Impact & Awareness

Women’s History Month Interview: Meet Roberta Riga

Written by Ryan Nelson
Published on March 14, 2022 at 5:00 PM PST

As part of our continued celebration of Women’s History Month, we’re excited to highlight an inspiring female business owner each week for the remainder of March in a Founder to Founder interview series, led by our very own Zain Pirani!

This week, we chat with Roberta Riga – Founder of R Riga Consulting, Co-Founder of Power Play Improv! and Coaching BOLD, and trusted Advisor to Team NTY. Check out the video below to learn more about Roberta and her journey as she and Zain discuss their experiences as female immigrants, building a business, and how to empower women to embrace their full potential.

Looking for a specific section before diving in? We got you…

00:45 – About Roberta

02:53 – Overcoming Immigrant Stigmas

07:55 – The Journey to Business Ownership

10:48 – Finding Balance & Building A Diverse Set of Business Experiences

11:20 – Power Play Improv!

13:03 – Coaching BOLD

14:03 – Aligning Values with Business

21:15 – Coaching Executive Women

25:44 – How to Overcome Gender-Bias in Business

28:40 – Personal & Professional Inspirations

For more information on Roberta, R Riga Consulting, Power Play Improv!, and Coaching BOLD – check out the links below:

Be sure to keep an eye on our blogs page and follow us on Instagram @NTY.co as we highlight more inspiring female business owners like Roberta for the remainder of March!

Video Transcript

Zain: Well, thank you, Roberta, for joining us. I really appreciate you taking the time out of your busy schedule. 

Roberta: Oh, you’re very welcome. It’s a pleasure to be here with you.

Zain: We’re really excited to have you be part of the NTY journey. You’re one of our advisors and we obviously appreciate everything you bring onto our platform. I think to get started, it’d be great for our audience to get to know you. So maybe if you can give a little bit of background about yourself, tell us about your journey and we can get started. 

Roberta: Sure. I was born in Italy and moved to the United States when I was about four to the east coast. And then my family moved to the Bay Area when I was about seven. So, I mostly grew up here in the Bay Area. But English was my second language, so I did go through the kind of transition and trauma of not belonging or not feeling like I understood what was happening because I didn’t know the language.

So that was a bit of a culture shock. Then at the beginning of my journey there, it was one of really noticing being an outsider and how to kind of want to connect and belong. Um, but you know, grew up mostly in the Bay Area, went to undergrad at UC Berkeley, and did my masters at the University of San Francisco in psychology and organization development.

And my professional journey started out with HR management and consulting and then migrated into leadership development and executive coaching, which is what I do now in my practice, and then I try to find ways to connect with different initiatives and organizations like, No, Thank You where I feel like there’s a connection with values and a mission that’s aligned with what I believe in personally. And so, you know, I try to also do those things in addition to the one-on-one coaching or the development work that I do with companies. 

Zain: Okay. Awesome. That’s a great intro. Thank you for that. I think I just wanted to kind of touch on, you know, I’m also an immigrant- I moved here when I was 15 and our journeys as immigrants are more similar than people even think it’s not about the skin color here. So when you were younger and I clearly remember, I used to think in my language, in Urdu, and then translate it and then speak. Like, did you have similar where you were thinking in Italian translating,  and then speaking, so you always had like a little bit of a gap to where you weren’t as quick to respond to things? Which wasn’t like, I am dumb That’s why it was taking so long, but people perceive it that way. But it’s just that I needed to translate in my head and I see that with older generations too. They’re still translating. They don’t think in English. So it’s very different. 

Roberta: Yeah. It’s a really interesting question because my first exposure was, in kindergarten where I, of course, didn’t speak any English at all and my parents didn’t speak it, so at home, of course, they spoke Italian. And so I didn’t learn it there. And this was, you know, I’m going to age myself, way before, like ESL was available so I would just sit in class, not understanding, not knowing anything, not being able to connect to it or communicate. So yes, I would think in Italian, because that was the only language that I sort of had, and it also made me just sort of, you know, hyper I guess, conscious of being different and every day, and language is one of those things that is so kind of grounded in who we are right in our identity that having to learn a new language while trying to assimilate and try to belong, I think is a really difficult thing

But as you were talking about your experience, it just kind of reminded me of something in like, I don’t want to say like second grade or third grade, I remember being tested for whatever the next gifted program is for education, I don’t remember what it was called, and I remember they were showing me certain, you know, photos of like, what is this? What is that? And I didn’t have the words. I mean, I knew what it was not like, again, I was stupid, I just didn’t have the exact word. You know, something like a streetlight or something. And I remember thinking that then they would say, “oh yeah, she’s not able to advance to the whatever gifted thing.” It’s like, wow! That is really interesting when I look back on it around how every culture does this, but we all create systems that are so specifically geared towards, the majority of that society without regard or conscious awareness of all the kinds of minority or the people around so there’s kind of a built-in exclusionary bias, right?

I think we all come up against that in, in many different ways. And certainly sounds like we both did. And in our kind of upbringing, I also remember having a lot of shame around bringing friends home when I was younger because my parents had really heavy accents and I didn’t want to be made fun of if you’re different. So, I didn’t want them to see my home life. There was a lot of self-consciousness and shame around it. I would even tell my mom when she would bring me to school “Okay, wait here, don’t come any closer.” 

Zain: I feel so mean. I did the same thing! They gave him so much to bring me here. 

Roberta: Totally and when we look back, it’s like, when I would have friends over, I’d say “Don’t sit, don’t talk”, which is so awful! Of course, I love my mom, but yeah. I mean, I think that just speaks to all of our human need to belong and to fit in and to be welcome and to feel connected. And of course, growing up as kids, or as young adults, that the imperative – the right to belong.

Zain: Yeah, I would give my younger self, a scolding like that’s not how you treat people! 

Roberta: I would give my younger self an “F” on that too! 

Zain: And one thing I’d always get embarrassed about was that my mom would make all this really fragrant food, that people love and like eat – And the world’s all about food now, but back 20 years ago it was embarrassing! My friends would come over and say “Your home smells, smells like something”  And “You smell like your food” and that was the embarrassing part. But now I have pride over it. You know? So things have definitely changed. 

Roberta: The food thing too, like I so relate to it. I remember I don’t know what grade in school was about “Okay, bring something from home or bring a dish that you really like and have your parents make a dish you really like…” My favorite food at the time, which it still is, is gnocchi, but at the time my mom made a whole big bowl of it and when brought it to school everyone was like, “What? What is that?”  But of course now the same thing, I’m super proud of it and like who doesn’t like Italian food? 

Zain: Exactly! I didn’t understand – all I wanted from my Mom was like chips in sandwich and you’re giving me all this healthy food that’s made from scratch, all organic and natural and I’m like “No, just to the grocery store!” 

Roberta: Well, ultimately my mom learned the way to keep us at home and have friends ever was, she had a whole drawer that was full of like Hostess Cupcakes and Twinkies, and we became like the household where it’s like “Oh, let’s go to Roberta’s house because her mom has a bunch of goodies!”

Zain: Nice! Well switching gears a little and in your adulthood, when you decided to start your company, what was that like? What was your journey? Take us through that. 

Roberta: So, the first part of my professional life was really in Human Resources. I did some social science research work but went into HR, and pretty quickly into management or being the head HR person. I had the experience of wanting to not be mired in a lot of the political issues that happen in any organization and I had had a couple of friends that hung their own shingle and did their own business and practices, so I thought, well, maybe I can do this too. So, when I ventured out my approach was I will do anything and everything that is even remotely within the realm of my capabilities because I really wanted to establish that I can make my own business or have my own consulting practice. It was a big dot-com boom, at the time, which was sort of fortunate timing-wise. It wasn’t by design, it was just by happenstance. 

But, I really just did soup-to-nuts HR. I remember really going out and doing a lot of business development calls and the first contract I ever got as a consultant way back in the day, I actually applied to a software company as their head of HR knowing that as soon as I got the interview, I would try to influence them to just get me on as a consultant and that they didn’t need a full-time person in the house, and I actually succeeded in doing that! So I was like “Great! Maybe I can benefit and do this! I worked really hard at the beginning -days and nights and weekends and even if I didn’t know exactly how to do something,  I’d research how to do it and try to figure it out. It was a challenge, but it was also a very invigorating one and a very empowering one. 

There were some folks close to me at the time that said “Well, you should probably just stay where you are or stay in-house” because it’s safer, right.? It’s more stable, more stable income, and I kind of just thought, “NO.” You know what I mean? I’m going to just go out and try this. What’s the worst that can happen? I can always revert back to taking an in-house job. It was a challenging experience for me, but also a really good one because it afforded me the data points and the history to be able to rely on myself. 

Zain: According to your resume, you did R Riga Consulting and also did other things which is quite interesting. It wasn’t just your day-to-day work, you found things that you enjoyed, like the Power Play Improv! that you had. Tell us about things that you did to keep yourself excited and interested as did what you were doing. I think that’s the parallel, right? Like how to still be excited about what you’re doing, but still add on to other things that you’re doing in life. How did you find that balance and what got you excited about it? 

Roberta: Yeah, that’s a good question. When I actually started out in my business, it was called Progressive HR consulting as it was really about that. Then like I said, I went in-house various times since then because I wanted to have a certain experience. Really what I was guided by was kind of what you were saying, Zain, which is “What is the experience I want to have?” For example, I had not had a successful IPO experience so I wanted to go in-house to do that.

I did that and then went back out to consulting. What I was realizing was there was an aspect of me that wasn’t really getting lit up or wasn’t really being exercised is, is this improvisation writers this really fun, kind of performance, you know, being vulnerable and being out there, and what a great way to incorporate that also into the practice and use that with my clients. So, yeah, I did several years of training and classes and improv and not only did I make great friends with that and some life lifelong friends, but I was able to actually create workshops on improv for leadership and bring it into a lot of the work that I did, whether it was with executive teams or strategic offsites or literally just kind of bring the principles into the one-on-one coaching. 

I loved it because of that ability to express in ways that are, that are not structured right, or super structured to have a lot of like rules around them. I think we all kind of yearn for that type of freedom to express and the reality is that we’re all living improv lives! That aliveness and that excitement around bringing in another aspect or another discipline into the coaching work that I do really excites me. As does other things like bringing in, you know – I love bringing in neuroscience, I love bringing in mindfulness, emotional intelligence. These are things that I like and that excite me and I just kind of add on. I add these pieces to the work that I do. And so Power Play Improv! was one of those side initiatives that I created with two friends of mine that I met, both in the business world, you know, but their role is also very loving to kind of learn improv. 

And yeah, I rely on that here and there and then another thing that I started, totally different, was Coaching Bold. And this was with another colleague of mine who is a Clinical Psychologist, was a professor at Stanford, and has her own coaching practice too. We wanted to take our skills and our abilities and our experiences and see if we could offer those to social impact leaders and mission-based leaders at a reduced cost, and in some cases, no costs. So that’s a little bit of a tangent of what I do but it’s geared towards working with organizations that are value-driven that I actually resonate with and they’re not-for-profit and that kind of keeps me going in terms of what am I doing to give back, right? What am I doing to kind of help in the ways that I can and with the skills that I have?

Zain: When did you make that decision? Did you consciously make the decision to go towards companies that are more value-driven? Did that give you a different type of satisfaction, like what was the thought process?

Roberta: That’s a great question because I hadn’t really thought about it that way. So you’re allowing me to kind of tap into, like, “why did I do what I did?” You know, I mentioned that I’d gone in-house at various times to have certain experiences between when I started the consulting practice and now, and one of the most recent ones – it was like 2010 or 2009, was with a nonprofit organization called Humanity United.  I was the COO of Humanity United for three years and I specifically, at that point, made the conscious decision to work in something that, that was broader than, you know, helping boys ages 15 to 50 play better video games or shop better online. I wanted to do something that felt larger and felt like more connected to the good of society. At Humanity United I basically helped kind of spin that off of Omidyar Network. And it was, is an organization that has a dual mission of combating mass atrocities so peace-building in Darfur, Sudan, Liberia, for example, and abolishing modern-day slavery. So sex trafficking, human trafficking, you know, child labor. And I thought, wow, what a different world. The sole geopolitical world that I can try to connect with and use my experiences with. 

So that was a very intentional shift to doing that and I think that was kind of a springboard for me to then later say “Okay, how can I incorporate without just going back in-house, how can I incorporate this mission-based intention that I have while still managing a business?” Right. So then that’s why my colleague and I kind of started Coaching Bold so that we could kind of scan for and, and be mindful of what’s out there that we want to participate with- organizations like Impossible Foods, right, which is great, but also organizations that are politically-driven that also meet with our kind of criteria…. climate change for example. It’s another way for me to kind of express who I am and what I do in the world that hopefully does greater good and it’s a focus that we have in addition to the business.

Zain: I think that’s so inspiring because for me, I look at these problems and they feel so big and I’m like “I’m so little, how am I going to make any impact towards it?” So, it’s good to hear that, you know, you could start anywhere and perhaps they’ll take you to the next thing. I don’t have to solve that problem right away. 

Roberta: I love that framing cause there was, I’m just thinking about one of the other organizations that I’m an advisor to The Institute for American Police Reform that was really born out of the whole George Floyd murder and by my colleagues who started it and extensively has not being able to just stand on the sidelines. He had been in law enforcement as Chief of Police for many years. He’s a strategist on and an expert on police brutality. So, he founded this firm and I’m an advisor to them too and one of the things that was sort of unfolding in front of all of our eyes is this lens on the racial injustices and policing in the U.S. I remember speaking to someone about it saying what you said it was just like – it’s so huge, what do you do? How do we tackle all these huge problems? And he said something great. He said, “You just do something.” Right? I love that because it’s like, okay, often we feel paralyzed because we don’t know how to address it and we don’t have to address it all. We just literally have to do something which is sort of like taking the next step. Just do one small thing because if we collectively do one small thing that really is addressing the problem.

Zain: And I think, as a business person, I can be such an over-thinker and analyzer that I will get to the conclusion that nothing I do helps the world but just take the first step! Like, I can be in my own head – “Is that impactful? Why should I even do it?” So, I think it’s really encouraging to hear that even a little bit of a step or whatever you do, a little bit helps. And I think that sometimes we forget as humans.

Roberta: Totally! And the other thing I would say too, you know, there’s this great quote that says: “I can do nothing for you, but work on myself. You can do nothing for me, but work on yourself”. So, if we really think about that, the other aspect of taking a step or doing something is working on ourselves, right? Everything that’s going on in the world is just a reflection of the collective and a manifestation of what’s going on internally for us. If we take that responsibility and that ownership to really work on ourselves and to raise our own self-awareness and consciousness and really fully own the experience that we’re co-creating, that is doing something. I think that’s doing something huge. 

Zain: I think that takes a deeper consciousness than just being positive all the time. I mean, it’s great, we should manifest positivity, but I think there’s a deeper understanding of consciousness and manifestation that I’m learning to understand right now. 

Roberta: Yeah, and that’s really if we think about too, there’s so much trauma that the U.S. like U.S. history and every history, but in U.S. history that has not really been dealt with.

Zain: Exactly! And it comes out in weird ways! 

Roberta: Exactly. It resides in all of our kind of unconscious, you know, selves. So, people that are only positive it’s not the full equation, right? I mean, it’s kind of a turning away of this collective historical traumatic experience of the U.S. history that, that we haven’t really reconciled or that we haven’t really dealt with and we haven’t really tapped into. So yeah, I don’t think it’s just about being positive. 

Zain: I think it’s also recognizing the trauma and I don’t think people have the tools to deal with that trauma. That’s why people either compartmentalize or turn to violence or just can’t help it, but it just comes out in a way that’s like, you know, really mean, and savage almost, which is coming from somewhere. So I think it’s not just seeing someone and saying “Why are they acting this way?” and “They suck or let’s cancel them.” It’s like, why? Like, what’s the history behind it? What’s the generational history behind it? I don’t think people are asking that question, but it’s not just what’s in front of you, but what’s happened before that. Maybe it’s that person’s life to generations that have led to this event.

Roberta: Totally, totally. We all are acting in our highest level of consciousness at every moment. So, if we’re not actually working to expand that consciousness, what are we doing? To your point on generational – historically gender, I mean, we’re talking about women, and what is the collective trauma that women carry and bear, and how does that get amplified or not? How does that get expressed or healed? You know? So, I think it’s really important to, like you’re saying, think bigger and experientially feel bigger than just what’s in front of us or in this moment. 

Zain: Totally agree. And I’m going to switch our topics to focus more on females because we’re talking about Women’s History Month. So to kick that off, when you coach women versus men, what are some differences you see, and what are some things that really stand out for you while coaching executive women that men don’t even think about?

Roberta: Yeah, it’s really interesting. A lot of it’s based on obviously my own experience, this is why I see it in other women that I coach, but a lot of what I see with women that I coach – you know, some of the things that present themselves early on, are a sense of like imposter syndrome that they’re not enough, or that they’ll be found out, that they’re not who they think they are at work. The sense of not being competent enough or not being enough, not having that credibility. My own worldview is that it’s part of the human experience to have a sense of imposter, but that men don’t necessarily tap into it the same way or that they don’t kind of express it the same way. But for women, some aspect of that comes through in almost every woman that I work with and that I coach, as I see that very often. 

Another one is owning your voice. So often they’ll be told by their CEO or, you know, by their manager, that they need to have more influence, that they need to own their voice. That they need to be more forthright in expressing their thoughts and views. And so I think, I think that piece around self-confidence and their ability to express what’s true for them, regardless of what that response or the outcome might be, is another aspect that I see more often in women that I coach than in men. Oftentimes they’re told to be more strategic and it’s like, well, what does that really mean? You know, like what is it that? How is it that they’re expected to show up in ways that demonstrate their strategic approach? And so that’s another way that I think a lot of women, have gone up through the ranks – they’ve kind learned from the tactical, and from the more junior level kind of approaches for women. What I see is they tend to want to make sure that they have checked all the boxes before they go for something, or before they go for that next kind more strategic or more senior position, and what I see with men is that they make those moves or those career climbs based on their potential.

And so for women, it’s more like, well, do I have one hundred percent of their requirements yet? And if I don’t – I’m going to work harder and get them, take more time to do it, or you know, put more effort into and someone needs to acknowledge that I have that in order for me to then take that next step. What I try to promote for women is like, “Why?” Like, why not? Right? Why not just like tap into your own potential and go for that.? So the risk-taking is also an opportunity or a challenge for a lot of women. 

Zain: I mean, I could totally self examine myself at various points in my career where I have had a checklist and if I don’t meet it, I self-sabotage my own promotion rather than pushing myself, being like “I have the potential. I’ve proved it to you.” Like I couldn’t even imagine walking into. In a finance meeting and saying, “I have the potential to be the CMO!” Well, I think I deserved that opportunity – I raised one of the first funds – I was a genius at it, nobody recognized it, but you know, in that moment I was so scared, I was nitpicking myself so much so I totally understand that.

Roberta: You know, just to add onto what you’re saying because a connection point or a tangent to that is, because in generalizing, women tend to have that sense that they need to merit it before getting to that next thing. I think it also affects the way that they negotiate for their compensation or their equity because so often they want to go with “Well, what is the market? What is reasonable? What’s normal to ask for?”  It’s like, I want to say, okay, no, you don’t go for that because they’re going to talk you down anyway. What is the max? You don’t have to go for fairness, you have to go for your own value. But I think it keeps women from asking for more  and I think that it, unfortunately, adds to the inequities in compensation between men and women. 

Zain: While you were saying that I was also thinking – I feel like sometimes as a woman or I’ve seen other women in these positions where they’d try to overcompensate for that awareness that they have that men just ask for stuff,  that it’s almost in a very unfriendly way that the pendulum swings the other way – that when they ask for something thing it’s almost very off-putting or they can come off  very “chip on the shoulder?” I hear that more about women than men. It’s like obviously! You’re excluded so you’re always going to have a chip on the shoulder or you’re not getting what you want –  How do you recognize that as a woman and how do you deal with it? Or how do you tell them to deal with it? 

Roberta: I think that the first thing that I would say is: We actually have more agency and choice about our experiences than we think we do. Oftentimes, we tend to react to external circumstances or external situations or external people and consume that as truth, then operate within that framework instead of recognizing that we have the wherewithal to understand that every situation that we’re a part of, we have co-created so we coach a lot on that we can actually choose how we experience ourselves and the situation. Not being reactive to it because I think that when we’re reactive to it, we’re not self-aware of what’s going on for us, but we’re also kind of playing into the response to fight the microaggressions or the inequities that exist. So,  by expanding your perspective to feel like you are a true owner in your experience, moment to moment, and in that way, it allows us to kind of relax into a little bit more of who we are and have that voice and that ask for that expression, be more authentic and less charged reaction to “I’m not getting this” and “I deserve that” or having a chip or something to prove. 

Unfortunately, that chip on the shoulder is really more about lack of our own inner, quiet confidence than it is about the circumstances happening outside of us.

Zain: Yeah. I think just working with you, it’s been a muscle that you have to work on is what I realized. Like I’m way more chill now getting emails or getting bad news –  I had almost accepted that if someone’s coming and really wants to talk to me that it’s not good news they need to share, but I’ve learned to take it a lot better! 

Roberta: And you’ve been so great at that Zain!  I will say for all of us, for all of us humans, and women and everyone, learning to be with the discomfort of our own anxiety when something is challenging on us or something’s in conflict, or it’s not going our way – that is the gold!  If we can all learn more and more about how to be with that, then we’re in a place where we have our fuller capacity to deal with anything that comes our way.

Zain: Yeah, I think one is recognizing and two is honing in on that muscle. I think every day I get a little bit better at it and I think about how I react to things now, then how versus how I would’ve reacted to things two years ago,  I’m not as angry and I just laugh it off. Like  “All right, next thing, let’s go on!” I think it’s pretty powerful to have worked with you on all those things personally.

I know we’re out of time, so I’ll just ask one last question before we end this. Who are some women in your life that have inspired you professionally and personally? 

Roberta: Actually, I was thinking about this and I was laughing at myself for the three women that came up, came to mind!

So one of them is my mom because obviously, I mean, she’s such a brave person and she, you know, came to LA out of Italy to the U.S. as an adult. She got her Master’s at Stanford, she almost finished her Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, she became a professor at Stanford and she wrote textbooks that were used all over the country and all over the world for many, many years. So, her risk-taking, her confidence, going out and trying things, her sense of humor, her approach to life, and her compassion, like all of these aspects of her, I just think are amazing so she’s one of those role models.

The other person that comes up for me is Condoleezza Rice. She’s such an expression of both the traditional kind of feminine and the traditional masculine elements and I feel like she’s incorporated those and does so in such a beautiful, powerful and calm way, so I think she’s an amazing role model. I’ve had the opportunity to meet her and have dinner with her, and she’s very gracious and she’s very kind and she’s also had some pretty hefty positions in the world! She’s an amazing role model for me. 

And then the third person that came to mind that I was laughing about is Madonna!

Zain: Oh Really? That’s very different!

Roberta: It’s very different! And why I say that is because years ago you might recall she did like a coffee table book, right? Like nude photos of herself and she was judged really harshly for that. I remember the response that she had to the world and being judged in that way and I love that. So, I kind of think of her as our modern-day poet in this way. Her response was literally two words. It was: “So what”. 

Zain: I like that! I think I might use that. 

Roberta: And it’s awesome like so what. If we have that attitude towards being judged for doing things that are just an expression of ourselves, that’s great.

Zain: So good. I love it. Well, thank you so much for your time! I think we could probably sit here and chat for another two hours!

Roberta: It’s always a pleasure talking to you, Zain. Thanks for doing this. I really appreciate it. 

Zain: Thank you, bye!

Roberta: Bye, take care.

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