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Dr. AJ, Building Inclusion and Belongingness Into Company Cultures

Ruthie: I’m really excited to introduce my next guest, Dr. Aparajita Jeedigunta of AJ Rao LLC, a social personality-psychologist and certified professional executive coach. She’s also a published author, podcaster and a traumatic brain injury survivor turned mental wellbeing advocate. She helps ambitious working women overcome self-doubt and imposter syndrome to build thriving careers and thrive as visible business leaders who are seen, heard, valued, respected, and recognized. 

She also consults and partners with corporate organizations to create custom-made, comprehensive solutions that help them break their silo cultures and create interconnected, inclusive organizational cultures where their talent can fully belong and thrive. Thank you so much Dr. AJ for being here with me today. 

Dr. AJ: Thank you so much for having me on your show! I love everything you do, and I’m just so excited. 

Ruthie: What’s amazing is that we met via a mutual Instagram connection and we’ve never met in person. So real relationships can definitely grow from social media interactions. 

Dr. AJ: Yeah, and I think it absolutely helped that I just kept nagging you until you were like, “All right, let’s work together.” 

Ruthie: That was right at the start of this whole quarantine thing too! 


What Type of Bender Are You?

Ruthie: So before we get into the business stuff, I always like to ask my guests something a little unexpected, based on what I’ve learned about you. What type of bender are you and why? 

Dr. AJ: That’s a loaded question. If you asked me with no other influence, I would say I’m a firebender. Not like Azula, because she’s crazy! I’m not evil. I’m one of those nice firebenders. Maybe even like the antagonist with the redemption story; a little bit like Zuko, but without the scarring. 

But if you ask my daughter, who is apparently a bender reader at 4 years old, she’s 100%t adamant that I’m an earthbender. I still don’t know where that comes from.

Ruthie: Speaking of nice firebenders, Uncle Iroh comes to mind. He was clutch! The whole thing would’ve fallen apart without him. 

Dr. AJ: I actually do have a little bit of Uncle Iroh’s sense of humor. I’m extremely corny, and I say the oddest little things that somehow connect the dots to a greater point. So I really appreciate him. 

Ruthie: He ended up being one of my most favorite characters! For those of you who aren’t aware of what we’re talking about, we’re talking about the Nickelodeon cartoon show Avatar: The Last Airbender. They also made a movie, but it does not measure up at all. 

Dr. AJ: And I just finished Legend of Korra at 2:00 AM last night. 

Tell Us About Your Business

Ruthie: So now that we’ve gotten things interesting, I wanted to go ahead and ask you about your business. There might be people in the audience who aren’t familiar with your work. 

Dr. AJ: Absolutely. So I’m a trained social and personality psychologist. Initially, I was probably going to move on to get my clinical certifications through academia, and continue that route. 

A Change in Course

However, because of my traumatic brain injury, I got to experience the clinical aspect from the patient’s end. That completely changed the course of my life in many ways.

What I experienced was this really huge disconnect between the practitioner and the client. And this was in Hawaii, where they were diverse, but not inclusive. They weren’t as culturally competent as I needed them to be, which completely takes away from therapy. If you have to change your narrative, the nature of your needs, and the underlying causes, then there’s no point to the therapy. 

After that experience, I said, “I don’t want to pathologize. That’s not my jam.” Actually, I was a doctoral candidate, so I hadn’t finished my dissertation yet. And because I was left on my own with, I was on grad student insurance.

So I had no recovery, no rehab; they stabilized my vitals and they said, “Okay, bye-bye!” It’s the nature of the healthcare industry in our country. It’s a very profound statement audit. 

Being left to my own devices was the best thing that could have happened to me, in some ways. Now I had nobody else telling me what ought to happen or how progress should go. In the process, I found positive psychology. As I delved more and more into it, I realized this is my purpose; this is what my calling is meant to be. 

So I finished my doctorate, and then I decided to go back to school and invest in myself one more time. I became a certified, professional executive and leadership coach. And that’s what I do now; I help ambitious working women overcome their self-doubt and imposter syndrome, as well as build confidence in themselves. 

Your Ideal Clients and What You Do for Them

Ruthie: It sounds like you have 2 different ideal clients; you work with people, but then you also contract with organizations themselves and work with their employees. 

Dr. AJ: Yeah, absolutely. One of the biggest things so many companies are saying is that they’re focused on diversity and inclusion. They’re saying it, which is still progress from what they were saying 10 years ago, but the numbers show that we haven’t moved much past just talking about it. 

So I partner with companies that are serious about moving the needle from diversity to real inclusion. I help them create safe spaces where people can authentically bring their whole selves to the table, and contribute all of their talents without having to hide essential aspects of themselves. 

The company actually increases its profitability, in terms of cost savings, reducing unnecessary initiatives and succession planning across the board. Inclusion is the most profitable thing a company can do for itself and if they’re not, they’re leaving nearly 70% of their talent on the table. 

Ruthie: I’ve done a lot of research for my clients in terms of the impact of employee turnover. Gallup has a fantastic poll on employee engagement, and how that impacts loyalty and turnover. I think the number that normally gets tossed around is that it costs 1.5 times an employee’s salary to replace them. 

If an employee gets the general feeling that inclusion is a priority and the company is working really hard, I have to imagine that would increase loyalty and reduce turnover. 

Dr. AJ: Absolutely. I was actually reading this report yesterday and when you add all of these other costs up, each employee loss actually costs the company near up to 10 times that employee’s annual salary. That includes not only the rehiring, retraining, and onboarding, but also the productivity, the culture fit, the team cohesion stuff, the knowledge transfer, etc. 

Ruthie: Wow! I’m going to have to get the link for that research from you because that’s going to be really interesting to a lot of people. 

What Led You to Specialize in Inclusion and Diversity?

Ruthie: So you told us a little bit about your TBI experience, but what drew you to inclusion and diversity as a specialty? Looking back, what led you to this point? 

Dr. AJ: Oh, my whole life! It’s one of those things where, as we go on the journey, we always create insights looking back; while we know where we want our actions to take us, even the best-designed actions actually take us in slightly different ways.

I think throughout my whole life, there were signs all around me that this is where I was meant to be. It just took me a while to realize that my whole life’s tagline actually is, “Making the Invisible Visible For Better Belongingness.” 

When I woke up after my TBI, I didn’t know my own name. You did a really good job of pronouncing it; I couldn’t when I was brought back. I knew I was a doctoral candidate in psychology,and that I was in a hospital. And that’s all. I didn’t know my own name, or my parents’ names. I didn’t know anything. 

Being Invisible

So I had to unpack my life, and it was then that I realized all the ways in which society had rendered me invisible and all the ways in which I internalized those messages and rendered myself even more invisible. I put myself in a place where I thought I was powerless. I thought I was hopeless, when I truly wasn’t. 

Being who I am comes with privileges and struggles. They both go hand in hand, but I was only leaning into the struggles.

When I combined the two, I discovered the question, “How can I help my struggles with whatever privilege I do have?” That’s where things started aligning. When I started making sense of that, then I started seeing all these other stories that were just like mine in their own unique ways, with the common thread of being rendered invisible, being marginalized. 

From India to America

My parents and I moved to this country when I was 14, so I went through a culture shock and puberty all at once. At the same time, I was the new kid in an all-girls Catholic high school. That was fun! 

Ruthie: Teenagers are mean

Dr. AJ: It was the first time in my life that I got called a minority. I was like, “Minority of what? Have you met me?” but you know, it’s sort of making more sense. 

It’s not just me. There are literally thousands of others like me. They all have their own unique stories, but we’re all in this super horrible, elite club of being marginalized and rendered invisible. Wait a minute! I know what to do because I was able to pull myself out of that. So maybe what I did to pull myself out can help others. That’s where the business began and it just took off from there. 

Ruthie: That is such an awesome story. Thank you for sharing. 

Dr. AJ: Thank you