Kunal Mahajan has been in the investment banking field for 12 years within the Leveraged Finance industry. He joined SMBC in 2017 and lives in New York City. As a lifelong person who stutters, Kunal struggled with his stutter until he obtained acceptance of his stutter in July 2017. He attended three intensive stuttering clinics — the Northwest Ohio Stuttering Clinic at the University of Toledo, the Successful Stuttering Management Program at Eastern Washington University, and the Northwest Center for Fluency Disorders at Idaho State University. Kunal championed the establishment of SMBC’s enterprise resource group for people with disabilities and allies, UNIQUE, in June 2019. He is a Co-Chair of this employee resource group and helps to lead many activities through UNIQUE along with the support of SMBC management and more than 70 SMBC employees.
Resilience and bouncing back. Two critical topics that not only describe the journey of one who stutters, but are also timely topics given the challenges we face today. We are in the midst of a mental health crisis as people have concerns over the safety of their jobs or have experienced layoffs, concerns of their families as well as their own safety and well-being – all while adapting to a new life of working from home and some living in isolation. With so much uncertainty on not only how our stutters will evolve over time but also on the outlook on our own lives in the near term and the long term, all that we can do is embrace what being resilient looks like and bounce back ourselves and to use these lessons to help others.
While I appreciate every person who stutters has a different journey, I want to offer my experience and what I have learned from my time working with people across all kinds of disabilities. I have been a banker for 12 years now primarily in New York City. Prior to joining my current employer, SMBC, I was the classic stuttering case that we have all heard about. I just tried to make it through my career by hiding my stutter, never acknowledging it, and praying that people did not notice it because I did not want my manager to hold it against me, see it as a weakness, or see me in a negative light. No one ever talked about disabilities at my previous employers, the organization was never advocating for the community, and no one was making any active efforts to recruit people with disabilities, so I assumed that people with disabilities was something that organizations did not want.
While I always believed society painted people who stutter in a negative light, my mindset towards my stutter and how companies felt about people with disabilities changed when I was able to launch UNIQUE at SMBC, with our mission to create a more emotionally intelligent culture at the firm and raise the awareness of, provide support, and advocate and recruit people with disabilities.
It was through being resilient and bouncing back that led to my journey to where I am today. Bouncing back is something I have been privileged to see so many of my other colleagues with disabilities achieve too.
I can point toward three main areas that have helped me embrace resilience with my stutter: taking action, adopting an emotionally intelligent mindset, and advocating for our disability community.
Taking action for a person who stutters. What does that look like? It means obsessing on trying to improve what our greatest weaknesses are as people who stutter. While many of us in the stuttering community believe our greatest weakness is our stutter, the reality is our greatest weaknesses are our communication skills. Communication skills are not about one’s fluency – it is about our ability to connect with others. That includes having good eye contact, body language, vocal variety, tone / cadence, and understanding how to give a speech with strong speech structure. It is about being authentic when communicating with others and being confident in what you have to say.
It is no secret to those within the stuttering community that one of the greatest fears is the interview. Being possibly judged in a high-pressured interview, most often with an interviewer who has likely not known someone who stutters, is a daunting experience, especially as the interviewer cuts off your words and sentences because you can’t get them out. When we are so focused on whether we are stuttering or not, how strong can our communication skills really be? When I realized that my own skills needed work, I set out on a mission to take action to improve them. It first began with attending a weekly Toastmasters meeting – an organization that I joined in 2017 at Columbia University Toastmasters club where I try to give speeches as frequently as possible. I started off very nervous with subpar speeches. By being resilient, showing up every week, I saw improvement until I felt confident with my speeches and enjoyed giving them.
This helped me become a volunteer Tour Guide at Carnegie Hall, giving one-hour tours followed by going through the eight-week Dale Carnegie Leadership Program. I learned key concepts on how to become an effective leader, how to be an effective public speaker, and how to stop worrying and start living. These efforts led me to the improv world where I took classes at UCB Theater to continue improving my communication skills. Getting comfortable being on stage and not knowing what is going to happen next, but trusting one only has to remember to speak from the heart is one of the best ways to help improve one’s communication skills.
While each of these programs has enabled me to continue to improve my communication skills, I learned the hard way that a communication journey is an ongoing process – whether you stutter or not. We don’t lose our stutter and it will be ever present for most of us without being able to control it. We do have the ability to take focused action to improve our communication skills, irrespective of our stuttering severity.
The second aspect I want to address that helped me is adopting an emotionally intelligent mindset. What does emotional intelligence even mean? It’s a topic not emphasized enough in the stuttering or the corporate world – it is the ability to understand your emotions and those of others and to act appropriately in different situations. Many of us who stutter are emotional people, however, we have closed ourselves off for so many years by trying to hide our true stuttering selves from the outside world due to our fears of judgment.
We are not alone with this feeling – with research showing that 70% of all disabilities are invisible, this sadly has become the common disability experience. When I realized how little emotional intelligence I had, I spoke with a mental health therapist with a specific focus on cognitive behavioral therapy. It started off with seeing this therapist twice a week for seven months, followed by attending two intensive stuttering clinics for one month where I worked all day with a speech therapist and mental health therapist. It was through these efforts that I broke down my past and began to understand myself. I realized I had gone through most of my life feeling ashamed of my stutter, leading me to harbor feelings of self-hatred and insecurities about who I was and who I had become. I spent many years seeking external validation from others, trying to present a certain type of person who I believed they would accept. I never felt like I was being my true self and was exhausted from trying to be someone I was not. It is not easy to genuinely accept you do not like who you are and come to grips with that.
Many of us in the stuttering community share this experience. Acceptance is often the most difficult thing for anyone with a disability to do, but when we do find that we are able to accept ourselves, that is when the most growth is achieved. We start to embrace ourselves. We are able to set new goals to keep growing and improving while being authentic. I have continued to see a therapist regularly to help me process my emotions and it has been through this work I have been able to accept myself and find that great sense of self love that is so difficult to find for those who stutter and others with disabilities. I have learned that understanding my mind, feelings, emotions, and understanding others is the key component of human connection — critical to developing happiness in our lives.
SMBC has designed its UNIQUE employee resource group to center around this topic of emotional intelligence and ensuring that its employees are taking care of our mental well-being. By doing so, I have seen more people with disabilities accept themselves in one year than I have ever seen before and more of my colleagues open up and share their stories and feelings with each other so we can all come together to develop that strong connection.
The final aspect of the resilience of my stutter has come from advocating for the disability community. In my personal view, the #1 challenge people who stutter and others with disabilities face is the high unemployment rate due to stigmas / stereotypes in some workplaces where there may be limited awareness of disabilities and how to best provide support for people with different kinds of disabilities. I remember the many interviews and job opportunities that I have been rejected due to someone perceiving my stutter as nerves / thinking I would not be a good fit due to my stutter. I’ve had to bounce back from those experiences and have become proud of my stuttering because I have realized I can help others with disabilities to accept their disability and show them that organizations can accept them. It is unfortunate to me that society and corporations do not place enough emphasis on increasing the hiring of people with disabilities as I know how incredible these people are. Those of us within the stuttering community can do our part to help encourage our employers and our networks to increase the hiring of people with disabilities because we know how much value we can bring to them. The education of stuttering and disabilities is a never-ending journey and there will always be countless people with disabilities in need of support and someone to advocate for them to help them obtain employment. Through dedication and resilience, we can continue to advocate for these communities to help increase their likelihood of gaining meaningful employment so they can live a rewarding life and profession. Each one of us can help educate our employers on stuttering and other disabilities to help build a more equal society and enable every person to succeed irrespective of their differences.
Stuttering is something we will all continue to manage and learn to accept. The resilience we have is what can make many of us proud of who we are today. Through taking action, developing an emotionally intelligent mindset, and advocating for our stuttering and disability communities, many of us have the ability to become more resilient and can use our ability to be resilient to improve ourselves and impact others to make the world a better place.
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