Self-quarantining in a midtown Manhattan hotel room gave me plenty of time to think. I thought about my family, of course. My doctor advised staying away from them after I’d returned from several weeks of international travel.
Amid the solitude, I also reflected on my career – and especially on the mentors who made it possible. Their guidance and honest feedback – tough love, really – have helped shape the winding path of my career.
Now it’s my turn to pay their efforts forward.
First, some backstory. The first mentor I encountered was at cooking school. (Yes, you read that right.) Soon after I’d graduated from New York University with a degree in biochemistry, I made my mom cry by telling her I’d decided to enroll at the Culinary Institute of America. (She wanted me to be a doctor or lawyer.)
My stay there lasted only a year, mostly due to the wise counsel of an instructor. I was gung-ho about opening a restaurant that featured fusion cuisine blending the flavors and dishes I’d grown up with in my South Korean family. I’d researched it and talked to a lot of people. The instructor’s feedback was sobering. The failure rate for restaurants is high, he pointed out, and for a niche cuisine like I was planning, it’s astronomical.
His candor shocked me, but his advice was sound. I left to become a business analyst. (I’d like to point out with some pride that I was ahead of the marketplace: Korean American fusion has taken off, leaving no doubt, at least for me, that I was on the fast track to becoming the Korean Bobby Flay.)
Make Some Noise
My next mentor guided me over a more nuanced hurdle. Growing up in an Asian family, the message I’d received was that being successful meant making no noise along the way: Keep your head down, do good work and you’ll get noticed.
It took some convincing to help me leap across that cultural chasm. Attracting notice to my work went against everything I’d been raised to believe.
“Look,” said the manager who’d agreed to coach me. “You know how if a tree falls and you didn’t hear it, then it didn’t happen? It’s like that at work. You need to let people know you’re doing a great job.”
This advice helped me better understand how to be successful. I eventually moved into sales. And I learned to make some noise.
When the IT services company I joined began exploring new vertical markets, it initially ruled out banking as too competitive. But I sensed huge potential. I researched the industry and made the go-to-market case. Instead of stepping back and letting others chart the course, I took charge.
The CEO said let’s go for it – and I gulped. I’d finally got my voice heard; now I had to make my ideas work. And I did. The venture traced the roller-coaster S-curve of the best startups: investment followed by depletion and struggle, followed by growth. It was a thrill, and banking is now one of the company’s most successful verticals.
The Power of Shared Experiences
Mentors transcend race and ethnicity. Yet there’s a powerful connection that comes from shared backgrounds, upbringing and experience. An affinity group embodies that common connection. These groups matter not just because they provide mentoring and career development but also because they’re a place we can find someone to say, “I’ve been there. I’ve experienced it. Let’s figure out a way for you to be more successful.”
The message that an affinity group delivers is one of perseverance and understanding. It’s a powerful combination – and there’s perhaps no better moment in time to act on it.
Cognizant recently launched a Pan-Asian affinity group. Matthew will serve as group leader.
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