I’ve had several times when I have felt dismissed or overlooked, but I’ve also learned what it means to be heard and supported.
I am Asian, so I look generally younger than I actually am. Several years ago, the CEO of a large nonprofit organization had invited my team and me to an informational session. They wanted us to listen to what was happening at the board level. We were in charge of rebranding the organization.
So I listened. They talked about how they could attract a larger audience. They wanted to get away from the people they had traditionally recruited, which was older white men. And they explicitly said that. So it made sense that I was there.
I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything.
In the middle of the conversation, the lead who had invited me said, “Jenny, I really want to hear what your perspective is on this.” I shared my thoughts on how they could expand beyond their old boys’ club reputation.
A few minutes later, one of the male board members interrupted and said, “I just want to say that I remember what it’s like to be her age. I don’t think she’s the right demographic for who we’re looking for. I think you need a few more years before you’ll really understand the value of this organization.”
It was so demeaning. I was shocked. I was paralyzed. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything.
Then the leader of that organization said, “No, actually, Jenny is exactly who we’re looking for.” It was amazing of her to speak out, to be a voice when I was voiceless.
I own the co-working space CO+HOOTS here in Phoenix. I started it, and my husband joined later. He’s a vital part of it, but I hatched the idea and ran with it. I also run the expansion plans, so I meet with architects and contractors.
In one meeting, an architect refused to address me. When he asked questions, I answered them, yet he continued to direct all of the questions to my husband. I was frustrated, and I remember bringing the group to the front of our space so that we could have our conversation in front of a camera — so I could verify that I wasn’t crazy.
Those little things mean a lot — giving space for people to actually speak and be seen.
Even my husband, who is so close to me and someone I would call a feminist, didn’t see it — which goes to show how often it is that we see something that others don’t, because they’ve not walked in our shoes. They don’t have that experience. Finally, I pulled up the camera footage and showed my husband so that he could he what I was talking about.
I brought the issue up to the architect’s manager; he eventually apologized and said he didn’t even know he was doing it. I don’t think very many people do it intentionally. That bias just exists. I also think it doesn’t help if we don’t speak out about it. I’ve learned that it’s important to be strong and call that stuff out.
Several years ago, I was asked to be on a panel with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, the late Sen. John McCain and the president of GE. I was invited to speak on behalf of small businesses and entrepreneurs, and I remember thinking, “What the hell am I doing here?” I wasn’t anything like any of them. Before the event, I asked a bunch of people, “What am I even going to say on this panel? I’m so outnumbered in so many different ways.”
And my friend — a white male who works in politics — said, “They’re bringing you up there to bring a voice to communities that traditionally don’t get heard, so use that.” And it was really powerful.
I had a lot of respect for Sen. McCain, even though we didn’t agree on many things policy-wise. He was very kind and gave me space to speak. Those little things mean a lot — giving space for people to actually speak and be seen.
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