Write, Entrepreneur and Activist
What do you do?
I am a writer, an entrepreneur, an activist, and an all around very busy human. I authored the book, ‘How to Pack - Travel smart for any trip’, and write the website ‘Hitha on the Go’. I also cofounded and run Bridge2Act as well as being a strategic advisor for a startup pharmaceutical company called Rho Pharmaceuticals. I’m on the board of Sundera an amazing non-profit that brings soap and hygiene programs to underdeveloped regions in the world. I’m a tireless champion for women and girls, and I’m proud to be an investor in MML4? And work. And, I’m on the board of the leadership counsel for the Athena Centre at Barnard College. Helping women and girls live their best lives is kind of my life’s work.
Who are some women that inspire you?
Certainly my mother is a never ending source of inspiration, she is the strongest woman I know, Indira Gandhi has always been one of my heroes since I was a little girl, certainly I don’t agree with everything she has done politically, but I admire her strength and resolve in leading a very young nation. I very much admire some of friends, and women I am lucky to call my friends. My friend Natalie Molina Ninyo? launched a fund called Brava Investments that is focused on investing in companies that disproportionately improve the lives of women. SO it’s not necessarily women founders, or a women executive team, but really how is this going to make a huge impact on the lives of women, at scale. Which I think is an incredible thesis, and I’m excited to see how it grows.
My friend Joan Fallon is an incredible scientist and doctor who founded CureMark, and she’s really come up with some really novel formulations and pharmaceutical products to change the game in areas we don’t know a tonne about such as autism, and as well as diarrhoea.
I really admire Serena Williams, because if I was accomplished as she was, I don’t think I would have the grace in handling people trying to undermine her accomplishments, the way she has. I mean, the woman won a Grand Slam, while pregnant. That’s phenomenal.
And my aunt, because from when I was a very young girl, she was an incredibly successful in real estate. Watching her dominate in a very male dominated field, by being still, an unapologetic woman, was always a source of inspiration and a reminder of who I want to be when I grow up.
What inspires and motivates you?
My son inspires and motivates me because I want to leave a better world for him. I come from a very accomplished family, everyone has worked very hard to make an impact in the areas that they have chosen to go into, both professionally and personally. My family inspires to be my best, in everything I do, and make an impact, and, that that impact matters way more than the amount of money you make or the amount of money in your bank account. It’s how many lives have you affected.
I grew up going to India a lot as a young kid, just seeing children my age begging on the streets or having and living in a shanty town, but being so happy inspires me and reminds me that the best things in life are the simple, free things. That fomo about a project, or a purse, or a thing is not important, and are not going to affect my life in any discernible way, and to stay focused on what I’m building and creating. If they can be happy and content with so little, I should be over the moon with all of the luxuries and the privilege I do have, and to work hard to make the world a better place for them as well.
What are you passionate about?
Well in addition to what I would call my life’s work, which is basically making the lives of girls and women better and easier and more efficient…
I’m very passionate about the Philadelphia Eagles, I’m very passionate about TacoBell, and I am very passionate about raising a feminist son, who believes men and women are equal. Who knows he will be responsible for just as much work inside the home as his wife is and that you know, you’re all equal, nothing is given to you, you have to earn everything you have.
What’s the most the helpful or impactful piece of advice someone has given you?
Something that my parents basically mandated when I went to university (that I plan to do with my own children) was to get a degree in a STEM field, should you choose to go to college. Is a nonnegotiable. You could major in another area, you could work in another area, but by having a bachelor’s of science in a highly technical field you are just setting yourself up for job security in the 21st century workforce.
I studied bio-chemistry and history in university, I admittedly don’t do much with either (a little bit with the bio-chew now that I’m helping out with RhoPharma), and it’s not that that is a rule everybody should have, my parents mandated it, because they knew I was capable of getting a science degree on top of another degree. It struck me at 18 years old as a brilliant idea on their part. I continue to think it’s brilliant, even more so now that I have my own child. My husband is an electoral engineer, I’m a bio-chemist by education, neither of us is working in those field, but how we learned to think, by that course of study has made us as successful as we are. The importance is in the multi-dislplincary education, it shouldn’t just be all about one thing, passion has to be counted with prospects and practicality. Until Liberal Arts education can catch up with teaching someone to critically analyse a problem and problem solve. I would always just encourage (and for my own children, mandate) anyone reading this: don’t be afraid of the science classes or coding programs.
It’s also never to late. Even if you’re out of college and in the workforce, if things like coding really do interest you, Codecademy, Flatiron and numerous others have these amazing, free, online programs for you to dabble in a and check out. Similarly, if you’re working in a STEM field and you’ve always been gravitated towards the Liberal Arts, continue reading new literature and fiction, or learning a new language via DuoLingo. I think what makes the age we live in so amazing, is that there are so many opportunities to do these things. You just have to want to do them. I would encourage everyone to pick something that has nothing to do with their day to day career or life, that’s always interested them, and go and pursue it, and study it. Be a constant student and always be learning, because if you’re not learning and growing, you’re dying.
"Discipline and hard work are equally as important, if not more, than passion"
What are some challenges you have faced as a woman and as a woman of colour, and how did you overcome them?
Certainly, especially in my early days, in Pharma - Pharma is a notoriously white, old, and male industry. I was in a very senior position at a very small company, and I was meeting with CEO’s and Senior Executives from major companies, and the number of times I was mistaken as a secretary or an assistant, and asked to get coffee or asked to get drinks, I mean I couldn’t count. It happened virtually all the time at the beginning. So, while I was pouring someones coffee and adding cream and sugar, there would be times I would ask them questions, to get to know them better. I think when people are talking to someone they deem ‘not important’ they’re going to reveal certain details that then prove very useful in a negotiations. In terms of what their view of a market opportunity, or previous deal terms are, that I can use. So, when they assumed, I never corrected them, they learned who I was when the meeting started, and there was always that little look of shock and embarrassment, and by that point I had always gathered the intel that I needed. Being my parents daughter, I did everything I was asked with great cheer, but I never forgot, and I made sure to take advantage of every opportunity I possibly could.
I was never going to be able to change the fact, that I was always going to be the youngest person in the room, I would almost always be one of the only women in the room and I would almost always be a minority. So, I stopped trying to dress how men dress and I wore the clothes that made me feel really great. It was around that time that MM.LaFleur launched with a collection of five dresses, and I immediately found them to be dresses that made me feel good, look good and were always appropriate for even the most conservative of business settings. It helped having a ‘power wardrobe’. You know how Wonder Woman has her armor, MM.LaFleur dresses were my armour, and this was well before I became involved in the company and invested in them. It was about damn time someone made proper women workwear, that made them feel powerful, look phenomenal, and let them just focus on the job, and not: ‘what the hell do I wear everyday’.
What’s your advice for women?
Discipline and hard work are equally as important, if not more, than passion. You have to be willing to put in the time, put in the labour and work, and you have to be willing to play the long game. Here's the thing I think, if men can meet 3/10 qualifications of a job and get it, and women are equally capable of doing that, but won’t, because we have respect for a job, for a company, for a team that we would be joining, that if we didn’t meet the requirements we wouldn’t want to ever let them feel shortchanged, we have a lot more integrity, . Anyone can be smarter than you, anyone can be more creative that you, very few people can outwork you. So as long your willing to work, and be the hardest working person on that team nothing can stop you.
The other thing I would say, is don’t be so obsessed about your timeline for what you want in your personal life, don’t let that derail what you want professionally. I would not recommend this, but I got a book deal the day I came home from the hospital with my son and I was in the middle of building a company. So, the first year of my son’s life I was, writing a book, launching a tech company, and navigating motherhood. It was hard, and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever doing, but it was worth it. The one person who said “this is a lot, but we will navigate through this, and I have your back” was my Mum. My father and my husband, despite been my biggest champions, both said “Is the book the right thing to take on right now?”, of course it wasn’t the right thing to take it on, but my mother was the person to say “We will figure this out, we will handle this, we have a team”. Don’t let your personal life derail you, put together a team to help you figure it out, and read “Drop the ball” by Tiffany Doffu and then ‘The Big Life' by Ann Shoket. Both are phenomenal must reads for any woman at any stage of her career. They’re written in such a positive way, but also in a tactical way, you can immediately incorporate what this book is teaching you into your life, right away.
Any last thoughts?
Stop saying sorry for every damn thing. Stop being apologetic for how awesome you are, because trust me men are not, and in fact their often over inflating their capabilities in a lot of ways. You should cultivate a self care of morning routine that really does recharge you, not drain you (as soon as humanly possibly). It’s so easy to talk about “oh everyone should have a morning routine” and then you wake up and the demands of the work fall in on you. Make it 10 minutes that you take care of yourself before addressing all the challenges the world is going to throw at you. At the bare minimum, it should be a little bit of reflection and meditation, and a little bit of exercise. Whether you do two sun salutations and then meditate for lie two minutes, and that’s all you have time for in the morning - that’s better than nothing, it doesn’t have to be a long laborious, luxurious kinda thing.
Wine and goldfish crackers are a totally acceptable meal some nights, don’t feel guilty about it, just start the next day with a nice healthy smoothie. You should be absolutely be reading books about war, and astrophysics and other nerdy topics, that you formerly though were boy subjects. There is no such thing as boy subjects and girl subjects, they’re just subjects. The better you’re able to talk about those things, the better impressed they’re going to be with you. If you really have great concerns about family and career and quite young, there is nothing wrong with freezing your eggs, obviously consult your doctor and talk to your family beforehand, but the younger do it, the easier it’s going to be, and it is a great insurance policy. I think it’s something we should all be talking about - taking control of our own healthcare and choices. Reproductive healthcare we see it as a social issue, but it really is an economic issue, so when you’re setting yourself up to be an asset in the 21st century, western economy, want to take an advantage of. It’s something worth exploring and often times we don’t think about it until it’s too late.
Hitha Palepu is a writer, activist and entrepreneur based in New York City. Author of the book ‘How to Pack - Travel smart for any trip’, and the website ‘Hitha on the Go’, Hitha also spends her time as an advisor for several companies. However, she considers helping women and girls live their best lives, her life’s work.