Khai Yang — Facilitating the Growth of Chicago’s Asian American Leaders
How long have you been involved in the local Asian community?
I have been involved in the community for the last six years. I always wanted to be able to give back to Chicago, especially the Asian American community. While working at Allstate Insurance, George Mui, then the president of OCA Chicago, an Asian American advocacy group, mentioned to me about a mentoring program called MAAP (Mentoring Asian American Professionals) program. It aims to grow the next generation of Asian American leaders.
A couple of us Allstaters joined the program. I went through it as a mentee and benefited from it in amazing ways. I met my mentor Stephen Chen through that program. Stephen really gave me the confidence to be more visible and to be able to advocate for myself as well as other Asian Americans. Because I benefited so much from that program, I continued doing it the next year as a mentor in order to continue to give back. Eventually I became a facilitator. All the goodness coming out of it has propelled me to help running the program for the last several years.
This MAAP program sounds like a very innovative mentorship program for Asian professionals. Could you tell me little bit more about how it works exactly?
It’s a three-month program where you are matched up with a mentor to have four one-on-one sessions based on your interests and what skills you are trying to build. In addition, we have Saturday workshops where all of the people going through the mentoring program come together to learn new skills and practice the skills that they’ve been taught about during those one-on-one sessions. There are two to three group workshops as part of the program. Essentially you get the one-on-one attention as well as the group interaction. Great dialogues are being produced because these people are from diverse work backgrounds (corporations, government, non-profit, and entrepreneurs), so you benefit from discussing the different experiences with this mixture of people. It really trains you to work with people that may not have the same experiences as yours and benefit from their wisdom.
So could you give me a couple of examples where people were able to benefit by being part of this platform?
Fairly recently, we did a session where we brought in successful Asian Americans on a panel to share their stories and answer questions. One person was able to strike up a business partnership with one of the panelists. In addition he was introduced to other prominent folks in the Asian American community. He is now helping to organize galas and other events. MAAP not only opened up opportunities in terms of business professional opportunities, but also ways to give back to the community.
I’ve also seen people where, in the first session, they were very shy — when they introduce themselves you can’t really hear them because they are not comfortable speaking in public. After that first session (the first session is really around communication and what your communication style is), about three weeks later that same person stood up in front of the group said what she does very clearly, and subsequently received applause. It was really great because you could see the growth in just being able to create an environment where people feel safe to practice their skills.
There are stories where people have gotten jobs through the MAAP program. It’s about both giving and receiving. We have a lot of successful Asian American professionals who want to give to others and help grow the next generation. There is so much potential to be unleashed. As long as the mentees are proactive and willing to learn and we have mentors willing to give of their time, the overall community benefits.
“It’s about both giving and receiving. We have a lot of successful Asian American professionals who want to give to others and help grow the next generation. There is so much potential to be unleashed. As long as the mentees are proactive and willing to learn and we have mentors willing to give of their time, the overall community benefits.”
With the seemingly great momentum, where do you see this program in three to five years?
It’s a national program already. Our [Chicago] chapter is one of the most successful ones and as a result we want to continue to give back. We are trying to spread the knowledge and ensure that, regardless of where you are in the US, you can benefit from the program. The other thing about the program in terms of success is quality over quantity. The key is for people to be eager to learn and reciprocate. That’s why it’s different from other programs, because it really focuses on the conversation. We focus on basic skills such as communication, influence, negotiation and personal action plan. It currently targets entry to mid-level professionals. We would like to do this for the C-suite and make sure that we have a successful pipeline. Then also for high school seniors, they have a lot of opportunities and we want to make sure they understand that they can leverage Asian cultural values and the American values, blend them together to be the new leaders of the future.
The so-called Bamboo Ceiling — MAAP is very much helping Asian Americans to break that ceiling. In general, however, how much of a progress our community made toward breaking that ceiling? Are we almost there?
I think that we’ve made some progress because we are talking about it. I think there’s more room for progress to be made. There always more work to be done. We need more visible Asian American leaders who are comfortable with who they are as well as comfortable speaking on behalf of the Asian American issues and then giving back. What’s interesting about Asian American leaders is it depends on your background and your experience to know where you fall in the spectrum. There are some leaders, such as myself, who are first-generation immigrants that have taken a while to understand how to integrate their Asian side with the American side. I was born in Vietnam, raised in Indiana and live in Illinois today. I am the first in my family to work in a corporate setting, so I’ve had to figure out a lot of things, and that’s where mentorship could help along the way. Now, I have found a company that really supports diversity and inclusion. So the ability to be who I am at work and be the type of leader that I wanted to be, as well as to be able to give back to the community, has really helped me. I want to continue to help others find their path accordingly.
Then there are folks who are born here. They are trying to again figure out their path. Some of them may feel that they may not identify as much as being an Asian American. People are at different paths and I would say that we have much more room to grow in terms of working through the Bamboo Ceiling. That’s one of the things that MAAP teaches you –help you find the leadership style that’s true to who you are. There’s a way to integrate your Asian values to where you show up as a leader across the board.
“The ability to be who I am at work and be the type of leader that I wanted to be, as well as to be able to give back to the community, has really helped me. I want to continue to help others find their path accordingly.”
Any other initiatives, besides MAAP, that you are currently involved in?
I am also on the board of Asian American Advancing Justice (AAAJ) of Chicago. Immigrant rights are very important to me, especially in this political climate. I want to make sure that America continues to benefit from immigrants and make sure that they have the resources available to them to reach their full potential so they can continue to contribute to the US. As part of AAAJ Chicago, we try to reach out more to the youth population in our community and teach them how to feel comfortable in their own skins, learn how to change their community for the good, and know that there’s a place here in the US for them, a place where they can think big, dream big and achieve that dream.