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Jean Kim - Elevating Chicago's Asian American Corporate Community
Crossroads. It’s the defining word for Jean Kim. From her own identity journey to her bi-racial marriage to raising 2 daughters, crossing roads has shaped her view of the world. She has been an active leader of Corporate Asian Affinity Groups for nearly 10 years while pursuing significant career/industry jumps and education changes. Whether at home or work, the pursuit continues to be about respecting past experiences to change the future.
Tell us a little bit about your current involvement in the Chicago local Asian community. What are the things that you are working on?
First, I am a board member for Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Chicago (AJC) and I’ve been in that position for five years. As a general board member, my main role is to provide strategic thought leadership and fulfill a fundraising commitment for AJC. Second, I try to carve off a piece of that board membership role to work closer with Asian American corporate professionals. Through AJC, we have the Asian American Leadership Forum (AALF), which is a yearly conference where I lead the professional development track.
Great! So tell us why do you feel these causes are significant to our Asian community?
Growing up in the Midwest, a not so diverse place, I feel our collective voice is far more powerful than our individual ones. We don’t always recognize how much we have in common as an Asian American community. When I think about the environment that I grew up in, how I may have struggled with my identity, without being open to or understanding the resources available to me, I want to ensure that young people today as well as the future generation know that they are not alone. There is a big community out there to help with their identity journey and become good citizens of the future, citizens that help our Asian American community as well as society at large.
Do you have any favorite moment while being involved in these initiatives, one that highlights what you just said?
There are a lot of good moments, some personally rewarding and some rewarding for others. One really stands out: When I was helping Maria Racho with her thesis research regarding success attributes for Asian American professionals, we came across the bicultural identity integration (BII) model. We started getting more in-depth with BII. We eventually got a chance to present that material at the National AAAJ Conference, which was in LA that year. At the conference, we designed a workshop on BII. As we were leading that workshop – talking about how, as an Asian American, you don’t have to worry about being Asian enough or American enough, it’s about being Asian and American. There was this big, Samoan guy sitting in the back who came to an aha moment – the moment where he just realized that being who he is would be enough. He stated that whenever he would go to Samoa, his family would comment on his funny accent or the fact that he doesn’t eat the same food they do. It made him feel like he’s not Samoan enough. At the same time, he would feel that he’s not American enough. He said to us: “This is the first time, right now, that I realized that there’s nothing wrong with either one of those teachings and I’m just enough Samoan and just enough American.” He shared that realization in front of a room full of 35 strangers.
When those moments happen, it reenergizes me. It reinforces why we do the research, why we go to conferences and talk about it. It became evident that the more we can spread that message, the more sparks we can generate within people.
“As an Asian American, you don’t have to worry about being Asian enough or American enough, it’s about being Asian and American.”
Speaking of Maria Racho, I know that you knew both Maria and Khai Yang, the two individuals we recently interviewed with. You guys connected when you were at Allstate here in Chicago through their Asian ERG (3AN). Tell us about some of the memories or notable things you were able to accomplish together.
The environment under which we met was almost the perfect recipe of ingredients coming together under the right temperature. We were all at points in our lives where we shared similar leadership paths and outlook on life. We all felt there’s got to be more for us [Asian American females]. However, we may not know how to chart that path because anybody who’s ever charted this path before us, didn’t come from the same world view (there weren’t many Asian American females at Allstate in leadership roles). Given our history of Asian Americans coming into the United States, the impact that has on the world, how are we going to create a path forward that builds on that legacy and be the trailblazers?
We chose to be open to those conversations (we had to go to a place where for each of us it’s very humbling to talk about what your fears might be or what your shortcomings are). That’s not a comfortable place to be in with people that you don’t know very well. We connected very quickly.
The part that I’m most proud of through that relationship is that we’ve all gone off to support where our passions are. I am a board member at AJC. Khai charted a path with the OCA mentoring program and did unbelievable work there. Maria continued down her path of her research and speaking. We all found a landing zone where we felt we could make an impact.
One of the common denominators that’s becoming more and more clear is that you all started with this employee resource group (ERG) at Allstate, and it seems there’s something about that ERG, either the platform they provide or the way they drive the inspiration out of Asian American professionals that make people want to do more. Do you think the success and recognition that three of you guys were able to obtain can be attributed to how the Allstate ERG was run or perhaps because each of you wanted to contribute more?
It’s a combination. What Allstate provided for us was a safe platform to come together and encourage each other. The company certainly stands behind its diversity and inclusion initiatives. It’s up to the individuals in the ERG to define why we exist, what we stand for, how we want to deliver upon the plan we define.
I haven’t been at Allstate for a while so I can only speak to how things were then. At the time, when we first formed, it was the easy stuff, like potlucks for Chinese New Year and Diwali. Celebrating the culture is very much an essential – the beginning of awareness and having an open mind to other cultures that exist out there. However, it didn’t appear that there was a real desire to learn or to have a breakthrough. The attendees simply wanted to eat and have fun. I think that’s where we felt we have the opportunity to make this more meaningful – let’s be intentional about what we stand for, and let’s create something that no one’s ever seen before for the ERG.
Ultimately, where we landed was: while we could leverage existing professional development materials or do events together with other ERGs, we really wanted to activate something in our core membership group about the meaning of being the best in class or the go-to employee in Western culture. A culture that we currently work in that may conflict with the ideals of our indigenous culture. Question if they match or if we have an internal puzzle. For example, how do you navigate and balance when your indigenous culture is saying it’s all about community – you lift and raise all folks together, otherwise all fail – yet what’s valued in Western culture is self-promotion?
That’s where we felt we could bring something cutting edge and have genuine conversations about what it means to be an Asian American professional. How do you respect your cultural values while continuing to feel like you’re rising through the ranks? This is where I would really love to see more Asian American groups migrate to, elevate their scope to the next level.
“How do you respect your cultural values while continuing to feel like you’re rising through the ranks? This is where I would really love to see more Asian American groups migrate to, elevate their scope to the next level.”
Very well. What are some of the observations about our Chicago’s local community that give you hope and things that you feel we still need to work on despite the progress we’ve made thus far?
I am inspired by the young people that I meet. At AJC we have a really great high school program called KINETIC. Whenever I meet and talk to those high school students in the program, it’s an instant recharge. All the No’s I may have heard throughout the year goes away because you get to see these young kids who haven’t been jaded by the world, full of hope and belief that everything is possible. It’s a very energizing group of people to be around and it’s a clear reminder to me why I was asked to join the board. I will have a pre-teen of my own very soon. Having kids is the ultimate humbling experience; and, this is why I got involved. Whatever her future holds, I want to make sure that I have done everything I can to clear that path for her and that she doesn’t have to go through the same hurdles that I did.
Given the political climate, I am concerned that much of the world is still closed to anything that’s different. While that concerns me about the rest of the world, I also feel it within our own community. That’s why I said earlier, I am so proud of the fact that between Khai, Maria and I, even though we have our ties to our individual organizations, we still collaborate to benefit the whole. For a moment, we set aside our self-interest and put the community-interest in the forefront.
Any future community initiative that you are planning?
US Foods just started its diversity and inclusion initiative. My short-term goal is to help set up an Asian American group there. One thing that I recognize is that there are so many independent restaurants that are owned by Asians. How do we think about that relationship differently?
Bouncing off the thesis research with Maria, we noticed a very impactful story with Asian American women. I’d like to investigate if there’s some fabric or thread that we can highlight.