Start Speaking Today – Kunal Mahajan

About the Author: Kunal Mahajan has worked in the investment banking industry for 11 years within the Leveraged Finance sector.  He is a Vice President at Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation (SMBC) in the Sponsors Finance Group.  Kunal established the first disability-related network at SMBC, UNIQUE, in June 2019.As a child growing up, Kunal began stuttering at the age of three and continued to stutter throughout his life.  While he spent his whole life feeling insecure about his stutter and struggled accepting his stuttering disability in the workplace, Kunal was finally able to gain acceptance of his stutter in July 2017.

Kunal is a Toastmaster champion, a tour guide at Carnegie Hall, an assistant coach at the Dale Carnegie Leadership Program, received his Mental Health First Aid Certification from the National Council for Behavioral Health, and is currently training to receive his Social & Emotional Intelligence Coaching License from the Institute for Social and Emotional Intelligence.  He can be found doing improv at various venues around NYC and serves as a Disabilities Advocacy speaker in the community.

He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Finance at the University of Maryland and resides in New York City.

Shame, depression, guilt.  Feelings that are all too common and openly discussed at any National Stuttering Association support group meeting.  Growing up getting made fun of due to our stutter, getting passed up for jobs and promotions due to people not understanding that our stutter does not make us incapable, and most importantly, not being able to ever accept ourselves because of our stutter.  This has been not only my own experience with my stutter, but also the experience of hundreds of others who stutter who I have crossed paths within the stuttering community and who have shared their experiences with me.  The feelings of embarrassment and guilt for not being able to speak fluently when talking on the phone or while giving a presentation and the worries that people are judging us at those moments is what leads many of us in the stuttering community to fall into depression.  However, what actually starts to happen when we do start to focus our time on speaking more and speaking up?

It should be no surprise to hear that we start to grow when we do start speaking more.  Just like anything else in life, the more you start doing something, the better you become at that particular thing.  For example, the more we start going to the gym, the more weight we lose and muscle we are able to build.  The more we read, the better our comprehension becomes and the more knowledge we are able to build.  Speaking is no different as the more public speaking we do and the more we start speaking up for what we believe in, the more confident we become in ourselves.  Notice I did not say “the less we stutter” or “the more fluent we become,” but I said “the more confident we become in ourselves.”  This is a critical point as many of us in the stuttering community chase fluency, which is a situation that sets us up for failure as we have seen the research that shows most of us will stutter for the rest of our lives no matter what we do.  It took me 31 years to finally accept my stutter and understand myself that speaking up and speaking more was the most important thing for a person who stutters to do to live a fulfilling life.  My journey of coming to this realization is what has made me become a powerful public speaker and a leader in the disabilities advocacy world.

While I have been involved in the stuttering community my whole life, it was my experiences at two in-patient intensive stuttering clinics, Eastern Washington University’s SSMP Program and Idaho State University’s Northwest Center for Fluency Disorders Interprofessional Intensive Stuttering Clinic (NWCFD-IISC), that I went to for a month in July 2017 that gave me a very important realization.  Most people do not care whether I stutter or not, however, they do care about the strength of my communication skills.  Many of you, people who stutter, out there may be questioning whether this is true because of some of the discrimination you may have faced in your own lives.  I do not doubt that you have faced those experiences and can attest to many of those experiences as I too have experienced countless discriminatory experiences from people within society and previous employers.  However, the hundreds of surveys that I was able to do at these clinics with random strangers helped me to confirm this thesis about the strength of our communication skills being what people latch onto as opposed to our stutter.  “Excuse me, my name is Kunal and I am a person who stutters.  I am doing a survey for my speech therapy clinic and wanted to ask you a few questions.  Do you know someone who stutters?  What do you think of their stutter?  What do you think causes their stutter?  Do you think there are any jobs that someone who stutters cannot do?  What advice would you give someone who stutters?”  These surveys were very powerful because it allowed me to show myself that I can openly disclose to someone that I am a person who stutters and they would not have the negative response that I always believed they would.  Being able to educate these people about stuttering was also very empowering as they were genuinely appreciative of the information I was providing them and it felt enlightening to be able to educate these people on something that I had wished for so many years that they knew about.  Also, after hearing each person tell me time and time again that they are not bothered by a person’s stutter and that they believe there is no job that a person who stutters cannot do, I started to accept that maybe the limitation of my own stutter was more in my head as opposed to an actual limitation set by others.  The initial surveys I did I was very shy and insecure about them, however, the more surveys I did, the more confident I became, and I noticed that people began to respond more positively to me.  That is when I started to see that people were responding to my improved communication skills.

The realization that it was my poor communication skills and not my stutter that was holding me back set me on a growth journey that I have never looked back on since.  I immediately joined Toastmasters, a public speaking club, once I got back from the clinics.  While at first I was trying to just get through the speeches with my stutter, I eventually transitioned to actually giving speeches usuing the strong communication skills that I learned in Toastmasters such as eye contact, body language, vocal variety, and delivering speeches that had strong speech structure to achieve my desired objective whether it was an inspirational speech or a persuasive speech.  The more speeches I gave the more my presentation skills started to improve to the point that I started winning the best speech award at our club meetings.  Before I knew it, I was competing in the Toastmasters International Speech Contest and found myself winning 1st place in the club contest, then 1st in the area contest, and finished 3rd place in division contest.  I have genuinely learned to enjoy public speaking now and speaking in front of large audiences because I am able to get my messages across to large audiences and have an impact on them.  Most importantly, I have been able to recognize that I have achieved all of this success while still stuttering and my stutter has not impacted my ability to become a strong public speaker or a strong communicator.

Toastmasters Club was just the beginning of my public speaking journey.  I wanted to continue to challenge myself and further develop my speaking so I became a volunteer Tour Guide at Carnegie Hall where I give tours every week.  I followed that experience by entering the Dale Carnegie Program to learn how to become an effective public speaker and have taken various public speaking classes to further enhance this skill.  I now know that it is the consistent practice that develops a confident public speaker and I genuinely enjoy speaking now.

Growth by speaking is not just about improving our public speaking and communication skills.  It also has to do with speaking up for what we believe in.  I have been able to become a leader in the disabilities advocacy world because I was able to finally speak up after holding back my words for so long.  After spending one year at my current employer, Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation (SMBC), I reached out to the Inclusion and Diversity team in HR and asked them if I could organize a mock interview event for the stuttering community at SMBC.  Why?  I realized that I needed to take action by holding an event that would enable the stuttering community to help them gain acceptance of their stutter and get over their fear of interviews and that I needed to educate my colleagues about this disability that they might not have be aware of.   I shared my stuttering journey with 30 members of senior management who volunteered to serve as mock interviewers and educated them all about stuttering and the challenges people who stutter face.  I watched them give people who stutter interviews and it was a life- changing experience for them — to have an organization that truly understood what they were going through and accepted them with this stutter and for my fellow employees who never have had a chance to learn this in depth about a disability or have an impact on a disability community before either.

This event was so powerful that I realized I needed to speak up again and launch a disabilities network at SMBC.  I needed to do this for all of the other people with disabilities out there who might not have anywhere to get support for their disability and for our employees who have never been given an opportunity to learn about these disabilities.  On June 5, 2019, with the full firm’s support behind me, we launched a disability-focused Enterprise Resource Group called UNIQUE.  Our mission was to create a more emotionally intelligent culture at SMBC and to better integrate the disabilities population into the firm through building awareness, support programs, and advocating for the people with disabilities.  We welcomed more than 100 employees to this standing-room only launch event.  It had such a huge impact on the employees at SMBC that several of them trusted me enough to open up and candidly share their disability with me as well as the challenges that they have faced on a daily basis.  We now have more than 40 employees who have joined UNIQUE to help me to lead this effort for the firm; many of which are allies. We have a number of events scheduled such as mental health workshops, disabilities awareness and etiquette training for the staff, and guided mindfulness workshops.  These learning events are focused on topics such as empathy to educate employees on disabilities to create a culture that is accepting to our disabled employee population.  Three months later, I held a meeting with our CEO to  discuss the challenges our  employee disability population faces to feel  successfully integrated into the firm’s culture and that we needed his support  to help us to drive the initiative forward. Needless to say he was more than willing to do so and was very understanding of the situation.

No one will ever say that people who stutter have it easy or that the disabilities population do not face several challenges for them to overcome in our society and the workplace.  However, we must take the action to speak up if we ever want to grow ourselves or the movements that we believe in.  A person who stutters will find it incredibly difficult to obtain the confidence skills, public speaking skills, or self-acceptance unless they start to challenge themselves and dedicate time to working on these skill sets.  We also cannot expect the business world to have a full understanding of stuttering and the challenges people who stutter face and others with disabilities face throughout their whole lives unless we speak up.  The onus is on us to raise our voices to the highest levels of senior management and human resources and tell them what we are experiencing and how the institution needs to evolve to support our disability community that is very critical to the success of the organization.  Every firm wants to support its people and bring out the best in them – we are experts at our disabilities and our institutions will thank us for showing the courage and passion to educate them for the greater good of our community.  We ALL must start speaking up TODAY and not only will we be providing ourselves growth in our confidence and advocacy journeys, but we will be changing the lives of those around us and have a priceless impact on the organizations we work for that they will never forget.

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Comments

Start Speaking Today – Kunal Mahajan — 20 Comments

  1. Kunal – this is a wonderful piece and you are doing great stuff. Keep it up…

    • Thanks for the kind comments Uri. The one thing I have found is that when you become a Disabilities Advocate, the potential amount of impact you can have is endless so this is just the beginning of what I am on the verge of creating for the community through UNIQUE. We have finalized the date for the 2nd Annual SMBC Mock Interview Event for the Stuttering Community for January 21st from 5-8:30 PM so will get you the details soon so we can start getting the word out to the community as I am hoping we can make it even bigger this year!

      Appreciate the support my friend.

      Kunal Mahajan
      kunalmahajan2008@gmail.com

  2. Hi Kunal – this is such a great and inspiring piece. Congratulations on all you’ve been able to accomplish in service of and to help others, all because you had the courage and grit to share your stuttering at work. Not everyone can do that – they either don’t know, have no role models or work in a rigid workplace that does not value diversity. People like yourself can inspire those who stutter or have other differences to speak up and speak out. It can be so scary, because we’re conditioned to feel shame and fear, and we’re certain that our work colleagues will judge us wrongly or dismiss us.

    I am so please to see that not only have you achieved “Growth Through Speaking” for yourself, you have created a platform for others in your workplace to feel safe enough to do the same.

    You’re a real leader and role model.

    Pam

    • Pam,

      Thank you for the kind compliments. I got to a point where the weight of hiding this all in got to become too exhausting and when I finally felt the freedom of what it felt like to be open about my stutter and achieve that great feeling of self-acceptance, I knew I needed to take action to help solve this great issue at hand. It is a problem we have in the disabilities world that we can never solve unless people do take action. You have people who stutter who are too afraid to be open about their stutter in corporate america because they are worried about the stigmas and stereotypes by people so they try to hide it, just like I did for my whole professional career. However, this results in corporate america never getting a chance to understand stuttering and therefore never have an opportunity to change. Corporate America in general are not bad people, they just have never been given an opportunity to learn about stuttering and all of these other disabilities. This is why I started UNIQUE because I saw the employees needed a venue to learn about these disabilities and how every disability was facing the same challenges that us stutterers are facing with their acceptance journey.

      I appreciate the kind compliments Pam, but rest assured this is just the tip of the iceberg of my impact on the disabilities world as I know how much support the millions of other people with disabilities need as they just need a voice to speak for them to give them the courage to speak up. I also saw how much of a misconception I had thinking that all of my work colleagues would not accept me if they found out about my stutter. People are in general good people that just need to be educated as most people have not been around people with disabilities, let alone people who stutter so they have never been given the opportunity to learn and that responsibility has to come from us in the stuttering community to teach them.

      I have been able to see that I am a true leader, but it also has helped me see that anyone has the potential to be a leader. I was not born with these skills or this inner strength, but now that I see I have been able to develop it, I am just that much more inspired to help others see they have this potential in them as well.

      The stuttering community has so much inner strength and perseverance that when they do achieve that great feeling of self-acceptance, the impact they can have is limitless. The world needs so many more advocates out there to help us educate the general population base as allies are always ready to join our mission if we can help them feel the empathy and educate them on the community.

      The 2nd Annual SMBC Mock Interview Day for the Stuttering Community is going to be on January 21st from 5-8:30 at our NY Headquarters so I’ll be in touch soon so we can start getting the word out to the community and keep raising the stuttering awareness across the globe.

      — Kunal Mahajan
      kunalmahajan2008@gmail.com

  3. Hello Kunal,

    Congratulations on your personal successes, and kudos to you for your service to the stuttering community! You seem to me to be the embodiment of Hugo Gregory’s saying, “People who stutter can become better than average communicators.” Communication competence is such an important topic. You may be interested to know that in my school district, we are embracing communication competence and exploring Kristin Chmela’s model of helping school-age children who stutter evolve their overall communication competence across five areas of focus: ATTENTIVE (cultivating awareness of thoughts, emotions, body signals, reactions to the experience of stuttering), ASSERTIVE (speaking for yourself with the words you want to say, in the situations you desire), CONFIDENT (using a strong core posture, natural eye contact, and voice that fits the situation), EFFECTIVE (using complete sentences, speaking with greater ease over effort, getting one’s point across in a manner that is organized and understandable), and PROACTIVE (daily preparation to continue to evolve communication skills in a positive manner, setting one’s self up for success). Thank you for your inspiring story and the reminder about the value of stepping out of one’s comfort zone and developing the skills needed to pursue one’s life worth fighting for. Best,

    Rob Dellinger

    • Rob,

      You are exactly right as I have realized it is the fact that I have a stuttering disability that has made me become obsessed with learning how to become an expert on developing communication skills. That is the beauty of communication skills as it is something that anyone can develop over time. Eye contact, body language, tone, pacing, developing human connection, emotional intelligence, etc. are all things we all can develop through consistent practice and hard work which is what I have been able to do so. Confidence is the most critical aspect which is a function of all of these things as I have found when one develops the confidence, the level of impact and achievement one can have is endless. That confidence is what enabled me to launch UNIQUE for the benefit of the greater disability population and for all the employees out there in general who wanted to learn about disabilities.

      The work you are doing is great and I am so happy to hear that at a young age we are focusing on people developing their communication skills. This was never a focus for me growing up as all the time in speech therapy for me growing up was on trying to reduce my stuttering and on nothing else. You continue to emphasize the communication skills aspect to those young kids in school and you will help them develop to become expert communicators and the impact they can have and what they can achieve in their lives will be endless, all while they continue to stutter.

      Kunal Mahajan
      kunalmahajan2008@gmail.com

  4. Kunal, this is a moving piece about your journey. That is fantastic that you have taken some of the challenges you have faced and turned them into growth opportunities for yourself and others. You are able to educate and provide others with a role model and through the program UNIQUE you can pass on the powerful message of growth by speaking. I have had the opportunity to take part in the NWCFD-IISC clinic as a clinician and you are right those surveys are so difficult. But, having the opportunity to educate others about stuttering is empowering for everyone involved. In your paper you mention “The realization that it was my poor communication skills and not my stutter that was holding me back set me on a growth journey that I have never looked back on since”. That is amazing that you found success through communication, and practicing those communication skills.

    • Kristen,

      Thank you for the kind compliments. Yes I am very thankful for having these challenges as I would have never developed the passion to want to start UNIQUE unless I had known what it really felt like to go through these challenges and how much of an uphill battle the disability community has without having a group speaking for them and that they can be a part of. UNIQUE is really what has saved me and enabled me to have an impact on a mass scale which is what I am very passionate about — creating awareness, support programs, and advocating for the disability community. Here is some more information on UNIQUE if you are interested https://www.lc-global-us.com/change-talk/unique-change-creating-a-culture-of-inclusion-and-emotional-intelligence.

      Yes the realization of how poor my communication skills was such a wake up call for me, but it was a great realization as I knew that was something I could work on. I spent my whole life never working on communication and confidence skills so it made sense to me why I had such poor skills. The success I have had has been around growing so much around my communication, acceptance, and confidence as that is what enables all of us to reach our full potential.

      Glad you took part in NWCFD-IISC — it is an amazing program I will never forget my 2 graduate students clinicians. The impact that they had on my mental health saved me and played a big part in helping me start this journey so I am very grateful to them and that program.

      Kunal Mahajan
      kunalmahajan2008@gmail.com

  5. Kunal,
    These two quotes from your writing just hit me so strongly.
    “Notice I did not say ‘the less we stutter’ or ‘the more fluent we become,’ but I said “the more confident we become in ourselves.’”
    “…the more surveys I did, the more confident I became, and I noticed that people began to respond more positively to me”
    I am an SLP graduate student and have been looking for just this, without even realizing it. I have been looking for this missing link. Why should a person who stutters work on acceptance, mindfulness, and so on if fluency isn’t the goal? I could understand how these would improve the feelings about stuttering, but what does this really look like in the real world? The chain of links between shame and guilt, through practicing acceptance, to confidence has to be built on hope for something. That something is the realization that most people really do care more about what you have to say than how you have say it!
    Thank you so much for this contribution.
    Regards,
    Tabitha Syme

    • Tabitha,

      You are exactly right. I never understood that human connection is the thing that everyone cares about. That is how relationships are built, deep bonds, how you motivate and influence people, and how you obtain people’s respect. None of those things have to do with how many times you stutter or how good your fluency is. The goal should be to help people accept themselves so they can obtain the confidence of being their true authentic selves and motivate them to work on developing skills around communication so they understand how to build human connection and have their words have an impact on people by utilizing these skills.

      It seems so simple to understand now, but it is the last thing that most of us in the stuttering community are thinking about because we have not accepted our stutter yet and are too worried about the perception of it all.

      Kunal Mahajan
      kunalmahajan2008@gmail.com

  6. Kunal,

    I enjoyed your post thoroughly. Your reflections on expressing confidence over fluency were powerful reminders that can be very helpful when thinking about the treatment of fluency disorders. I am a current graduate student studying Speech Language Pathology, and I found your post to be consistent with what I have learned regarding the treatment of stuttering so far. That is, less focus on increasing fluency, and more focus on helping the client accept their stutter and develop confidence in what they have to say rather than how they say it. I really liked your comments regarding confidence and how people key into the strength of your communication abilities rather than your stutter. I think your sentiments are powerful reminders to aid clients in focusing less on fluency and more on acceptance of their stutter to have the best possible therapeutic outcomes.

    Best,

    Annika

    • Annika,

      Thank you for the compliments. Yes confidence is the absolute #1 thing for people who stutter to focus on and so much of it is centered around this great feeling of acceptance. It is difficult to move forward and make progress on your actual confidence and developing communication skills until you reach this acceptance and unfortunately acceptance was the last thing I focused on in all my years in speech therapy growing up. So much of my time was focused on how do I stutter less and stop stuttering so I can sound like everyone else.

      You help your clients gain that acceptance, then the confidence will come and you can then empower them to put in the work to learn about effective communication. The idea of learning how to develop human connection is a vast space, but is worth it as so much of what I have been able to accomplish has been because of my ability to connect with people and the growth of UNIQUE has been attributed to others connecting with me on a deep personal level because of the mission we have.

      Kunal Mahajan
      kunalmahajan2008@gmail.com

  7. Thank you for sharing your story on your personal journey to success. Your post is powerful and will inspire many. It is nice to hear that you had strength to overcome challenges and advocate for yourself and others. You mentioned that it took you 31 years to accept your stutter. If you attended speech therapy as a child, was treatment primarily focused on fluency or acceptance? What advice do you have for a SLP when treating someone with a fluency disorder? I hope to help my clients accept their disfluencies and develop confidence in their communication abilities.

    • Thank you for your kind words. Yes I hope other stutterers can follow my lead and eventually become an advocate for the community as we need so many more advocates to spread the awareness. Yes I would say most of my speech therapy was focused on strategies to reduce my stutter as opposed to acceptance. My biggest piece of advice for you is to focus more of your time on acceptance. You need to get out of your clients’ mind that the goal is not to reduce their stutter and improve their fluency. Help them see the flaws in their self acceptance, their confidence, and their poor communication skills. If they have poor eye contact, low tone, poor body language, low self esteem, etc. these are all things they can actually put in the work to improve and when they can see growth in those areas, they will become more and more confident.

      My obsession with obtaining fluency and reducing my amount of stuttering is what moved me further and further away from self-acceptance and is what caused so much mental health damages in me. Thanks for helping our community.

      Kunal Mahajan
      kunalmahajan2008@gmail.com

  8. Kunal,

    Thank you for posting and painting such a vivid picture of stuttering and the world around it. I am currently a graduate student studying speech-language pathology and I have not had the chance to come into contact with many people who stutter, so it is very helpful as the clinician to understand what someone may experience. I loved how you made the connection between your stutter and your own communication skills while focusing on your strengths and building confidence in your abilities. I am pleased that you took the initiative to join a public speaking club and focused more on communication rather than fluency.

    • Kirsten,

      Thanks for the compliments and the work you are doing for the stuttering community. Yes it has been my dedicated focus on improving my communication skills and confidence that has been the reason why I have been able to make so much progress and growth in myself. Many people who stutter don’t realize how poor their communication skills actually are because they think it is their stuttering that is holding them back, when in reality, it is those communication skills and confidence that people really care about. Toastmasters helped me realize that and public speaking is something I have to do all of the time now since starting UNIQUE.

      Kunal Mahajan
      kunalmahajan2008@gmail.com

  9. Kunal,

    Thank you for sharing your personal story as a person who stutters. Congratulations on your accomplishments in your career and personal growth which motivated you to advocate for individuals with disabilities. I appreciate your desire to integrate self acceptance and personal growth into your workplace by creating the disability-focused Enterprise Resource Group UNIQUE, to help your fellow collogues with disabilities and to create awareness among the work place. Since starting UNIQUE, have you heard of your fellow collogues integrating their increased knowledge and awareness of disabilities into their everyday work operations and/or integration with clients that present with a disability?
    Thank you in advance for any response you can provide, I am looking forward to your reply.

    • Amanda,

      Thank you for your email Amanda and yes UNIQUE has been such an important group for our organization. Absolutely Amanda and the beauty about creating awareness is that it just changes you personally without even realizing it. UNIQUE has been a way for us to create more emotional intelligence in the workforce so by having mental health workshops or sign language workshops it enables the staff to really people with these different disabilities, understand what they go through, and develop that empathy which translates into how they interact and treat others. It really has just made people start to care more and more about each other which is what has benefited our culture the most.

      Kunal Mahajan
      kunalmahajan2008@gmail.com

  10. Hi Kunal,

    Thanks for sharing your story and congratulations on all of your accomplishments. As a speech language pathologist in training, I was wondering if you have any specific tips for therapists or parents of children who stutter. Thanks !

    • Yes I would focus on helping them find ways to increase their confidence and acceptance. This is the most critical thing to find as the more years you go trying to hide your stutter and trying to not identify as a person who stutters, the more mental health damage you do.

      If you can stress to the parents the importance of acceptance and helping them build confidence skills you can save these kids decades of pain