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Building Authentic Leadership as an Immigrant Female Leader in TechFeatured

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!

njugunab's profile thumbnail
Thanks for writing this, @wenhsu. It inspired me to return to the workplace even though I've experienced the challenges mentioned here.
wenhsu's profile thumbnail
Thank you @njugunab for the feedback! I'm happy that you get values out of it!
nathaliacruzortiz's profile thumbnail
@wenhsu thank you very much for this! I do PR for tech companies through an agency; however, I want to migrate to in-house in the future. I'm Latina and I'm honest to admit that I'm scared because I don't see others like me in those positions. I'm super happy that you mentioned hiring a coach! I've done that to help me work on my management skills and career path so I can make the transition next year! Best of luck w/ everything and I hope to read more of your stuff in the future!
wenhsu's profile thumbnail
Hi @nathaliacruzortiz thanks for the kind words and being so vulnerable! It's scary when you don't see role models. It impacts how far ahead we can see us in. Yet, it also means, we get to be the role models for others! I'm happy that you have your own coach on the courageous journey you are sparking on! Having a coach literally transformed my life. I am excited about what's possible for you!If you want to read more of my work, you can check it out at https://wencoaching.com/blog/ and subscribe in the bottom if you like!Cheers!
ktmcbratney's profile thumbnail
Love this, thanks for sharing @wenhsu!
wenhsu's profile thumbnail
Thank you @ktmcbratney!
tutti's profile thumbnail
This is fantastic and thank you for sharing this @wenhsu. I was so delighted to see this in my inbox this morning because I'm currently immersed in writing a book about this experience, both my own, but more so interviews with so many Asian American women in tech, either first or second generation immigrants who are working with all the issues you address. There's a mass of complexity, and such beauty in our unique leadership. My book is called: "Hardworking Rebels: How to Lead and Succeed as Asian Women in Tech." Thank you again for sharing this, and I'm so glad to hear your story and insights.
wenhsu's profile thumbnail
@tutti I'm right there with you!! I hope we can connect soon! :)
madien's profile thumbnail
@wenhsu, this is truly one of the most enjoyable pieces I have read lately. Thank you for sharing!! Much of what you wrote about cultural playbook resonated with me.One point helpful to elaborate on would be, how to find/create/nurture sponsors in the corporate environments? This is often a challenge because of the fact that a typical corporate environment is impersonal and hostile to women (even with all the DEI type effort ongoing). To women of color, or LGBTQ women it's even more so.
wenhsu's profile thumbnail
Madien, such a great question on how to find and foster the relationship. I might record a video to share it with people more broadly. Here is my take for within the company.1. Do great work - because when you connect with people internally, you want to talk about your achievements.2. Have a rough idea on where you want to head to professional. If you are unsure, that itself can be a great conversation starter to talk to higher level leaders to learn from them.3. Proactively reaching out to people who are 1 to 3 levels higher than you. If you are unsure what to talk about, look them up on LinkedIn to see what you like advise from them. 4. If you are clear about what you want, ask them for advise and how they perceive your work. If they don’t know about you, it’s even better! It’s a great opportunity to “educate” them on what you’ve accomplished.Overall, bring your curiosity with you. Ask questions. I don’t usually ask people directly to be my mentors or sponsors. But the deeper the conversations I have with people and make my goals clear, it’s pretty normal for me to tap into their thinking/experience/opportunities!Cheers and have fun with it!!
wenhsu's profile thumbnail
I recorded a video for it: https://youtu.be/OObjnIaKa_wLet me know what you think 😊 @madien
madien's profile thumbnail
Thank you, appreciate it! It's a great video!!
Dima's profile thumbnail
Thanks for sharing this @wenhsu, I love your point about not needing confidence but needing courage, I've always said to myself "I'll do it when I'm more confident" and your point helps me reframe that into "I need to have the courage to do things without necessarily being very confident about them". Also love your point about getting a coach, I built a career coaching marketplace called Unleash because it was transformational for me, but it was very difficult to find the right one so we match clients with coaches. I see that you've built a coaching practice, your story is inspiring, hopefully we'll cross paths soon.
wenhsu's profile thumbnail
Hey Dima! I am super happy that this article helps you to reframe your thinking around confidence. And, it’s awesome that you took the initiative to build a market place to connect coaches and coaches! You are right, it’s not easy to find a good fit. I would love to connect soon!!
rhuang's profile thumbnail
@wenhsu, thank you so much for sharing this! I am Taiwanese too btw! :D But, besides that, I really loved what you said about not needing confidence, but the courage to take small tiny actions. People always to tell me to "be more confident" or "be more assertive" but those are such generalizations, it's hard to for me to just flip a switch! Tiny actions are so much more achievable :)
wenhsu's profile thumbnail
Hi @rhuang! Nice to meet you! I'm happy that this article provides values to you. I always work with people to help them dream really big because that's where inspiration comes. And, taking these tiny steps is where the real magic happens! You got this! Let's connect more if you like :)
ritapalanjian's profile thumbnail
@wenhsu, I felt you wrote this for the 24+ year old me. I'm in my 50's now, however, I could relate to so much you are bravely sharing. I am not Asian, however, I am an immigrant and have been fighting the battle of the family (and extended family) expectation throughout my life. Feel as as though I'm not enough was always like a flashing red sign. I admire your courage. You have so much awareness and reflection, you will do great things. You never know who you will influence, even women in their 50's. p.s. I was part of a group coaching program with Holly Lee Coaching (https://www.hollylee.co/) in back early part of this year. We had at least 4-5 Asian women who shared the exact battles you have faced. p.s. - Holly Lee's brand is coaching those who want to end up working for FAANG (think it is now MANAMA (Microsoft, Apple, Netflix, Amazon, Meta, Alphabet)
wenhsu's profile thumbnail
Thank you thank you @ritapalanjian for sharing your experience. It takes courage too! I am so grateful for your response knowing my writing has an impact on people, even in their 50's. I love that you were in a coaching program to help you navigate your career. I hope the best for you! Hope to connect again soon!!!Love, Wen
njokimaina's profile thumbnail
This was just what I needed to read! As an immigrant and aspiring entrepreneur myself I identify with what you are talking about! Thank you for sharing!
elly's profile thumbnail
Thank you for sharing your experience and thought @wenhsu As an Asian immigrant in tech, as a first generation college graduate in my family, this is so inspiring. I'm literally crying.
wenhsu's profile thumbnail
@elly Thank you for being so open and vulnerable! I used to push my emotions away because it's not what my culture encourages me to do. Now I appreciate tears because it's a release of emotions. It's great to let the emotions out!I'm happy that you are inspired by the post. I hope the best for you is yet to come!
abbynitta's profile thumbnail
Thank you @wenhsu for sharing your experience as an immigrant woman in tech. I went through a leadership program specifically for Asian and Asian American women earlier this year (I'm 2nd generation Filipino American), and it was so helpful to receive development and training that acknowledged the unique challenges I/we face in the workplace and in our careers. I love this line: "Tiny action over perfectionism" Also, I'm so glad you mentioned this: "Sexism (including ageism especially toward Asian women who look too young to be promoted) is still prominent in society." I feel like this is an interesting intersection that Asian women face — and is often overlooked!
wenhsu's profile thumbnail
Hey @abbynitta thanks for sharing your experience! I hope more companies have trainings and development programs for immigrant women. I would love to connect and hear your stories :)