Power Women: Judith Lu of Blue Zone Wealth Advisors On How To Successfully Navigate Work, Love and Life As A Powerful Woman
An Interview With Ming Zhao
Learn to ask for what you want and need. Asking for what you want first requires self-awareness. Once you’ve figured out what it is you want and need, asking for it is hard and there are a lot of socially constructed barriers women in particular are taught to avoid so that we are not perceived as selfish. Asking for what you want is not selfish, it’s smart. As women, we have a tendency to always ask for less. We avoid asking for raises, we hesitate and feel bad to increase our fees and we never charge our friends. We feel uncomfortable negotiating because we’ve been taught by society not to come off as greedy or selfish.
How does a successful, strong, and powerful woman navigate work, employee relationships, love, and life in a world that still feels uncomfortable with strong women? In this interview series, called “Power Women” we are talking to accomplished women leaders who share their stories and experiences navigating work, love and life as a powerful woman.
As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Judith Lu.
Judith Lu is the Founder and CEO of Blue Zone Wealth Advisors, a multi-family office dedicated to helping clients achieve financial health and longevity through clarity, purpose, and empowerment. Judith has over 20 years of experience working with high-net-worth individuals, families and non-for-profit organizations on financial planning and wealth management. She founded Blue Zone Wealth Advisors with the belief that financial health should be an integral part of a person’s overall well-being.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I grew up in Los Angeles, the eldest child of immigrant parents from Taiwan. The sacrifices that my parent made to give me and my brother opportunities they never had made a profound imprint on me from an early age. I felt both gratitude for their sacrifices as well as the duty to make something significant of them. I traveled a lot growing up and was intrigued by all the different cultures and languages I encountered. I also saw firsthand how lucky I was and how many others were not as fortunate. I knew I wanted to find a career where I could do something to help others.
Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?
I never intended to pursue a career in finance. In fact, I was interested in everything except finance. I dreamt of working for a non-profit, striving to make my contribution to the world by helping those in need. I was also a passionate dancer and in college I had the opportunity to study flamenco dance which led me to a small town in the south of Spain. I came back to the United States 2 years later speaking fluent Spanish. When I graduated from business school we were in the depths of a serious recession, and it was a miserable job market for a recent graduate. Virtually no companies were hiring, except banks and financial service firms.
I interviewed for a position with a large global bank looking for a wealth management trainee who could speak Spanish or Portuguese. I thought it was a long shot and there was no way I would be chosen as I was one of only 3 women in a pool of 40 candidates and I was the only non-native Spanish speaker. To my surprise, I got the job and found myself moving to New York City. This was not at all how I envisioned starting my non-for-profit career, but I figured I would do it for a year or two, gain some experience, pay off some student loans and wait for the economy to recover.
Twenty years later, my life in finance has taken me to jobs around the world, with stops in New York, Miami, Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico, Switzerland and eventually back to Los Angeles. I realized along the way that if I wanted to be able to give truly objective and impartial advice to my clients, I would have to become an independent advisor. So, I started my own firm, Blue Zone Wealth Advisors.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
My most interesting story happens to be what keeps me engaged and driven to continually evolve. It took working for some of the world’s wealthiest people for me to realize how I can personally help some of those most in need.
As someone who had dreamt of working in the non-for-profit world, I found myself facing a crisis of consciousness working for the world’s largest private bank, helping wealthy people become even wealthier. I remember landing for the first time in Ecuador and while enroute to meet with one of the country’s richest men, looking out a taxi window at entire families living barefoot in utter poverty on the streets. I thought to myself, how can I do this?
I struggled with this internal conflict for two years and then one day realized while I myself didn’t have the financial means to create truly impactful change, the people I was advising did. They had the resources to affect material change. I realized I could devote my whole life to service and helping those in need, but how far reaching would my efforts ultimately be? I realized I could affect much more impactful positive change by advising and influencing those with the resources to really move the needle in a meaningful way. I’m proud to say that over the years, I’ve been able to help clients find ways to give back to their communities by building schools, libraries, and medical clinics.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- I learned to trust myself. Most of us are wired for self-doubt. The realization that you are the driver of your own success is something that sounds simple, but it’s actually one of the hardest things to learn. I once had a coach who used to make me say out loud, “I am powerful.” At first, I felt sheepish saying it and my voice would waiver. Of course I know I’m powerful. Why do I have a hard time saying it to someone? Over time, the more I said it, the more comfortable I felt, and I actually began to feel conviction behind the statement. It sounds so easy, but we as women are particularly predisposed to self-doubt. If you want others to trust you and believe in you, you have to first learn to believe in yourself. Trust yourself. Trust your instincts and intuition. You will discover you are spot on more often than you think.
- I learned to see mistakes as opportunities. Believing in yourself and being successful isn’t about everything always working well. I believe the ability to overcome obstacles and continue pressing forward is what defines a successful business leader. You’re going to make mistakes. It’s ok. Mistakes help us learn to become better versions of ourselves, so don’t be afraid of them. Changing my perspective to see failures as opportunities is something I had to work on over time. It allowed me to develop a growth mindset that is so important both in business and in life. Society teaches boys to take risks and girls to be perfect. We need to change that. Once you’ve decided to bet on yourself, go for it! Go big or go home. The worst regret is the regret of not having really tried.
- I learned the importance of authenticity. Authenticity counts. When you’re chasing success, it’s sometimes tempting to take the path of least resistance, the quickest, fastest, easiest route. But does it reflect who you are and what you believe in? Are you building something you will be proud to stand behind? I have learned that when you live your truth with conviction, even if it’s inconvenient and takes more work, success will follow you because people appreciate the courage it takes to be honest and authentic. Stay true to yourself. Don’t change who you are or give up what you believe in just to please someone else. You will respect yourself for that and at the end of the day, that’s what matters more than anyone else’s opinion.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. The premise of this series assumes that our society still feels uncomfortable with strong women. Why do you think this is so?
Shattering stereotypes can be uncomfortable. Any time you challenge the status quo, some people will feel threatened. There is a widely held misconception that women should just be pretty little objects. People are often surprised when they find out that a woman is intelligent, especially if she’s beautiful. Why is that? We can be beautiful, give life, nurture a human being, multitask, live longer, but we can’t also be strong?
I’d like to think that the uncomfortableness with strong women is because it’s unfamiliar, not necessarily unwelcome. As more and more women are stepping up into the spotlight to lead and inspire the world, the idea of a strong woman has become more accepted and even welcomed and admired in recent years. The idea that a woman can be both feminine and assertive is a new definition of power.
Women have also been used to being perceived as silent, timid and fragile for so long that many feel the need to overcompensate by being overly aggressive and domineering which can be uncomfortable for others. The truth is you don’t need to be aggressive to command attention and be effective. Being a powerful woman is a delicate balance between being a bad ass while being graceful and humble.
Without saying any names, can you share a story from your own experience that illustrates this idea?
Years ago, I had a female manager who I was excited to work with because she was extremely successful and only about 15 years older than me. In a company dominated by men, she was one of very few women who had made it to the manager level, and I looked up to her. I had hoped being a relatively young woman, she would be a supportive mentor and advocate for me, but I soon discovered the opposite was true. She was in many ways more aggressive and more domineering than the men in the company. It seemed like she felt she had to act like a man in order to earn the respect of those around her and she believed any other woman should have to struggle and pay her dues as much as she did. She made everyone around her, both men and women, uncomfortable. Watching her, I realized you can be so much more effective if you put people at ease and inspire them, rather than trying to impress or intimidate them.
What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?
Any time you sense that people are uneasy around you, whether you’re a man or a woman, a simple thing you can do is show vulnerability. We are all just human beings, and we all have weaknesses and insecurities. Letting down your guard and showing people that you struggle with your own challenges is endearing and allows people to connect and relate to you.
Society teaches us that as a leader we should project a certain image of always being put together, intelligent, strategic, all knowing, always in control. We should be masters of the universe. Because every powerful woman has at one time been in the position of not being taken seriously, we tend to exaggerate that image of cool, calm and collected. Even though that tendency comes from a place of insecurity, it actually ends up coming off as aloof and distant, which causes people to feel uncomfortable. I believe showing vulnerability is actually a leadership strength and helps create connection and trust in the workplace.
What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?
I think a lot can be done by changing the way we socialize and teach children from a young age. We’ve made a lot of progress in dispelling the notions that it’s a man’s job to be the breadwinner and a woman’s job to be the homemaker. For the first time in history, there are more women graduating from college than men. Now if we can teach our children to embrace the power of vulnerability, that might further change the dynamic that often leads to a disconnect between powerful women and the people around her.
Brene Brown who is considered by many to be the leading expert on vulnerability has discovered through her research that vulnerability is what lies at the root of social connection. That connectivity at a human level is often missing in the workplace. She defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure” which we have traditionally been taught is associated with being weak or submissive. Imagine if we were to replace the idea of being professional and keeping a distance, with uncertainty and emotional exposure. One of my favorite quotes is by Simon Sinek. “A leader, first and foremost, is a human. Only when we have the strength to show our vulnerability can we truly lead.”
In my own experience, I have observed that often women have to endure ridiculous or uncomfortable situations to achieve success that men don’t have to endure. Do you have a story like this from your own experience? Can you share it with us?
I spent the first decade of my career working in Latin America where, let’s be honest, women historically do not call the shots. Being a woman financial advisor to Latin American men in the early 2000s put me in enough interesting situations that I could probably write a book. In fact, I had to overcome a trifecta of challenges. I was young, I was a woman, and I wasn’t a native Spanish speaker. I quickly learned that if I was lucky, I had about 5 minutes to make a strong first impression and position myself as intelligent and credible. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t find myself once being serenaded in the middle of a restaurant, during a business meeting. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t happen to men. Ironically though, it was those clients with whom I fought the hardest to be taken seriously that I ended up developing the strongest relationships.
As a woman in the business world, we already have to work hard to be taken seriously, but there are many countries around the world where it’s even more challenging. Things have definitely come a long way in the past few decades. Women in leadership positions such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern are much needed trailblazers and role models for young women around the world.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women leaders that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Women leaders face a lot of challenges that men are spared, but that’s usually what makes us more resilient and resourceful. Even the most accomplished women in business will tell you they feel they have to work harder to earn the same respect otherwise reserved for men. Even then, they likely won’t earn the same salary as their male counterparts.
Women have to fight to be taken seriously. They have to demand and claim their seat at the table because no one will give it to them. Women leaders must be fierce. They have to not only have conviction in their business and in their right to have a voice, but they also have to constantly convey that conviction and remind people of it. It’s harder for women entrepreneurs to raise capital and it’s harder for women to find mentors who can relate to their experiences and challenges.
Of course, one of the biggest challenges that women leaders face is finding that elusive balance between career and personal life. This challenge is of course not exclusive to women, but women usually have multiple jobs. We are professionals, partners, managers, colleagues, but we are also mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, chauffeurs, chefs, laundry experts, amateur veterinarians and most recently homeschool teachers. It’s exhausting, physically and mentally. Waking up and starting each day with a renewed and refreshed mindset is challenging. That’s why it’s so important to practice self-care.
Let’s now shift our discussion to a slightly different direction. This is a question that nearly everyone with a job has to contend with. Was it difficult to fit your personal and family life into your business and career? For the benefit of our readers, can you articulate precisely what the struggle was?
I am a single mom, as well as a business owner. I know all too well the never-ending struggle of balancing work and home life. There are never enough hours in the day and no matter how much you get done, you still have that nagging sensation that you are behind and failing at everything, leaving you feeling frazzled, frustrated, and guilty. Then COVID showed up and compounded that by a million.
Before the pandemic, I already lived a carefully choreographed daily routine that relied on a village of family and friends, afterschool activities and nannies to make my life possible. When COVID hit and I found myself adding homeschool teacher, zoom tech support, cook and ballet coach to my daily roles, I thought I was going to lose my sanity. I’ve never worked so hard in my life and felt like I was failing at so many things at once.
I learned the importance of picking your battles and being ok with things not being perfect. Not everything will get done and not everyone’s needs will be met every second of the day, and that’s ok. What is important to remember is that message in the video when you’re sitting on a plane waiting to take off. Always put your oxygen mask on first before assisting anyone else. If you don’t take care of yourself first, you won’t have anything left to give.
What was a tipping point that helped you achieve a greater balance or greater equilibrium between your work life and personal life? What did you do to reach this equilibrium?
The tipping point that pushed me to prioritize finding a balance between my work and personal life was when I realized my daughter Sophia was growing up and I was missing out on things that I didn’t want to continue to miss out on. After spending many years as a corporate soldier, it was my daughter who gave me the courage and the conviction to start my own firm. I have a sign in my house that reminds me to enjoy the little things in life, because one day I’ll realize they were the big things. I realized if I didn’t do something to prioritize finding a better balance, I would wake up one day and regret all the little things that I had missed. There is no pause button in life (trust me I’ve looked everywhere!) so achieving a healthy equilibrium between your work life and your personal life is a necessity if you want to enjoy the journey.
I also believe it’s our responsibility to be good role models for our children. The choices our kids watch us make will someday influence the choices they will make for themselves. Girls are socialized to put other people’s feelings and needs ahead of their own. The notion of being caring, nurturing and giving is of course an admirable one. But an unintended consequence is the belief in doing that at the neglect of yourself. We need to adjust that message for the next generation of women. By making it a point to take care of myself, I hope I’ve taught my daughter an important life lesson so that she will prioritize her own well-being and balance someday.
I work in the beauty tech industry, so I am very interested to hear your philosophy or perspective about beauty. In your role as a powerful woman and leader, how much of an emphasis do you place on your appearance? Do you see beauty as something that is superficial, or is it something that has inherent value for a leader in a public context? Can you explain what you mean?
Beauty is not a bad thing. Whether right or wrong, our society values physical beauty. As human beings, we are naturally drawn to beauty. Beauty exists in nature not just to make the world pretty, but for utility. Why are male peacocks so beautiful and why are flowers the bright colors that they are to attract butterflies? Physical attractiveness creates a powerful first impression which influences the way we see and treat others. So, beauty is definitely power. Beauty without substance can be superficial. But beauty coupled with intelligence, purpose and intention is truly powerful. A leader who embodies that combination has the ability to captivate and inspire people.
How is this similar or different for men?
Unfortunately, I think there is an automatic assumption that if a successful woman is beautiful, she traded on her looks, not on any other merit. I don’t think that assumption is as widely applied to men. If a man is successful and good looking, he’s admired as being the whole package. If a woman is successful and good looking, there is automatic suspicion of how she attained her success. It’s yet another example of the uneven playing field between men and women.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Powerful Woman?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Learn to ask for what you want and need. Asking for what you want first requires self-awareness. Once you’ve figured out what it is you want and need, asking for it is hard and there are a lot of socially constructed barriers women in particular are taught to avoid so that we are not perceived as selfish. Asking for what you want is not selfish, it’s smart. As women, we have a tendency to always ask for less. We avoid asking for raises, we hesitate and feel bad to increase our fees and we never charge our friends. We feel uncomfortable negotiating because we’ve been taught by society not to come off as greedy or selfish. One of the biggest reasons why the gender wage gap still exists is because women are less likely than their male co-workers to negotiate for higher pay. Successful powerful women know that the key is asking for more. They also know that asking for help is a strength, not a weakness. If you’re not used to it, learn to ask for help. You are not expected to know how to do everything by yourself. Powerful women know when it’s time to ask for help because asking for support when you need it is one of the biggest keys to success.
- Be a good listener. Everyone wants to be heard. There’s a big difference between hearing someone and listening to them. When you really listen to others, it lets them know that you are interested in their needs and what they are trying to say. When people feel that you care about them, it assures them that you have their best interests at heart. Leaders who listen create trustworthy and loyal relationships. Because listening to your team shows them that you appreciate and value them. Listening to your clients lets them know you genuinely care and want to help. I had a boss many years who frankly was not a good boss. But he said something that I always remember. He said, “Not every client with a problem needs you to fix it. Sometimes they just need you to listen. Rather than walk into a meeting with a big proposal prepared before hearing what’s on their mind, better to walk in with a blank piece of paper.”
- Put your oxygen mask on first. As a woman, there is a good chance that you tend to put others before yourself. As a woman leader, I’m willing to bet you are an expert in self neglect. We all know the emergency flight mantra to put on your oxygen mask first before helping others is a perfect metaphor for the importance of taking care of ourselves, but how many of us actually do it? One of the most crucial things you need to thrive and succeed as a powerful woman is to learn the importance of self-care. We women are great at taking care of our children, our partners and our friends. We suck at doing the same for ourselves. Can you imagine what would happen if you treated yourself the way you treat your best friend? What if you were as compassionate and generous to yourself as you are to others? Why is being good to yourself so important for powerful women? Because as leaders we need to motivate and inspire others. We need to develop people, solve problems, create positive change. We are the ones who give the pep talks and keep things going when times are tough. We are faced with tough decisions every day and that requires us to stay grounded. And that’s only at work. When we get home, we have to do it all over again. To be able to do all this, we have to take of ourselves. Do what you gotta do for yourself. I discovered that Kauai is my happy place, so I bought a condo there. I also wear really high heels when I have an important presentation because they make me feel taller and bolder. Bottom line, taking care of yourself leads to better performance and growth you can really get excited about, so you should stop neglecting it.
- Be brave and show vulnerability. One of the biggest challenges faced by powerful women is the pressure we put on ourselves. We tend to set very high, often times unattainable, expectations for ourselves. Because we’ve worked so hard to get here, we tell ourselves we better not mess it up! Many times this leads to women thinking we have to be perfect and can’t make mistakes or be human. Or at least we can’t show it. One of the keys to thriving as a powerful woman is to embrace your vulnerability as a leadership skill. Allowing ourselves to be bad ass, yet vulnerable helps liberate us from the pressure and stress of the demands for perfection that we put on ourselves. Showing vulnerability doesn’t make you weak, it allows you to show up as your authentic self and leading with authenticity creates a culture of trust. It is in companies with this kind of culture that we see the greatest innovation because people feel engaged and more comfortable to move beyond their comfort zones. Leaders have been taught to hide their vulnerabilities, but people are drawn to the leaders who share their weaknesses and struggles. That authenticity makes them relatable and a real person, not a robot. You can still perform at a high level and be tough, but by showing all sides of you, not just the polished ones, you can truly lead and inspire.
- Lead authentically. Living authentically sounds like it should be easy, but it’s not. Leading authentically is even harder. Choosing to stay true to yourself sometimes means being different and going against the crowd. It opens you up to comments and judgements and it sometimes means passing on some opportunities in the short term, but it’s likely to open up many other opportunities in the longer term. It’s the harder road to take, but it is well worth it, especially as a powerful woman. After fighting to establish your credibility and earn the respect of those around you, why would you compromise who you are and what you believe in? When you lead with authenticity and stay true to yourself, you can trust in the decisions you make, and others will trust you too. They will respect you for having the courage and integrity to stand behind your values and beliefs. The power of being genuine allows you to have honest and open conversations which allows you to deal with problems quickly. It also helps combat that annoying tendency many of us have for self-doubt. Learn to trust yourself. Others trust you. You should too. When you align your actions with your values, it allows you to have confidence in your decisions, and it feels good! It’s the tougher road to travel but it’s so much more rewarding.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Michelle Obama is the epitome of a powerful woman who understands how to connect with and inspire people. I love how dedicated she is to empowering women and girls and how she used her platform as First Lady of the United States to affect real change for women not just in the US but around the world in the most powerful way, through example. She stepped into her role as the first black FLOTUS, embraced it and ran with it. She is a true trailblazer and inspiration, and she did it all while raising 2 strong and amazing daughters. A quote I once read in an interview with her sums it up best. “Here’s to strong women. May we know them, may we raise them. May we be them.”
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.