I realized how easily I could have been influenced by senior leaders and in turn, how easily I might be swaying the opinions of more junior staff. While that small change was only one part of a suite of changes we made to our hiring process, it was an illuminating moment for me. It reminded me that the work starts within, and transformational change is built on small steps, day by day, week by week.
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?
It boils down to innovation and long-term sustainability. Without diverse executive teams, companies and organizations lose the opportunity to truly innovate, which in turn, sets them up for long-term success and growth. In sectors like tech, where innovation is a core principle, diversity is wildly absent. In Google’s 2020 annual diversity report, for example, less than 6% of employees identified as Black, and only 32.5% of employees identified as women. With the sheer number of products and services that Google creates and its global footprint, one has to wonder how that lack of diversity could lead to missing voices and perspectives at those decision-making tables.
This is where I see nonprofits really stepping up to educate folks about these gaps and advocate for change. I think about the work of organizations like the Algorithmic Justice League, a digital advocacy nonprofit that works to uncover bias and harm in AI and machine learning. The more these voices are represented in the creation of services we rely on every single day, the more they will work for everyone in a truly inclusive way and lead to the long-term usage and trust of these products.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. 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.
- Start with yourself: Each person’s understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion is vastly different. For people of color, there are so many lived experiences that might be shaping our perception of DEI, but we may also forget about our own biases, too. It has been eye-opening for me to see that I also have a long way to go in my own journey to understand the origins of DEI, how it shows up in obvious and not-so-obvious ways, and how to be an ally and advocate for others. Being mindful of how I am showing up in a space is a big first step in understanding the value and potential bias I might be bringing to the conversation.
- Focus on creating access to opportunity: I was fortunate many times in my life and career to have access to educational opportunities, mentors, internships, and job assignments that allowed me to showcase my strengths to key decision-makers. But for many others, it can be an uphill battle just to get facetime with influential leaders. Consider asking yourself how you create pathways to opportunity for women, people of color, immigrants, the neurodiverse, or junior staff, just to name a few. I have found that there is always more I can be doing, whether it is mentorship or simply asking questions and creating space for people to speak up. I have seen individuals work together to create real access and cultural change at organizations in a number of ways: women in male-dominated sectors echoing and reinforcing statements from other women in group meetings, Black leaders making time to meet with junior-level Black employees, white men using their influence to advocate for changes that Black women have raised time and again, and fathers pushing for (and using!) equal paid parental leave to reduce the career gap for mothers.
- Broaden your understanding of what inclusivity means: In the aftermath of the George Floyd protests, I saw companies put a lot of energy into improving diversity metrics through hiring and recruiting. They would hire cohorts of racially diverse applicants, drop them into their existing culture, and pat themselves on the back. But we’re now seeing these individuals struggle or leave those workplaces. Why? Because no one had spent the time to think through whether the culture was actually set up to support those individuals long-term. Maybe there were no mentors who had the same lived experiences, or the mostly white executive leadership team actually had an outsized influence on employees’ long-term career growth. It is easy for leaders to consider it a win when there is measurable progress in an area like percent employees of color. It is harder to advocate for and see the change at a cultural level that actually supports employees of color long-term.
- Gather first-hand data: What works for the Googles and Apples of the world will not work for every company or organization. Far too many leaders and communities create DEI strategies without asking the opinions of the people whom it will impact first-hand. At Common Impact, we rely heavily on quarterly anonymous employee engagement surveys to gauge how employees feel about the culture, their career paths, and the organization itself. But gathering the data is just one step. Our leadership also takes great care to analyze the data, share it back with staff, and report back on progress on a regular basis. By asking our staff to identify what matters most to them, we are able to focus on what will work for our organization rather than what articles or academic papers suggest companies and nonprofits do.
- Ideate, test, and adapt: The path to creating a truly inclusive, representative, and equitable society is long. But it is easy for leaders to think they have found a solution by fixing one singular problem. DEI is too complex and systemic to be static. It is a dynamic, evolving challenge that is many people’s life work. Our perceptions of inclusivity and what it means to be successful in this space should naturally evolve too. Leaders need to see this as a long-term process that allows for the space to continually iterate and test assumptions. As an example, an organization might start with a focus on addressing racial disparities within the workforce and then realize their culture does not support neurodiverse individuals. Addressing those two issues requires two very different strategies. Furthermore, the approaches need to work in tandem to ensure they build on each other and reinforce positive outcomes for both groups (which are not mutually exclusive). As the areas to address increase or change, leaders will have to continually refine the approach, test assumptions, and keep adjusting what works for long-term success.
We are going through a rough period now. What makes you optimistic about the future of the US? Can you please explain?
Honestly, the next generation makes me optimistic for the future of the U.S. According to The Hill, 30% of young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 voted in the 2022 midterm elections — the second-highest youth turnout in three decades. These young adults are now entering college and the workforce and starting families. At 25, Maxwell Frost has already made history as the first Gen Z member of the U.S. Congress. Gen Z is pushing for some real progressive changes and I am hopeful that this generation is going to be at the helm of a significant cultural and political shift in the next few decades.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, 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. 🙂
Hands down, Missy Elliott! She has been producing hits and reinventing herself for decades. She was the first female rapper to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2019. But what is even more incredible is all of the obstacles, doubt, and trauma she overcame to get to this point. I love the way this Elle article talks about her iconography and legacy as a “creator’s creator”. It would absolutely make my day to chat with Missy one-on-one about all the ways we can be as unorthodox, inventive, and powerful as her.
How can our readers follow you online?
The best place to follow me is on LinkedIn.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Tessa Vithayathil of Common Impact: 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.