Asian American Women Executives You Should Know — by Dr. Julia Wai-Yin So

To honor the success of Asian Americans in this country, I would like to highlight the professional lives of five prominent Asian female executives.  They have demonstrated a sense of pride in their own heritage and that this has not diminished their professional success in the western world.   They are among the most powerful women in the U.S.

As an immigrant that has lived in the US for 28 years, I learned to appreciate my Chinese heritage more after I arrived here than while growing up in Hong Kong—a rather westernized cosmopolitan city that was also a British Crown Colony at that time. After my first trip to China in 2001, I became even more grounded in my heritage as I came to realize that the values I grew up with have been the bedrock of foundation of my philosophy all along.

The moment of rude awakening came when I visited the house where my parents used to live. My parents fled China because of the Japanese invasion during World War II and settled in Hong Kong while the country was going through political turmoil and later fell to communism. As I stepped into the room in which my parents spent their wedding night, I realized that had circumstances been different, I would have been conceived there, and I could have grown up in that house. My life would have been drastically different! What struck me the most was not the grand-turned-shabby-house with paint-stripped-cracked-carved-wooden ceiling, nor the unmatched pieces of chipped and worn marble-inlaid rosewood furniture throughout the house. It was the family history and ancestral stories embedded in everything that I saw and touched in that visit. It was the rich heritage that connected me to my parents, my grandparents, my great grand-parents, and my great great grandparents! Since I returned from my trip to China, my love and passion for China, or specifically my Chinese heritage, burgeoned. Whenever I saw an Asian American showing a sense of pride for his/her home country, I would smile and cheer to myself, “Yes! Be proud of your heritage!”  Here  are five Asian American women who inspire: Indra Nooyi, Andrea Jung, Duy-Doan Le, Seong Ohm, and Lilia Clemente.

Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo

One year after being ranked by Fortune magazine as the 11th most powerful woman in business in 2005, Indra Nooyi became the first Asian female CEO in the history of PepsiCo. The Nooyi biography included leaving India at the age of 23 to pursue her MBA at Yale University. After graduation, she worked for Boston Consulting Group and Motorola before joining PepsiCo in 1995. Her rapid rise in the company was no accident. Besides acquiring Tropicana Products, Nooyi had worked in the spin-off of Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut from Tropicana as Tricon Global Restaurants in 1997.

Since becoming CEO, PepsiCo has become the second largest beverage company in the country and the fourth largest food and beverage company in the world. Its revenue has risen 72% and net profit more than doubled, to $5.6 billion last year. 
My first interaction with Nooyi was at an annual Women’s Forum of the Greater Dallas Asian American Chamber of Commerce in Dallas several years ago when she was the keynote speaker. She arrived wearing an elegant Indian sari. Throughout her speech, Nooyi frequently referenced to the hometown of Chennai where she grew up and shared many anecdotes from her career such as her showing up in a sari for an interview at Motorola. At one point, she joked about her husband treating her like a regular Indian housewife even though she was a senior executive at PepsiCo, in charge of 142,000 employees worldwide.At the end of the evening, I came to the conclusion that Nooyi is a well-grounded CEO who embraces her heritage!

Andrea Jung, Avon Products.

In 1995, Jung was quoted as one of the “25 women to watch” by Advertising Age magazine. Two years after she became Avon’s CEO in 1999, the company’s stock rose over 70%. Last year she was listed as one of 18 “America’s Best Leaders 2007” by U.S News & World Report and ranked the 7th most powerful woman in business by Fortune magazine. An articulate speaker, Jung frequently speaks to college students and professionals about her own ethos: integrity, humility, courage, and pride. She once said to the audience at the 25th Annual Conference of Wharton Women in Business Club, “Never forget your culture. Have pride in who you are, no matter what you think business demands of you.”

The pride that Jung was referring to was her sense of pride for her Chinese upbringing.  She often attributes her success to her upbringing, claiming that her parents had reared her as a good traditional Chinese daughter. To Jung, life is not about working, but making a difference. She once passed up an opportunity to attend a meeting with the President in order to be with her daughter who was leaving for her first sleep-away camp the same evening. She told the audience that President Bush probably would not remember who she was, but her daughter would, for the rest of her life, that her mother passed up a meeting with the president just to be with her.

Duy-Doan Le, Texas Instruments, Inc.

I met Duy-Doan Le in 2003 when she was the keynote speaker of the Leadership Institute here in Dallas that I helped organize. One of the only four Senior Fellows at TI, Le struggled early in life. Arriving in the US in 1975 as a 12-year-old refugee from Vietnam with no father and eight younger siblings, Le was determined to succeed. She graduated as her high school’s valedictorian in 1979 and completed her BSEE at UT Austin in three years. She soon joined TI as a memory design engineer, but continued to work on her MBA. In 1999 Le became the first female and the first Asian Senior Fellow at TI.

Today, she is a registered professional engineer holding 21 patents. She is also the National Instruments Director of TI, overseeing its development projects for wireless communication. Despite her success, Le has not forgotten her roots. Since she started college, she has been helping Vietnam refugees in the US, as well as providing scholarships and funding education to the children in Vietnam. Seong Ohm, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Seong Ohm, Senior Vice President of Wal-Mart Stores, was listed by PINK magazine and Ernst & Young as one of the 15 most influential corporate women in driving innovations. Ohm has 19 years of experience in the electronics and semi-conductor industry. Her responsibilities include merchandising, procurement, item development, sales and profit for all electronics and office products at SamÂ’s Club. I first met Ohm in 2006 when she received the National Asian Pacific American Corporate Achievement Award from the Organization of Chinese Americans. I came to know her as someone that is both humble about her accomplishments and passionate in helping others to succeed. A native of Korea, Ohm is tireless in coaching junior colleagues at her company as well as providing guidance to other professionals, especially the Asian professional.

Lilia Clemente, Clemente Capital, Inc.

Nicknamed “Wonder Woman of Wall Street,” Lilia Clemente came to the US from the Philippines at age 19 for graduate study in finance at the University of Chicago. At age 28, she was the first female financial manager at the Ford Foundation that managed a portfolio of $3 billion. While at Ford, she was instrumental in transforming the Foundation into a global investment pioneer. With $25,000 seed money, Clemente left the Foundation in 1976 to start her own investment firm, Clemente Capital Investment (CCI.)

Today, CCI is one of the top 20 fund managers in the US. It manages over $7.5 billion at offices in Hong Kong, Beijing, Tokyo, Manila, and Bombay. Over the years, some of her accomplishments have been helping Paine Webber grow its Atlas Fund from 66 million to 206 million in two years; winning the bid to manage the $50 million California state pension fund and $125 million New York City pension fund; and increasing the number of countries in which she invests from one to 15. In her autobiography, Growing Up in World Street, Clemente attributed her “fighting spirit” and success to her mother and her family, both in the US and in the Philippines.

These five amazing immigrants came to the US at different times from different Asian countries; yet their successes did not blind them from honoring their heritage or their families—Nooyi by wearing the Indian sari, Jung by putting her family before her business, Le by helping the Vietnamese children, Ohm by mentoring Asian American professionals, and finally Clemente by paying tribute to her mother. As an immigrant, I understand the significant role that heritage plays in our daily life. It is our anchor while navigating in the unfamiliar landscape of the US. It is like having a home to return to at the end of a working day.

Dr. Julia Wai-Yin So

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