Business & Leadership

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June 8, 2021

Shelly Zheng: Overcoming obstacles & climbing the ladder in corporate America

Shelly Zheng: Overcoming obstacles & climbing the ladder in corporate America

My story is probably similar to many Asian Americans who came here in the late 1990s - wishing for a better education, future, and life. I came to the United States with my family and I am very grateful for that, as there were many Asian Americans who started their lives here by themselves. Nevertheless, life in this land was extremely difficult in the beginning due to the language barrier (we did not speak a word of English). My sister and I started high school here and learned English from scratch. It is hard learning a new language when you are an adult (to this day, when my sons say to me “Mama, you did not pronounce this word correctly”, I tell them to speak a few Chinese words to me as a payback). We made it through high school, and we were the first ones in our family to finish college. In college, I purposely picked a major that I knew would make it easy to find a job, as I needed to be able to support myself and help my aging parents. After graduating college, my life in corporate America was like that of many accountants – big 4 accounting firm, then different roles with different companies to gain experience, and finally landing here at W&D.

As part of the Asian American Heritage Month celebration, I attended a virtual event last week hosted by Nikki Cannon from Burberry. She commented on a few things that I also personally experienced:

Many Asian Americans are told to “go back to your country” – Unfortunately, I was told twice to go back to my country. The first instance was early in my career, I was rolling my KPMG laptop bag and walking down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. heading to my client site. A guy ran behind me and told me to go back to my country. I did not know how to react and stood there for a few seconds before continuing my walk. My whole day was ruined by this comment. “I am an official U.S. citizen, and this is my country, where do I go back to?” I asked myself.

The second time I heard this comment was in New York City. My husband and I were exploring Times Square, and someone again told us to go back to our country. I looked at this guy and looked around, there were many Asian Americans walking on the street just like us. I told this guy “we are from this country, there is no other country to go back to.”

However, the worst experience was when my best friend shared with me that someone told her young son (7 years old) to go back to his country a few weeks ago.  I was ANGRY! My friend was born and raised in this country and her son has been here his entire life! Later that night, I asked my boys (9 and 6) “If someone told you to go back to your country, what would you say?” and both replied, “Mama, we were born here, this is our country!”

Many Asian Americans are asked “where are you really from?” – Yep, countless times I have been asked this question.  I don’t think that the person asking the question had bad intentions, but after too many times, it made me feel like I did not belong in this country because they did not accept my answer that I am from Virginia.

Asian Americans are the least likely group in the U.S. to be promoted to management – As Nikki pointed out, there are some stereotypes about Asians, for example, Asians are quiet, lack social skills, and have language barriers, etc.  There has also been some research done on this topic but not as robust/comprehensive as other race groups. I’ve included a few references below.

In my over 15 years in corporate America, I have learned a few things about race/skills/promotions. I am nothing like that stereotype mentioned above - I am not quiet (I think my team would concur), I like to be around people (especially my team), and I think I am a good leader (through feedback - someone even called me a “fearless leader”). However, there were a few times in my career that I was passed over for promotions because I had a “communication issue,” that I was too “aggressive,” and that I was not exactly the “Asian type”… I was also told (indirectly) that my then current role was my glass ceiling in the corporate world. This happened TWICE. You know what? I admit that I do not speak or write perfect English (my sons point it out), that I do want to get things done on time (my past roles trained me well to execute under extreme deadlines), and that I do speak up to defend myself from time to time. I do not believe those are reasons not to promote me or people like me.

It is hard to move up the corporate ladder as an Asian American woman. It takes extra effort, but I am not afraid of the extras (like many Asian Americans) because I trust in my ability to accomplish goals, lead teams, and contribute to the company. But I do wish that senior leaders in corporate America tried to pay a little more attention to minority groups, think outside of the box, and provide the opportunities and tools for us to find professional success. I am not asking for favoritism; I am asking for true equal opportunity.

To close, I am very pleased that diversity, equity, and inclusion are becoming more important in the corporate world and here at W&D. My favorite quote is “sit on the table” from Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In”. I continue to believe that I have room to grow in the corporate world and I will continue to climb the corporate ladder. As my sons put it “Mama, only the sky is the limit!”

Why Aren’t There More Asian Americans in Leadership Positions?
Asian Americans Are the Least Likely Group in the U.S. to Be Promoted to Management

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