Our podcast: Authentic Leadership. Episode 2 - Authenticity and honesty: "It was a big moment to say I was struggling"
In this episode of our Authentic Leadership podcast we look at how newsroom environments can foster or hinder the search for authenticity. We explore the importance of finding allies and being honest with yourself on the journey.
Assimilation and self-censorship ↑
Ramaa: So Anup, let's start then at the beginning really when you were sort of leaving Nepal and heading to the US into this new world. Tell us what it was like to start studying and working there.
Anup: I came to the United States in 2003 for college and I remember coming in and there was this orientation week in college, the very first week, when one of the classmates said they couldn't understand me because of my accent. So that was like my first introduction to America and I remember being shocked and I didn't quite know how to respond. And I also remember very vividly trying to speak slower and in enunciate words. I used to do debate and elocution and all of those things when I was in Nepal and I used to win those contests. And I felt like, you know, my confidence had slowly eroded because of that one particular moment. And that and just like a series of like unpleasant experiences as a young brown man in a very southern college, small town. It kind of made me feel like I had to figure out how to assimilate in this new place that I'd never been to, that I didn't quite know a lot more about. And then I had to be more like them.
Ramaa: And what did that look like? What did you do?
Anup: I think. It was pretty much sort of self-censorship in many ways, not expressing what I thought, how I felt, what I believed in. I remember getting like B- or C for participation in classrooms because I just went from a very talkative person to not speaking at all. And because I felt like being myself was inviting more pain, I didn't know how to handle that. And I just froze. So for the first few years in college, I was like a very, very different person than what I had been for 19 years of my life.
Ramaa: Wow. I mean, that feels extraordinarily difficult.
Anup: Yeah. And I think like there were these experiences that some of these experiences in college, even sort of like later, later, third year, second, third year, that really kind of like shook me. In one instance, I realised we had to take a Bible class to graduate. And I knew I went to a Presbyterian kind of school for a scholarship. And it wasn't until my third year, I realised that we had to take this one class that was entirely, that the book, the course material was just the Bible. And you had to take an exam after three and a half weeks. We had this block system, which meant that you take a class for three and a half weeks for three hours a day. And then that class is done. Then you take another class. So I was I'd never read the Bible before, obviously. I mean, I hadn't read the Gita as a Hindu man. And I asked the dean, like if I could, you know, I was like, I am from a very different religion. Like I've never read the Bible. Like I don't know how I could pass this. And I had a good GPA until then. And he said, like, ‘no, it's a requirement to graduate, you have to take the Bible class’. And I think see the South Asian instinct of rote learning really kicked in and I passed with flying colours in a Bible class, even though I couldn't remember anything now. But that was that moment where I felt like, ‘oh, my God, like, you know, I came here for my education and like this could be a huge obstacle.’ If I failed that class, I would, you know, I would fail.
Essentially, there was that moment. And then the second one felt very, very personal. And it was another moment where I felt like I had to sort of censor myself a lot. I had to sort of like not challenge institutions or not challenge, not make other people angry. And, you know, I was the editor of the college newspaper and we've done this like huge expose on how student athletes were dealing with drugs on campus. You know, it had a lot of like anonymous sources and, you know, had photographs. And it was a blockbuster story that even the local newspaper picked up. It so happened to publish on a homecoming day, which is essentially sort this big moment on campus. And I remember the dean of students and like that office pretty much threatened to deport me if I didn't reveal my sources. And I was just like, ‘can they even do that?’. I remember there was this huge tussle between my professors and then the school administration. And that really shook me as well.
Ramaa: So that seems like in the cases that you revealed, there was actually a real cost to being authentic, whether that was not passing your exams or not graduating or being threatened to be deported.
Anup: Yes I remember this other news editor who was a very good friend, a white woman. Like they wouldn't have told her, ‘if you don't do this, we'll deport you’. And it has a real cost. Right. So for me, I was just like, oh, my God, like I know in order to achieve what I want to, which is become a journalist in this country, I need to work hard. I need to do challenging stories like this, but I am going to face things like this. So that was a difficult moment. And I think it just added to that kind of fear. And I feel like I've operated out of fear for a long time in this country. I mean, that obviously changed a little bit later, but like my initial years were just scary.
Feeling alone ↑
Ramaa: I kind of want to move on to the point where you've now, despite your fear, you know, you've still successfully got big jobs in various companies. What was that like?
Anup: I think when I started working at the Washington Post, which was my second job after I'd like graduated, I think there were a lot of lessons learned because I was there for a long time, almost six years. And I was working like 17, 18 hours a day. I wasn't making a lot of money. I didn't know how to even ask for a raise, even though I knew that other people who were doing similar jobs in the same office were making more than I was. You know, by the time it had been about 10 years since I'd left home, moved to a new country, I felt like I was letting my family down. I wasn't sending money home as, you know, a lot of people who come from my part of the world are expected to do to support their families. And I also just felt really, really alone. I had this feeling of being stuck, this feeling of like, you know, as if I was a pressure cooker and I was going to explode. And I think it was around 2013, 2014, when I called my father and I just cried. It was a Skype call. And I think that was the first time I cried after coming to this country, like with my parents. And I basically said, ‘this is very, very hard here. And I feel very, very alone. And I don't know, like, you know what to do. I feel like I work very hard, but nothing is happening.’ Right. And, you know, obviously, my father sort of asked me to keep calm, like work hard. You know, there were values that he instilled in me, which was sort of like, if you work hard, it'll pay off. And I think my time at the Post was also that period during which I tried to change my outlook a bit after that. I was reaching out to leaders who were people of color who probably went through some similar experiences. I started asking questions more, sharing my opinion more. And I think to some degree, this is when Twitter was like really kind of coming to life. And it was proliferating. And Twitter helped because you saw the people expressing themselves. So that gave me a little bit of confidence.
There's just like one particular moment in the newsroom that I want to talk about, which I remember vividly even today. There was this devastating earthquake in 2015 in Nepal, and it had turned into this major global story. The whole world was there. BBC, CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, obviously. And I'd helped report on a few stories from Washington. I'd gotten front page bylines. And there was this editorial meeting one week to plan future coverage. And I watched these editors propose a play-by-play, we call it tick-tock, of essentially how the earthquake played out on Mount Everest base camp and impacted about a dozen Western, American climbers. And I remember asking why we would invest so much in doing that story while these whole swathes of cities and villages were just turned into rubble across the country. And more than 5,000 people had already died. Why wouldn't we try to focus on that and then focus on these 12 specific deaths on Everest? And I remember one of the editors just without saying anything just shrugged, just like in the emoji. And I think about that moment a lot. I was obviously changing jobs right around that time as well. But that moment stayed with me.
Ramaa: It reminds me of some examples I've heard, experiences I've had myself, but equally examples I've heard from other leaders about thinking of stories of niche or which audience is important or whom is this story for? And that sort of hierarchy that can play out in a newsroom.
Anup: Absolutely. And I think like, I'm a big believer in making sure you serve your audience, you know, through the stories that you do. And I think like this is also where sort of like, when we talk about why we need a diverse newsroom, it's to sort of like give some perspective, right? When you have a magnitude of that kind of, you know, that kind of devastation, I think any audience will connect with the pain of people. And it's also like the choices you make in terms of investment. Like, you know, where are you putting three reporters and a multimedia team to do something versus whether you're… it's not that you're not covering it, but how are you covering that versus the other stories you're choosing to cover? That's important to me as a person of colour. And I thought that moment was pretty telling. And it's not just, I mean, you know, that's an example from the Post, but we've heard about examples like this from people in the industry almost every day.
Finding allies ↑
Ramaa: I mean, there's a lot that you said there in your experience in that, in what you shared at the Washington Post about, working really hard, but not really getting very far, feeling like a pressure cooker. It sounds again, you know, it sounds really difficult. How did you navigate these kinds of situations, whether it was the fear in the university to the go to the job and then this sort of pressure cooker environment that you find yourself in?
Anup: I think after going through those situations and that feeling of frustration, I think I was starting to be out and about a bit more. I started building allies. I really leaned on people who look like me and talk like me a lot more, both within the newsroom or people who I met at conferences or just like people I reached out to. I think I derived strength from their confidence and from their success, knowing that what was possible. Right. I started prioritising more what I was experiencing, what my strengths were and how I was showing up at work every day in meetings, at networking, happy hours. I think I learned to kind of like take control and learn to be my own ally as well. And I think a lot of this had to do with sort of like, you know, I felt like this is an immigration thing. I’d got my green card and, you know, for people who know America and who've been here for a long time, if you've worked and that uncertainty about your immigration status, it's just, it's really painful. You know, it's one of those things that actually sort of makes you censor yourself because you feel like you're going to get penalised. And I think once I had that, I think I probably developed a kind of confidence that allowed me to be more of who I am.
That, coupled with the kind of people I was interacting with, you know, it gave me a different kind of playing field. And that was very helpful. I also changed jobs. And I think like when you start in a new place, you feel like it's a new beginning. And BuzzFeed, which BuzzFeed is a fun place. You know, there was a lot of experiments happening and I felt like the team was very, very diverse. I moved to London and I think London naturally feels more cosmopolitan, more diverse. But also the culture at BuzzFeed was more of a culture of empowerment. Even though you're a young kind of editor, I felt like I received more regular feedback from my boss. The conversations I was having with colleagues were really nurturing, really helping. Nobody ever told me they didn't understand my accent in London, which is good. Yeah. And that was sort of like the beginning. I think the beginning was the Washington Post. But I think I really kind of found my footing when I was at BuzzFeed.
A supportive newsroom ↑
Ramaa: So was it a conscious decision to then move into a different company?
Anup: Yes. Yes. Because I realised what was possible. I mean, I was going to get a raise and that was useful for me. I was getting married and money is important and I have to think about my own life. Again, that prioritizing myself. Right. I think recognising that I need to think about myself only then I can kind of like think about my work and I can think about people around me was useful. So it was a conscious decision to sort of like make that shift because I knew that after spending that much time that I was capable of doing more. It was also kind of like, ‘how do I challenge myself now? What's my next step?’
Ramaa: Am I right in assuming you were saying that part of being in a part of a diverse team also helped you be more authentic?
Anup: Absolutely. Yeah. You know, part of that, what my colleagues look like and, you know, what my boss looked like and what people who sat next to me look like. You know, I was editing reporters who were covering Syria, covering the European migrant crisis, but I was also told, ‘hey, you make decisions on what we cover,’ right? I know it was a different job, but that made a huge difference. That basically meant that they trusted my instincts, my experience, my decision making ability. And that's a huge confidence booster.
Ramaa: And your editorial viewpoint.
Anup: Yes. Yes. The way I presented headlines and the way I mean, small things like, you know, telling the newsroom is like, hey, Kathmandu is actually pronounced with an ‘h’. I know there is an AP style, but it's ‘Kath-man-du. So that's a small thing, right? But it's the right thing to do. And so for everything from instances like that, where what you said in a meeting was valued or that they needed, they wanted to hear from you and other people like me. That's really kind of boosting in terms of confidence.
Ramaa: I can hear it in your voice, just that sort of transition from making that decision to really think about yourself and how you're showing up and what voice you have in an organization to finding one that can allow you to be more of yourself. So what happened after that?
Anup: So after that, I remember I moved back to the US. I took this other job at a publication called Roads and Kingdoms. I had a lot of fun. I'm obsessed with the idea of food. And this publication focused on international relations and international sort of reporting food. And I moved back home. I think I had this feeling that I'd been in America for such a long time. I wanted to serve my audience, my people. I want to do something back home, share the knowledge that I'd gained. And then, yeah, through various kind of things, I'm back here in the US now and I'm working at this newsroom where, you know, I started out with a team of five and we are now 30 people. And I think a lot about authenticity in terms of what kind of leader I am, because who I am and how I lead makes a huge difference. To people who work here and what kind of leaders they want to be and what kind of people they want to be.I think about the younger Anup a lot and I talk to a lot of younger, especially brown students, you know, whenever I can give time. And I feel like nobody should have to go through that kind of painful experience of not being able to be themselves.
Ramaa: And do you feel you can be yourself now?
Anup: Absolutely. Yeah. I think like it's also the culture of this place. Like my boss is incredibly supporting. I report to the CEO and the founder. My team is very supporting. I've hired a team that is very, very international. A lot of our editors come from the countries that we cover here. We assign reporters who come from the countries and communities that we cover. And I feel like I'm getting to do a lot of those things that had, you know, that were in the back of my mind that I felt were the right way to do journalism. And yeah, I don't look back a lot. But I think about what I tell people who ask me like, ‘how did you do it?’ Like, you know, ‘how do you do x?, how do I overcome this?’
Instilling authenticity in others ↑
Ramaa: There's two related questions to that one. One is sort of I'm just wondering, how do you show up? If you're saying you're very conscious about authenticity in the workplace, if you know, how do you demonstrate that in the workplace for others who may want to do the same?
Anup: I mean, I stay very true to the beliefs and principles that I grew up with. And I think about the values that define me as a person. There's this one experience at BuzzFeed with one of my friends, like, he asked me a lot of questions about my upbringing, my faith, my traditions, my family. And I try to think about that because those conversations made me reflect on who I am and how those experiences have shaped me. And that awareness makes a vast difference when you are kind of working. And I tell this to people who ask me like, ‘how do you become successful when you're a person of colour? Or ‘how do you navigate this thing in a newsroom or in an organisation?’ I mean, about absolutely ask for help. You need to seek support sooner. There's no shame in saying that you need help, that you're lost. I think that's why finding allies and people who are like you is so important, which is why we need more diversity in newsrooms.
But also really kind of like reflecting on your core values and seeing if you're drifting away from what you truly want to do. I think about that a lot because I think oftentimes, like I said that idea of self-censorship, doing things to please people. I think it's kind of like, are you doing things to make other people comfortable? Or are you doing things comfortably for yourself? I think that's also an indicator of whether you're kind of drifting away from who you truly are. And it's okay to work hard and feel immersed in your work, to obsess with your work. But are you also feeling a sense of fulfilment or are you becoming someone else? I think about these questions more these days.
Ramaa: And how do you encourage your team to remain true to themselves and work effectively?
Anup: I think speak up, say what you believe in. What are the things that you want to do? I don't really dictate the kind of stories that we want to do. We have an editorial strategy. I've worked on building an editorial strategy, which has buy-in from the team. But really, I tell the team, bring stories that you think are important in your communities. And I think that's kind of empowering them, right? I have lots of thoughts about the way stories are written and, you know, what we publish, the headlines. But I encourage people to bring their ideas and execute them. I think that's the best sort of way to encourage people to be authentic.
Ramaa: Yeah. And I think for some people, the risks are too high, aren't they? They can't afford to. And journalism is shrinking as an industry. And it feels like there's less and less opportunities. So whether people can feel like they can actually make the leap or whether, actually, they have to stay put and assimilate.
Anup: Yeah, and we've seen that in the past couple of years, I think a lot of people, I mean, for various reasons. We've talked about the great resignation a lot in the past few years. And, you know, there are some friends who felt like they've had it and they're going to struggle and do something else. And I see that as a moment of realisation where you're like drifting so far away from who you are as a person. And it's OK to take a break and realise how you want to kind of like, you know, get back on track and be yourself. And for me that moment was probably that ‘pressure cooker feeling’ where I felt like I had to call my father and just let him know that, ‘I've tried everything and it's very, very hard.’ And I think that was me being authentic to my emotions. Right. This sense that, you know, usually if you are a brown man like, left home, you don't show your emotions, especially with your parents, that you come and there's Facebook and you post stories about success and everybody kind of like, you know, congratulates you. And I thought that was a big moment for me to tell, to cry and tell my father that I was struggling and it was very hard and I was alone.
Ramaa: And that sort of broke you open for change
Anup: Yeah. Yeah.
Ramaa: Okay, very powerful indeed. And thank you again so much for your time and your wisdom and sharing your journey.
Anup: Thank you so much for having me. Just being able to talk about this actually feels liberating to me. And I really appreciate the opportunity. So thank you.