Women Who Lead: Hitha Palepu of Hitha on the Go

Welcome to our special interview series, Women Who Lead. In partnership with White House Black Market, we’re celebrating five women teaching us to think differently, speak louder, and live better. No career is the same, and that’s just how we like it. These women are leading by example and living by their own rules.

Hitha Palepu might have started her career in pharmaceuticals, but travel was her first passion. Now it's also her calling. After deciding to take her wildly popular blog Hitha on the Go full-time, she dove head-first into entrepreneurship (while also experiencing motherhood for the first time). Never one to monotask, since breaking from the traditional career model, she's also written a book, demonstrates her dedication to activism by serving on non-profit boards, and broken into a male-dominated realm by stepping up to fund various non-profits. All in a day's work, right? Here's Hitha on that and more:

"I’ve been traveling for as long as I can remember (and even before—my first flight was to England at five months old!). As a kid, I would often get more excited about the flight instead of the actual destination—the visit to the cockpit, the little soaps and cups (that used to be) in airplane bathrooms, the seemingly endless supply of sodas. My first trip to Japan at 12 years old was when I fell in love with traveling. It was the first time I became immersed in a culture that was completely different from my own. It was challenging, difficult, and I loved every minute of it.

On Starting A Business And Becoming A Mother At The Same Damn Time 

In 2014, I left the pharmaceutical industry to focus on growing Hitha On The Go and pursue other projects. My pregnancy was what caused me to take the plunge—I knew what I wanted my life as a mother and a businesswoman to look like, and my job didn’t fit in that picture. It was a combination of planning (financial and business), taking on consulting projects, and bravery that led to where I am now.

[Now], I’m an author, entrepreneur, and activist. I literally wrote the book on packing, How To Pack, and run the lifestyle website Hitha On The Go. I’m also an advisor and investor to several startup companies and serve on the board of Sundara Fund, a nonprofit that recycles and distributes soap and hygiene training to the developing world.

On Launching A Startup, Making Rent, and Staying Sane 

For someone who’s considering taking the entrepreneurial plunge, I would work at both jobs until you’ve saved enough money to support yourself for six months, with another three months of projected income lined up. Feeling financially insecure can be a massive stress (on top of the stress you’ll have launching a business), and it can be prevented.

Market research is the most important part of any new business. Figure out who your target customer is, and talk to them—constantly. Make sure whatever you’re creating is something that brings value to them, and is something that they’ll pay for.

Time management is the most essential skill during these early days—be very selective with how you spend your time, whether it’s at your day job or your new business. And make sure you take time to properly rest and recharge!

On Work-Life (Im)Balance

I account for every single minute of my time—spending time with my family, writing, emails and administrative work, even my social media breaks. Having done this for over a year, I know how much time I need to meet my weekly goals—publishing five blog posts and one newsletter, having two fundraising meetings, reading one book, and making progress on a new project—videos, podcasts, etc.

On Fridays, I review what I accomplished that week, what I want to accomplish the following week, and break them down into individual tasks and schedule them for the following week. My weekends are reserved for my family and the occasional friend date. Friday nights are for burgers and a bottle of red wine with my husband, and Sundays are our opportunity to explore something new in the city as a family.

There is no magic app, book, or tip that will give you balance. For me, it’s more like work-life integration—I have a home office so I can have lunch with my son, and I hop on my laptop after he goes to bed some nights to finish the work that didn’t get done earlier. Every day is different, and I’m fine with that.

For any woman who’s juggling a full life, I would recommend that you stop multitasking and give the one person or task your full attention at any given time. When you’re with your family, be with them. Put down your phone. When you’re at work, give your all to that one task that absolutely needs to get done.

On Finding Her Support System—And Creating Your Own

Mentors are everything. My father was my first mentor and shared his passion for developing life-saving drugs and the business world since I was a little girl. I’m also lucky to have been mentored by some incredible women in the technology and pharmaceutical fields—women who forged the path for myself and others and helped me navigate those worlds.

These days, I have an informal board of advisors—peers, mentors, and people I admire who I can call on when I’m facing a new challenge or problem and need some guidance. These women and men are there for me, whether it’s a quick introduction or hashing out a problem over dinner.

If you’re just starting out in cultivating your network, you need to read Tiffany Dufu’s Drop The Ball. Not only will it answer all the questions you may have about work-life balance and juggling it all, but it’s the best primer on developing mentor relationships and growing your network."

Hitha is wearing White House Black Market's Red Ruffle BlouseBlack Ponte Slim Ankle Pants, Blue Ponte Slim Ankle PantsPoplin Tie Front Shirt, Floral Printed Shift Dress, and the Ella Exotic Print D'Orsay Pump

Give us the play-by-play of your morning. What's your routine like from the moment your alarm sounds until you're out the door? 

5:30am:  Alarm goes off on the other side of the bedroom. I get up to turn off the alarm and make my way to the bathroom. Brush teeth, wash face, put in contacts, and change into the workout clothes I set out the night before.

5:45am: Drink a giant glass of water (which I leave on my nightstand the night before) and take my vitamins, make the bed, write in my Five Minute Journal, and meditate for 10 minutes. I don’t practice any specific kind of meditation—I just chant, "I am, I can, I will, I do," until the timer goes off.

6:00am: Scan the front section of The Washington Post (we get the actual paper delivered) while drinking a cup of coffee and eating a banana.

6:30am: In the gym, which we’re lucky to have in our home. I’ll either do a ride on our Peloton cycle, a run on the treadmill, or a strength workout via the Aaptiv app.

7:15am: While my husband gets Rho out of bed and changed for the day (I lay his outfit out the night before as well), I take a quick shower and get changed for the day. Hair is usually pulled into a topknot, concealer and mascara applied, and it’s back to the kitchen for breakfast.

7:45am: Breakfast! I make myself a smoothie (a Daily Harvest cup with protein powder, MCT oil, and collagen) and cook Rho one of three things—French toast, three-ingredient pancakes, or scrambled eggs and toast. I usually have another cup of coffee or tea while we eat, read books, or sometimes resort to an episode of Sesame Street.

8:45am: We brush our teeth (me and Rho) and I change his diaper, fill up his sippy cup and pop it in his backpack, and head off to preschool. I pack both of our bags the night before, so things are a little less chaotic in the morning.

9:00am: After dropping off Rho, I’ll either head to a meeting, to work out of The Wing, or back home to work in my home office. I try to knock off one item from my to-do list before unpausing my e-mail (Inbox Pause is a lifesaver). Sometimes I’m successful, and other times I triage my inboxes first thing in the morning before getting to any other work.

Career Contessa Interview, Women Who Lead: Hitha Palepu of Hitha on the Go

Tell us your #1 favorite travel spot (or at least your top three).

Anywhere in the Mediterranean (Greece, Italy, Malta), India, or a luxury hotel close to New York City with a pile of books in my bag.

Best piece of advice for a woman facing working motherhood for the first time?

Mom guilt is real and every woman faces it. Focus on the quality of the time you spend with your children, not the quantity. Put away your phone and give your baby your full attention.

What are some of the essential clothes you pack for your travels?

Ponte pants (they look polished and are incredibly comfortable), a draped sweater to stay warm on the flight or in aggressively air-conditioned rooms, loafer slides, and a crossbody bag.

Women often feel uncomfortable about self-promotion—what’s your best advice for getting more comfortable with promoting yourself and your brand?

It’s never going to feel more comfortable, but you will get better at it the more you practice. Focus on the problems you’re solving and talk about those. It feels more natural and authentic.

What’s your biggest accomplishment this year?

Publishing my book! It’s hard to top that.

Go-to takeout order?

Vegetable biryani and samosas from our local Indian restaurant.

Career Contessa Interview, Women Who Lead: Hitha Palepu of Hitha on the Go

Trick for dealing with jet lag?

Try to get on your destination’s time zone as quickly as possible—that may mean sleeping the second you get on the flight, or forcing yourself to stay awake for a certain section. Exercise as soon as you can upon arrival, and let yourself go to bed relatively early on that first night.

The most important woman in your life?

My mother, my nanny, and my housekeeper. All three women are why I’m able to do everything that I do.

Any tip(s) for staying healthy on the go?

Wipe down everything you’ll touch (armrests, tray table, seat belt buckle, window shade) with a sanitizing towelette when you get to your airplane seat. Wash your hands as often as possible. Drink tons of water and try to exercise a few times while traveling.

It’s 10 minutes before a big meeting or public speaking event. What do you do to get in the right headspace?

I’ll spend five minutes reviewing the deck or pitch I sent over and recommit my key points to memory. I’ll then do a mirror check to reapply lipstick and make sure nothing’s stuck in my teeth, and do a few rounds of 4-7-8 breathing.

What do you wear when you want to feel powerful?

A dress—preferably in a bold red or a rich blue.

What do you hope to accomplish in the next five years?

I would love to write and publish another book, have another child, raise the seed round for my father’s new pharmaceutical company, and finally learn how to make my mother’s biryani.

Career Contessa Interview, Women Who Lead: Hitha Palepu of Hitha on the Go