KAREN / COMMUNITY BUILDER & TECHIE / CHARLESTON SC
Connecting with Karen was fun because of her authentic and introspective nature. Her demeanor was calming and confident even whilst discussing the tough stuff like growing up in an immigrant family, pursuing global opportunities in tech, figuring out that a great love wasn’t the right love, and launching a new community in San Francisco called Allies. So meet Karen. She is a community builder, techie, daughter, friend and entrepreneur. And yes, she’s most definitely blooming.
HOW WILL YOU BLOOM IN THE NEXT YEAR?
I will live authentically. I will invest in the things that I care most about. I will not be directed by the things that society defines to be success. Over the course of being abroad and nomadic over the past few years, I grew to see that family and community are really important to the type of leader that I want to become. I like to think in terms of data and to both live authentically and invest in your community can be a tough path because the metrics aren’t always clear. How do you measure the value that you give to your community? How do you measure the value that you give yourself, friends and family? I’m learning that some of these are immeasurable - it’s about being present.
HOW DID YOU GET TO WHERE YOU ARE NOW?
There are three big chapters here: an outsider identity, discovering my own human agency and choosing love and community.
I was talking to an old friend the other day about being from immigrant families and how we have indoctrinated to not only believe in a culture, but also wear this burden to carry on this culture. My grandparents are from a region in southern China called Guangzhou, they escaped to Hong Kong and then immigrated to New York in the 60s and 70s where my mom and dad grew up. My parents moved to Charleston, South Carolina where they could raise my sister and me—you know, with a backyard, the fence, the good schools—with the hope of giving us the life they never had. There’s an ingrained pressure to live up to generational dreams, so for a long time I didn’t ask myself what my own dreams were. There was a lot of pain here, too, which I’m still learning to articulate. We lived in the conservative South and I experienced the pain of people attacking you for your identity. It’s hard to see your parents, the strongest figures in your life, become victims of hate and ignorance. And then it’s happening to you and as a kid and you internalize that. I didn’t have an Asian community, or any community where I felt safe and accepted, and I definitely think that sense of being fully alone is still something I carry with me now. I’m still working to unlearn that paradigm as an adult and believe it’s possible.
What saved me was a teacher in sophomore year of high school who taught the entrepreneurship class. She saw the builder spirit in me and through the class and the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, I started my first company when I was 16. It was an e-commerce site for personalized greeting cards (think an early Etsy) and I became the Young Entrepreneur of the Year for my state. But the impact here was less about the accolade and more about discovering my agency. I’d felt so powerless against the hate and the pain I was experiencing but I discovered the power of creation, of building the world you want to see. That’s still a core principle for how I live my life.
Another key principle to getting to where I am currently was choosing to make time for love and community. We live in a time where work is your life and having time to be human with each other doesn’t fit squarely into our Google calendars. But it’s so important. One of my biggest achievements in life was choosing love first. I moved across the country for the person I loved - it's why I'm now in San Francisco. I was terrified of course; it was inconsequentially the first time in my life that I was in a healthy and stable partnership. But a big part of choosing love is also choosing to love oneself--I’ve always held this belief that a relationship should help both individuals be the best version of themselves. It was the hardest thing to love someone so deeply but also to realize that we weren’t doing that for each other anymore, and to part ways after working so hard to love each other the best way. Our generation is so much in flux--we’re changing and growing and there’s a lot of loss and transience in that. It's such an understated accomplishment to be able to navigate this with continued grace, optimism and a belief in love and people.
We can also think of love in broader strokes -- on a community level. I’m the Trustee of a globally distributed community called Thousand Network which is a social experiment to connect change makers and entrepreneurs. I’ve realized that I gravitate towards the role of a community-builder, which I used to think was a soft thing to do, but I have recently discovered that gathering people together is incredibly important to me. This goes back to the outsider identity, and being at a stage in my life where I’m unlearning how I used to be, so I can be a better version of myself.
DESCRIBE AN OBSTACLE THAT YOU HAVE OVERCOME.
Coming from a minority background, there is a lot of inherent questioning and sinister doubt that you don’t belong in certain spaces. There’s a dark inner voice that can keep you from realizing that you have agency, you can be awesome. I’m working on overcoming this by creating inclusive spaces when I don’t see them. I’ll be the first to say I’m not always good at it; I fall back into the tropes and default traps and a lot of the times I struggle to silence that voice that makes me feel small and insignificant.
Creating spaces is about building a platform to amplify voices and new narratives that are celebratory and inclusive. But we also have to assume some degree of agency to connect with these spaces. We need to put the energy into the universe, ask for help and trust that the universe is looking out for you.
YOU MENTION YOUR PASSION FOR COMMUNITY BUILDING, HOW CAN WE BETTER INTEGRATE WOMEN?
I’m working on a project called Allies - an initiative to build intersectional spaces for communities to co-create and support each other (as allies). We’re starting with a pop-up dinner series and then will further begin to create other outlets. I work in tech in San Francisco and the reality is it’s a while male dominated industry where people of color are still fighting to be heard and represented. Building norms around gender equity is a big part of this, but race must also be part of the conversation. Structural racism is very much a reality and I’d love to meet people who are working at the intersection of human and tech-driven solutions. The goal is to engage more people as allies to underrepresented groups as we all have the agency to affect change. Sometimes big, sometimes small - owning it is the first step.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO BE REMEMBERED FOR?
For building communities, movements and ultimately, a company that gave millions access to opportunities and economic power they didn't have before. For living a rich and dynamic life. For being authentic to myself. For remembering that the most important thing is how you see yourself, not how the world sees you.