What is love? How do you find your passion? What’s a girl to do with her love of dresses and high heels when she’s stuck in a lab or on a plant floor? How does an engineer fit into the business world? Most importantly, how does a young Asian woman develop the self-confidence needed to shatter the glass and bamboo ceilings?
On October 13, I was given the opportunity to speak at the 2017 Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers National Conference: Empowering You. I chose to share my story of moving from engineering to management consulting and of finding my own voice as a young Asian woman. In sharing my story, I hope to empower others to discover their voices, the same way I was empowered to find my voice.
Starting my freshman year of high school, I (and my fellow females) had been outnumbered in every single one of my math and science courses. When I decided I wanted to apply to engineering schools, I knew that no matter how qualified a candidate I was, I had a better chance of being accepted simply because I was female. When I was accepted into Carnegie Mellon University and saw the gender breakdown for the engineering school, the romantic part of me said, the odds are good for me (but the goods might be a little odd #stereotypes). The dismayed part of me asked, why is there such a gender imbalance? The introspective side of me asked, why are you even pursuing engineering?
There were the rote answers I provided on my college applications: I want to make a difference in the world by applying science to real-world problems and engineering creative solutions. I (think) I have a passion for alternative fuels to help solve the global energy crisis.
When I took a step back, though, here’s what I finally acknowledged. The Mulan-loving part of me, admittedly a very large part, wanted to prove that anything guys can do, girls can do, too — maybe even better. Think about the movie for a second. Mulan’s familial love pushes her to take her father’s place in the draft as his not-well-known son. In the training sequence, she uses a smart and creative view of the problem at hand in order to climb the pole with discipline and strength.
She saves the troops, but her gender is revealed at the pass and she’s kicked out. In the end, she ignores her discharge from the army and saves the emperor (and all of China) by dressing as a woman and kicking butt. The moral of the story, in my opinion, is that girls can do anything even if society says they can’t.
After my sophomore and junior years of college, I secured internships in the R&D department of a well-known consumer products company, working on improving feminine pads. I found myself spending days in the lab testing new pads and learning about the outreach and marketing associated them. Suddenly a whole new world of “yes, women can” opened up to me with campaigns like #likeagirl being part of my world.
While I discovered that the lab life might not be for me, with their restrictions on shoes and clothing (I love my dresses and heels) and the somewhat monotonous scientific method of hypothesis-test-hypothesis-test, I found myself a new avenue for my Mulan-initiated passion. Did you know that girls in Africa end up not completing school because they have no solution for their periods and end up missing about a week of school almost every month? Did you know that tampons and pads are still taxed in most of the US as luxury items? Ask any female in your life if she considers tampons and pads a “luxury item” versus a necessity to participate in life year-round.
I found myself energized less by the research I was doing and more by the social problems linked to the products I worked on that had no easy solutions. When I returned to school for my senior year, I knew that I didn’t want to be in a lab, but that I still wanted to solve problems. I also knew that I personally wasn’t ready to join the startup life or the policy life, so I decided to take on management consulting. Here, I reasoned, I would learn the skills to define and solve policy and management problems that I could take with me to a second career once I was done with corporate life.
The one thing I was most concerned about, though, was how I was going to explain why I was turning away from two summers in industry at the same, highly ranked company. What I discovered — during the interview process and in experiences on projects — is that the problem solving and creative thinking skills that engineering trains you to excel in are the same ones that are high in demand in the business world. While I wasn’t using my fluid dynamics formulae or my organic chemistry knowledge, a lot of it was still applicable. The same basic process that I had lamented in the labs was being applied, albeit slightly differently in consulting. Rather than hypothesis-test-hypothesis-test methodology, we looked at optimizing operations or defining strategy. It was chemical engineering’s focus on processes, but on an even larger scale.
Spend as much time reading and understanding the problem as you do answering it.
The wisdom my seventh grade gifted and talented teacher had taught that I used in engineering classes still held true: spend as much time reading and understanding the problem as you do answering it. Oftentimes, it’s easy to find yourself going down a rabbit hole or trying to boil the ocean and solve too much (#consultantspeak) when all you really needed to do was understand what, exactly, the client wanted from you.
One other similarity to chemical engineering that I have noticed in the business world is the lack of women. I’m fortunate to work for a company who has both a female CEO, but also a female leader for my division, Strategy and Operations Consulting. Aside from these two, there still is a majority of men in leadership positions and on my project teams.
As I’ve jumped from project to project, I’ve found the gender balance shifting — my first project was in retail and was a team of all women with the exception of our manager and engagement partner (the third highest and highest ranking roles on a team). My second project in healthcare was still a 3:1 ratio of women to men on my team, but by the third, my team was split evenly with 1:1 ratio. My fourth project was data and analytics focused and suddenly, I found myself the only XX chromosome on the team. My current project is also technology focused and until there was a concerted effort recently with our team’s newest additions, I was the only female again. In all of these, I was often one of the only Asians on my teams, too. It wasn’t until my most recent project that I found myself in the majority — the stereotype of Southeast Asians working in technology does seem to hold true.
I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to find mentors in many of my projects — women and men who I looked up to and could talk to about different problems. Rather than a single be-all-end-all mentor, I have started to collect what I refer to as my “stable of mentors” (although not within their hearing) whom I would go to with different concerns. I want to talk about two of them now as I believe the wisdom they’ve shared with me will be meaningful to you all as well.
My first mentor was my counselor in the Pittsburgh office who is both Asian and female. When we get together, we discuss my career progression and how I can continue to grow professionally and find ways to make an impact in whatever client project or internal firm initiative I take on. In one of our recent touchpoints, we were talking about an experience I had on a project back when I was fairly new to the firm. I would find myself being brought to various meetings, but seated myself against the wall thinking that I was too new to contribute. Add to that a slight fear of rocking the boat too much as the most junior member and I was a silent wallflower. How’s that for model minority and meek female stereotypes. Finally, my manager pulled me aside one day and told me to “take a seat at the table, you’re here for a reason and while you may not know everything today, be present and start learning”. I told my counselor how this simple request changed my perspective on what I could bring to the team and how it felt like I was working every day to push back against the Asian woman stereotypes I applied to myself.
She pushed me to take it one step further and said that the best advice she had received for developing her confidence was to “always earn your seat at the table”. Train yourself to always add value. Never just be present with nothing to show for it — always be able to contribute whether it is as small as asking a clarifying question or taking notes to be sent out to the team later, or as large as running the meeting.
Always earn your seat at the table.
The second mentor I want to recognize today is also an Asian female. When we worked together on a team, we would go out for drinks and talk about life as a consultant and the personal prices we pay. As consultants, we’re on the road Monday through Thursday, leaving little to no time to date or spend time with significant others back home. After one drink too many, I began lamenting the sorry state of my dating life (non-existant) and how it felt like I had no idea what I wanted to do with my career (still kind of don’t) and how to balance work and life and love. I wanted to know how she met her husband, how she balanced the time away on the road with hubby time, and how she decided that solving pressing problems for health care companies was her passion. Her simple answer? “Make sure that anything you do, you do completely, fall into it head over heels”. Don’t spend your time worrying about the what-ifs or the no-you-can’ts. Instead, embrace the opportunity fully.
Make sure you fall completely into anything you do, head over heels, and embrace the opportunity fully.
I’ll be honest, I haven’t quite figured out how to adopt that entirely in my life, but I have stopped worrying about the things five years from now that I can’t control, and started taking full advantage of what I am doing now. I never thought that I would be helping a client transform their data center — heck I didn’t really know how the internet worked at the beginning of the year! However, I’m taking each day in stride, learning as much as I can on this project and learning skills that are transferrable (at least in part) to future projects. I’m finding that I enjoy the daily challenges that pop up in a program this large and that after almost 6 months on the project, I can actually follow along and contribute meaningful insights in meetings.
So to answer the questions I started with, love is finding meaning in something and believing that it will make you a better person. For me, I’ve learned that I love learning and challenging myself and my perspectives. I’ve discovered by finding something to love in what I do every day, I’m able to find my passions. I’ve learned that I’m passionate about empowering women whether it’s working to reduce stigma around periods or writing blogs about my experiences to encourage others to take a seat at the table, too. By following my passion, I’ve stepped out of the lab and thrown myself into a career I had never imagined possible as a senior in high school. I’ve learned that the skills I developed as an engineer are, at their roots, the same that will enable me to succeed in business. Likewise, the skills I develop on each project at work serve as a new tool I can bring to the next project. Finally, I’ve learned through my previous experiences and mentors’ perspectives ways to develop confidence in myself and earn my seat at the table. I’ve committed myself to falling head over heels into every new opportunity that comes my way and I challenge you to do the same.
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