Melissa Lee, Diane J. Kim, and Carol Wong shared their stories of achievement as successful Asian women. Through the panel, we developed our understanding of how to excel in the future through the eyes of these three amazing women.
Melissa Lee is the Cofounder and CEO of The GREEN Program which creates experiential, study-abroad education programs focused on sustainability.
Diane J. Kim has worked in Philadelphia’s City Council as Education Director, The School District of Philadelphia in policy development and resource allocations for the immigrant, refugee, and ESOL student population, and at Asian Arts Initiative (AAI) in urban development for Chinatown North.
Carol Wong has most recently been appointed as Commissioner at Pennsylvania’s Governor Advisory Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs but she is still a board member of numerous organizations, including Asian American Women’s Coalition (AAWC) and Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC).
How did you get to where you are?
Carol Wong credits her teachers for instilling in her the passion to teach when she was only six years old. Her dad was the first Asian baby in a small town of Pennsylvania. Wong did not know English because her parents couldn’t teach it to her.
Wong: Where would I have been if I didn’t have my teachers? I didn’t know much English when I was young, but I loved my teacher and how it felt to educate someone. I felt that there needed to be more diversity and I wanted to use my diversity as a way to educate others on our culture. You should never be offended when someone asks you questions about your culture.
Melissa Lee started the GREEN Program as a sophomore when she was 19, stating that she felt like she was in “a slump” and “had anxiety about the future.” Creating the GREEN Program was completely unintentional. She was in Rutgers entrepreneurial club, leading an entrepreneur minor. In 2009, she went to Costa Rica and saw a wind turbine. She was fascinated by it and climbed over the fence to get a closer look.
Lee: This wind tunnel was able to supply a whole community of people with power. My friends and I said people need to see that. I then brought this idea back home and wanted to bring action to sustainability.
Diane Kim, currently a first-year student at Temple University Beasley School of Law, says that “it starts where your heart is.” She knew she wanted to be in urban development, especially education.
Kim: I was an ESL (English Second Language) student and realized that there wasn’t much for me in terms of opportunity. After “dating” a bunch of cities as I got older, San Francisco and Seoul, I realized my heart was in Philadelphia and that there needed to be changes made for education and underrepresentation. I went to work at City hall, the School District to try to change things, and the Asian Arts Initiative. One thing to keep in mind is to always start where your heart is.
How do you approach finding your passion?
Lee: The idea of finding your passion is overrated. Don’t put so much pressure on finding your life’s goal. I love being able to travel and to talk about sustainability. You don’t have to have everything to start, you just need to start somewhere. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself.
Wong: As an educator, you see how everyone has special traits within them that make them great. Make sure that you’re well-rounded and get a mentor if possible. Sometimes, we can be a bit shy but you have to put yourself out there and bridge the gap that separates that culture apart from others. Anything you do in your life, learn something from it. As Asians, we’re not as confident but people want to help you. We all need to help each other and pay it forward for the younger people.
Kim: Don’t waste time. Be honest about your time. In college, I was tired all the time and I thought I could handle everything. Be realistic about your time limits. Passion is going to burn so you need to focus on how are you going to sustain it. Use it to inspire yourself. Put yourself out there. If you’re a student, people are going to be interested in helping you because they want to see your potential.
How can we succeed as a minority?
Wong: A lot of the times, I wasn’t just the only Asian but also the only woman at the education conferences. It’s not all about the money, but balance. Your first job might not be your dream job but it’s also baby steps. Those with high-paying jobs aren’t always happy about it. Being Asian, don’t be afraid to approach people.When I was younger, my mom would spot an Asian a mile away and walk up to them. Find who the leaders are in your field. As a student, you can have a student card and introduce yourself.
Lee: You need to be bold and have a seat at the table every time you can. You need to believe in yourself and if you haven’t found your passion, get together with like-minded people. As a woman, you need to negotiate. If you can continuously do it, you’ll get in the mindset of being outspoken. People who fight higher for their salary, show that they are worth more and statistically get hired more than. I suggest reading a book that helped me, Women Don’t Ask by Linda Babock.
Kim: I lucked out on all three of my jobs by working with a lot of powerful Asians. One of the biggest things I learned is to walk away; Being strong-grounded. Know how much you can push. Put yourself at the table not only contractually, push for more work and skill at your internship.
What are some challenges you faced as a woman and a minority?
Wong: I remember when I started [Chinatown Learning Center], people assumed I needed a husband to get things done. My landlord didn’t think that I was the director.Instead of letting people keep their negative perception, kill people with kindness. I tell my daughters, to never let people push you. Don’t ever give people ammunition. Communicate with them in other ways, educate them because sometimes ignorant people come from a place of ignorance. I like it when people ask questions. The key is positive communication, acknowledging what they said, and informing them.
Lee: When I started my company, I had three Caucasian, male business parters. Sexism never really crossed my mind because I was never truly faced with it. A few years later when we dived more into the company, I was at a meeting and brought up an idea that did not get much recognition. Then when another guy said the same thing I said, it was deemed as something great or new. What am I not saying right? I started doubting myself. There were sexism undertones, but it can be solved with communication. Another thing I noticed is that women often say “sorry” for things that do not need an apology. Sorry is not allowed in my workplace. You say sorry for things you are actually sorry about, not for bringing up ideas because it devalues everything you say.
Kim: I think as a woman, we shouldn’t need “strategies” to get ahead in our field because the other person who is making the weird situations. Regardless, it’s very important to make your voice be heard and if your work environment makes you uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to get out of there. A grown man from the School District of Philadelphia legitimately screamed in my face for something he did wrong and I built up resistance for it. Don’t go into the environment you think is broke. Gender discrimination is a thing. Just because you say sorry, doesn’t erase it. Females can also be sexist. I had people advocating for me when I had too much pressure. Don’t be afraid to shame the person who’s discriminating against you, tell people about it, and be aware of the situation you’re entering in. If someone gives you a really great offer, be aware of the time and place.
*Audience Question: As a student, how do you talk to important people?*
Kim: People think networking is like work, but you can talk to people in a casual conversation. Get to know their staff. Make it organic and conversational or intentional and casual. Worst thing in networking is: Hey, you have something I want and I don’t have anything to offer you but could you give it to me.
Wong: You need to work with your confidence. Start jotting things down that you are good at. If you can’t, ask your friends. It never hurts to make mistakes because sometimes mistakes can turn out to be better than the original intention was.
Lee: Be yourself but be interesting. Another tactic is being allies with the staff. When I was a student, I wanted to get The GREEN Program to work with The Buried Life (a reality TV show). I found manager who was on her phone and talked to her about. Google the people you want to connect with. Look at their Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram to learn more about their interests and see how you can go from there.