13 quotes from AAPI female leaders on career growth and inclusivity

May 27, 2021 | 6 minute read
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Digital advertisers, take note:

In celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, Oracle Professional Asian Leadership (OPAL) employee resource group and Women in Revenue convened a virtual powerhouse panel to discuss strategies for career growth, inclusivity, and the AAPI experience in today’s business world. Participants included:

  • Cynthia Chen, President, Reckitt
  • Helen Lin, Chief Digital Officer, Publicis Groupe
  • Kunur Patel, Industry Manager, Twitter
  • Jill Toscano, VP Head of Media, Walmart
  • Naomi Ghilea, Board Member, Women in Revenue

From finding your voice to defining what it means to be a great ally, the panel, moderated by Oracle Advertising Director of Activation Sales Joanna Havlin, explored a range of topics with refreshing candor. Here’s a closer look at key takeaways from the discussion.

Use your voice, and don’t be afraid to speak up more than once

“Everyone deserves a voice. Our voice is our superpower. If you don’t speak up, no one knows what you want or need,” said Cynthia.

She added, “Often, I’ve been the only person of color—as well as the only woman—in the top tiers of organizations. [This intersectionality] sometimes means that when you talk, you’ve got to repeat yourself a few times to be heard. It’s not just about speaking up but making sure that you’ve been heard.

In my personal journey, I’m very introverted. I also have an educational background to be very quiet, very respectful, and a very good listener. When you add this together, you have a disaster when you go to a corporate setting. The turning point was when I watched a documentary on Beyonce and found out she is very shy. When she goes on stage, she gives herself a stage name. I’ve given myself stage names: when I’m here, I’m this; when I’m there, I’m something else. Also, if you practice something 21 times, it becomes habit and easier to do over time.”

Pick your context

“In terms of success, pick your allies and sponsors. Pick your context as much as you can and find those people who will help you amplify what you’re saying as opposed to trying to take over or attribute it to themselves. That boost really does help you, so keep an eye out for the allies and mentors—not only the ones who guide you behind the scenes, but also the ones who will speak up for you when you’re not in the room,” Helen said.

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Think about your future impact

“Just looking at future generations, I want them to be able to look at all of us and say, ‘These are powerful and amazing women that have been able to trailblaze a way for us. And we can certainly go and break the cement or the glass ceiling,’” Kunur said.

Embrace strategies for effective allyship

The participants offered guidance on how we as individuals can be better allies, including speaking up when you see issues of violence or discrimination against members of the AAPI community. Take time to consider how AAPI colleagues and friends may be feeling about sending their children back to school, for example, in the face of rising acts of violence against their community.

Find ways to use your voice to speak out and speak up:  whether it’s within your workplace or school, or demanding more visibility and coverage through channels like mainstream media.

Model the allyship you value and want to see

“Acknowledge that you’re seeing us, that you’re seeing what’s happening, and that it’s not okay,” said Helen. “I think Asian Americans have demonstrated this for other cultures, other communities, but to feel that same love back was incredibly powerful.”

That approach translates into her team culture at Publicis Media.

“Every time I’ve thought and looked around the corner and said, ‘Hey, we need to get on top of that,’ my leadership has allowed me to do that. I’ve learned a lot about allyship and sponsorship within my organization. I want to make sure I pass that along, as well as exemplify the opportunities that were always opened up to me,” Helen said.

Tell your own story and be there in a personal way

“I wrote my thesis on the narratives of Asian women being told in media,” Jill said. “Twenty years ago, print was a big medium. You would see representations of women as ‘Orientalized.’ The depiction was exotic and foreign, dark versus light, male versus female, and subservient versus master. These stories were primarily being told by white men on Madison Avenue.”

Jill continued, “There’s been improvement over the past 20 years. While it’s not perfect, we’re making stride—because to have someone else tell your story is so disempowering and it takes away the superpower of your voice. It destroys that.

In many of our careers, we’re in meetings all day, we’re talking all day, we’re trying to inspire teams all day, and we’re trying to get an idea sold. And sometimes, at the end of the day, you’re not left with a whole lot. You may not know exactly what to say (it’s okay to just pick up the phone). Even if we didn’t know what to say to each other, be there for each other…I would say sometimes that it’s just as important to be there in a personal way one-on-one in addition to some of these public forums.”

Make inclusivity central to your business

Inclusivity isn’t just a new industry buzzword––it’s imperative in today’s world. The panelists encouraged viewers to explore inclusive marketing, find ways to support women in the workplace, and other intentional initiatives to increase equity and visibility.

Weave representation into mainstream marketing practices

“There’s a role that advertising and marketing can help play into by helping to showcase more inclusive storylines, inclusive talent, people, and stories,” Joanna said.

Embrace the diversity of the AAPI community

“We’re still viewed as one-dimensional caricatures and stereotypes,” Helen said. “I would implore allies to ask a lot of questions. Learn about our different ways of immigration, our different life journeys, and our decisions.”

Find ways to support women in your workplace

“Studies have found that in the past year, 2.4 million women have left the workforce—and that’s 50% more than men,” Naomi. “This is the lowest it has been since 1988. I encourage all of us as we look in and at our careers: Determine if this is something we want to put on hold. Talk to people in the organization, our peers, our colleagues, HR, and help empower women who may be struggling with this in any sense.”

Strategies for inclusive leadership

Finally, participants noted that leadership stands to benefit significantly from strategies for inclusive leadership. Reimagining where diversity and inclusion (D&I) sit in the organization, how leaders scrutinize their own implicit biases, and how to make space for inclusion in day-to-day meetings were all important discussion topics.

At Publicis, real change requires responsibility from the top down, and Helen noted that they shifted diversity and inclusion beyond a HR priority and turned it into a C-level KPI.

Being an inclusive leader starts with you

“It starts with accountability,” Kunur said. “That’s where I start at as a leader. I evaluate my own biases. The Indian community has its own challenges and preconceptions that I have to start with if I want to be an inclusive leader. I ask for feedback a lot from my team and put myself under the microscope when I do mess up.”

Kunur continued, “One tactical thing I’ve started to do, especially in this virtual setting, is that when we have meetings, I’ll leave the first five minutes open so that my team can speak. I’ll ask them, ‘What’s the news of the day? What’s on your minds?’ That’s really helped me open my eyes to what different communities—given that I’m lucky enough to lead a diverse team—are concerned with in that moment.”

What are some ways you’ve celebrated AAPI Heritage Month or developed your allyship skills? Get a deeper dive into the discussion by watching the full session below.


Some quotes may be edited for readability.

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Liz Alton

Liz Alton is a writer and content strategist specializing in B2B technology, digital marketing, and the customer experience. Her clients include creative agencies, Fortune 500 brands, and venture-backed startups.

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