I was born in Taiwan. In many Asian countries like Taiwan, having good grades, going to a good university, and becoming a doctor or a lawyer is the golden path most parents want for their kids.
Yet, I was just the opposite growing up. I questioned authority. I was mischievous and got punished all the time. Given my terrible grades at elementary school in the culture where good grades are everything, I thought I would turn into a notorious criminal when I grew up.
Luckily, I turned out just fine. I was the first in my family to go to college, the first to study abroad, the first to lead a big team as a female leader in tech, and the first to become an entrepreneur.
The road to where I am wasn’t always all sunshine and roses. I’ve learned valuable lessons from my and other immigrant female leaders’ experience. I'd like to share the 3 biggest insights that changed my life.
1. Be aware of the “cultural playbook” and consciously write your own playbook.
The biggest culture shock since I came to the U.S. was realizing that my “culture playbook” didn’t seem to work anymore. The “culture playbook” suggested that I keep my head down, be humble, maintain harmony, and work really really hard. Then one day, I will be noticed and rewarded.
Don’t get me wrong. The culture playbook works well till it does not. As a “model” minority, I have no problem getting a good job in Silicon Valley. I built my reputation as a reliable individual contributor. I got promoted from entry-level to senior position in a short time.
However, as I headed into management, I started getting feedback about being more assertive, extraverted, ambitious. and showing less emotions. As a result, I adapted and tried to mimic behaviors projected from the US corporate leadership stereotype (usually associated with those of white males). I start to speak loudly, act quickly, talk assertively, and fight for what I want instead of waiting for people to notice me. It worked. I got promotions after one another.
However, as I continue to advance in my career, I become more and more unhappy. I feel it’s not ME who gets promoted, but the carefully crafted image of me. In the process of moving up in corporate America, I left out a part of me that was feeling rejected.
I didn’t know what to do for a while. Luckily, I found myself a coach at the lowest point. I became aware of the “box” ingrained in me by my family traditions, my Taiwanese roots, and the US culture. I saw where the tension comes from. I examined every “should” that came up as I tried to step out of the box. Incrementally, I learned that I get to make up my rules instead of following what others have created for me. With that intention, I have gained clarity on my values and understand what’s not working for me. I push back and challenge the leadership team when I don’t feel congruent. I consciously choose to act in ways that inspire me and how I want to be treated.
Of course, ups and downs are inevitable. That’s called being human. The most important thing is I take control of what I see in the world and choose how I want to live my life.
2. You don’t need confidence. What you need is the courage to take tiny actions.
When I boarded the plane to the U.S, I didn’t have confidence that I would survive the academic rigor in a grad school.
When I graduated, I didn’t have the confidence I could get a job.
When I started working, I didn’t know whether I would successfully progress to the next level.
When I became a manager, I didn’t know how to influence effectively.
When I first started my coaching business and became an entrepreneur, I had constant doubt of whether this was a right decision.
I didn’t know HOW to do any of these things before I did it. My imposter syndrome is always there whenever I step out of my comfort zone. Nonetheless, I am driven by my desire to expand my horizon.
It turns out having confidence is the result, not a requirement for me to do anything. All I need to do is have the courage to take a tiny action such as boarding a plane, preparing for job interviews, and asking directly for more responsibility.
I have these beliefs that strengthen my courage:
- Tiny action over perfectionism - messy is sexy!
- Any outcome from the action serves as feedback to guide me to the next best action.
- Surround myself with people who inspire me.
3. The career ceiling toward immigrants and women is real AND you don’t need to do it alone.
As a woman in tech, I have a glass ceiling to shatter. As an immigrant, there is another layer of bamboo ceiling. Sexism (including ageism especially toward Asian women who look too young to be promoted) is still prominent in society.
A report from 2018 shows Asian Americans composed 50% of professional (non-executives) but only 29% in the executive roles. Yet, White occupied 40% of professional and 65% of the executive roles in the tech firms. The reverse gaps for Asian Americans and White are truly alarming. When it comes to Hispanic or Black, it’s even worse.
Change at the systematic and cultural level will take time. We need to continue battling inequity, injustice, and exclusivity. Corporations need to create better interviewing and performance evaluation systems to provide equitable opportunities to everyone. We have a lot of work to do as long as the ceiling is there against minorities. We can’t just sit and wait for the world to change. And, we don’t need to do it alone.
A few helpful tips from my own experience and other successful immigrant women leaders:
- Have multiple mentors to offer different perspectives in both breadth and depth in the industry.
- Hire a coach to help you get clarity, gain more confidence, and take actions even in challenging circumstances.
- Find a sponsor who can speak for you when you are not at the table.
- Be a part of a community that shares similar visions or challenges to move forward together.
- Create structural solutions at work to combat systemic discrimination such as training, mentoring, and executive pipeline program for immigrants and women in tech.
Being an immigrant woman leader in tech can be challenging and lonely at times. I’ve been there. These learnings have helped me overcome roadblocks when writing my own playbook, making pivotal decisions, and building my own business.
I hope by sharing my own journey and learnings, you are inspired to write your own playbook, take actions, and create success in your own definition.
I believe in you. You got this!