By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
When Ted Yamamura asked Vanna Novak if she wanted to start a nonprofit to train Japanese American professionals, she prayed she would have the strength to refuse.
“Please, please, let me have the strength to say no,” she remembered. “That’s what I was thinking. What I heard me say was, ‘Sure.’ What I didn’t realize was that one word would change the course of my life forever.”
Novak’s words, written in the form of a letter to Yamamura, after he died in 2013, reflected the feelings of generations of alumni who have gone through the intense, life-changing program—as many describe it—called Executive Development Institute (EDI).
But now, as COVID-19 dissipates the energies of students in classrooms across the country, EDI is facing the same kind of challenges that other institutions of learning are facing, except more intense.
Baked into its “DNA,” as new board president Tom Gin describes it, is an intense, family-like, face-to-face interactive culture that he hopes can be replicated in a new hybrid version.
Gin, who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and grew up in Los Angeles, went through the program in 2019—the last in-person iteration.
“The friendships and connections I made really emphasized the importance of the sense of community and closeness,” he said. “I am friends with my classmates, some of us still talk regularly. EDI enabled that closeness through the program. It provided us with a safe place to learn, to be ourselves, but also to see ourselves for who we are and how we could be leaders in business and community and do it our way, on our terms.”
Founded in 1994 with the support of the Japanese American Chamber of Commerce, EDI was created for that very purpose—to give Japanese Americans at the time more heft in the workplace.
Over the years, it suffered its share of tragedies, with the loss of Yamamura, and the death of Al Sugiyama, from cancer, in 2017. Sugiyama had served as executive director from 2013-2015.
Along the way, EDI expanded from an institution with a broad connection to Boeing to an even wider playing field with connections to many organizations and companies and education campaigns that included other Asians American and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) and Latinos.
Over 1,500 alumni have passed through classrooms with close, intense, face-to-face interactions, group sessions and role plays, and, as a sort of glue to hold it all together, plenty of food.
Some of the classrooms, often donated by Boeing, grew thick with the air from intense conversations and laughter.
They provided safe spaces for professionals to lead with values from their own cultures.
Leni Phan, who attended EDI in 2018, recently moved from high-level positions at Boeing to a global leadership position at Nike. She wrote in a testimonial that EDI taught her “how to be my authentic self while leading in a culture that is different from my upbringing. EDI was beneficial in educating myself, as well as my teams at work, in those differences.”
And then the pandemic hit.
EDI found itself in the position of many other nonprofits—and schools—that depended on in-person interaction as their lifeblood.
But with EDI, it was perhaps more so.
“Early on in the pandemic, EDI did have one virtual cohort, but we recognized that to continue operating in a post-pandemic world, the program needed to be revamped,” said Gin.
An older generation of alumni had always handled fundraising and outreach in a traditional way.
But now that its programs were virtually shut down, the very existence of EDI came to be in doubt.
Even alumni who had just graduated were wondering what had happened to that network that provided so much social support and that, during the program itself, had empowered them to trust their own strengths and not have to ape managers from different cultures.
This was what had happened in Gin’s case.
“I hadn’t heard anything from EDI for a while, so I started to get concerned,” he said.
After reaching out to the board, he found that the institute was suffering major challenges. He volunteered to help and became a member of the board.
In Southern California, Gin had built prototypes for car shows. Some went into production.
When he moved to Seattle, he became involved in robotics, and eventually worked at Boeing.
EDI was in a transition moment, he said, like many other institutions, between in-person and online learning.
“I would say that Covid essentially showed the weakness in our organization, and broke our model of how we have relied on outreach,” he said. “We took that opportunity to study how we could improve the program in a way that allowed us to work in either a virtual or hybrid program. That is what we are working on today—to modernize the program.”
Gin was eventually nominated as board president. He accepted.
Meanwhile, virtually the entire board was also changing. Of eight board members, only two of the original board remain. Gin also persuaded a classmate from his 2019 cohort to join the board.
EDI has now fully embraced the idea of a hybrid model, and, at present, a committee is working to adapt its curriculum, he said.
“And now as a brand-new board, we are working to bring EDI back in a way that still maintains its identity, but in an era where in-person learning isn’t always possible. This will expand our reach, but also make it more accessible to others,” he said.
Fundraising and outreach are also changing.
Whereas in the past, fundraising relied on an older generation of stalwart donors, Gin wants to expand the approach to include all alumni, including recent graduates.
“Take someone like me, with a young family and less disposable income, I may not be able to give much, but I can pick up the phone or email and ask a friend to ask his friend to ask his friend,” he said.
Through such an approach, Gin hopes to expand the outreach of the institute, reaching ever greater numbers.
Relying on earlier graduates is still essential, though, he said, and not just for financial support.
“They do know change is needed,” he said.
Gin and the board’s new approach will be tested in the coming months. In fact, it already has been.
In March, he had to face the first major crisis of his tenure when a newly-selected executive director resigned abruptly, shortly before a virtual town hall was planned. Gin had hoped to give a “state of the institute” and encourage alumni to get onboard.
“The board had to pause and really hone in on our future direction,” he said.
He is still planning a town hall for all alumni sometime in the near future.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.