Earlier this year, I hit a career milestone when I co-founded the OPMG API Collective (OAC), one of the first API employee groups within Omnicom.
Until 2020, I had always found it easy to forgo my Asian heritage at work and simply “be American” in my professional life. I breezed over the question, “where are you from?”
It wasn’t until recently that I fully embraced the influence and platform my role offers me. Now, I am seizing the opportunity to share my story and experience in order to create a workplace that better blends culture, heritage and employee experience.
But during a recent OAC event where I spoke about my origin story, I realized how uncomfortable it can be to stand up and celebrate our heritage and culture in front of others. It was an awakening for me. If I, as a leader, was struggling to own the space we’ve worked so hard to create for diverse voices to speak, how hard must it be for others to speak up?
As the saying goes, growth is found in discomfort. That thought defines the current state of DE&I in our industry, where we are just starting to ask tough questions, and face the reality of how much work we have to do. Being stuck in Phase 1 of DE&I means lack of progress towards a diverse, inclusive and, ultimately, equitable environment.
So why is it important to hear others’ stories and share our own? Because authenticity in the workplace doesn’t exist without it.
If you just asked me where I was from, I’d say: Los Angeles.
But if you asked me about my origin story, I’d share that my parents opened a four table Cantonese noodle shop that grew into a four restaurant empire, and that my mom was the driving force behind it. It would shed light on why getting more women in leadership roles is so important to me. And perhaps also knowing that my parents struggled with learning English as much as I struggle with speaking Chinese will help a colleague understand that I understand, too.
While it leaves me feeling vulnerable and raw, sharing my story helps others see me as a whole person — with flaws and failures — and that’s so important for everyone, not just leaders, to recognize.
I recently interviewed Van Tran, VP, Experience & Digital Innovation at KERN as part of Omnicom’s Omniwomen Live Leadership Series. We could have talked about her career in technology and strategy. Instead, we talked about her beautiful origin story of coming to the U.S., and how her culture informed her definition of a “team” in the workplace. It was a privilege to hear her story. But unless I was intentional about asking, I would have never known.
To get to Phase 2 of DE&I — when we’ve advanced beyond recruiting KPIs and we can successfully blend culture, heritage and employee experience — we need to create opportunities to give voice to others to ask and share their own origin stories. When allyship extends beyond the workplace, it expands to friends and children.
My goal in the short-term is to create the small energy shift to ask each other, “what’s your origin story?”
Cathy Butler is CEO of Organic.