Hitha Palepu, CEO, Author and Entrepreneur, on Books, Reading and Empathy
WIE SUITE WOMEN
August 17, 2023
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Hitha Palepu is a consummate multi-hyphenate. She is an entrepreneur, author, and speaker. She is the CEO of Rhoshan Pharmaceuticals, whose lead product was acquired by Hyloris Pharmaceuticals. She is the author of We’re Speaking: The Life Lessons of Kamala Harris (Little, Brown Spark) and How To Pack: Travel Smart for Any Trip (Clarkson Potter). Hitha lives in NYC with her husband and two sons.

You were recently very open about having a hysterectomy. Obviously, that’s a huge procedure to go through while also running your company. How did you approach and manage this?

I have a friend and colleague who had a hysterectomy at a young age as well, and she was brutally honest on the procedure and how I would feel afterwards. She warned me that the gas they pump you with (a standard practice with laparoscopic surgery) would make you feel like you’d been hit by a car and would cause immense back and shoulder pain as it released, to check my incisions regularly, and to stock up on peppermint tea and Gas-X to help with the nausea and gas. She also sent me a uterus pillow and urged me to bring it to the hospital, both for some comfort in pre-op and to put on my stomach before buckling my seat belt on the ride home to not irritate the incisions. Her transparency and honesty was the best mental and emotional preparation for this surgery, and it’s why I wrote this post to share my own experience and offer myself as a sounding board to anyone going through a hysterectomy who may not have someone in their lives who had one.

From a work perspective, my hysterectomy was the nudge I needed to offload certain tasks and responsibilities that my team was ready to take on. In the weeks leading up to the surgery, I transitioned a lot of the tactical work I was still doing to different team members (both in my pharmaceutical and my content businesses), and did regular check-ins to answer any questions and check-in on the transition. I also spent this time either closing out tasks I was responsible for or tabling certain actions with estimated dates that we’d pick them back up. My leave isn’t absolute (I’m still checking my email and have jumped into a couple of work calls), but I’m prioritizing my recovery first.

On a personal front, I’m immensely lucky for a number of privileges - phenomenal medical care and team, a relatively fast timeline (got my initial prognosis for a hysterectomy in March and had my surgery in June), excellent health insurance, and supportive family and home team (our caregiver and home manager) who have taken incredible care of me and the home. I also have the privilege of flexibility and that I can afford to take leave to focus on my recovery, which is a rarity in this country. I recognize how unique this experience is, and I’m immensely grateful for these privileges.

Can you tell us about #5SmartReads and how do you manage all the things in your life – while still keeping up a reading habit?

My love for the news began in high school. I competed in extemporaneous speaking, and staying on top of the news was a necessity in helping me quickly research, write, and memorize a 10 minute speech on the news topic I drew at random. The habit stuck through college and beyond - I’ve always started my day catching up on the news. Since the 2016 election, I recognized the widening gap between trending news and underreported news and underrepresented perspectives, and shifted my own news diet to read the stories that weren’t getting the front page coverage or chyron scrolls.

I began #5SmartReads as an Instagram Story series in 2018 to share these stories with my community, and launched a daily newsletter in 2020 to help people start their day smarter without the distractions of social media. We’ve been recognized as a Webby Honoree and have a team of multi-hyphenated contributors who share incredible stories.

How I run #5SmartReads is how I pursue any work that matters to me. It starts with sharing something I’m truly passionate about (in this case, the news and being informed without being overwhelmed). I give myself 6 months to validate the concept and tweak as needed, allocating time and a small budget to the project. I check in with my community regularly (especially those engaging with the content) to get their feedback and ask if there’s anything else they’d like to see. I track the data (in this case, Instagram & newsletter follower growth and engagement) on a monthly basis. At the end of the 6 months, I decide if the project is something I’ll continue to prioritize based on the data and my own feelings (I trust my intuition as well as the data), and set a plan, goals, and budget for the next 6 months.

Do you have specific management or time management strategies that you employ?

I think my multi-hyphenated career grew from being easily distracted! I have to structure my work blocks in this specific way to stay focused:

  • I break down each project into individual tasks. Some can be done in an hour or two, and some are longer term. I don’t use any software for my projects (just my Notes app), and write down the tasks I plan to complete that day on in a mini legal pad.

  • I use the Pomodoro method (25 minutes of focused work, 5 minute break) and the Forest app as my timer. The app basically locks you out of your phone (if you exit the app when the timer is active, you kill a “tree”), which helps me stay focused on my task at hand.

  • I take aligned breaks - if I’m doing a creation task like writing or working on a deck, I’ll spend that 5 minute break needlepointing or crocheting my current project. If I’m doing research, I spend the break reading my latest fiction book. If I’m catching up on e-mails, I’ll use that break time to write a note (sometimes a handwritten note, sometimes an e-mail) with someone I want to build or maintain a relationship with, or a “thinking of you - hope you’re well, here’s what’s new with me!” text to a friend.

I also firmly believe that consistency is the foundation of productivity, and I have a few practices I have to start my day with (even if they all happen after drop off and I find myself scrolling mindlessly on my phone):

  • Meditation (I try to do this right after I wake up, using the Superhuman app or Joe Dispenza’s morning meditation if I have enough time).

  • Eat breakfast (I start with my AG1 and then usually have yogurt with Beeya seeds and blueberries, or dinner leftovers)

  • Journal (I’ve been a longtime Silk+Sonder subscriber and begin every day writing down the day’s affirmation and journaling prompt from their app)

  • Movement (strength training 3 days a week, cardio and Pilates/yoga 3 days a week, whatever I feel like 1 day a week). Half the time I work out after my kids are dropped off, and half the time I work out during my lunch break.

Some days I do a long meditation and make a beautiful breakfast and get in a challenging workout. Other days, it’s a 3 minute meditation where I struggle to focus on my breath, breakfast are the scraps of pancakes left by my kids, and I do a restorative yoga class at the end of the day. I’m kinder to myself on the latter days and will usually delete social media from my phone and keep it on Do Not Disturb mode the next day or two to help me recharge - I try to do this every weekend.

Do you have tips for networking and creating community that you think would be important to other founders and executives?

Sharing interviews or profiles of people I admire in #5SmartReads has been an incredible way to build relationships with these people, though I need to emphasize that I don’t select these reads for this purpose! It can be as low lift as profiling someone you admire on LinkedIn (sharing a recent interview they’ve done, your top takeaway or lessons from it, and tagging them) to a newsletter or podcast you run. Make sure the message is authentic - write or craft it as if you were sending it as a text to a close friend.

I would also remind folks of the power of a handwritten note, which has helped start relationships with some of my greatest mentors and friends. Keep the note short and very specific on why you admire or respect that person, or how advice they’ve shared on an interview has helped you in a specific way. Handwritten notes are also a wonderful way to nurture the network you already have - no one is upset about opening a card or note because someone was thinking about them!

A practice my friend Janna has that I plan to do is sending a twice-annual email to her network informing them of what she’s up to, how she can help, and keeping it very organic and natural. These notes always have me following up with her on scheduling a proper catch up over lunch or the phone, or attending an event she’s hosting, or simply sharing one of her latest offerings. If you begin this practice, I would also include a Postable link so you can collect folks’ mailing addresses to send them notes or even gifts when they announce exciting news or receive an award.

A “just thinking of you, how are you?” text is something to never underestimate, and it’s quite low lift. If you’re establishing a connection practice (I prefer this term over networking), commit to sending one of these texts a day and keep it organic - when someone pops into your mind that you haven’t chatted with in a while, just send them the text! Tracking practices like these serves me a lot (I use the habit tracker in my Silk+Sonder), but you can use a simple piece of paper or a calendar you print out from the Internet.

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Can you share with us 5 books that every C-Suite executive must read in 2023?

  • I love this question! Here are my 5 must-read books:

  • The Myth of the Nice Girl by Fran Hauser - I continue to reference Fran’s book on a regular basis, especially in critical moments at work. This book presents a refreshing form of leadership rooted in empathy, clarity, and kindness - something the world needs more of, and especially the senior levels of the workforce.

  • It’s About Damn Time by Arlan Hamilton - I’ll talk more about Arlan later, but this book is truly a guide on being a multi-hyphenate with both specific tactics and an overall strategy that is also rooted in incredible storytelling. Like the other books here, it’s one I return to often as a reference guide.

  • Fair Play by Eve Rodsky - having a fair household is the biggest boon in my career and my husband’s. Both of us are ambitious and have senior roles at our companies, and we both fairly contribute to our household (though the load has shifted between us over the course of our marriage). The practice that Eve outlines in this book has made for a stable, loving, clear household, which allows me to show up for work as my best as well.

  • Buy Yourself the F*cking Lilies by Tara Schuster - another book I return to often, particularly in tough moments or when I’m in a low place mentally. Each of Tara’s essays is paired with practices you’ll actually want to do that will help you reconnect with yourself. This book will also leave you wanting to be friends with Tara, who is a true flower/firecracker of a human.

  • Queen Move by Kennedy Ryan - not only is this one of the best romance novels I’ve read, it’s also the book that talked about perimenopause honestly (and had me scheduling an appointment with my OB-GYN and starting hormone therapy, because it turns out I had early perimenopause like the main character Kimba). There is such little education or conversation about this topic, and this book is both an honest portrayal of perimenopause and just a joyful, lovely read.

I would add my own books - How to Pack: Travel Smart for Every Trip and We’re Speaking: The Life Lessons of Kamala Harris - to this list!

You are a true multi-hyphenate. Who are women who you looked up to while paving your own unique path?

I have to credit my mother for my multi-hyphenated life. When I was young and would tell her my different career goals (A fashion designer! A boss! A pop star! Mr. T from the A-Team!), she’d always respond “…AND a doctor.” Her use of “and” was so powerful, as it taught me that I don’t have to be just one thing.

I have a number of multi-hyphenated mentors (some from afar, some that have become friends). Arlan Hamilton is one of my mentors-from-afar, and her book and podcast and social media are full of wisdom on how to stop obsessing, to make a plan, and to give it a try. I’ve learned so much from her and my own blueprint for executing on an idea (like I did with #5SmartReads) was culled from her own advice. Vice President Kamala Harris is another mentor-from-afar, and We’re Speaking is a collection of her stories and advice I’ve collected in being mentored by her, without her knowing until recently (I had the privilege of meeting her during the White House’s Forum for AANHPI Heritage Month).

Meghan FitzGerald is my healthcare multi-hyphenate hero. She’s worn so many hats in our industry (practicing nurse, biopharmaceutical executive, senior leader at the world’s largest distributor, private equity investor and board member) and has a wealth of wisdom to share. She practices what she preaches in being proactive about good health (sleep, nutrition, exercise, stress management) and when she asks me how I’m doing, she wants a full report on this front. I’m so grateful for her friendship and support.

I’m continuously inspired by so many WIE Suite members who wear the multi-hyphenate hat so well - Dee Poku (our fearless leader!), Eve Rodsky, Reshma Saujani, Candace Nelson, Anjali Kumar, Susan McPherson, and so many more. This community is incredible and one that has made me feel seen.

What is the top leadership skill you think C-Suite executives need in today’s world?

Empathy. I think with how rapidly the world is changing and the hyper-polarization we’re seeing in traditional and social media, our emotions have followed with this level of intensity and rapid change. And I find the push behind returning to the office and pre-COVID work culture - despite seeing the successes of hybrid and flexible work arrangements on corporations’ bottom lines, the GDP, and in general happiness - is fueled by a lack of empathy.

Cultivating empathy in our work culture requires a time investment upfront, but the returns are substantial. You’ll retain more of your employees, attract top talent who want to work for a company that values and respects their whole selves, and grow in terms of revenue, profit, and impact. I’ve been running high impact companies for over 10 years that are 100% remote and mostly asynchronous, and we’ve made immeasurable impact while also living full lives.

What’s one trend you see impacting us in 2023?

While AI seems to be the trend seizing headlines and a lot of attention, I’m focused on the return-to-office mandate a lot of corporations are enforcing. As I said before, I find this mandate to be shortsighted and regressive, particularly when we have data that shows flexible and remote work is successful for many office workers. I think this will not only impact us in 2023, but even more so beyond. The common definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, and a return-to-office mandate certainly falls within this definition given that it doesn’t fit in how we work and live today.

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