Uncensored: Stories of Black professionals at Deloitte

Kulleni's Story

We’re all the star of our own movie. But we’re also the supporting character in other people’s stories. And while my lived experience is 100% real for me, it could look very different for someone else.

Those differing experiences can create some sort of privilege or bias in all of us. Even those of us with the best intentions are limited by what we can and can’t see. That’s OK. And we shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge that.

I recently took an external assessment that evaluated types of unconscious bias. The assessment helped me think about potential biases, and those can be scary to acknowledge.

But I believe that self-awareness is the key to freedom. We have to learn to be OK examining those thoughts, dissecting our biases, and figuring out where to go from there. We need to identify our hopes and fears—and then lean into them.

Growing up in Ethiopia, my family and I were defined as the majority and the mainstream. In the ’80s, Ethiopia experienced a lot of political and civil unrest, and my parents decided to move my five siblings and me to Europe, primarily because my father had business colleagues there.

Moving to Europe as a teenager was the first time I felt out of my element; however, I did not feel like we were seen as “less than.” Yes, we spoke a different language and ate different food, but that was OK. Our family’s differences didn’t seem to create a divide between my family and those around us until we moved to the United States—Memphis, Tennessee, to be exact. It was the first time I experienced an environment where I felt my skin color was my defining characteristic, and I became aware of the social constructs of race.

As a child, I had seen how a society can discriminate based on many different characteristics. But everything I had witnessed up until then was based on gender, nationality, religion, and ethnicity. This was the first time I observed those hierarchies could also exist based on skin color. It was a completely new construct that my family and I had to learn. I never considered that people would define us by our skin pigmentation and that could negatively impact the way that they might see us and treat us.

In my new school, a close friend who drove me to school every day had a Confederate flag hanging off the back of her car. After seeing some people’s reactions to me in the car, I went home and tried to figure out what it meant. I couldn’t find anything that explained the reactions I saw—and my parents weren’t aware of what it signified either. So, I went to school and asked my classmates what it meant. I was met with stares and awkward silences. People couldn’t believe I didn’t know what the flag symbolized and thought I was just trying to make a joke of the situation.

Not growing up in this country, that was only one of many instances where we had to educate ourselves about the experiences and beliefs of some individuals in the United States of America, this new world of ours.

From my lived experience, I didn’t appreciate that there could be a divide between Blacks and Whites in America. To me, everyone seemed to dress alike, speak the same way, watch the same TV shows. In my mental model at that time, all Americans were just Americans.

In Ethiopia, I saw how men and women were treated differently purely based on their gender. I saw boys spending their Sunday afternoons playing outside, while I had to get my hair done and press my dresses. I was expected to behave well while they were expected to play. In addition, many women I knew did not have the same educational and economic options available to them as men. I witnessed many women in my life dimming their own light to conform to what was expected in that society.

But one place I saw people coming together was health care. When so many people were suffering during the famine, it didn’t matter who you were. Many were able to loosen their dogmas and examine their biases to rally around those who needed help.

And that was when I decided I wanted to devote my life to health care. After dedicating a few years to public health, I eventually went to medical school to become a doctor, specializing in emergency medicine. I knew I wanted to be in the ER because it’s the one place where we treat everyone who walks in the door—irrespective of race, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, or insurance coverage.

As a doctor, there’s nothing more humbling than the trust patients and families share and more gratifying than helping in the moments that really matter. While practicing medicine, I was always very focused on keeping an open mind and being sensitive to things that others may have thought sounded illogical.

One day, I walked in to see a patient in the ER who said that “dogs were eating his stomach.” A lot of people might have just written him off—or thought the problem was with his mental health, not physical. But after finding out that he was originally from Egypt, I called an Egyptian friend to ask what that meant. And the explanation was simple: He had heartburn.

While that might be a single example—and not everyone has a friend to call up in a moment like that—it highlights the limited perspectives that we all can have, because we only know our own realities. And sometimes our hearts and minds can only accept what we’ve already experienced in one way or another. I believe that it takes humility to recognize and respect others’ lived experiences.

I knew neither my success nor failure would define my inherent worth. Because whether I failed or succeeded, I was enough. In fact, I strongly believe we are all enough just as we are.

Early in my career, I was practicing medicine mostly in the DC metro area when the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) initiated “pay for performance” rules, where payments to clinical providers reflected quality of outcomes instead of just services rendered.

At times, I noted that hospital administrators were reviewing those rules and creating policies for clinical care that I thought were hasty and short-sighted. I raised my concerns to an administrator in my department pretty much every day. Eventually, he got sufficiently annoyed and said, “This is out of my control, so why don’t you call CMS and tell them what you think.” So that’s what I did.

I asked for a meeting with CMS to share the challenges many hospital administrators faced with implementation of these rules. The first meeting turned into a series of meetings with different committees in our region. During one presentation, a CEO came up to me and asked if I could help him solve some of those challenges for his hospital.

Following that, I started solving clinical and operational challenges while working clinically. I then decided to get my MBA so I could fully understand the business language being used at these meetings.

A few years in, I received a call from a recruiter at a consulting company. Even though I didn’t really know what it meant to be a consultant, I was looking to make a shift and have greater impact in the world. I said yes.

A few well-meaning colleagues questioned my decision and warned me of the risk of changing careers. My own inner voice made me wonder if I was good enough. I put aside my fears and decided to take a chance. I knew neither my success nor failure would define my inherent worth. Because whether I failed or succeeded, I was enough. In fact, I strongly believe we are all enough just as we are.

Today, I take every chance to share that very lesson I learned from my parents. While they always pushed me to chase excellence, there was never a punishment when I fell short—which happened frequently. They would ask why I thought that happened, what I could do differently in the future, and if there was a way they could better support me next time.

I think when people glance at my resume, they see a lot of “success.” But I’ve failed at so many things throughout my life—and that’s OK. For me, it’s only really a failure if I don’t get something out of it.

One of my favorite quotes is from the great poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. She said, “I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.” It’s easy to look at a failure as the endpoint. But you also have the choice to keep going until you get to a place that feels right to you.

When I first joined Deloitte, I was initially offered a role as a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) leader in addition to my client service work. The leaders offering me the position praised my experience and my leadership. But then I stopped to ask why they thought I would be qualified for that specific role. Because in my mind a successful DEI leader probably needs to have organizational change management experience and a strong grasp on dynamics impacting historically marginalized groups in America—and nothing on my resume pointed to those things.

Their initial reaction was hesitation and confusion as to what I was really asking. After some discussions on my strengths, the leaders shared with me that they believed it was important to have me in the room where decisions are made. They also confided in me that they believed I would make a strong leader within our practice. We then openly examined many of the assumptions made about who the face of DEI should be in organizations. I enthusiastically accepted the role with a specific request. If assumptions were going to be made about my qualifications for a leadership position related to DEI, I wanted those same assumptions to be made for how my leadership skills could translate into other leadership roles within our business.

And now I’m Deloitte Consulting’s US Health Care Consulting Sector Leader and the US Chief Health Equity Officer. Clearly someone was listening.

Even given these titles, I sometimes hesitate to bring my personal passion to issues on race or gender equity. I focus primarily on the dimensions that directly impact our business and am thoughtful about being considerate of the voices of those who may not share my passions. The challenge to bring every aspect of my lived personal and professional experience while still being seen as objective is a struggle in my day-to-day decisions as a leader in health care.

I often consider the differences in the fears we all have in conversations about race, gender, and other traits that may give rise to potential bias: fear of being disliked or judged; fear for our personal safety; fear that our careers will be negatively impacted. These, of course, are just a few.

Bottom line: I believe it’s important to get beyond the fear of saying the wrong thing. When I don’t know what to say or how to say something, I express my hesitations and ask questions. I listen with empathy to the responses and stories that others share. I believe we can make great progress if we share our perspectives to create understanding and listen to others with a goal to understand. We are all human. We all can thrive and succeed. Let’s dive in together to find the path forward to a better future.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely Kulleni’s own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Deloitte or its personnel.

Photos by Kirth Bobb

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