Natalia Daies, Senior Director of Communications and Marketing at Women Who Code, sits down with Sue Ann Hong, President and CEO of The Center for Asian Pacific American Women. They discuss mentors versus sponsors and how sponsorship has accelerated Sue’s career path. Sue also shares how important consistency in behaviors is for the success of a company’s DEI efforts.
Tell us a little about yourself, your career journey, your relationship with technology, and how it's impacted your career.
I am from South Korea. When I was eight years old, I flew by myself through Honolulu, then LA, then met my aunt in Chicago and flew up to Michigan's upper peninsula. It was a lot of learning how to assimilate. Those are some things that I learned very early on that served me throughout my career. I had a great career at State Farm in different ways, parts of the country, and departments.
There were three key learnings. One is the ability to understand the corporate environment and how to maneuver through it as a minority woman. The second is dealing with customers directly. They don't have to be nice to you. You have to learn how to deal with people who don't have to respond to you in a certain way. The third thing is being compassionate with people who are not always at their best. They just had a total loss on their auto. They have injuries, so you learn to be compassionate, even if the answer is no.
Tell us more about your career at State Farm Insurance Companies and what it was like moving into leadership roles as a minority woman.
I was in a one-year program when I first started at State Farm. Right after that one year, I was put into a leadership role immediately. That taught me a lot of humility because most of these folks knew more than I did; they were older than I was, and I was the only Asian female in that entire department. I had to learn how to navigate myself. I felt very insecure and had impostor syndrome.
As time passed, some incredible leaders helped me by saying, "Hey, you don't need to know everything. Your job is to pull out the best in people, leverage your team, give the vision and direction, and then go from there." That's where my coaching started. My passion for developing people started from that, which was part of my brand. I got my first vice president sponsor, which made all the difference in the world by opening doors. Whenever I moved up in the organization throughout my career, there was usually a sponsor or several sponsors pulling me along with them.
What advice would you give to diverse women who are looking for sponsorship? How do they go about finding the right sponsor?
Mentorship can be in or out of the organization. This is somebody who will give you a lot of great advice. There's no accountability tie here, but they can give honest feedback. A sponsor needs to be in the organization. If you consistently deliver what you do and your brand is consistent, you have a much better chance of getting a sponsor. Sponsors like to know that you're consistent; they want you to be slightly predictable about how you behave and what you deliver. They're attaching their name to you. They're putting their reputation on the line.
What challenges did you overcome while working in diversity and inclusion at State Farm?
The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Director was interesting because it was the first to support Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois. The challenge was I had no budget. They put me in a reporting structure where I was reporting to somebody at the same level as me. It was awkward. I started by doing something everybody could relate to, which had to do with strengths. I decided to take Gallup, which I had learned from my experience at the Asian Pacific American Women's Leadership Institute in CAPAW.
All we needed to do was buy books, and I could drive the discussion. I started to have the departments buy their books. I remember having to have people pay for any conference I had. I was good at getting other people to pay for stuff. The most difficult thing I dealt with was launching an LGBTQ effort in the Zone.
At the time, I think it was still very sensitive. That was my first encounter where I caused some ruckus and disturbance. Whether you agree or disagree isn’t the issue. It's your ability to take multiple viewpoints and hold them, not pass judgment on them.
How did you get involved with the Center for Asian Pacific American Women and Asian Women, and then more about the mission and the work that you're doing?
I knew about it in 2001 and 2002 when I was a fellow, and State Farm sponsored me to experience it. It was the first time I saw a room full of Asian women. It was called the Asian Pacific American Women's Leadership Institute. The organization was incorporated in May of 1995. There were 17 founding sisters. Martha Lee is the founder. We've got a regional conference still specifically for Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander women.
I launched the Compassion Circle for 2023 and '24 last night, which is more of an organic group. Not everybody wants to do a cohort, so this is more of a peer-to-peer mentoring experience. I am getting ready to launch a mentoring program. First, one uses a platform called Dreami, which an Asian American female founded. I'm always looking for and looking forward to working with entrepreneurs who are Asian American women and women of color. McKinsey and leanin.org does a study every year that's called Women in the Workplace.
I consulted them for parts of that report coming out in the next few weeks. Did we improve? We still have one in four women who are in C-suite. 1 in 25 women of color are in C-Suite, and 1 in 50 AANHPI women are in C-Suite. We've got a lot of work to do.
How can companies be better at DEI and create space for diverse women?
The most common way I see this is the formation of employee and business resource groups. In my opinion, The biggest and most difficult thing is the ability to create an inclusive behavior culture. You have to communicate what appropriate behavior is, modeling the behavior from your top executive down. It's not enough to say that we support DEI.
When George Floyd happened, I watched to see which companies were saying something. Same for the Atlanta Spa shootings. I watch for consistency in behavior for companies. If you get pushed back on an LGBTQ issue, are you going to back away, or are you going to make a stance and say, no, we stand with our employees and customers who are in this community?
How do we empower more diverse women into leadership?
There are things that the company has to do as an organization and as a responsibility. There are also things that we have to do to prepare for opportunities. How does your LinkedIn profile look? When was the last time you refreshed that? Get a real picture that's professional-looking and that you have a good tagline. When was the last time you updated your resume? When did you last talk with your mentor about what you will do? What are you doing to be intentional? Intentionality is key. I'm a big fan of behavior-based individual development plans, not tactical ones.
Do you have any final thoughts?
One is you are enough and exactly where you're supposed to be right now. It doesn't mean you don't have things to work on, but you are enough. Number two is that you are not alone. There is a community of women. Some people can help. Don't hesitate to ask for help because that is not a weakness. Vulnerability is a strength. Finally, if you want to reach for something, it is possible. You need a plan.
Guest: Sue Ann Hong, President and CEO of The Center for Asian Pacific American Women
Host: Natalia Daies, Senior Director of Communications and Marketing at Women Who Code