By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
Just in time for International Women’s Day, the Japan-America Society of the State of Washington presented an online talk titled, “Empowering Women in Japan and the U.S.A.” on Feb 24. The event featured three prominent professional women who shared their experiences and views on work and life success.
Panelists Misa Yamashita, HR consultant and advisor for Global HR, JERA Co., Ltd.; Paige Cottingham-Streater, executive director of Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission & Secretary-General, U.S. CULCON; and Kendee Yamaguchi, Seattle’s deputy mayor of External Affairs, answered questions related to the importance of mentorship, and how they faced challenges in their careers. They offered suggestions on how to navigate job sites where women have to work harder than men to be seen and heard.
Yamaguchi summarized, it’s about “having a seat at the table.” The youngest Asian American to have worked at the White House, and previously the youngest AAPI cabinet member in Washington state, Yamaguchi now works for Bruce Harrell, the first Asian American mayor of Seattle. She acknowledged her good fortune that “personal history intersects” with “career and passion in helping the community,” and the privilege of adding her voice to Harrell’s #OneSeattle policy.
Yamaguchi’s and Harrell’s families were sent to the same Japanese internment camp, and her grandfather was active in spreading the word about the camps after his release. She said this legacy represented “the core of what influenced my career path…It’s the reason why I chose public service, and I felt that if there were more people [of color] in government and decision-making roles, this piece of history may not have occurred.” She does her part to ensure there’s “a voice to prevent injustice in the future.”
Cottingham-Streater corroborated the importance of “following your passion.” She attributed the curiosity of her parents, who took her to Japan when she was a child, for her “why not?” attitude which led to “a leap of faith” from working in law to a career building bridges. That trip lodged in her a desire to support the U.S.-Japan relationship, and so she has. In 2004, on the 150th anniversary of the Treaty of Peace and Amity between Japan and the United States, she received the Japan’s Foreign Minister’s Commendation in recognition of her long-standing work.
For Cottingham-Streater, it was important to identify transferable skills, and seek alternative avenues to pursue her passion while still using her background. She pointed out that none of her initial steps in her career were planned.
She just kept going in the direction of what she loved. As a Black woman, she did not know or see anybody who looked like her in any of these roles and responsibilities of leadership, but she said, “I was committed enough and passionate enough to be willing to develop a set of skills that could be transferable to a variety of different leadership opportunities.”
Yamashita offered a glimpse into life in Japan, where “work-life balance” was not a thing that existed as she was coming up in the world, and still isn’t for many women who try to do everything.
“My career history was not always easy,” Yamashita said. “One big challenge that I had was when I changed my career.” In moving from communications to human resources, Yamashita admitted that she overcame her doubts with “long hours” and “managers and the people who surrounded me that gave me a lot of good advice.”
Networking was essential to all three panelists in their career trajectories.
Yamashita offered five tips: 1) Know your strengths and your areas for improvement; 2) Seek feedback on an ongoing basis…from people you respect; 3) Surround yourself with multiple role models and mentors; 4) Use the PIE model: “Performance, Impression, and Exposure…You cannot only perform. You need to make a good impression…and you should expose yourself to others so you can build your support network”; and 5) Be confident in who you are.
In the act of mentorship by way of this very webinar, each woman recognized the importance of support they received. Yamaguchi revealed what she called “the unknown secret”—that many top executives engage in professional leadership training. Yamaguchi herself attended the Center for Asian Pacific Women for a year. She credited this experience with giving her the tools to face tough times, especially as a young, female, Asian American woman.
“When anything becomes tough, I come back to my center, and know that I can control what I can control. I can control how I receive the information and I can control how I’m impacted by that information.”
“It can be challenging when you face things that you can take personally, that you carry them,” Yamaguchi continued. When she was starting out, Yamaguchi was told, “You are not to rock the boat. You are not to stand out…That flies in the face of a lot of the things that you may need to do to be successful.” To combat this, she carried a piece of paper with “three or four lines that symbolized how many times I needed to speak in a meeting to have presence.”
In response to an audience question about reduction of interest in cross-cultural exchange, Cottingham-Streater said while nothing could replace in-person meetings, she saw positives in the disruptions of COVID-19.
“It has also given us the opportunity to look at alternative ways…As we think about equity and…promoting diversity and inclusion, these virtual platforms…help reduce a barrier of cost and also time… I’m hoping we can cast a wide net to offer opportunities for next generation leaders.”
A recording of “Empowering Women in Japan and the U.S.A.” can be viewed at youtube.com/watch?v=KEPmRQrlje0.
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.