Yon Na, Ph.D. ADVANCING ASIAN WOMEN AT THE WORKPLACE

One Woman’s Story: From India to Success in a Fortune 100 Company

Sandy's quote

Welcome to the first post in a series showcasing inspiring Asian women. The goal here is to bring to light voices of strong, empathetic, and successful women who have overcome barriers in life.

In this first story, you’ll meet Sandy, an Asian immigrant woman who is currently serving as a senior executive in a Fortune 100 company. What I love about Sandy’s story is her strong sense of self that led her to push her own boundaries. (Sandy’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.)

Immigrating to America

Sandy arrived in the U.S. from India at the age of 20. She was alone, without her family or friends, but brought along a sense of wonder and freedom. In many ways, Sandy was a pioneer, tackling the unknown without judgement or preconceived notions about what her new life would bring.

During her first days in the States, Sandy saw an enormous 18-wheeler barreling down the road; she thought, “Oh My God, they’re so huge. Trucks in India are half the size…”, cementing the idea that her new world was full of discoveries on the horizon.

Sandy’s migration to the United States, without any family or friends, gave her a sense of freedom that she could not have experienced back in her home country. It did not matter to her that she had little money, only enough to pay for her basic needs. What was important to her was not having to ask anyone to pay for anything. Sandy welcomed her independence, which was unencumbered by the rules of others.

Support from Family

Sandy’s story is centered on relationships and caring for others. She holds her relationships with her family, friends, and colleagues in high regard. Without the support from her parents, her aspiration to leave her country would not have been possible. This decision to leave was one of many “firsts” for Sandy. During that time, it was uncommon for single, Indian women to leave their family’s home.

While her parents were supportive, her father felt sufficient resistance from other members of the family. Sandy’s grandfather, along with other relatives, criticized her father for allowing his daughter to leave for a foreign country. Her father was committed to his support for Sandy and ignored the criticisms.

“He kind of protected me from the community and the larger family. I didn’t even know what problems he went through to send me to America until just recently… both my dad and I were speaking at a college, just talking about careers and stuff. After I spoke, he spoke. What he talked about I had never known, that when I was ready to leave, my grandfather-his dad-said, ‘Are you going to send a marriageable age daughter to a country that’s seven seas away?’ He said,  ‘Yeah. I’m going to do that.’

If he had listened to his dad and let the community and the family decide for me, I would not be here. I would have been married off. I was thinking that I did this on my own, had all these scholarships and I’m going to America. I didn’t realize that one glitch like that, that could have ruined everything. I’m very, very thankful for my mom and dad to have done this, despite the family pressures.” 

Sandy described her relationship with her parents as being close, one where she can confide in them and express her feelings. Their relationship continued to grow over time, and today, it is stronger than ever before. Sandy recognizes that many of her accomplishments are partially due to the help she received from people along the way.

“You realize that it’s your family, it’s a lot of people that support you to get where you are. In this case, this was my parents and in many cases it’s teachers, in all cases it’s aunts and uncles. I think that’s when you feel like, okay, time to give back, do something to impact other peoples’ lives and appreciate the parents that you have because you could have been in a very different boat.”

Learning from Others

When Sandy started graduate school, she began to learn about new cultures and gain different perspectives. Through the relationships she cultivated with her university colleagues, she began to see the world from multiple viewpoints.

Sandy was in a place where her thoughts aligned with her peers; they were equally interested and eager to gain knowledge about the unknown. Sandy learned as much as she could about this new country, its customs, and culture, with sincere curiosity. In the university setting, different thoughts and inclusivity were part of the environment.

Overcoming Discrimination

Upon graduation, she pursued post-doctorate work in her first professional setting, and it was there that she witnessed a closed-mindset toward women in the workplace. Sandy earned her Ph.D. in material science and entered a field that was heavily dominated by men. Her first job was in a department where she was the only woman. She had to establish herself quickly so that she could be effective in her role.

“I remember I got my job, and I was given a project. And I had these two technicians who were supposed to work with me. One was in his forties, and the other one was probably in his late 50s, early 60s. Two big white guys… I go down in the basement, and they look at me. They literally check me out and they say, ‘This little thing is going to tell us what to do?’ I could read them… I could read their facial expressions.” 

The men’s reaction did not intimidate Sandy, nor deter her relentless drive. Sandy proved herself to them and others by applying a superior work ethic and assertiveness. Over time, the men who had once questioned her capabilities, based solely on her appearance, became respectful colleagues and friends.

Speaking Her Mind

Sandy has never been afraid to speak up and share her opinions. Learning this skill early on as a middle child helped her to get what she needed throughout her 30 years in professional roles. She has consistently taken action to ensure her voice was heard, which in turn enabled her to build stable relationships and earn respect from peers.

I think I’m a pretty strong person, so if somebody says something bad to me, I report back and I let them know that I’m not going to let them continue that way. I put my foot down.

“The first time there was a client of ours from government, and the first time he met me he was calling me, Honey. ‘Oh honey, blah, blah, blah.’ I said, ‘I ain’t your honey. Call me by my name and you’ll respect me.'”

In her long career, Sandy has witnessed many work situations that were unfair. These unjust occurrences acted as a training ground in some ways, as they helped her to grow a “thick skin.” Today, she is an advocate for a fair system in the workplace; one that is free from any discrimination.

“To me, it doesn’t matter what you look like; whether you’re a male or a female or a transgender or a LGBT of any type, or a black or a white. It’s about the relationships we create and it’s about the human being you are. Doing the right thing has always been important to me because I can feel good about myself, if I always stick to my principles.”

Leading with an Inclusive Mindset

The desire to establish relationships with people, regardless of their background, has helped shape Sandy as a leader today. She described a time when she assembled a team of diverse individuals and led one of the most innovative business projects. Sandy recognized the project would yield better results if she engaged different skills and experiences of the team.

The diverse team spent many months assessing different scenarios and ideas. Their efforts led to an idea that generated 27 patents, which was an enormous success for her and the team; and reinforced her idea that relationships with others with diverse perspectives can result in positive outcomes.

Looking Up to Role Models and Mentors

Sandy attributed much of her success to the guidance from role models and mentors. These influencers include her father, her professors, and her leaders at work. Learning from their examples, she gained the necessary tools to confront complex situations in organizational settings.

“I have always looked up to, in addition to my father, I have always identified with some of the leaders and professors I’ve worked with closely. That’s how I want to be, I want to be like them: a person, a leader, with high integrity. A leader with intellect and high integrity, and as somebody who works hard. The interesting thing is that it’s mostly men in my life that I have looked up to. One was my Ph.D. thesis advisor. He would always say that you have to ask questions… you can’t just sit back; you have to ask questions.

That was something that was difficult for me, because coming from Indian culture, if you didn’t have something smart and brilliant to say, you don’t say it.”

At work, Sandy’s professional mentors taught her the value of being simple, open, and integrated, which means being open to new ideas and learning from failures. Integration, in particular, means building relationships with others and collaborating.

She learned a valuable lesson once; it was at a time when Sandy would work fast, independently, without thinking about the “stakeholders” who need to be involved in a project.

Her professional mentor taught her the importance of bringing the right people along, even if it took longer to complete the project. Sandy learned that the key to a successful project is not leading it alone, but gaining buy-in from key players early in the creation process; it requires collaboration with others and approaching projects in an inclusive manner.

“I was very good at somebody giving me a task, a project, or an initiative, and saying, ‘Go. Do it.’ I had been very independent, I went around and hired the people I needed to hire and make it work. Sometimes I left people behind…what I realized is sometimes to go fast, you have to go slow.” 

Caring for Others

Sandy values her role as a leader and cares deeply about her team’s success and well-being. While she does not identify as a role model herself, she explained that many of her team members would follow her to other opportunities which can be attributed to Sandy prioritizing the success of her team members. She protects her teams and views them as an extension of her family.

Sandy is committed to helping them achieve their goals, even those who have not worked with her for many years. She described the experience of helping others as being an emotional one, and she feels a sense of tremendous pride when she has helped someone in their careers. Ultimately, their success becomes her success.

“I care for them in the sense that I have interest – their best interest, in my heart. I want them to be successful. I thought about it and I said, There are lots of things that motivate me to come to work, but the most important thing is talent. As long as they make an achievement, it makes me feel proud. To help them help me. I think to me it’s more emotional, helping people.” 

Taking Risks

Sandy’s ability to take risks, her enthusiasm, and curiosity about the world translates to the way she approaches her role as a leader. Her ability to build and maintain healthy relationships, combined with her caring for others, gives her a strong foundation to experiment with new ideas. Sandy first gained the confidence to take risks while she was working toward her Ph.D. During those years, she learned how to stretch her abilities and test new theories.

“Just going through my Ph.D., it gave me the confidence that I can do anything. I can do something that nobody has done before. What’s stopping me from doing anything I want to do? If I want to innovate and do something totally different, I should be able to. I’m a curious person. If something is brought to me, I always think, how can we do this differently? Sometimes I ask too many questions and sometimes it bites me back, but most of the time it works.”

Leveraging One’s Values and Resources

As a leader, Sandy is a self-assured leader and is confident about how she fits into the world. Having left her home country to immigrate to the United States was an act of courage and a risk-taking endeavor. She approached her new world as a place to explore. With her sense of wonder came an openness and opportunity.

Sandy did not want to conform to the new culture nor did she once question her values. Being exposed to multicultural environments in college and graduate school helped her to develop an inclusive mindset.

As Sandy evolved into a leader, she developed the values of integrity, being open minded, and being integrated. Sandy is also a maternal leader. She is caring, nurturing, and supportive toward her team members. Sandy credits her success to those who have assisted her on her journey into leadership.

Role models and mentors served as a resource for ascent into leadership. She has learned from her mentors several key characteristics such as maintaining one’s
principles, achieving high levels of intelligence, having the courage to ask questions, and gaining buy-in from key stakeholders.

Sandy takes great pride in the success of her teams, and when faced with adversity, she becomes fiercely protective of the rights of others, including herself. Sandy is civic-minded and wants to give back to society by providing inspiration.

Thank you to Sandy who gave me permission to share her story on this medium.

If you or anyone you know have a story to share, please message me to start the dialogue!

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By Yon Na
Yon Na, Ph.D. ADVANCING ASIAN WOMEN AT THE WORKPLACE

Hello, my name is Yon.

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