This essay is part of Einhorn Collaborative’s “Stories of Us” series, where we feature insights, research, and anecdotes by storytellers, artists, musicians, culture makers, writers, creatives, and community leaders beyond our grantee and funder networks to explore the themes of belonging, social connectedness, empathy, and collaboration.
By Mohan Sivaloganathan, CEO of Our Turn
I forged my first true bond with my dad through basketball. He was larger than life, a made-something-out-of-nothing South Asian immigrant, proud to be hardnosed, disciplined, and no-nonsense. As I grew up, I saw him as equal parts admirable and scary. Underneath his formidable presence was a desire to fit into the American Dream, to be a part of a culture that elevates and deifies greatness.
For my dad, this experience wasn’t simply about entertainment. Assimilation influenced the appeal. My dad discovered a common language with the co-workers who didn’t look or sound like him and oftentimes, left him out of social or professional settings. Even more so, in Michael Jordan, he saw someone who shared his ethos: ambition and work ethic will always win. As my relationship with my dad grew, so did the sophistication of our basketball conversations. But no matter who we admired on the hardwood, my dad would always remind me that the throne is singularly occupied. “He’s great…but he isn’t Michael Jordan.”
When I stepped into the professional arena, I tried to carry the same ethos into my work. If I could establish an aspirational vision for others, point my ambition toward the apex, and apply a force of will, I would also achieve unparalleled greatness. On the surface, the formula was validated. I’ve amassed some impressive bullet points on my resume: award-winning corporate social responsibility campaigns, activated tens of thousands of people in civic engagement, scaled life-changing social impact initiatives, and more. Yet, my pattern of achievement was also mapped to a similar refrain in all my performance reviews: strong on vision, not so great on relationships.
My reactions in those performance discussions would range from confusion to agitation. Our organizations were winning based on our performance indicators, so why does the soft relationship stuff matter? I tried to bridge the gap by assimilating. I was told that I was too casual and unfiltered in my early career, so I started wearing business casual clothing every day. And then, I was labeled “too robotic.” When I tried to reverse course and be more expressive, people thought I was hiding behind the work and called me “too vanilla.” Throughout my life, I’ve been too bold, too quiet, too persistent, too detached, too white, too black, too brown, too (fill in the blank).
Fifteen years into my professional career, I carried this baggage into my new role as the CEO of Our Turn (then called Students for Education Reform). I knew immediately that, as CEO, my cover was gone. Everyone was going to pay attention to every step, every word, and it would shape their impression of me. With the spotlight firmly on me, I found myself stuck between my upbringing — where excellence was all that mattered — and my desire to simply be me.
On my first day, I was asked to share my “story of self.” I took the opportunity to present some of my career highlights, broadly illustrate my vision for our organization, and briefly tell everyone about how much I love fatherhood. I thought it was a strong first impression, yet there was no standing applause. No tears. No one raised arms to follow me into battle. I wasn’t expecting a slow clap rising into a feverish crescendo with a John Williams soundtrack, but I was also disappointed by the muted response.
Three months later, our team convened for our first in-person staff retreat since I joined the organization. Even though we were doing valuable work across the country, and I was making a positive imprint, I still felt isolated. I could tell that my colleagues didn’t have a read on who I was, and it created a barrier between us. This time, however, I was determined to do things differently.
I opened our staff retreat with my real story of self. I talked about the labels, rejection, and isolation that sparked my journey of growth. I shared how finding community with fellow changemakers and advocates gives me fuel, not a brand of individualism that some might have perceived. I unpacked how I channeled my years of frustration as an outsider into discovering new blueprints for affecting change.
Upon my close, I looked out at my team. No applause. No tears.
Then one team member broke the silence and said, “Thank you for your vulnerability.”
I’ve been called many things. It was the first time anyone called me vulnerable.
I exhaled as pressure lifted from my shoulders. I felt seen. It was the power of empathy, the power of being surrounded by people who listened and understood my experiences for what they were. That moment enabled me to be…me.
In the years that have passed, I have jumped at every opportunity to bring down my walls. My team has seen my son grow from an infant to a toddler and has joined me in my journey of fatherhood as I took calls from the playground and the hallways of his school. I’ve bonded with black, brown, Indigenous, and LGBTQ Gen Z-ers and Millennials over the deep lows of inequities we’ve faced and the beautiful moments when we overcame those barriers. They’ve joked about my eccentricities, and I laugh with them. I’ve dropped 2Pac and Kendrick Lamar lyrics in webinars with donors. Some of my team has even listened to my music (I’m a hip-hop artist, and the thought of my co-workers listening to my music is excruciatingly uncomfortable).
The belonging and unmasking I discovered at Our Turn are now projected into how I show up in the world. In a panel discussion or a podcast interview, I don’t shy away from talking about my pain, my labels, my ups and downs. By leaning into that vulnerability, I’ve discovered a true connection with the people around me, because this journey of wins and losses is not mine alone. To celebrate and to endure is the story of us. Ambition and the pursuit of excellence are still deeply ingrained in my fabric. But my purpose — the stuff that truly lights me up — has been forged through my personal sense of belonging and desire to open doors of belonging to others.
Recently, our organization celebrated a team member, a young black man who was graduating from his master’s program and leaving his role at Our Turn. I joined other team members in sharing a few words about his impact on our organization. He responded, “I love watching you with your son. You show us that it’s possible.” The “it” was being a dad and a CEO. The “it” was being ambitious and grounded, joyful, and serious. The “it” was being authentically, unapologetically me. The “it” is belonging, and I’m deeply grateful I found it.