Speaking Her Truth to Power With Neha Sampat
Neha Sampat is the CEO and founder of BelongLab, where she focuses on building belonging and true inclusion through consulting, training, speaking, and writing. She helps organizations create peak performance-inclusive teams by addressing hidden barriers to belonging, such as internalized bias, unconscious bias, distrust in teams, and wellness challenges. She is a nationally sought-after expert on inclusive leadership and disrupting impostor syndrome. She runs the top-rated owning your value programs to cultivate evidence-based competence and to nurture authenticity.
In this episode, Neha discusses how when you don't look like the people you're growing up with, and you're told you don't fit in - hiding the things that make you unique and different is vital to feeling safe at a cost.
For Neha Sampat, that cost was losing her voice, staying small, and doing her best to make everyone around her happy. That was fully reinforced in her career as a lawyer where the rules are real but unspoken.
Join me in listening to how Neha now knows that speaking truth to power may piss some people off, but it will fire others up, and that's what it will take to make the change she wants to see in the world. To connect with Neha, visit website https://www.belonglab.com/.
Watch Neha's Story
Welcome to the I Don’t Give a Should Show – a podcast exploring ALL the ways that women SHOULD all over themselves. How many times do you find yourself acting out of obligation or doing what everyone ELSE expects from you without stopping to consider why? Where do all those beliefs that are driving you come from? If you’re tired of feeling resentful, overwhelmed, stuck, exhausted, or pissed off, you’re in the right place. Shoulding all over yourself is a real thing, but it doesn’t have to be in the driver’s seat.
I’m your host Jen Sherwood, and I spent waaaaay too many years trying to prove that I was good enough and worrying what other people thought while avoiding conflict at all costs. Today, I don’t give a should – well, not as many anyway, and neither should you. I’m talking to women like you who figured out how to stop shoulding and start LIVING.
Today, my guest is Neha Sampat. She is the CEO and founder of BelongLab, where she focuses on building belonging and true inclusion. Through consulting training, speaking, and writing. She helps organizations create peak performance inclusive teams by addressing hidden barriers to belonging, such as internalized bias, unconscious bias, distrust in teams, and wellness challenges.
She is a nationally sought-after expert on inclusive leadership and disrupting impostor syndrome, and she runs the top-rated owning your value programs to cultivate evidence-based competence and to nurture authenticity. Neha's insights have been featured in numerous publications, including Time Magazine, Thrive Global, ABA Journal, and New India Times. Neha holds a BA in sociology and political science from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, obtained her JD from UC Berkeley School of Law, holds a certificate in graduate Applied Psychology, and is certified in Hogan assessments. Neha works across industries from Amazon to Pixar and UC Berkeley to the leadership council on legal diversity. Neha also relishes her role as a mama to her two kiddos.
I'm so happy to have you here - welcome!
Oh, my gosh, Jennifer, I am so excited to be here.
I love conversing with you, so this is truly, honestly, it's just an easy Tuesday morning for me.
I should tell you all watching that Neha and I live probably 10 doors away from each other. We were laughing before we hit record about how here we are on Zoom doing this, but I'm so lucky to live down the street from this woman.
She's fascinating and fun and just all-around amazing to be with, so that's why this conversation is going to be an easy Tuesday morning.
That feeling is totally mutual.
I feel like you're, you're just a joy to be around, and also, I learned from you. I mean, that's what's really exciting. I feel like every time we have a conversation, I feel enriched in some way.
That's what I think when I walk away from our conversations.
Let's dive in - so Neha, why don't you tell us what your experience was? Like, when you were living under expectations and shoulds?
I mean, I could answer this question by talking for weeks, possibly months.
Okay, let's try to keep it to like 20 minutes. Very short attention span,
I think that it was subtle, like, I feel like I grew up living under shoulds. From, you know, the earliest I can remember and then being I'm the child of immigrants from South Asia. I'm an American of South Asian descent, and I was born in the US.
I grew up, for the most part, in what was then a pretty white and pretty racist suburb of Chicago. I was really, I felt like an outsider a lot, and I was actually made to feel like an outsider a lot. I was excluded a lot. It was on the receiving end, our family was on the receiving end of racial bullying and intimidation a lot.
I learned, as I think a number of immigrant families, brown immigrant families, in particular, learn, like, how to lay low, you know, how to do you kind of try to assimilate? How do you try to not glorify the parts of you that might be different and unique? Then you add to that, the gender layer to that and the expectations of me as a girl, a little girl, and then into a woman about, you know, how to behave and what's allowed and how to kind of play by the rules.
I think it was just what happened, and I don't think I think it grew in different ways. I think that when I became a lawyer, the law was very constraining, and by traditional, I mean like, honestly, a white male-dominated profession with these unwritten rules. That really made me feel like I was walking a minefield a lot of the time, right? Like I didn't know, when I was going to trip up over a rule that I didn't even know was a rule, and all of a sudden found myself obliterated.
I think that once I entered the profession, I became even more kind of operating by shoulds. You know, like, oh, should I do this? Shouldn't I do this? It just grew until I reached a point around the time I turned 40, I was hitting that big decade, age-wise, I was hitting a decade at my last job, I had been at that job for 10 years, right around that same time, I had just had my second child, so I do very small children at home.
I found myself staying up late at night, worrying about what this colleague was going to think, like I was finding myself frustrated by some work stuff. I was telling my husband, I'm like, this person did that, and he's like, well, why don't you say something, and I'm like, oh, my gosh, but if I say something, and so and so won't like that, and won't like me and this and that. He was like, you worry too much about what other people think about you.
That, for me, was a big watershed moment where all this kind of subtle growing of the shoulds. I realized, look at where I am, look at what I've become like, I'm someone who cares way too much about what other people think, to the extent that I can't even figure out when I think about something.
Hold on, you can't figure out what you think about something - that's a pause button for a minute.
I want to just go back a little bit so that from a very early age if I understood what you were saying correctly, it sounded like it was within your family.
Tell me if I'm wrong about this, there were expectations on what was appropriate and what you should be doing. So there was that layer? Or was that not a family piece?
I think there's always a family piece to it, but I think for me, it was more about what happened outside of the home.
The pressures or the influences were more about because what I thought I heard you say was kind of that family plus, but it was really more about it was was coming in,
It was family, plus, but it was definitely more the trying to fit in, in the greater peer group, and feeling like I had to cut off parts of myself to fit in. Doing that successfully was like altering who I was, whenever I could alter it in a way to give people what they wanted so I could feel like I was accepted and fit in.
I think that the rejection that came from outside the home, I think, was powerful, as far as you know, teaching me the bad lesson of, you know, this is what you should do. This is how you should behave. I think there was some of it with the family, but my parents were pretty bold, they were pretty, like, you know what, like, invest in your education, you know, speak your truth via being an independent woman.
They really empowered me in a lot of ways, but certainly, there were cultural aspects, both coming from American culture and coming from my mother culture, my Indian culture, surrounding gender, and all that sort of stuff. In my family, it was a little less, I think it was more the external piece that I think impacted me and wounded my heart in a way.
Yeah, that makes sense.
You use the phrase, sort of, I believe you use this for sort of cutting off parts of yourself. The word that keeps coming to mind for me as I'm listening is for you to be safe. For you to be safe in this environment, you had to let go of certain things, and so there was this hiding and not speaking up.
I can imagine that was all through your education, and you know, you went you jumped to the law school and then into being a lawyer. There was a lot of time in between there, too.
So this was really honed and solidified for you, and it wasn't until you had this conversation with your husband that you really saw it. Is that what I'm hearing?
I know I think that I saw it as an adult when I had that conversation with my husband, but there were ways I was not a meek person when I was in high school. Like I definitely had a rebellious spirit, and I expected something of me.
I'm like, you know what, I'm gonna give you something different just to show you that. There was that spirit in me, but I think that once I got into the profession, the legal profession, I again found myself. It was almost like going back to how I felt when I was like in junior high when I was younger, where I felt like I'm, there are all these unwritten rules, and I don't know what they are, and I kind of shifted back in a way, or it's quieting that voice.
I had to reconnect when I kind of realized when I had that conversation with my husband, and I'm like, oh my gosh, I'm so worried about what other people might say or think that I've actually forgotten what I could say or think I've lost my voice, essentially, I had to remember that there was a voice there, right?
I was able to think back to, like, that 17-year-old version of myself, that was kind of like, you know, a little bit of like, FU world, you know, she's there - that lady's there. I just gotta find her because she hasn't been audible for a really, really long time, and it's time for her to come out at this moment.
If you don't know exactly, because there's, I'm sure there's no one magic bullet that shifted this for you. But what would you say was the process for you of allowing her to come forward because you use the word minefield in the legal profession?
I think I get it, and I hope other people can get that visual to have, like, you're very carefully stepping around, to not blow something up. The stakes in your career, particularly early in your career, are so high. I think that can be why it's so important and why we shrink so much.
So what happened to you? How did you let her come and allow her to start showing up again? Do you know?
Yeah, I do know, I think therapy.
I mean, I'm a huge proponent of therapy. I mean, therapy really helped me find that voice inside myself and practice amplifying it. The other thing that was probably the greatest gift I ever gave myself was starting my own business. When I started my own business, when I started generally belong lab, I left a very social, really fun, and exciting work culture to sit in my home office that you see before you today and be around a lot of quiet, you know, and I was at that point, I knew that I've got this challenge that I've lost that voice, it's hard for me to even hear that voice within myself.
It was very intentional to not partner with people, like a lot of entrepreneurs will partner up right away, or, you know, that's just part of how you grow your business is strategic partnerships. I'm like, I will take the longer, slower route by not partnering because I knew that once I partnered, I would again, like, listen more, follow that person's lead, listen to that person's voice more, and I would let that voice hampered my own voice was really intentional, like, I'm not going to partner.
I'm just gonna, like, be by myself for a while, so the only voice I hear that tells me what do I want to do with this business? What's important to me in my life? How am I going to do it? That's all true me, and it was the greatest gift I gave myself because it really took me silencing the voices around me by holding myself up and, you know, being by myself, to really hear that voice inside me and practice amplifying it.
Then once I got really good at speaking my voice loudly, then it was like, now it's okay for me to partner because I figured out how to do this. That was a really great thing that I think when I started the business, I didn't do it for that purpose, but it ended up being probably the biggest payoff for me was doing. Then I really tapped into my writing, I started to tell my stories.
I remember I wrote a personal essay, really early on, after I started the business, about my experience growing up brown and what was then, like I said, a pretty white town, a suburb of Chicago. It was a deeply personal story that, you know, I was, I was relaying experiences that were painful. I started to put that voice on paper, so to speak, and then not only that, but take the next step and put that out into the world.
So I think that was really important for me because what I learned from that, and it's a learning that I keep relearning, I keep having to remember and remind myself that the thing that might be the hardest to say, because you feel like you're not, no one's going to understand you, and you're the only one, and you're going to be judged for it.
That's exactly what you need to say, that is exactly what needs to be heard in this world. Putting that first essay out there really taught me that because I put it out there, and then I got all these, like, random people messaging me talking about how they were in tears reading it and how it totally resonated with them.
It expressed something that was in them that, up until that moment, had felt unexpressed and bottled up, and all of a sudden, was free. I mean, that was powerful because here I was carrying that, thinking I was the only one feeling some shame around it. In its glory, you know, it's not shame, its glory.
Isn't it so interesting how we do that to ourselves that we're convinced that we're the only one, and so we need to hide that?
Yet all over the place, as you found out, there are people who feel that way, but it took your bravery. It sounds like it was very healing for you to write this story, so it took your bravery, and then it connected with all those people.
Then you were just reinforced, like, oh, wait, I am not the only one. You might not have thought at that point that you were the only one, but it just reaffirms that, and then you have to those people. So you healed yourself, and you're helping those people connect with something they didn't realize was missing, either.
I love that.
Is that out there somewhere that we could link to? Yeah, absolutely. Okay, send me the link to that. We'll, we'll put it up because I would love to read that. I would imagine anyone watching this is like, I want to what's what that's all about.
I love what you were saying about how you needed to quiet the voices around you so you could hear your own, and the reason I want to stop and point that out is for anyone who's watching, I don't think what they have said is that you have to quit your job and go work in the office by yourself. It's a great way to do it, as it were.
Maybe that's the lesson is creating quiet time for yourself and being intentional about tapping into that voice inside of you because we all have it. Whatever the circumstances are for people, there have been ways that those voices get dampened down, like your story was very unique. I wonder if other people can relate to just that experience of that voice being suppressed.
This piece, I loved what you said, you were very intentional about it, and so maybe that's a takeaway as well, just getting intentional about creating space to kind of close the door on other people's opinions and start finding maybe you didn't you know, other people watching didn't have rebellious teenagers.
There's a voice in there that just might need to be tapped into, so I love that you share that. Kudos to you for not taking the easy route, like you said, I could have partnered, and I could have grown my business early, but I love that you chose the slow burn.
That's a fabulous way of putting it.
So yeah, I totally agree, and I think that I think that you're right, I think there are ways to do it. You know, that doesn't require you to start your own business. It's this idea that we're acculturated, especially as women in our culture, to think that we need feedback on everything.
It's like, I'm sorry, but like, no, maybe you don't need feedback, like the problem with feedback is, sometimes it's wrong for you. I mean, that's what I that's a big learning I've had in my life is that I have I had people tell me, like really well-meaning brilliant people that I consider mentors, people to whom I look up, and still seek advice from, advise me a bit against doing the work I do now.
They're like, it's too hard to sell me, it's really hard to sell that, and I'm so glad that I listened to that feedback. But then it was like, you know what, that's what that person thinks for their life. I'm a different person, and I actually think I'm onto something, and I'm going to just trust myself first.
It ended up being the right thing to do, I was able to build a business on what I really wanted to build a business on. It was such a great lesson for me that, again, I keep coming back to that. It's great to seek out advice from mentors from friends, but you are your own mentor, too, right? You are your own friend, too, and creativity is often the one idea that everyone else thinks is never going to work.
We're just waiting for the right person to actually implement it, and then it will work. That's been a big learning for me too, and I think you know, when you're talking about creating space, even if you're not running your own business, you can sit quietly in your home office like I was able to for a few years.
You know, I think creating spaces even sometimes about not asking for input on everything. Figure out what you want to do, you're committed to it, and then just do it.
Yeah, I think that's so important, what you said about how we are, I think he was the word acculturated, is that what I heard you say, to this idea that we need everybody else's opinions.
This is such an important point, and I see it in myself too. I want to ask 57 other people, but truthfully, I will ask 57 other people, and I'll still do what I want to do because I asked for feedback, and then I realized this, this is the lesson that I've been learning.
Don't ask for feedback if you don't want it.
I really want to do what I want to do, sort of like you when I took this leap as well. I don't really I don't need other people to affirm it. I love that we're having this conversation because I'm having this aha moment myself, like, that's what I do. The piece about trusting ourselves is so important because nobody knows what's right for you more than you do. How many times have we chased our tails with an idea, but then nobody supported it? Or, you know, for whatever reasons.
Oh, I love that so much. Neha, what does life look like now? Like, I want to be clear to everybody watching you notice already, but this should still show up. Right? It still shows up in your life, but how do you handle it differently now than you did? I don't know, 10-15 years ago?
I think there are healthy shoulds like the shoulds that serve me.
I should actually pay my bills. I shouldn't, even though I'm dreading it, and it makes me feel crappy when I think about how I should do it. I should, and I haven't, but I gotta do it, so those shoulds. I've learned what that looks like for me today. I'm a work in progress on this, and I have a lot of work to do.
Nobody's at the destination, there is no destination.
I try to think about those shoulds transforming them as quickly as I can into action. How can I stop being like, I should open the mail sitting in that basket and our front room to, like, I don't want to be holding about it for weeks.
I just need to go open the stinking mail like activate, activate, activate. The good shoulds like, I should really go out for a walk today, like how quickly can I just change them to action? It's no longer a should because there's the weight of should, like weighing me down is making me feel crappy about myself, making me feel less than others.
I want to get that burden off my back, and then the unhealthy sheds like this, truly unhealthy ones that are like, the ones like you were kind of alluding to that make you feel small, like this idea of stay small, don't speak up in the gender the race-based ones, like, you know, this is how you should be if you want to be successful in this career. When I even think about it, when it comes to public speaking that's a huge part of what I do for my work now. You know, I used to be really attuned to what I thought I should do to be an effective public speaker.
Now what I have done is unlike that bad shit that's trying to fit me into a mold that was not made for me and now may find me. And that's, that's a should that's making me cut off parts of myself to try to fit in. Whenever I start to feel that way, that sort of should, I'm like, that's that BS should, that's gotta go, and instead, I need to look at who I am. Look at how I am perfect for whatever it is I want to do, right? Like, what do I uniquely bring to a situation? So instead of feeling less than because I don't fit the mold, it’s more how I'm actually more than because I make my own mold.
It goes back to what you were saying about trusting yourself.
That's exactly what it sounds like, instead of doing what you think you should, to appeal to whatever group or organization, just show up and be yourself. That's gonna be a million times better when you show up in your authenticity instead of the shoulder, you know, let me fit into this little narrow thing. It'll resonate more with the audience, and if it doesn't, that's okay.
Oh my gosh, that was a huge learning for me, and that's okay.
You know, as someone who grew up, and I was very much a people pleaser, I mean, that is what was the driving force, right? Over that and, it's been so liberating for me to really own that I'm not here to make everyone happy. I'm not going to make everyone happy, and you know what? There's a lot of joy in actually pissing people off.
I will be honest with you, like, especially when it comes to speaking truth to power, which is what is really important to me, like; how do we stand up for what's right? How do we stand up? How do we create a new mold of what it means to be, for example, a woman? How do I? How do I make it such that when my daughter grows up, she can share her expertise publicly without someone thinking that she's arrogant, which is what happens to women, right?
I'm trying to help create space for all of us to be our authentic selves and not make ourselves small, be our big, amazing, awesome selves, but that motivates me a lot to think about, it's not just for me; it's for what sort of future are we going to leave. Sometimes when I can't motivate myself, which is what happens, then I have to be like, okay, am I going to speak truth to power here, even though it might harm me in the short term, but is it the right thing to do for the long term because of the change I want to make societally and that can be a really great motivating force.
It really does mean pissing off people - I know that there are people that don't like the way I do what I do. What I've realized is that's always going to be the case, no matter how hard I tried, because I used to try, I used to bend over backward, like I remember I would do evals at the end of every training I did. You know, there might be a few, every once in a while, that was negative, and I'd be just so haunted by this.
I'd be like, What am I going to do next time, and they try to, like, change my presentation, to try to respond to that feedback. At some point, I'm like, this is ridiculous, no matter what I do, there's still going to be like those two randos who just don't get me fine. Then the other thing I realized is, sometimes when you speak truth to power, you're going to, you know, upset some people, but you're going to fire up a lot of people.
Your impact can be even greater for those that you positively impact. That weighs out, kind of balances out in a different way for me, so that, really, that's what's changed a lot. And in a lot of ways now that I don't respond to those negative II shoulds.
It freed me up to be more bold, and that is much more in alignment with my values.
You're lighting up as you're describing this.
I love this so much - I think you just broke some old beliefs for people about how you should show up. I'm thinking about the woman who's really buried under those, those shoulds, who can see you right now, and all the positive impact by you not following those.
I really want that to be a take-home, I'm going to. I can talk to you. Actually, I thought we should do a part two, maybe I don't know. I really think those are some big take-homes here, when you don't respond to the shoulds, there is this power that comes from it, and it can ripple out to other people, so that's important.
Then the other thing I want to walk back to, and then probably we should, we should wrap this up. Back to those like, you know, the healthy shit when you were talking about paying your bills, I was thinking about exercise and eating right. I love what you've said about how when you don't take care of them, how they like to sit on your back, they are weighed on you, and all the energy drains.
I think that's the other side of this coin, you were talking about that. I think it's important to emphasize that instead of sitting with what, I should do the things that are important and good for us. Activating, I think, is the word you've used so that you're not wasting all this energy thinking about, oh, man, okay, the male in the basket that might work for me right now sitting upstairs gathering dust, you know, like, just do what we know is good for us.
We can let go of those so that we have the energy to do this where we show up and people and kind of push the people pleaser aside when she wants to come in.
Ah, that's like wisdom.
I mean, I'm going to be chewing on that for a while because I hadn't even thought about the energy part of it. I think you're totally, I mean, that that resonates with me, let me put it that way.
I hadn't really thought about that - I thought about the burden and the weight of it. I just didn't think about how much energy goes into that and especially in the time we're in right now. I'm still in the pandemic, like, no, we don't have energy. We do know your energy, right?
We absolutely don't. Oh, I'm so glad that that clicked with you.
I had a mentor who used to call it energy leaks. Like, where are you leaking energy so awesome? Okay, Neha, is there anything? I didn't ask you any last bit you want to share.
What I'd love to share is how the work I do connects with stopping with the bad shoulds! What we do is we help organizations create cultures of belonging into which each person can bring more of their true and best self.
We work with companies and nonprofits, and I'm a lawyer by training, so I work with a lot of law firms to really help them create that space for all of us. So they can bring those parts of ourselves we might have felt like we had to cut off in the past to try to fit in to bring more of those kinds of unique perspectives, unique experiences, unique identities.
Because we know that when we as individuals can bring more of our true selves, we're going to feel a lot more engaged, we're going to be much more creative problem solvers, we're less likely to leave the organization, our mental health is a lot better. So we work both on the individual side and empowering folks to do that. On the organizational side, the big kind of showcase piece of our work really has been the owning your value programs that are all about building an evidence-based confidence, disrupting impostor syndrome - that feeling that I'm not cut out for the work I'm doing, combined with this fear of being discovered as a fraud.
We're all about identifying impostor syndrome and combating it and the beauty. Well, there are many beautiful things about this work, but I think it's completely tied to this idea of stopping with the shoulds. Right?
I do too.
I think that's what you teach them.
It is about finding your voice, building confidence in your own true self, and being bold enough to project that self outward and share that self with your greater community.
That's really powerful, I think, on an individual level, but I think on a societal level, it's really powerful too because for me, my journey and busting my own imposter syndrome and finding my voice, and speaking my voice unapologetically. It has been about becoming a better ally and advocate, right, like it has been about raising my voice in support of what I believe is right, even when it causes some discomfort.
I kind of jokingly said how it's kind of fun to, like, you know, piss people off, but it's, it's more about, like, a joy in not being scared of the outcome, right? Like, I'm going to put my voice out there. Come what may, and I recognize I carry a lot of privilege that allows me to do that. Like, like you, you raise the point that early on in people's careers. It's different, there's a lot more at stake, and there's a lot less at stake for me, I run my own business, what's my boss gonna do? Fire me? Yeah, so it's, you know, there's the racial privilege I carry, there's, you know, I have lots of privilege.
With that privilege, I do believe, comes the responsibility to take more chances because there's less risk. I really love connecting the dots between the work I do and helping people build their confidence in themselves and find their true selves. Connecting that with a dot is speaking truth to power and carving out the space for not just me but for all of us to be ourselves. So that's really exciting for me, and I wanted to share that because that's what it's about owning our value and owning who we are. Some people will take it, some people will be inspired by it, and some people will leave it fine.
You can only put it out there. You can't control how it's received, which is a should that's a people pleaser woman.
This is so beautiful, now, thank you for sharing about the work that you do. I can imagine people might be interested in learning more about you and perhaps following you.
Can you share where people can get in touch with you?
Yeah, for sure.
People are welcome to connect with me on social. We're at BelongLab on Twitter, Facebook, and why am I forgetting Instagram? If you want the ranty version of me on Twitter, it's Neha Sampat. That's the rant your version of me, and then honestly, the place I post the most on social media is LinkedIn.
Folks are welcome to connect with me on LinkedIn, follow me on LinkedIn, or if they want to connect with me, they just need to send me a note with the connection saying they heard me or saw me on your podcast, just so I know, I actually know them, but I'm posting on LinkedIn like a lot.
I'll post things about belonging, I'll post things about impostor syndrome, and I just posted today this article about Simone Biles, which actually totally relates to the work you do, Jennifer, and just how she's unabashedly confident because she's amazing. She likes doing a lot of work to create space for women to own their value and own their amazingness, so if people are interested in, you know, little tidbits like that are little videos, they can connect with me on LinkedIn.
They're welcome to check out our website https://www.belonglab.com/.
I will put all of this in the post as well so they have this has been my absolute pleasure. It's been so much fun. I know people are going to find this valuable hands down, so thank you, and thank you to those of you who are joining us - I appreciate it.
Have a great day, everybody. I just feel inspired by you, so I can't wait to share it.