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.