Time, Talent, and Showing Up: Supporting AANHPI Women with Sue Ann Hong
Sue Ann Hong is a powerhouse leader for Asian-American women in the corporate world. As President and CEO of the Center for Asian Pacific American Women (CAPAW), she spearheads leadership development programs that support AANHPI women and communities of color, with a strong emphasis on building better communities for everyone.
We had the honor of interviewing Sue Ann this month, and talked everything equity, her own journey, a painful personal experience with anti-Asian hate, and the trajectory for Asian-American women in the corporate world and beyond.
Angie: First things first – I just want to hear about your journey. Tell me a little about yourself and your career.
Sue Ann: I came to the west when I was seven from South Korea, and I flew by myself here to the U.S. and met my aunt in Chicago. Then we flew up to the upper peninsula of Michigan to live. As you can imagine, I was in culture shock. I think that was my very first experience that I recall of being the only, feeling as if I was foreign or didn’t belong. I think I was the only Asian person in that entire grade school, which made me an anomaly.
When I think about the journey of my mom and I, all those small towns that we lived in, I think of how spent a lot of time assimilating and trying to figure out my place in the majority culture. And I would say that when I went into a Fortune 50 company, I felt the same way.
I ended up being a department head of a large auto claims organization. I was one of only a handful of women, and one of a handful of minority women. I had to learn to assimilate again, and there were times in my career that I was very well supported with mentors and sponsors and times where I wasn’t. Yet what I loved about the corporate experience was that I got a spectrum of lessons.
She had a vision to bring these women together so no one had to feel alone.
Angie: So how did you become involved with CAPAW, and ultimately come to lead it?
Sue Ann: The company was going to major reorganization, and the offer that came back to me after the reorg was one level below what I had been doing for nine and a half years. I had to make an assessment – about my value, and how I felt the organization saw me and my contributions. I had to decide whether I could live with that, or whether I would change completely and do something different. I chose to do something completely different.
A friend asked me what I had planned next, and I had to say I didn’t know – which was very awkward to me, since I wasn’t used to not knowing what I would do! She suggested I come on as interim executive director for CAPAW.
I had been involved with them since I myself attended the APAWLI program [CAPAW’s banner leadership program], and I decided to make the jump into a completely new kind of role in the non-profit space. I took a few weeks off, then I started.
Angie: That’s a brave decision that you made!
Sue Ann: Thank you. I was scared out of my mind! I was nervous, and my mom thought I was crazy because you know, job security in the Asian culture is everything. You work for a good company and make good money. She said, “You have benefits, you’re in a good role. Why would you leave?” I had to not only process this huge change for my own career, but I had to also take my parents through the process as well. My mom always says “I need the four walls of an institution,” because she was in academia all her life. . And I thought, “I am the opposite. I don’t want walls. I don’t want to be told what I can or can’t do. I want to be able to create and to be able to fly.”
Angie: So let’s talk about CAPAW – tell me a little more about the organization and the ways you work to support Asian-American women in the corporate world.
Sue Ann: Initially the organization was called the Asian-Pacific American Women’s Leadership Institute (APAWLI), which is the name of our core leadership program. And it was founded by Martha Lee, who was part of the Kellogg fellow foundation. She thought to herself, “Hey, Asian women, number one, are struggling to be taken seriously as leaders; number two, are not at decision-making tables; and number three, are out there by themselves trying to figure things out on their own with no network. She had a vision to bring these women together so no one had to feel alone.
So she and her 17 other warrior sisters came together and decided they wanted to create the APAWLI program. Martha, being the fundraiser who worked for a foundation, went out and asked a hundred of her sisters and friends to say, “Hey, each of you give a hundred dollars and we’re going to start this program.”
It was a very grassroots beginning. She was the architect of what was needed and what the women were dealing with, and she was very inclusive. She was ahead of her time, because she was not only looking at the intersectionality of being an AAPI woman, but also other forms of diversity, like being an LGBTQIA+ person. Pretty forward-thinking – remember, we’re talking about 1995!
The first class for the APAWLI program started in 1996, and we still have sisters who graduated from the ‘96 class that we keep in connection with.
It’s about asking, “What are you doing to make your community better?”
Angie: What an amazing story. It reminds me very much of how NextUp was founded – grassroots work, door to door asks, this strong need to have a network where there wasn’t one.
Sue Ann: Exactly. And part of what makes CAPAW unique is that every class had a responsibility. Once they are done with the program, they are committed to impact 25 or more people in their communities – so it’s not just about them, it’s about paying it forward. It’s about asking, “What are you doing to make your community better?” I love that.
We have a very small staff, but I fight to keep the overhead very low because I want to spend the majority of our funding on the programming, on supporting these women. We’re a virtual organization. We don’t have brick and mortar, never have. And that allows me to hire Asian-American women and women of color to give them honorariums, which is very important to me. We need to support women entrepreneurs.
What can we leverage to help each other?
Angie: What other types of leadership work do you do for the community?
Sue Ann: Aside from APAWLI, we have a program called ‘Unleash the SHERO in You!’ which came about after the Atlanta spa shootings in March of last year. I was actually at the community march, and that following Saturday, I got a call from the Walmart Center for Racial Equity. They said “Hey, Sue Ann, we know that you’ve been doing great work with not only Asian-American women, but also other groups. What are your thoughts about doing something to support women of color?
The CAPAW board and I had discussed that yes, we are about Asian-American women. However, with everything going on – with George Floyd, with anti-Asian hate, what can we share with our other sisters from other ethnic groups? What can we leverage to help each other?
With the request from Walmart and the decision we had already made to try to help, we ultimately ended up with the ‘Unleash the SHERO in You!’ Program. The first group of 24 incredible ‘sHEROes’ graduated in March of this year, and we’re starting the new class hopefully in July of this year.
Angie: What makes this program so unique?
Sue Ann: It’s an effort ultimately to develop these women of color and build their self-confidence. And at the same time we ask them to complete a project focusing on social justice that pushes up against systemic racism.
For example, our Hackathon winner this year, who we’re going to fund with $5,000, are going to do a podcast called ‘EmbRACE.’ They’ll be speaking about racism in different communities, including the indigenous population, who often get left out of these conversations.
The ‘sHERO’ cohort is specifically targeted towards women who have been in the workforce for five years or less. I want to get to them early, because the data (McKinsey-LeanIn study) already shows us that we have the broken rung in women’s early careers where they’re not getting the same resources, the same mentoring, and they don’t negotiate their salary.
Angie: That’s incredible. What a wonderful program!
“Number one, thank you for the funding. Number two, thank you for the resources. And number three, what are we doing internally beyond focusing on the individual?
Angie: Okay, so pivoting a little bit from CAPAW to speak more generally to Asian-American women in the workplace. Obviously it’s AANHPI heritage month in May, and I know from speaking with other folks that Heritage months can sometimes feel both celebratory and reductive – “Why are we only talking about this community one month a year?” for example. Do you have any feelings in any direction about the way that we acknowledge communities of color with heritage months?
Sue Ann: Well, I think you have to start from somewhere. Heritage months, at least give people a framework to have conversations. Now, I do tease people that we can talk about Asian people beyond May, that it is allowed [laughs], but I think that having at least some type of a focus is helpful.
I frequently get asked at these times about the advancement of Asian American women and women of color, and specifically around leadership skills needed. Frankly, I don’t need another study that tells me that Asian-American women need mentors and sponsors.
Angie: Yeah, that’s the equivalent of doing 20 CAT scans and saying, well, we’ve definitely identified that there’s a problem, but we’re not coming up with a solution for care.
Sue Ann: Absolutely. What we need more studies on – what we need to focus on – is what are we going to do to fix it? What action needs to occur within the culture of the organization to help make this change and move forward?
When I talk to my corporate partners, I always say, “Number one, thank you for the funding. Number two, thank you for the resources. And number three, what are we doing internally beyond focusing on the individual?” The individual has the responsibility to be prepared and then the culture has to match its support for that individual as that person moves upward.
Microaggressions are very real.
Angie: Do you feel like there are any specific areas where organizations are falling down, or where they could be working better to support and retain Asian-American women?
Sue Ann: Yes, I do. First, let’s talk about what I call the double windowpane problem. Many women of color will say they feel underqualified – they don’t feel like they qualify to compete for that promotion, or that job they want, if they don’t tick off every single item in the job description. Do White men do the same? The data says no. So we need to support women’s confidence, first and foremost.
From an institutional perspective, there are stereotypes of ‘cultural values.’ There’s the model minority myth, and that fact that Asian-American women are sometimes hyper-sexualized, not seen seriously as leadership material, or considered ‘worker bees.’ They get feedback saying they’re ‘not showing leadership presence.’ These are all things that I get feedback from my cohort. Are they taken seriously? Are they getting not just mentors, but the true sponsorship that will help them thrive and make conscious choices?
Angie: Completely agree – at NextUp we feel strongly that we need allies to take action to sponsor women, especially women of color, to try to get folks over that broken rung – or maybe mend it.
Sue Ann: Absolutely. Also, when you’re moving up and you’re the ‘only,’ sometimes – and I felt this – you feel like you’re representing all Asian people. I’ve had people ask me all kinds of things about history of other Asian cultures, for example. I’m not an expert in Vietnamese history, you know? That’s a real burden to carry.
There’s also the danger of making a mistake. There is so much visibility because you are the ‘only,’ and when you make a mistake it’s sometimes inappropriately extrapolated out to any other Asian women who might come into your role.
Microaggressions are very real. I’ve had people try to bully me. I’ve had to ward off bosses who thought I was the secretary and wanted me, the department head, to just take notes. Dealing with all of that on top of doing your job creates so much stress. The good thing is it provides an opportunity for a conversation and learning.
Angie: It sounds incredibly exhausting, frankly.
Sue Ann: By the way – you’re the DEI expert now, too. To be clear though – it’s not all negative. I’ve had experiences where I felt supported, and experiences where I didn’t. I had a great career, but you have to understand how to maneuver through these things and not just shut down.
I said to myself, “Oh my God, I’m a statistic.”
Angie: So after hearing everything you just said – and knowing that the last couple of years have been extremely difficult for the Asian-American community – what is your outlook right now for moving toward true equity? What is the temperature of how things are going?
Sue Ann: The Stop AAPI Hate data tells us we’re not improving. I myself have experienced anti-Asian hate sentiment on a public transportation, just last October. It was so cliche – I literally followed the profile of the data Stop AAPI Hate reports. The data shows that two thirds of the people being harassed are Asian-American women, the abuse happens in public transportation, it’s verbal abuse, and oh, by the way – nobody helps you.
When somebody comes up to you and starts calling you Chinese, and starts picking on you, and you’re not sure if this person’s mentally stable, and they’re carrying alcohol – what do you do? You don’t know if they’re homeless, you have no idea what the state of their mind is. I asked myself, if he physically harms me and nobody steps in, what am I going to do? The two Caucasian women sitting next to me both turned their heads away. And I think they were scared and didn’t want to be involved, but I was scared. I said to myself, “Oh my God, I’m a statistic.”
That experience tells me that no, it’s not necessarily getting better. However, there’s a lot of organizations coming together, including allies who are trying to push legislation, who are trying to do a lot of work around uplifting these stories of AAPI hate and what good things community leaders are doing. We’re creating positive spaces for these leaders who are trying to make a difference. Those things are helping, but we’re not out of the woods. We have our government, corporate, academia, small businesses and others who are working together to make things better.
In corporate culture, often no one warns you when you step in it, especially early in your career.
Angie: That’s absolutely horrible to hear. I’m so sorry.
On the back of that story – let’s talk about allyship. About not being those two women who turned away from you, even if on a smaller, more day-to-day scale. How can we be supportive from your perspective, especially for Asian-American women? As far as taking real action, making real impact, where should leaders start?
Sue Ann: I think that’s a great question. And I think it depends on where you are in your own journey around Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. So it could be as simple as “when I look around my friends, I have no person of color in my friendship circle.” Maybe it starts from home.
If you’re solid there, maybe it’s time to connect with other partners and organizations. For example, I have collaborations with African-American organizations, and with my Hispanic sisters, and I’m continuing to expand my sphere so that we can pull in more women to help more women for a longer period.
I think sponsorship is very important. Early identification and cultivating talent is huge. Find somebody who doesn’t look like you and help them along. Because they may be stepping in on landmines that they don’t even know are there.
In corporate culture, often no one warns you when you step in it, especially early in your career. Help those you sponsor, especially when they’re starting out, become corporate culture literate.
Angie: What a great point. I think that doesn’t always come to mind.
Sue Ann: Funding is very important but it’s not the only thing that’s needed. I’ve had this conversation with several organizations where they give money, which is appreciated, but I have to tell them “You’re not showing up, so what can we do to have you be present along with the funding?” You have to have a relationship with the community beyond just events If you want to make it last. If you really care, then be there not just when you need something. That’s a start, but let’s build from there. What else can you do to sustain a relationship with the community?
Angie: So tell me about what’s on the horizon for CAPAW? If folks want to get more involved with your organization, what are some ways they can connect with you?
Sue Ann: We love support for ‘Unleash the Shero in You’ and the APAWLI program. The women of color conference will be May 9th through the 11th in Houston, Texas next year in 2023.
And we also have a regional conference that’s coming September 30th in Oakland, California – more information coming on that soon. We also have monthly panels and discussions that are virtual, with a focus on representation and Asian-American women, Asian women who are leading efforts that you might never otherwise hear about.
Angie: Any parting thoughts for our readers?
Sue Ann: Please consider providing your time, talent, funding… and show up and support.
Sue Ann Hong, President and CEO, CAPAW
Sue Ann Hong joined the Center for Asian Pacific American Women (CAPAW) May 2018 as the interim Executive Director. As of January 2020, she is the President & CEO. Her career was with State Farm Insurance Companies for over 28 years, including Data Processing, Diversity & Inclusion, Corporate Business & Technology Portfolio Management and P&C Auto Claims. She’s led up to 600 employees in multiple locations, managed 1000 contract employees and supported customers and State Farm agents in 23 states. She’s worked in various locations, including MI, IL, NY and GA
Learn more about CAPAW at CAPAW.org.