Lily Qi: Leading like a true American

(Link to China Daily profile: http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/us/2014-08/08/content_18274036.htm

A few days after their state’s primary elections, Chinese-American community leaders in Maryland woke up to an email in their inboxes.

It was from Lily Qi – director of special projects for the government of Montgomery County, an affluent suburb of Washington – thanking them for their support in the reelection campaign of County Executive Ike Leggett, whose primary victory cleared the way for a third term.

“In a low turnout election like this one, every vote counts and the immigrant community holds great sway in tipping the balance,” Qi said in her note. Throughout the campaign, Qi had tirelessly reached out to the Chinese-American community, which accounts for 5 percent of county’s population of one million.

Lily Qi: Leading like a true American

In her email, Qi, who also serves as chair of the Maryland Governor’s Commission on Asian American Affairs, announced the victories of two Chinese-American state legislators – one delegate and one senator as well.

“We’re growing stronger as a community because of people like you who care about things bigger than yourself,” Qi signed off.

The memo offers a glimpse into the wide spectrum of Qi’s professional and community service footprints and her own “caring about things bigger” than herself.

As a political appointee responsible for high-priority initiatives related to the county’s economic competitiveness and global partnerships, Qi knows the reelection of the county executive ensures she can continue to do what she loves and excels at.

Previously, Qi had been the vice president of Washington, DC Economic Partnership, overseeing the capital city’s business attraction and retention.

Qi’s current grand projects include engineering a new comprehensive economic strategy for the county that integrates existing businesses, community and workforce development strategies and branding the county as a vibrant destination – rather than a backyard of DC – to attract younger generations, businesses and visitors.

“Every morning I can’t wait to get to work because I really believe in everything I do,” Qi said in an interview with China Daily. “I am helping the county executive reposition the county for the future.”

For Qi, community service has no less impact or meaning. Before becoming the state’s point person to the fast-growing Asian-American community, Qi had been the county executive’s liaison for Asian and Middle Eastern Americans and also served as president of the Organization of Chinese Americans’ Greater Washington, DC Chapter.

Calling herself a “cultural broker”, Qi helps local communities and leaders understand the dynamics and opportunities of immigrant communities that now make up one third of the county’s population, while helping these new communities participate more fully in local affairs.

“Being a cultural broker can be tiring,” said Qi, whose evenings and weekends are crammed with community meetings and events. Still, she tries to make herself available for various causes.

“I get a lot of gratification from how much I give to – rather than take from – society,” she said. “I’ve made the choice, so I am willing to make the sacrifice. That’s the contract I’ve signed with society.”

Qi is often able to make her professional and community efforts complement each other, because both fulfill her passion for social causes, which was the main thing that led her into a public service career in the first place – she wanted to have a direct impact on policies that affect people’s lives.

Recognizing the positive impact that a new Life Science Center in Montgomery County could have on growing the “innovation economy” and residents’ employment opportunities, Qi mobilized Asian communities to lobby county council members, who unanimously approved the plan, despite several members’ earlier opposition.

No matter what cause Qi ends up advocating, her signature traits are confidence and the ability to lead.

“Leadership is all about taking initiatives,” said Qi, who serves on the boards of Suburban Hospital of Johns Hopkins Medicine, VisArts and Leadership Montgomery. “Even if you do not have the title of a leader, you should take the initiative to bring about positive changes instead of just voicing complaints. Then you will soon become a leader and an agent of change.”

And Qi has been determined, from very early on, to lead as a true American.

“Twenty-some years ago, I made a decision that I wanted to fully immerse myself in this culture as an American,” she said. “Once I made that decision, everything else followed.”

“As immigrants, you are expected to pay your dues for a generation so your children can be ‘True Americans’. I guess I didn’t get that memo,” jokes Qi, who came to the US from Shanghai in 1989 to pursue advanced education. “This is the 21st century. We shouldn’t have to wait a generation to fulfill our American dream.”

Instead of embarking on the kind of traditional and secure technical jobs that first-generation immigrants often take, Qi went after positions usually reserved for native-borns and often ended up being the only Asian in her work place.

While serving as the assistant director for multicultural affairs at American University in the late 1990s while working on an MBA degree there, Qi also took it upon herself to learn about American racial cultures, including what it meant to be Asian American, which anchored her even better as an active member of American society, she said.

“I have become an expert on the capital region’s Asian-American experience, not because I happen to be Chinese, but because I spend time reading, thinking, writing, and talking about these issues,” said Qi, who writes a column for Asian Fortune, an English-language newspaper targeting the Asian-American community of the greater DC area, and has become a unique voice as a frequent speaker and moderator on immigrant integration, Asian Americans, global/local economic competitiveness and their convergence.

During last May’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Qi was keynote speaker at a National Labor Relations Board celebration, as she has been for the FCC and several military installations in the past. As she does with any public presentation, Qi took the time to make sure her speech was “flawless”.

“No matter what you do, you should do it the best you can because you are the brand,” said Qi, laughing at herself for being “a perfectionist”.

This might explain how Qi, a non-native English speaker, when asked to teach a course in public speaking as a new graduate student at Ohio University in 1991, would overcome her fear and excel. This might also explain how Qi would later become spokeswoman for the Washington (DC) Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking, leading a team of native English speakers.

Proudly standing at the intersection of politics, business and culture as a connector and influencer, Qi said she has reached a point in her life where job or career are secondary to her desire to wake up every day with a cause to work for, whatever her position may be.

“The questions I ask myself the most are: What is my passion? Where can I offer some unique value?”

charlenecai@chinadailyusa.com

A Liberating Education

May 18 was a glorious Sunday in the Boston area. Tens of thousands of families and friends descended on one of the nation’s best-known education corridors to celebrate the class of 2014. My husband and I were among the happy crowds joined by my family from Shanghai for our son Andrew’s graduation from Tufts University.

We fully immersed ourselves in the joy of gathering, cheering, listening, reflecting and photo snapping—including some selfies. Our weekend of celebration culminated with Andrew’s commencement speech on behalf of the Sociology Department. In a mother’s unbiased opinion, his 5-minute speech was brilliant, perceptive, and entertaining, an affirmation of the value of his college education in shaping his outlook on self and the society. Surrounded by family, I cheered and laughed as I listened to him. It was a moment of pure joy and pride that no other accomplishments of my own could possibly match.

For me this was also a big moment of relief and vindication. What made it sweeter was that Andrew had landed a job in a field he is passionate about, urban and community planning with a real estate consulting firm, two weeks before his graduation. It felt like a long exhale following four years of brutal college payments, and agonizing over the job prospects of a liberal arts education in this still sluggish job market. Looking back, I congratulate myself for having the foresight to encourage him to get a solid liberal arts education. In fact, I went so far as to tell Andrew that he should take advantage of the college days to study the “impractical” subjects because once he really grows up, the demand and stress of the working life would make focused learning a luxury that few can afford.

I know I am an anomaly among many parents. For the past four years, I had to answer three unavoidable questions time and again of which college he was in, what he majored in, and what he planned to do after college. My answers often surprised people. First, the mention of Tufts University usually drew blank stares from my Asian-born friends. Most either set their sights on the prestige of the Ivy League, or went with the practical value of a good public university education. Second, I told them it really didn’t matter what he studied because the world changes so fast that by the time he graduated, much of what he learned in college would be outdated if not obsolete. What is relevant is a core set of skills including critical thinking, writing, and speaking; an expanding and deepening awareness of self and the world; and the ability to learn new things on one’s own. Finally, I don’t really care what he does after college as long as he’s productive and happy.

I am not crazy. Studies show that my son’s generation, the millennials or Gen Ys, will have 2-3 careers (not jobs) in their lifetime. The last thing I wanted was for my son to be trained for a job. I want him to be trained for a life. My own life and career taught me the critical importance of having a set of transferable skills that are generally applicable to anything I do, except I had to learn them the hard way as an immigrant.

To be fair, Andrew was fully aware of the challenges of a liberal arts education in the job market and had interned in related fields to develop a general sense of career direction, which helped greatly in his job search. His strong writing skills, ability to articulate and analytical thinking were major factors of consideration for the hiring company.

I commend employers who give our liberal arts majors a chance to prove themselves, and the parents who allow their kids to be who they are. Unfortunately, while our society increasingly needs generalists with cross-disciplinary skills, we continue to make them feel like underdogs compared to their specialist peers. Liberal arts majors may face initial hurdles of proving their worth, but over time, they soar and lead. More than anything, I am proud that studying sociology and environmental studies has given my child the mindset to care about the greater good more than just his personal success. While I have made many mistakes as a parent, I can pat myself on the back for his education.

You are more than your job: a toast to the generalist

This is the season of inaugurations and internships, with the class of 2014 college grads starting a new chapter in life in a recovering yet still challenging job market, and with students beginning a summer of exploring what to do beyond school lives. Whether it’s a full-time job or an internship, the experience is as much about learning the knowledge and skills as it is about self discovery.

I recently met a white, middle-aged American, who is highly fluent in Mandarin and successful running a center whose work requires fluency in East Asian cultures and languages. With an impressive list of life experiences under his belt, he was obviously happy with his life and career. When asked how he got to this point in life, he insisted it was pure “dumb luck” because he couldn’t have foreseen the many opportunities related to his interests when he was a young man. I can relate to that. I am more confident and content with my work life than ever before, having finally found my ways of relating and contributing to the world around me. I wish I could say this was all by design, when in fact for the first decade in this country my life was defined by heartbreaks and headaches. As a liberal arts major and a generalist with broad interests, I was not as readily employable as those with technical background such as IT and engineering, so I struggled for a long time to find my footing.

From a practical perspective, it seems unwise for an immigrant, who already faces many challenges to insist on finding one’s niche without caving in to pragmatic concerns, but I am glad I didn’t follow a linear career path, nor did I try to be anything but myself. And I am grateful to have a supportive spouse. This is not to say that those who are specialists are not following their passion. Plenty do. But I personally know many highly-educated immigrants, who chose to settle for a living rather than pursuing their dreams. Our society is organized around highly specialized professions and values people with “hard skills” far more than generalists because specialists can hit the ground running quickly and we understand their value much better. With the soaring costs of higher education, liberal arts colleges that do not offer specialized career training or good job connections can be a tough sell to pragmatic parents.

Generalists, on the other hand, are routinely misunderstood by families and under-valued by society. We tend to struggle early in career because we are trained for life, not jobs or careers. Our broad interests do not fit neatly into the prescribed professional boxes, and many jobs and careers that suit us have not been invented yet or are at the top of the food chain that may take a couple of decades to reach. But once we reach that point, our broad skill sets and life experiences become tremendous assets that allow us to really take off and soar. Not only will our success come sweeter, but what we have learned along the way from seemingly unrelated and unexpected digressions add up to a rich experience and an interesting life. Of course, being a generalist or a specialist is not set for life.

Generally speaking, the higher up you go in any organizations, the more of a generalist you need to be, and the more soft skills you will need. It helps to have unwavering faith in yourself and a belief that everything you do has its purpose in the large scheme of things in preparing or revealing the fabulous person you are.

Technological advances and globalization make what we are trained for at schools obsolete at a faster pace than ever before. As we live longer, more people are starting new careers beyond mid-life just as the Millennials are taking longer to settle down in life or career. Ironically, as the professional fields become ever more specialized these days, people with interdisciplinary skills are in growing demand as they make better leaders, innovators, and problem solvers in a complex and fast-changing world. Our antiquated hiring practice just hasn’t caught up with this new norm yet.

Allowing young people the time to explore is one of the best graduation gifts we can give them because they should invent the jobs that suit them, not merely filling what’s out there. To the interns and graduates—happy exploring!

Lily Qi can be reached at qulturematters@gmail.com or via her blog site at www.qulturematters.com.

A Rich and Rewarding Experience: Lessons on Career Path

When I considered the Asian and Middle Eastern Liaison job about four years ago, I was the Director of Communication and Public Affairs for the DC Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking. I had a decent income, a team of staff, and a nice corner office near Union Station. So what made me want to take a job with no travel opportunities, no staff or administrative support, requiring significant time commitment on evenings and weekends, and on top of that, a double digit percentage pay cut? Indeed, some of my friends thought I was crazy.

The answer is passion. To me, being a community liaison is not just a job, but a way of life, with or without the title. Like a typical Asian in the capital region, I am an immigrant. I can relate to our communities’ struggles as newcomers trying to establish ourselves here; as parents facing the dual challenges of cultural and generational gaps, and as professionals taking too long to find our ways but then hitting the bamboo ceilings too soon. I wanted to act as a voice and a link for our growing, vibrant, but still disconnected communities. I wanted to see our communities more visible, engaged, and respected. And I wanted us to matter more.

It turned out to be one of the best jobs I have ever held as it was the closest to who I am at heart. I had the honor of representing the local government in the public and speaking for our communities inside the government. I had the gratification of involving our new communities in local affairs, while educating the established communities and institutions to be more culturally competent and adaptive to changes. And I had the privilege of recommending our community leaders and volunteers for jobs, boards, and awards, and connecting people with opportunities. What’s better than being paid to do what you love to do anyway?

As a generalist, I have probably asked myself this question more often than most people, “What should I do with my life?” Each job has taught me valuable lessons about life, tested my limits, and brought me closer to that answer.

First, I learned that a career path doesn’t have to be linear. If you are truly passionate about something, it is worth pursuing it during the best years of your life, not after you retire. Adapting to changes, identifying the needs and seeking to add my unique value in every situation has been my compass because our jobs are what we make out of them.

I have also learned never to let my pay grade stop me from doing what needs to be done. Instead, I took initiatives and built allies. For example, I engaged top management on the signing of the executive order on language access by the County Executive to raise the bar on how we serve people with limited English proficiency. I involved community media and organizations to support an economic development vision so they have a voice on a major local issue. I teamed up with both senior managers and community leaders to initiate the “Leading a Global Workforce” training series for managers and the “Global Montgomery” series for staff to learn about our changing communities and workforce.

Finally, I try not to lose sight of who I really am. With training and practice, we can develop competency in many areas, but we are only really great at a few things we are meant to do with our lives. I am old enough to know what I am really good at, though never wise enough to figure out what to do next. So life is still an open book and an adventure.

This past summer, I was appointed by County Executive Ike Leggett as Special Projects Manager overseeing such priority initiatives as strategic partnerships to grow our innovation economy and develop international relations. I am content that a group of highly capable people in our community have stepped up and applied to be the next Asian and Middle Eastern Liaison. I join our community in thanking all of you who applied for putting yourself out there to serve us all. As for me, I have found new ways to be a voice and a link for our community, and writing this column is part of that. May the New Year bring you new adventures. Happy Holidays!

This article was originally published in Asian Fortune December issue.  Online version can be found at http://www.asianfortunenews.com/site/article_1211.php?article_id=30.

Guest speaker at Tea4Soul

I had a wonderful time talking on Saturday (July 9) at the Tea4Soul forum on demographics and community dynamics, life in America and career choices, including the role of government.  The audience was so engaged and enthusiastic I felt such discussions were really overdue.  We need more similar forums to learn from one another about life and choices and offer support, especially among immigrant professionals.  Click for photos and recording of the forum.