July 11, 2022

Embracing Rejection & Finding Your Purpose with Hitha Palepu

“You don’t have to be one thing for the rest of your life.”

 What does it mean to be a “multi-hyphenate” and how do you make it all work? Nora finds out with Hitha Palepu, an entrepreneur and the CEO of Rhoshan Pharmaceuticals, who also runs a fund focused on investing in women-founded companies and is a published author. Her latest book is “We’re Speaking: The Life Lessons of Kamala Harris.”  For more info on our presenting sponsor, check out realvision.com/businesscasual.


Host: Nora Ali

Producer: Bella Hutchins 

Video Editors: McKenzie Marshall and Christie Muldoon

Production, Mixing & Sound Design: Daniel Markus

Music: Daniel Markus & Breakmaster Cylinder

Fact Checker: Kate Brandt 

Senior Producer: Katherine Milsop

VP, Head of Multimedia: Sarah Singer 


Full transcripts for all Business Casual episodes available at https://businesscasual.fm


Nora Ali: For Morning Brew, this is Business Casual, bringing you convos with people you know, and some you may not know yet, to make business less intimidating. Because money talks, but it does not have to be dull. I'm your host, Nora Ali. Now let's get down to business. 

Growing up, I think a lot of us were taught to follow one linear career path. There was this notion that you figured out what you wanted to do, maybe in college, if you were lucky and set off on a specific trajectory focused on maybe just one career. But now it is much more common to be a multihyphenate, which is just a fancy way of saying you're someone who balances several passions and projects at once and does lots of things. One of the questions I get asked pretty frequently, and think about a lot as a professional career pivoter myself, is how do you know when to close one chapter and dive into something totally new? Today's guest knows the answer to that question, and a lot more. It's difficult to describe Hitha Palepu in just one sentence or with one label. When her team reached out to our Business Casual team, they described Hitha as a feminist, a lifelong politics enthusiast, a daughter of immigrants, a mother raising feminist sons, and "a friend of yours." Hitha and I hadn't actually met before this conversation, but we followed each other on socials enough to feel like we knew each other. I was looking forward to chatting with her because Hitha is a self-described multihyphenate and she fully embraces her passion to pursue lots of different things. As she put it in our convo, you don't have to be just one thing for the rest of your life. There are a lot of ways to design the life that you want. In addition to being the CEO of Rhoshan Pharmaceuticals and running a fund focused on investing in women-founded companies, Hitha is also the author of We're Speaking: The Life Lessons of Kamala Harris. In it, she discusses lessons about life, work and overcoming adversity through the lens of Harris's ascent to vice president of the United States. We covered lots of ground, and Hitha is full of approachable advice on how to thrive in work and in life. My conversation with Hitha is right after this.

Hitha, I feel like we've commented on each other's tweets a lot, we know of each other in the world of the internet, but this is our first time meeting face to face. So thanks for joining us on the pod.

Hitha Palepu: Thank you so much for having me. I'm thrilled to be here.

Nora Ali: I want to start with the multihyphenate thing, which I know you're probably tired of talking about it, but it's becoming more common now, is doing a lot of different things, not necessarily choosing one career path. Is this a phrase that you chose for yourself? Is this a part of your branding intentionally, to be able to describe all the different things that you do?

Hitha Palepu: Yes, but it was from a very lazy intention because I did not know how to describe myself otherwise. And I was really tired of just listing everything. So I was like, I'm a multihyphenate. And I do a lot of things. I am an entrepreneur, author, and speaker, and everything I do is to advance the lives of girls, women, and those who have always been traditionally underrepresented.

Nora Ali: Ah, that's a good personal mission to have. How did you come up with that? And do you think it's important for others to figure out what that personal driving force is, so you can use that to inform the decisions you make in your career?

Hitha Palepu: It comes from my own experience, which I think is probably consistent with a lot of people who have mission-driven or purpose-driven brands, where I remember just being othered for most of my life being one of the only Indian kids or South Asian kids in my class, let alone my school, and at work, being one of the few women when I was in tech and life sciences, often being the youngest, and recognizing when people took the time to sponsor me and champion me and speak my name in rooms that I wasn't in, to also learn to pay it forward and to do the same for others. And I think that's how we build a more equitable world and a more fair world versus the world we have right now.

Nora Ali: I think that's amazing. So you are obviously raising a family. You're the CEO of a pharma company. You're a partner at a venture firm. You're a keynote speaker. You've written two books. You have a Substack, you have a website, the list goes on and on. How do you compartmentalize on a day to day basis? How do you decide what you're going to tackle in a given day or even in a given hour? And I ask selfishly, because I struggle with this, doing a bunch of different businesses. What helps you?

Hitha Palepu: I'm a big fan of the Pomodoro method. I think—

Nora Ali: Me too! I have my clock. I have my clock. Let me show it to you. So can you describe it to our listeners who might not be familiar with the Pomodoro method?

Hitha Palepu: Yes! Ah, love a little time cube. So it basically is working in sprints of 25 minutes on, five minute break. And in those 25 minutes, you close out absolutely everything else to just focus on that one task. I actually don't use a time cube, I use the Forest app on my phone, because if you exit out of that app while the timer is still active, you kill a tree, which apparently that kind of very aggressive consequence—

Nora Ali: Like a direct consequence, yeah.

Hitha Palepu: —it works for me. And so it means I can't log onto Instagram or I can't log onto Twitter and putz around and waste an hour of my time when I could have been focused. So I really have to be punitive with how I work, because left to my own devices, I am my own worst enemy. And I know that about myself. The second, at a more macro level, is in how to decide all the things to do. I will say there are definitely chapters for different things taking a priority. Truth be told, with investing, we're winding that down. We have an incredible portfolio of companies and we've made investments from extremely early stage, first check in, to joining SPVs at a much later stage, at the pre-IPO or acquisition range. And that's been a wonderful experience for us, but it also is, having done it now for seven years, we're like, I think this chapter is closed and I think we're ready to focus on other ventures.

So I'm not doing all of these things at the same time. And so it's okay to close a chapter or close the book on certain jobs that you've held, so you can say yes to other opportunities or you can create space in your life to be able to say yes to a dream, huge opportunity down the line, which is in the mindset I am now. Certainly with the pharma company, we licensed the product last year, effectively in exit, but our team is still responsible for development. So I'm still all in until we have filed that product with FDA, and at which point I can take a little step back from the day to day of Rhoshan Pharma.

Nora Ali: This idea of knowing when to close a chapter or sunsetting something you've put a lot of passion into for a long time...I think this can tie into those listeners out there who maybe are thinking about quitting their job to go start something. Does it make sense for me to quit and take that space and figure it out, or do you need to have the next thing lined up before you sunset that chapter of your life? Do you have any advice on that, and what has worked for you when going from thing to thing?

Hitha Palepu: That really depends on the person. That also depends on the opportunity. So we've heard that typical financial advice: You should try to have six months of expenses saved and liquid in case of an emergency. You know, that emergency can be your own self and wanting to do something new. Now I will also say, it is important to understand what is my plan after those next six months. So whether that's lining up or having a plan to aggressively acquire some freelance clients or consulting clients, so you can transition into a next thing, that's one option. For some people, they don't feel comfortable moving onto the next until they have that next thing locked and loaded. And that's wonderful, but also take some time off between each of these chapters, because you also need to recharge. We are human, we need to rest, and we need to give ourselves space to just be before jumping into something new.

So I would actually just ask yourself, who am I? What do I feel comfortable with? What excites me versus what freaks me out? And really take the time, whether it's journaling or talking to someone; really understand the kind of person you are before you make the decision of what to do. But I do think there's nothing wrong with closing a chapter or sunsetting one thing. I talk about in the book that we are the sum of our multitudes, and I view career very much as a part of that. And you don't have to be just one thing for the rest of your life. And you can, if you have the desire to, and you can figure out the capacity to do so, juggle multiple things at the same time. I see physician friends of mine who are also incredible online content creators. I have entrepreneur friends who are also active speakers and have podcasts. I have friends who work in tech at really major companies and are active in not-for-profit service.

So there is a lot of ways to design the life you want and based on what you're also capable of at that moment. So one of my favorite things to do is to just sit with a blank piece of paper and write a letter to my present-day self from my future self. Usually this Hitha is, like, on a yacht in the Mediterranean sipping on—

Nora Ali: Same.

Hitha Palepu: —an Aperol Spritz and just having taken a swim in the Med and just living her best life. But that's who I write it from, and one day that will come true, but that's a really great exercise to say, if that's the end goal and that's the vision and that's who I want to be one day, what can help me get there? And that's from a finances perspective, certainly, but also from an impact perspective. Where can I be the most impactful? Where can I be the most useful? And what careers out there align with that?

Nora Ali: And I like that your future self, you didn't define her as having a particular job or role, it's the life that you want to be living. And it's like, you've been sitting on my therapy sessions, because the question of who am I is literally something I'm working on with my therapist, because it is so tied to career and job and everything. So I'm now going to do that exercise that you mentioned: future Nora writing to present day Nora. On that note, Hitha, let's take a very quick break; more on your book when we come back. Hitha, your most recent book is called We're Speaking: The Life Lessons of Kamala Harris, and you discuss lessons about life and work and draw on lessons from VP Harris's rise to vice president of the United States. Why did you choose to use her story as the lens through which you wanted to tell this?

Hitha Palepu: So Vice President Harris has been a longtime hero of mine, and I'll even say mentor from afar, from when she was attorney general of California. I am very weird in that I get randomly obsessed with things, and I have to go all in and study and analyze it. And it's everything from the Philadelphia Eagles to F1, to romance novels. But the great recession of 2008 was one of those things where I just was looking, I'm like, how did we get here? How do we make sure this doesn't happen again? And how are we managing the fallout? And one of the big parts of the fallout that fascinated me was the negotiation between the largest banks and the federal and state attorneys general.

And when I heard about this attorney general from California who joined the negotiations late because there was a recount from the election, Kamala Harris walking away from the larger negotiation table because she was so unsatisfied with that number, and it would just be a drop in the bucket of what was actually needed for meaningful relief. I was just like, whoa, that woman's pretty cool, but never having seen a picture of her or even thought to Google her. Fast forward a couple months later, I'm sitting, I'm on a business trip, I'm sitting on the bed, answering emails, have CNN on in the background. And this woman who looks like she could be my cousin strides to a podium with such confidence and such power and starts talking about the negotiation and the settlement agreed to for California homeowners. And that was back then Attorney General Kamala Harris. And in my mind I had just pictured someone much older. I had no idea she was that young, in such a powerful position.

So then my obsession with the financial recession shifted to Kamala Harris. And I really studied who she was, how she got to where she was, her career, but also the way she spoke, the way she seemed so at home in her clothing. And it wasn't that all of a sudden I was getting sleek blowouts and wearing pantsuits and pearls exclusively, but it almost gave me a blueprint of, how do I adapt what works for her for myself? So in a weird way, I have been writing this book for nine years, but when I was approached to write this book from the publisher a week after the election had been called, I was like, I cannot say no. I am so proud of this book. It is the book I myself have needed. And it was very intentional for me to not just make it about career, but also make it about how to have a fulfilling personal life and home life.

And I think in so many books, they either address one or the other, and that's not how our lives are. We have one life, and there are times where we have to compartmentalize and there are times we have to integrate and navigate through integration of work and family. And I never saw a blueprint for that, of how having a strong family life can really help your career and vice versa. So it was intentional for me to talk about both in this book, because she's also very devoted to her family, a phenomenal friend to all her friends. I lost track of how many godchildren she had when I was researching this book. And even about her style—as we see now, there was a lot of reporting about it, especially around the inauguration, but again, only women have to deal with this.

So it's important that we frame it from something we have to deal with to how can this make me feel more powerful? How can this make me feel better in my skin? How can I use this to my advantage? And that's what so many of Kamala-isms in this book are about.

Nora Ali: We'll get to some of the Kamala-isms in a second, but you've created this comprehensive guide. To your point, it addresses not just work, but also your life and living a fulfilled one. So when you get these random obsessions, as you called them, is there usually an end goal? Did you think your obsession with the financial crisis and then with Kamala Harris would turn into a book, or was that just a happy accident, almost, when you got approached?

Hitha Palepu: I would say it's an extremely happy accident that feels a little bit like fate. So I'm very grateful for it. No, there's no end goal with any of my obsessions. I've been obsessed with Taco Bell since I was a seven-year-old girl and my mother had to bribe me to get to do well in my [inaudible 00:16:11] classes in order to get a tostada. Legit. And then I had the opportunity to work with Taco Bell on a really impactful series of summits that they hosted for executives and franchisees earlier this year.

Nora Ali: Oh my God.

Hitha Palepu: It's funny how things work out, but certainly I have no desire to go work in the Philadelphia Eagles front office; I'm very happy to be a fan. Similarly, no desire to own an F1 team or work in F1; happy to cheer on Williams and Alex Albon from the side, and hate how much I like Lewis Hamilton and how good he is. And I think that's okay. Not everything has to become a business or a major project. Some things in your life can just be for because they bring you joy.

Nora Ali: But you never know. Your love for Taco Bell could turn into a business endeavor. You just never know. So Hitha, getting to the Kamala-isms, what are some of the most unexpected or underrated Kamala-isms that you'd like to highlight?

Hitha Palepu: I think "Eat no for breakfast" is one I have come back to the most, especially as an entrepreneur who had to raise money and negotiate a major deal. I got told no a lot. Thousands of times. I have a spreadsheet tracking every single rejection I got either from an investor, a fund, or a potential partner. And so "eating no for breakfast" and having it be something you conquer versus something that is done to you, I think is such a helpful mindset for especially women or people who are underestimated to internalize and adopt for themselves.

So for me, I had to learn how to flip that, to say, "How many nos can I get today?" to fuel me to send those pitch emails and ask for introductions. I get told no a lot by my children. Motherhood is like the best preparation to be an entrepreneur ever, because you learn how to really manage your time well and get used to rejection very well. But that requires a different headspace on how to deal with the nos of irrational, tiny humans who don't know why they're saying no—they're very impulsive. So that forces me to be a little bit more patient and a little bit more mindful with them of, I know I'm going to hear no eight million times this morning. So what can I do to get myself in a good headspace to keep my cool? So I'm like, I'm mentally ready for this. Let's do this.

Nora Ali: And it sounds like there's not just lessons for entrepreneurs in motherhood, but just management generally. So I think that's a good lesson there. So I heard you say in a different podcast, and I'm sorry for bringing this up if you don't want to bring it up again, but you hated fundraising, and hate fundraising generally. So as someone who has now learned how to take those nos and maybe use them as fuel, what is some advice you have for others who are just starting on their fundraising journey and might be daunted by it and might also hate it? Because it is one of the scarier parts of entrepreneurship.

Hitha Palepu: I think preparation is a really big first step. So don't just pitch willy nilly. Do your homework to create a really targeted list of individual investors and funds that you think are the right fit for you. Ask fellow founder friends if you could practice your pitch on them and ask them to be brutally honest and give you all the data. I will say, that can also be very subjective. So take everything with a grain of salt. And if well-intentioned advice doesn't sit right with you, really dig in to understand why; don't be in such a hurry to change your deck based on the feedback of one person. But if you've heard similar feedback from three to five people, that's a good enough amount of data for you to say, huh, maybe they have a point. Let me think about how I can reposition this.

And then I'll finish with, don't pitch your dream investor first. Get a few practice sessions under your belt, maybe get to the group that you're like, I'm not thrilled about them, but they could be a good fit, and get some of that practice under your belt before you go after the one you really want to land. And also work your network to get as many introductions as you can, as unfortunately, funds are starting to change, but unfortunately that's still the MO for successfully landing venture. And then the last thing I'm going to say is, make sure your business really requires venture or outside investors. Sometimes not all businesses need outside investors like that. If you're not building a rocket ship, you are going to have a very hard time raising from those types of institutions. So also consider and educate yourselves on other kinds of capital that is out there, because that might be a better fit for your business.

So understanding why am I fundraising, and is venture or angel investors or family offices really the right fit for the business I am building? Can I comfortably project what they need to see and do what I need to do with the capital I'm raising? And am I comfortable giving up that much of my company?

Nora Ali: I think it's become so glamorized, this idea of raising funds, because then you get published in TechCrunch, and you can post it on your social media. So I think that's really excellent advice, is make sure it actually makes sense for you. And go through dress rehearsals with your maybe not top choice of investors, so you can get to that top person eventually. Let's take another quick break. More lessons with Hitha when we return.

Hitha, in your book, you also discuss finding your North Star and using that approach to guide your decisions in life and work. What has been your process in identifying your North Star, and what do you mean by that?

Hitha Palepu: So my North Star is a little clunkier than some people's is. It really is to help people and women, namely, save time and energy on the things they have to do, so they have more time and energy to do the things they actually want to do. And that was the underlying thesis of Hitha On The Go. It has been what spurred #5SmartReads. I had noticed that people were getting, myself included, incredibly overwhelmed with the news. And there wasn't an opportunity to just get a sense of a nice snapshot of what was happening that you weren't seeing on the front page or trend on Twitter, or in the chyrons of cable news and be able to say, I'm going to read this, I'm going to learn about what's happening in the world that I wouldn't otherwise have learned. And then I'm going to go on with my life and just feel a little bit more informed. And that was the impetus of that.

My pharmaceutical career obviously has been an incredible opportunity to work on life-saving drugs that will save people's lives, I hope. And the types of drugs that we've worked on, which are 505(b)(2), so they're improved versions of existing drugs, that's to save money for people who otherwise can't afford it and try to help shift the healthcare system in the direction I think it needs to be in, which is on impact and value, not necessarily profit margin, which is my one little drop in the ocean of healthcare policy and trying to shift it in the direction I think it needs to go to. So that has been what has driven me in everything I've done. And I think that's also the same for my investing journey. So it doesn't have to be super eloquent. And if the idea of a single vision is really intimidating to you, consider a North Constellation. What are a few things that you find hope in, that you want to be known for, or written on your tombstone or in your obituary when you've passed, that you are known for?

Consider that, and consider words or even goals that fit that, and paint a beautiful little picture for yourself in the sky for you to focus on, because at any given point you could focus on one of those stars that make up the constellation, but know that life changes and so can our direction, and so can our goals or the impact we want to make. So a constellation might be a more helpful mindset for you than a North Star.

Nora Ali: I've never heard that before—a North Constellation. I love that. And as you're trying to figure out what your North Star is, your North Constellation, there's a lot of choices you have to make. We talk about imposter syndrome a lot. And you talk about this notion of borrowed confidence to harness strength and confidence at work and in life. What do you mean by borrowed confidence?

Hitha Palepu: So this is a term that my friend Dara came up with, but it is this notion of how you view yourself is often defined by one little thing that didn't go according to plan. Meanwhile, you ignore the great body of work, all of your accomplishments, all the great things you have done, all the people who respect you and value you in your personal and professional lives, that really do define who you are. So when you're feeling low and you're letting that one or two things bear down on you, borrow the confidence that other people have in you to shift your mindset into a more empowered tone. And a helpful tool of doing that is creating a hype file. So I have in photos an album that are screenshots of emails and DMs and messages from folks who have taken the time to tell me how something I did helped them, or how they see me. And it is such a beautiful thing to visit on a regular basis to remind myself of who I am and not define myself by one thing that didn't go as planned or a mistake I made.

And so I think everybody should have a hype file. I am notorious of sending my friends text messages that start with "For your hype file," and literally just sending them a love letter text or email.

Nora Ali: That's lovely. I used to do that back in the day when I worked on Wall Street and I was very stressed, and I totally forgot about that. So thank you, I will restart keeping a hype file. You also talk about developing your own unique voice and style in the workplace. And it's a challenge no matter who you are, but you posit that it's particularly important for women in the workplace. Why is that? And what do you mean by coming up with your own personal style?

Hitha Palepu: I do not mean to reinforce sexist dated tropes, but when I say this, it's really just to call out the truth. No matter who you are, we will all be judged by how we look, because that is the first impression we make to anyone. And we are also doing that judging, no matter how much we say we look at a person's character and not at how they look. That said, there is a way to define this on your terms and say, what do I want people to know about me based on that immediate appearance?

So something Stacey Abrams had mentioned that I thought was really powerful is she said, "I do not look like your idea of a politician. I am a tall, heavier set Black woman with natural hair." She goes, "Now I take the time to make sure my clothes are tailored to my body type, that I wear what makes me feel comfortable. And I go in and I have my hair styled and cut frequently so it looks neat, but it's also true to who I am." So I would say, shift this from, "I have to look a certain way" to "How do I want to show up? What do I want people to know about me based on what I choose to wear and how I choose to style my hair and do my makeup and the accessories I wear?"

And I think when you flip the script of "This is how someone will perceive me and judge me by" to "This is my armor and this is my war paint," it can help you say, well, who am I? Who do I want to represent to the world around me? And so for me, I joke that you get, anyone gets three versions of me, which is like polished boss ass bitch, decked out in a tailored dress, very much like the GM, Rebecca, from Ted Lasso, who is my icon as well; a schlubby teenage boy where I'm wearing ripped jeans and old T-shirts and a baseball hat; or the future me on a yacht in Amalfi, the crazy caftan and big jewelry and some kind of pair of ridiculous shoes that are always flats, because I'm just not doing heels after the pandemic.

Nora Ali: Me neither.

Hitha Palepu: Just no.

Nora Ali: No, thank you. Hitha, it is time for our fun bonus segments. So the first one is a segment we're calling Shoot your Shot. So this is where we want to know what your moonshot idea is. It's your wildest ambition, your biggest dream. It is your chance, Hitha, to shoot your shot and put it out there.

Hitha Palepu: My biggest dream is to be a host on The View, because I have had to create really all the platforms and many of these opportunities for myself. And I would just like to be a part of something that is established, that has incredible reach. And also I love discussing everything from the serious to the frivolous. So I would love to be one of the wise women who sits at that table every day. And that would be, that's me shooting my shot. So any producers of The View

Nora Ali: If anyone's listening. Yes, or make your own The View, Hitha; it doesn't have to be The View, it could be Hitha's View or Hitha's Happy Whatever. I'm not good at coming up with names for things. Okay. I love that. So Hitha wants to be on The View. Okay. Next up, Hitha, we have a game.

Hitha Palepu: Okay.

Nora Ali: It's quick. It's easy. It's fun. We're calling it Two Beats and a Miss. And it's our own Business Casual version of Two Truths and a Lie. I'm sure you've played that before. So Hitha, it's only one question, but I hope you nail it, because this is right up your alley. Which of the following statements about Vice President Kamala Harris is a miss, aka false? So two are true, two are beats, and one is a miss, one is false. A), she met her husband on a blind date. B), she loves tuna melts. And C), she is five three.

Hitha Palepu: Three doesn't belong, because she's actually five two.

Nora Ali: How did you just know that off the top of your head so quickly? Ding, ding, ding, you are absolutely right. She's five two. Was this part of your research or is this common knowledge?

Hitha Palepu: No, it was part of the research, but also I met her. I had the opportunity to meet her and I was like, I expected you to be five eight. And she goes, "I have tall woman energy, but I am not tall." My Tamil mother is a whopping four eleven.

Nora Ali: Amazing. I'm five two and a half. So I guess I tower over VP Harris. So the tuna melt thing, I'm sure you recall this, Senator Mark Warner, who made the disgusting tuna melt where it was like soggy, he didn't drain the tuna. He microwaved it. And then Kamala Harris did a little tutorial for him on an Instagram Live or something and she fixed it. So I did know that one, but it's nasty. Amazing. Well, Hitha, you nailed it. Thank you for making our first time doing Two Beats and a Miss a success. And thank you for joining us on Business Casual. This was so fun.

Hitha Palepu: Thank you so much for having me.

Nora Ali: This is Business Casual and I'm Nora Ali. You can follow me on Twitter at NoraKAli. And I would love to hear from you. If you have ideas for episodes, comments, and thoughts on episodes you loved, fun segment ideas, shoot me a DM and I will do my best to respond. You can also reach the Business Casual team by emailing businesscasual@morningbrew.com, or call us at 862-295-1135. And if you haven't already, be sure to subscribe to Business Casual on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. And if you like the show, please leave a rating and a review; it really helps us. Business Casual is produced by Katherine Milsop and Bella Hutchins. Additional production, sound design and mixing by Daniel Markus. Kate Brandt is our fact checker. Sarah Singer is our VP of multimedia. Music in this episode from Daniel Markus and The Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Thanks for listening to Business Casual. I'm Nora Ali. Keep it business, and keep it casual.