A Celebration of Culture
Article by Helen Lao, Founder, and CEO of Clear Path Solutions
My family is originally from China but fled to the island of Taiwan during the revolution. While their stories were different, many of the details mirrored one another. My father tells me about how my grandparents were forced to decide between their one suitcase or their youngest son boarding the final flight. I'm certainly glad they chose my dad. My mother was separated from her own parents for three decades, living in Taiwan. There was little to no communication between them.
My father became an ex-pat so I was given the gift of visiting mainland China during my most formative years: middle school and high school. Every summer of those years, I went back and learned a culture I saw only in my own home. I realized that running water, flushing toilets, and transportation were all privileges.
Back in the US, we lived in Massachusetts. I grew up in a friendly suburban area, very much removed from what my family experienced. However, their background had a huge impact on how I was raised, and the person I have become.
I only spoke mandarin until I was nearly 5-years-old. I went to a nursery school and still couldn't speak English. I was even put in a special education program. Despite initial concerns, the teachers told my parents that I'd be able to attend public Kindergarten. They assured my parents that immersion was the quickest way to learn the language.
In China, parents are often measured by how successful their kids are. Judgment comes from friends, society, and, even more so, fellow family members. When you compound this with the fact that my parents came here with so little, it heightened those pressures you hear about.
Don't misunderstand, my parents always ensured we had the things that mattered and I always felt loved. Yes, my childhood was regimented and disciplined. But it became an advantage later on.
For example, my mother had a very strong scarcity mindset. It goes back to her survival mentality from escaping the war and being separated from her family. The importance of saving and not squandering was learned from an early age. I started maxing out my 401K right away at 21-years-old and never looked back.
We also received very candid feedback when we were younger. There was no beating around the bush about how we were doing. I learned to be very honest with myself, even if it was discouraging, at times. I know when I've reached my ceiling on something and need help. This has paid huge dividends as I've seen so many people barrel forward when they don't know what they are doing, become opportunistic, or worse, overplay their hand which can lead to being perceived as a "fraud." I know when to pause, ask for feedback, and surround myself with people much smarter than I on any given subject. It has become one of my greatest strengths. I surround myself with people who complement me.
As I look back at my journey, I don't see myself as a clone of the culture I come from but more an extension of it. There are so many things I do differently than people might assume. For example, as a child, report cards were this constant source of dread. It was where the judgment was at its most harsh. I haven't been nearly as live-or-die about report cards with my own children. Education is still very important and I push them to achieve their fullest potential. But I take a broader approach in teaching them about life.
I've certainly inherited a bit of the protectiveness from my family, though not as intense. For example, I don't allow my children to do sleepovers, for a number of reasons. This was a rule I hated as a child and often led to, "but everyone else gets to sleepover." It frustrated me that it always fell on deaf ears. I came to appreciate it. Perhaps my children eventually will too. Many of the things I disliked as a child later fed my underlying values and motivation.
On my 40th birthday, my dad gave a speech, joking that the reason I have so many shoes today is that they couldn't afford shoes because of how quickly my feet grew as a child. Even my cake topper was a high heel shoe. So many people in our family have made great strides in their lives. At one point, some family members were making $20 a month working in China. They've all done so much better today and have grown and succeeded.
I've come to believe in hard work as the great differentiator. The harder I've worked, the luckier I've seemed to get. If that comes from my background, great. But I have never led with "I'm Asian." It is just part of who I am but it doesn't define who I am. I've tried to pass on what wisdom I've gained from my culture.
I have several phrases I've passed on to my children such as, "Life doesn't serve up an apple pie." And, "Life is a game of chess, not checkers." The obvious lesson being, you can choose to react to things that happen to you or make what seems like an easy decision or choose to look ahead and do your best to plan outcomes. You should think several steps ahead, expect surprises, and be prepared that it will likely be more difficult than you think. Things are not always going to go your way; in fact, they normally don't happen as you anticipate. I have continued to reinforce this message with my children and even my team.
With my team, we are at the center of information — a lot of information. Information is nothing if we cannot connect the dots. It's our job to connect the dots to make the most informed and educated decision. I don't think I'm a great leader but I'm very empathetic. I believe people are good and want to do good things. Everyone has a different journey, but I believe, given the chance, encouragement, and support, most will do their best not to disappoint. I've had team members tell me I have a bleeding heart. I don't, but I do choose to see the good in people just as many mentors throughout my career did for me.
It wasn't always easy though. Early in my career, at a respected company, I was asked to lead a diversity initiative. I still bristle at that thought. I remember thinking they only pinned this on me because I was in Human Resources and the only Asian person. I wasn't prepared nor qualified. I had to stand up in front of this high-powered executive committee and pitch why diversity was important to the organization. I'll never forget one particular executive. He challenged me and my ideas to the point of humiliation. At that moment, it would have been easy to feel like a victim, to feel set up for failure, but I chose to learn. That experience also informed me of how I wanted to treat people.
It all comes back to the strong focus on the family that I grew up around. Recently, someone shared a "tent" analogy with me that really resonated. The "tent" has limited space, focus on a group of people who mean the most to you, and make sure you take care of them. I try not to treat the business as this zero-sum game where each person is part of the machine. People matter. Teamwork matters. My family and my team are under my tent.
But business is also a place I went against cultural norms. My parents came from a different generation, the emphasis was always on education and that came with extraordinarily high expectations. The only career paths worth recognizing were doctors and lawyers. I was never talented enough to achieve that level of academic excellence. However, I'm proud to be an entrepreneur and small business owner. I am out there as "Helen on the Move". I've built a team of strong of intelligent, capable and diverse individuals within my company, ClearPath Solutions.
My entrepreneurial spirit certainly has ties to my cultural background. That extends to how I parent my children. For example, schools don't teach personal finance, which was a huge deal in my family. My parents had a strong appreciation for money and what money means. I've made it a point to both save for my children's education and also educate them on the important money and the ability to provide basic necessities. It's such a huge part of life and it's crazy that schools don't teach it.
My kids now joke that "Not everything needs to be a business." But it's an important mindset to demonstrate for them. My children are at this inflection point in life, one in college and the others soon going to college. I'm excited to see how their journey plays out. I know they will stumble and fall, and I've tried to prepare them for that, but there are never assurances, and they will need to learn on their own. I can only hope that each finds their way and that I have provided them with the foundation needed to navigate their futures.
I know my children will need mentors and guidance along the way. I've always learned from each of the bosses I've worked with along my career journey. Every boss has something to offer. But I'll always remember one boss who would always ask me how I was doing. It was such a simple gesture but perhaps it was because I'd just had my first child, my daughter Brooke. I was getting through the demands of first-time parenting while also aggressively pursuing my career. He volunteered flexibility in spending time with her while meeting the demands of work, and I'll never forget that. It reinforced my belief that our people are more than their jobs and should be respected as such.
Overall, my husband has been my greatest mentor, by far. He's brilliant, kind, supportive, and is simply a great partner. We can give each other honest feedback and respect each other's expertise. I think it goes to show the importance of finding a good partner in life. If you and your partner can be mentors to each other, you are going to be ahead of the curve.
Helen Lao is the Founder and Executive Matchmaker of ClearPath Solutions, a global firm that works directly with founders, brands, and private equity firms to provide them with the perfect match for growth and value creation at the VP, C-Level, and Board of Directors. Helen was named LinkedIn Top Voices 2020. Helen and her team at ClearPath launched Step Up To The Table, a non-profit foundation with a mission to save 1000+ independent restaurants across the nation by encouraging individuals to purchase gift cards to help struggling restaurant owners due to the pandemic. You can follow #HelenOnTheMove and her support of local restaurants on LinkedIn.