Lily Qi: Leading like a true American

(Link to China Daily profile:

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?”

Translating Cultural Diversity into Global Opportunities

We often hear public leaders say “our diversity is our strength,” which has become somewhat a cliché over the years. While I don’t doubt their sincerity in believing what they say, I wonder how many truly understand what it means to have a large, diverse, and global population in their communities.

This past weekend, I attended the Chinese Biopharmaceutical Association’s (CBA) 18th annual conference, which attracted scientists, educators, businesses and entrepreneurs from the region as well as delegations from several cities in China. It was a high-energy conference hosted by an all-volunteer crew of local community members.

CBA is hardly unique in actively making global connections between this region and the homeland of its members. For my “day job,” I oversee special initiatives for Montgomery County Executive related to innovation economy and global partnerships. In recent years, I have attended similar biotech conferences hosted by the local Indian and Korean communities.

The 21st century being the bio century and Montgomery County being the epicenter of health research and life sciences with the likes of National Institute of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, interests in such conferences were hardly surprising. For Montgomery County, this region or this country to effectively translate our unrivaled health research assets into health benefits for the world and economic opportunities for the local community, we need active facilitators to better connect the growing global markets with our medical technologies.

But of course, such opportunities don’t stop at science or biotech. There has been a proliferation of ethnic-based groups in education, science, businesses, etc., that actively facilitates global partnerships in the past decade. The rise of new economic powers such as the BRICS pack (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and other emerging markets such as Mexico and Vietnam has energized our local communities from these countries to be community ambassadors making the local and global connections.

What stands in the way is our antiquated ways of thinking about race and diversity. The 21st century is materially different from the 20th century in how we live, work, process information and connect with one another, yet our collective mindset is still in the 20th century. First, in spite of the rich ethnic diversity in the region, we as a society continue to see our communities through the antiquated lens of race, as whites, blacks, Hispanics or Asians, for example, rather than Russians, Ethiopians, Salvadorians and Koreans—the way people see themselves. Such framework overlooks the significance of immigration in our community dynamics and the opportunities it can present. It is no secret that many in the immigrant communities are far more engaged about global affairs half way around the world than local public affairs that immediately affect their daily lives.

From the local Burmese community’s excitement over President Obama’s historical visit of Myanmar (aka Burma) to the Brazilian community’s excitement over Brazil’s hosting of Summer Olympics 2016; from the Pakistani community being shaken by the bombs in Lahore three years ago, to the Turkish community’s concern over the current unrest in their homeland, we are reminded time and again that what’s global is local. These ties to their home countries can mean tremendous opportunities for the many globally-diverse communities in the Washington region, which has seen its immigrant population doubling since 1990.

Second, much of our diversity rhetoric still focuses on disparity reduction in accessing services or opportunities in employment, contracting and education rather than opportunities. While disparity reduction continues to be relevant and important, such exclusive focus undermines our ability to capitalize on the tremendous human capital and global partnerships. In Montgomery County, where half of our communities are made of ethnic minorities and fully one third are foreign-born, we have established two sister city relationships in recent years in El Salvadore and Ethiopia and are on our way to establishing a sister city in China. These relationships are meant to outlast any sitting administrations or political leaders, and the process of selecting countries and cities have energized many in the community who otherwise would never have paid much attention to what a local government is doing.

Leaders and communities that understand the innate connection between the global and local are poised to gain from both community engagement and global economic, educational and cultural opportunities. It is upon both our communities and institutional leaders to capitalize on such community energy and channel it in the direction that benefits all of our communities, whether immigrant or local.

Culture of Learning

Since leaving China over two decades ago, I have been amazed at the scale and speed of the physical transformation the country is undergoing. Every time I visit, I feel less familiar with my native land, which is experiencing what may be the most rapid positive transformation of any country in human history. The last three decades have seen explosive changes.

It occurred to me during a recent delegation trip to China that beneath the most modern-looking skyscrapers and the most impressive public infrastructures and buildings that Americans can only dream of these days, is a culture of learning that has propelled the country to be a global economic giant.

China’s thirst for knowledge, combining technological and managerial know-how, is a major driver for its modern miracle. The tremendous value the Chinese people place on education and learning is a time-honored tradition, reflected in how they raise kids, run school systems, and invest in workforce development. And that includes training government officials at all levels. Teaching is a highly regarded profession in China, and calling someone older and more experienced a “teacher” is a common gesture of respect. Some of the most highly regarded figures in Chinese history happened to teachers, such as the Confucius.

We visited a mid-sized city undergoing a mind-boggling number of development projects that only China seems capable of these days. One question we had for the Deputy Mayor was how they decided where to put all the residential, commercial, educational and medical facilities when they planned the new “city within the city.” He said they utilized “MIT modeling,” as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology integrates the best practices from around the world in planning science-based parks and cities. This desire to learn from the best around the world is obvious at every level of government in China, and the U.S. is often the source of that knowledge. That mindset is also reflected in the fact that most local government officials we met had children studying in the U.S.

At a central business district, I saw on the huge LED monitor a news story about former British Prime Minister Tony Blair visiting Vietnam and other countries. I was at first puzzled by this reporting of a visit between two other countries because in the U.S., such reporting is not this prominent if the visits are not directly related to America. But in China, there is a much greater sense of awareness about what’s going on around the world, especially events in the U.S. Our presidential election was a topic of intense interests almost everywhere we went, and the level of detail ordinary citizens knew about our presidential candidates would surprise most of us here.

Investing in education at every stage is a major national priority and is being carried out in earnest at local levels. A city with just over a million people is investing in large-scale training academies to turn the millions of people in the surrounding farming communities into skilled workers and technicians in just a few years. Chinese officials understand that hi-tech parks and development zones without technology or talents would not take them where they need to be.

China deserves a great deal of credit for achieving a literacy rate of 92 percent in the most populous country in the world, for turning out 6 million college graduates each year, and for numerous other accomplishments in educating its people. But I am reminded how fortunate we are as Americans, and how effective our American public education system is in serving as an equalizer rather than a training ground for the elites. Learning may have become a national mission in China, but what’s being learned and taught today are still mostly technical and hard skills, along with the value of personal success. Less obvious is the teaching of core values much needed in a civil society, or the development of independent thinkers capable of innovation down the road. At two key middle schools we visited (equivalent to our magnet high schools), it was obvious that academic excellence at these public schools is partly achieved by weeding out the academically weak.

What the Chinese can really learn from the U.S. is that the real power of America is not something one can build physically or buy from us, such as the iPhone. Rather it is our fundamental belief that every human being deserves a shot at life’s opportunities no matter what circumstances he or she is born into. More than just technology or innovation, our moral power lies in our appreciation of the talents of the individuals who comprise “the huddled masses” from around the world. This is America’s true competitive edge.

Same Sex Marriage as Economic Imperative

(originally published in Asian Fortune September 2012 issue,

This November, in addition to voting for the President of the United States, voters in Maryland will have an opportunity to decide whether same sex marriage, which became law in Maryland earlier this year, should remain legal.

Whichever side of the issue you are on, same sex marriage, which allows people of the same sex to enter into a legally sanctioned long-term commitment as a couple, is often framed as a moral issue by its opponents and as a human rights issue by its supporters. What’s missing in the discussion, however, is that it is also an economic imperative.

No, I am not just talking about the wedding planners and a whole host of other industries that can clearly benefit from more people getting married. I am talking about our state’s ability to attract and retain the best and the brightest—no matter who they are—to build families, careers, and businesses here, and to fuel the entrepreneurial culture that the national capital region badly needs.

In his famous book published a decade ago, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” urban studies theorist and creative class guru Richard Florida argued that a locale that attracts gays is also a community that thrives. It is no coincidence that places like California and Massachusetts, both known for breeding and attracting entrepreneurs, also happen to be gay-friendly states.

Whether a state recognizes same-sex marriage speaks volumes about that community’s level of tolerance for differences, for people who have the courage to be who they are and pursue their personal happiness. Entrepreneurs are risk-takers who don’t care to conform to the norm and who are often considered different from the rest of us. Their success requires a tolerant culture and a nurturing environment, which cannot be achieved by simply building more incubators or creating more small business mentoring programs.

Maryland is transforming itself from a small state at the backyard of Washington, DC to a destination for jobs and innovation. We need all the talent we can get, gay or not. The last thing we want is to let our ideologies get in the way of our ability to attract human capital.

Will Maryland get it right when we go to the polls on November 6? History teaches us that the majority doesn’t always get it right. Remember de-segregation of public schools in the South? Left to voters in other states, same sex marriage was voted down every single time because it only benefits a small group of people and the majority has no incentive to support something that challenges their concept of marriage and family. Social issues that protect the minorities’ basic rights should not be determined by the majority or we probably would not have advanced to this point as a society.

As marriage becomes less about reproduction and child-rearing and more about companionship, a childless marriage between a homosexual or heterosexual couple would be very similar, except in the eyes of others who choose to judge it. The fact that heterosexual marriage as an institution has failed many couples in this country has not led many people to question the sanity of marriage as an institution because the right to marry for a man and a woman has been a privilege we have taken for granted. The rest have to wait, beg, and fight.

Many in the immigrant communities have a hard time accepting gay marriage, as I did years ago. I was first exposed to homophobic issues about 15 years ago while serving as a resident director on a college campus. Since then, I have worked with bosses and colleagues, and made friends who are gays or lesbians.

Giving everyone the equal right to marry their loved ones is not just the right thing to do, but also a wise economic policy that would boost our attractiveness and competitiveness as a locale and a community, not to mention that gay Americans are among the best educated and highest income-earners of all Americans. I hope that Maryland, the state I have come to call home, can live up to its name as a “free state” where people of all faiths, ethnicities and life styles, can be free from prejudices and legal discrimination and be able to call this place home.

Global Perspective on Regional Collaboration

On any given weekend, there are countless community events throughout the Greater Washington region, many in ethnically diverse immigrant communities. A Korean church service, an Indian American business conference, a Chinese choral concert and an Iranian Nowruz celebration, whether held in Maryland or Virginia, all draw crowds from the Region’s many counties and cities on both sides of the Potomac River. These “new communities,” as we are often called, frequently travel across county and state lines to be connected with our own communities to worship, to learn, and to have a good time. These activities and events add much vitality to local living.

The Washington Metropolitan area is one of the most transient metropolises in the country, with transplants and migrants defining and redefining much of the local demographic landscape. In fact, in Montgomery County, where I live and work, one in three residents are from other countries and three out of four are from other states. What attracted many of us from other states or countries to this region was economic and career opportunities and a good quality of life afforded by a metropolitan area. Immigrants like me have no roots in this country and will pursue opportunities wherever they are.

Since 1990, the Washington region’s immigrant population has doubled to about one million people, earning us the name “Edge Gateway”—a phrase used by the Brookings Institution to refer to a region relatively new to immigration but now has a sizable immigrant population. The area’s industry make-up means much of the immigrant workforce is made of high-skilled professionals critical to this region’s economic vitality and our country’s leadership in information technology, life sciences, healthcare, as well as defense, homeland security and other industries where large numbers of talents in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) are needed and advanced degrees are commonplace.

It is no secret that the Asian community, which is three quarters foreign-born, is among the best educated of all communities. For example, according to the American Community Survey 2006-2008, over 63 percent of the Asian population over the age of 25 in Montgomery County has at least a bachelor’s degree and one in three has an advanced degree, exceeding the already high educational levels of the County’s general population (56 percent with bachelor’s degrees and 29 percent with advanced degrees). Their intellectual capital and entrepreneurial spirit are tremendous assets to our knowledge-based industries, and their emphasis on education has contributed to the reputation of our school districts, which are directly tied to our property values!

We are being perceived as a whole region no matter how we see ourselves. The local jurisdictional lines mean nothing to global partners and talents who are here to study, work, invest, and do business. For long-term economic prosperity, we must be open-minded about regional collaboration across jurisdictions, sectors and industries because we all benefit from a thriving region with many thriving communities clustered within close proximity to one another. A vibrant employment base in a neighboring jurisdiction means greater opportunities for our residents, while an excellent school district in our community benefits not just Maryland but also Virginia and beyond, especially when our kids come back after college to settle in the region.

In fact, Maryland is the 5th state or jurisdiction I have lived in, after Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia and Washington, DC. I didn’t settle in Montgomery County because it’s Montgomery, which I had never heard of before, but because it is next to Washington, DC, an international city where I found a job and a lifestyle, and has an excellent school district and beautiful neighborhoods. You can say the same about people choosing Fairfax County, where every one in five of its residents is now Asian.

The fact that Washington, DC has attracted many empty nesters and adults with no children in recent years while families with school-age children have gravitated toward suburbs shows the interdependent nature of the capital region in the life cycles of many individuals and families. Serious regional collaboration on affordable housing, transit, and workforce development is imperative to ensuring that this region does not become a victim of its own success when people cannot afford to live near where they work and have to be stuck in traffic. We all want to remain a magnet to the young people who favor urban living and the best and the brightest from all around the world who will only add to the prosperity of the region. And if we are to solve these issues, we must learn how to effectively engage the immigrant and ethnic minority communities that are becoming the backbone of our economy, whether knowledge-based or service-based.