It’s been proven, diverse teams outperform those who aren’t—in fact, diverse management teams have been shown to increase revenue by 19%. But when it comes to the C-suite, we’re still seeing a disparity in the number of minority women in leadership.
Asian American Women in Leadership
Did you know that only 8.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and of that group, only 1% are women of color? If we were to break this down even further, looking specifically at Asian American female CEOs, there are only four in the Fortune 500, four in the S&P 500, and none in the S&P 100.
For Asian American women, the likelihood of being promoted at the C-suite executive level is 1 for every 6 Asian men. But it’s not just gender governing Asian American women’s chances for advancement to leadership positions—they also have to contend with generalized stereotypes in the workplace, often hypersexualized and typecasted as hyperfeminine, acquiescent, and compliant.
Minority women in leadership, regardless of ethnicity, feel the disadvantages that are tied to their identity by others. We had the opportunity to speak to Jee Chang, a Korean American female who is the CEO of UME, a brand consultancy firm. She shares her story and perspective on what it’s like being a minority woman in leadership in corporate America and how she’s doing things differently at UME.
Q&A with Jee Chang
Q: What is the UME’s focus / unique differentiator? Its secret sauce?
A: UME is an inside-out brand consultancy working with radical visionaries and vanguard organizations to build a more regenerative and equitable future. Our holistic inside-out approach aligns strategy, identity, and culture so our partners can scale and lead with brand integrity. From regenerative agriculture to the energy-efficient decentralized blockchain, we partner with innovators who are making our systems more equitable and sustainable. Born in 2016, our committed collective is diverse, collaborative, and borderless—but orbits around New York.
The three things that make UME unique are our collective model, our inside-out approach, and our focus on radical visionaries.
We designed UME as a collective in order to give creatives the structure and freedom they need to do their best work and thrive. Designed to be more respectful, inspiring, and innovative, our collective model attracts thought-provoking experts and top talent from around the world. We are a diverse, radically candid, highly independent, and extremely collaborative team. We totally own our workstreams and never hesitate to call for help and have each other's back. We believe that creativity requires both support and structure and freedom and autonomy. Just like fire requires oxygen, creativity requires space and flexibility. This looks like creating opportunities for our collaborators to participate in the studio, actively choose the projects that excite them, and also giving them more latitude to explore other experiences. Our model works well with seasoned creatives who have already established and excelled in their areas of expertise and who are curious, life-long learners. What we have seen over and over again is that by giving our team this latitude, they actually show up more energized, creative, and committed. They have the space they need for creativity to emerge in a way that is also aligned with what lights them up. And our clients get the benefits of a team that’s on fire.
We believe that when we align ourselves from the inside-out, we can achieve anything. That inside-out alignment is the key to driving organizational success and transforming industries. More obviously, you’ll see that approach come to life in our offering, which integrates strategy (head), identity (heart), and culture (hands). But inside-out is at work on a deeper level—it speaks to a more open, receptive, intentional, embodied, human way of exploring, collaborating, and leading. And that’s important because we believe that how we work impacts what we create. That the means mirror the ends. That’s why we nourish relationships first—because that’s what’s needed for creativity and innovation. We have to trust that we are all willing and more than able to show up for each other and for our shared purpose. To believe as a group that we can find a solution if we follow the process and work together. It requires going on a journey, and not knowing exactly where we’ll end up. And that’s an incredibly vulnerable place to be in. We work hard to create safe spaces for new ideas. We lean into friction. We explore disagreement with curiosity and compassion. We try to maintain a culture that is radically honest so that both the people and the work can evolve and flourish.
Focus on Radical Visionaries
At this point in our careers, we are not interested in selling more stuff or touting the next band-aid solution. It’s 2023 and the world needs radical visionaries with courage and commitment. To reimagine our systems. To remake our structures. To forge a more equitable and regenerative global economy and society. As a collective, UME believes this future is possible. We are committed to discovering and partnering with individuals and organizations to manifest our shared vision.
Q: How would you describe the culture at UME? What’s special about it?
A: Our unique working model leads our collective to have a more honest, open, and regenerative culture. It’s rare to have so many creatives come together open to learning, giving and receiving feedback, and collaborating. We’re honest in how we share our personal and creative challenges and how that affects the work we’re doing together. We’re really looking to create a regenerative and sustainable work culture that’s intentional and understands what we put in is what we get.
Rather than spending money on a physical structure, we invest our time and resources in relationship building, understanding the personal and professional needs of our collective members, and finding ways to lift each other up as we grow together on this journey.
The combination of being 1) highly independent and 2) extremely collaborative is incredibly rare. We totally own our work streams and never hesitate to call for help and have each other's back. We have very low and transparent egos. We are radically candid in our communications. We are united by a shared purpose and vision. We connect first as people. We allow for change. We believe in abundance. We trust in the collaborative process and know that powerful and unexpected solutions will emerge.
Q: What is the biggest struggle you have faced climbing up the ranks in an industry that is still, to an extent, dominated by men?
A: Today, it is rare to have a women-led branding consultancy founded by a woman of color. And while we do have a few amazing and talented cis men on our team, so far, our teams have been predominantly female. Here are some of the more common challenges that we’ve experienced.
We usually need a woman in a leadership position on the client side to advocate for us if the key decision-makers are mostly men.
We’ve also found that we need to work harder to prove our chops. We have to be more buttoned-up and show lots of proven success and thinking to earn respect and a baseline of trust in our competence.
We have to work hard to overcome the assumption that a women-led studio will work for less. We have to prove the value of our work.
And as we embrace the feminine principle of receptivity and wonder, we come in curious and ask a lot of smart questions. Some clients find questions intimidating or feel as though we are questioning their authority rather than seeing our inquiry as genuine interest and an invitation to explore and imagine what might be possible.
Q: Have you ever experienced prejudice from clients as an Asian American female leading projects?
A: The thing about human prejudices is that it's not a stop-start behavior. Biases come with an underlying mindset reinforced through our societal structures, so it's happening all the time. Thankfully, we're more evolved and aware of racist language and behavior and usually not witnessing adverse racism in the workplace. Instead, they typically occur as racial microaggressions or our general dispositions towards others.
I once had a manager who enthusiastically proclaimed that it was always best to hire Asians saying, "They're reliable and hard workers!" I was pretty green then, and I recall feeling proud and then quickly unsettled. It took me a long time to unpack why, and I realized they were saying Asians were a good financial value. I don't think my manager at the time realized it, but that simple statement immediately treated an entire racial group as objects and transactional employees. Of course, there's nothing wrong with being a hard worker, but generalizing a whole racial group leads to all sorts of underlying prejudice that have systemic implications.
Believe it or not, many Asian Americans, including myself, need to be educated on how we've experienced racism. Historically, we're characterized as a more tolerant community. Tolerance leads to acceptance, so when our community doesn't speak up against racial discrimination, it's assumed that the behaviors and actions are appropriate and acceptable. I'm still learning how much I've disassociated my Korean identity as a survival mechanism in the workplace to belong and still working to reintegrate my whole identity as a professional adult. This behavior is a result of the constant prejudices I've felt in the workplace.
It's a nuanced practice to navigate this integration and can bring up a lot of trauma. But I believe identifying this gap has been a gift to me and allows me to deepen my full identity and hopefully help others who have experienced this challenge.
Q: What words of advice would you give someone that is experiencing prejudice in the workplace?
A: If you're experiencing prejudice in the workplace, it's important to first name what triggers you and then dig deep to understand why it's affecting you. Once you understand the root cause, use that insight to fuel and guide how you want to change the world around you. Remember that the current situation is unacceptable, and we can all strive to be better. But it's not enough to just identify the problem; you also need to gather the courage to take action. Get out there and do something, whether it's advocating for yourself or creating a support system that gives you a safe space to reimagine how you can create change. Whatever you do, don’t give up.
Q: How has your journey shaped who you are as a leader and how you lead your team?
A: My entire journey has led me to a path of discovery in feminine leadership. It’s the foundation of how I think about the UME model, our culture, and how we think about leadership and building relationships.
Q: Why do you teach as an adjunct professor? What’s your biggest hope for your students?
A: Teaching gives me another venue to push the boundaries of how I learn, engage, and stay connected. I’m always reimagining different ways to relate to my students. Being in the classroom gives me on-the-ground experience to see the challenges creative students are faced with and show them early on how they can make a larger impact in the creative workforce.
My biggest hope for my students is for them to have the courage to break boundaries, push systems and take risks to innovate outside their comfort zone.
Advancing Minority Female Leaders in Business
As of 2021, we hit an all-time record with 41 women running Fortune 500 companies, and for the first time, two of these leaders are Black women. But we still have a ways to go. Let’s keep up the momentum and create ways to even out the playing field for minority groups as a whole because diversity within organizations is a net positive all around. Get in touch with us if you’re looking for insight on how to improve DEIB at the workplace.