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Anu Mandapati – Building an Inclusive World

Anu, Can you tell us about yourself?

I serve as the Vice President- Head of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion at Talking Talent. In addition, I am also a certified Leadership, Team and Well-being coach with 20 years of diversity, inclusion, leadership and organizational development experience. I offer a powerful combination of real-world and academic qualifications while being a warm relationship builder and data-driven leader known for impactful results.

I specialize in coaching teams and organizations to increase their diverse talent pool, develop more inclusive staff at all levels, and increase performance and retention by creating work cultures where people feel like they can bring all of who they are to work and succeed.  

Through individual and group coaching, I partner with my clients in achieving their personal and professional goals, including cultivating self-understanding, inclusive leadership, energy-level management, sustainable high performance while living life more fully and in complete alignment with their values.

My leadership tips, tools and strategies have appeared in various publications including Inc., Forbes, Fortune and Money.

Anu, How did you start your career in building an inclusive world? 

Since the very beginning of my career, DEI has been infused into everything I do. It didn’t begin with anyone asking that I focus on DEI, rather DEI was integrated into all I did because it was the right thing to do to get impactful outcomes for our clients. From upskilling staff to providing culturally competent mental health, education and social services, to creating leadership development experiences for women and ethnically diverse talent to diversify all levels of leadership, to coaching executives and teams to be impactful, inclusive and high-performing – DEI has been at the heart of what I do. This does not feel like “work” for me. Rather it is my passion and purpose. 

 My background has always been about partnering with people to help develop them, whether it was mental health or coaching. Now I focus on coaching-led inclusion efforts so we can create meaningful, measurable, sustained change.

Tell us about a personal experience on why our world needs more Diversity, Equity and Inclusion? 

I once went to a Pan-Asian conference where there were amazing, impactful speakers. The energy in the room was palpable – people felt connected and understood. They didn’t have to explain themselves because they were in a room with people who “truly got them.” 

One successful senior leader took the stage and gave an impactful talk. Yet, as soon as he introduced himself, you could feel the energy in the room shift. He changed the pronunciation of his name to an anglicized version versus the authentic and accurate pronunciation. His choice is completely personal and common. However,  it was revealed to  the conference attendees that to be successful in that organization, you can’t show up as your 100% authentic self. 

To this day, many diverse professionals feel they need to engage in code-switching, covering or passing to be accepted and belong. Their co-workers and leaders are unaware of how much this happens. Having to engage in this way can impact a person’s mental health, productivity, morale and retention in an organization. This is one of the numerous reasons why the world needs more DEI.

What do Diversity and Inclusion mean to Anu?  

Everyone deserves to have equitable access to opportunities. DEI provides more representation, access to opportunities and cultures/countries/a world where they feel included and belong. Imagine what it would be like if people came from a place of seeking to understand and empathy, lifting people up so we can all progress and prosper alongside each other. It’s not a zero sum game where we have to have winners and losers. We have enough work for ALL of us. 

I am reminded of MLK’s letter from Birmingham Jail: “In a real sense, all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

We are all connected. We are all in this together.

What is your proudest moment as a Diversity Leader?

Several years ago I was asked to develop a women’s leadership development program to help women be better prepared for higher-level leadership roles. As I started to get to know the organization and this specific business area better, I quickly realized how qualified and high-performing the women were and still are. After reviewing performance metrics, I saw how many women were outperforming their male counterparts but still weren’t getting promoted. When they asked for feedback, they were told if there was something they needed to improve on they would be told. But very few were given any constructive feedback. 

A quick scan of their senior leaders showed they were all white men. When it came time for promotion decisions, people were hiring from their own network and specifically others who looked, talked and thought like them. 

So instead of just creating a leadership program, I included a sponsorship program so relationships could be formed and networks could be expanded. I also coached the senior leaders on the impact of affinity bias, among others, in promotion decisions. All of this resulted in an 85% increase of qualified, experienced women being promoted in this business area. Experiences like this, as difficult as the journey may be at times, makes all this worthwhile. 

Why is DEI important to you as an individual?

I have experienced stereotypes, microaggressions, and racism. I have seen communities continue to separate themselves from “others.” I know that underneath all of this is fear. I believe we have a choice – to choose love or fear. I choose love. When we approach life and people with a lens of love, kindness, empathy and compassion – what we see and how we see others changes.

In my previous role, I worked with leaders all over the country who never met each other. We brought them together and had them share their top values and why these are so meaningful to them. What started happening was that these strangers found a way to connect and see commonalities. When we intentionally look for commonalities versus prioritizing differences, we realize how much more we have in common than what we expected. 

Relationships begin forming. Trust builds. Vulnerability and sharing increases. People naturally create a more inclusive environment for each other. People experience a sense of true belonging. These leaders are so impacted by this experience that they do this with others. It’s a ripple effect of inclusion.

If you could change one thing in terms of equity and diversity, what would that be? 

There is so much pressure on Chief Diversity Officers (CDO) to make a big impact in the DEI space. But many aren’t actually set up for success. For an organization to truly be inclusive it takes the entire organization taking meaningful action to co-create an inclusive culture. It’s the small everyday interaction and the bigger team and organizational decisions that create momentum and progress within DEI.

I hope as more organizations seek a CDO, they deeply reflect on how to set this person up for success and the role of every individual within an organization for what they want to co-create.

Why did you want to do this interview?

I believe when we have more connection, empathy and inclusion, that’s how we can solve important societal problems together. Articles like this help people engage with DEI on a more personal, human level. I appreciate the opportunity to share my voice.

This interview is part of the DEI Thought Leader Interview Series

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