In 1987, the United States Congress passed a proclamation declaring the month of March to be Women’s History Month. To celebrate this year, the staff at Committee of 100 sat down with some of our amazing Next Generation Leaders and asked them about their careers, what the past few years have been like as a Chinese American, and their hopes for the future. Committee of 100’s Next Generation Leaders program focuses on young leaders who are passionate about the organization’s mission to promote the full inclusion of Chinese Americans in society and advance the improvement of U.S.-China relations. The program was first established in 2014.
For this discussion, we spoke with Dr. Yuhsien Wu, the Co-Founder of Veritas Education Leaders – BranchOut!, a youth community outreach and education leadership program. BranchOut! started out with 20 Asian American high school student mentors serving 80 students from an underserved community in 2016. As a summer program, BranchOut! has grown tremendously to include 600 student volunteers serving 900+ students at 14 different locations/school districts in Maryland, DC, and Virginia as of 2022. Dr. Wu is an educator and an education technology executive, where she promotes cross-cultural civic engagement for youth. Dr. Wu obtained a master’s degree in Education with a concentration in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in Business Administration from the University of Missouri. Dr. Wu was selected for Committee of 100’s Next Generation Leader class in 2018 and is currently an advisory council member of Committee of 100’s Next Generation Leader program.
Committee of 100: What are the most important attributes of successful leaders today?
Yuhsien: I believe that having empathy, being able to develop vision, and taking action are the most important attributes of successful leaders today. Empathy is the ability of a leader to understand the needs of team members, listen to others, and match the needs of others to creative solutions. Vision allows leaders to see a path forward and create plans for the future. Taking action is about implementing, adjusting, and accomplishing your plans. I would like to share an example from my experience with BranchOut!.
In October of 2015, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), James E. Ryan, hosted a panel discussion on 21st Century challenges in education for youth with Harvard alumni in DC. The panel included a national director of marketing for STEM education among African American students. The director commented that although STEM education leads to abundant career opportunities in the 21st century, many black youths have no interest in learning STEM knowledge, because they do not have positive role models of black STEM professionals. He was often asked what they would do with STEM knowledge. STEM education won’t make them the next Michael Jordan or LeBron James. Through my conversations at the event with alumni who teach in the public school system, I learned that public schools do not have the resources to deal with the difficulties of students in these underserved communities. I sensed the frustration of the director, teachers, and our alumni (this was listening with empathy).
After the event, I talked with BranchOut! co-founder Richard Wang. We had been mentoring many gifted STEM students in Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia. We believed we could recruit and train those students to work with students in underserved areas or any students who needed help with STEM in the greater DC area. These talented students would have a chance to give back while growing outside their comfort zone and improving their teamwork and cross-cultural communication skills (this was developing a vision).
Richard and I started by writing a proposal. We designed and developed procedures for the program – promoting, recruiting, and training student mentors. We created a plan to implement each step. Once we had a clear understanding of the steps involved, we reached out to find partner schools/institutions to host our new program. As BranchOut! was a new program, we had no ability to demonstrate the program’s structure, scope, or results. Although we spoke with more than 20 schools and institutions, none of them could work with us. We felt that although people cared about the challenges in the country’s education system and the depletion of resources, no one was willing or able to step outside of their comfort zone to solve these issues. In other words, they were waiting for a miracle. We were frustrated but still believed there was someone out there who wanted to make the changes we knew were necessary. We kept searching until Dr. Wu talked to Mr. Simon Rodberg, principal at DC International School, a charter school in DC. As a fellow graduate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, he understood the mission of BranchOut! and was willing to collaborate with us over the summer of 2016.
That first year, BranchOut! recruited and trained 20 mentors to participate in the program. That number grew to 60 in 2017, 100 in 2018, and 150 in 2019. During the COVID pandemic of 2020 and 2021, BranchOut! was able to maintain about 150 active participants (this was about taking action).
Committee of 100: What do you believe needs to be done so that more Chinese Americans/Asian Americans feel empowered to follow their dreams and push forward to create the programs/businesses/positions they want?
Yuhsien: We need to create support networks, systems, and databases to provide needed support among Chinese or Asian Americans. When aggression and hate crimes targeting Asian Americans surged during COVID, I was invited to speak to employees of Deutsche Bank, Fannie Mae, and American International Group (AIG). All are financial institutions with a global impact. Participants at these events found my talk helpful for them and their family members as they dealt with this rise in aggression and distrust. In the case of the event at Fannie Mae, its CEO and many other non-Asian employees attended the event as well. They discovered an opportunity to learn more about the long history of Asian American communities in this country and the anxiety and fear members of our communities face.
I believe more companies could have this type of workshop to encourage understanding among their Asian and Non-Asian employees but they may struggle to find knowledgeable speakers. Speakers like me do not have time to meet this very real need full-time. A broader support system could provide detailed and nuanced training to help these professionals to step up the career ladders of corporate America.
Committee of 100: For those Chinese Americans and Asian Americans who are getting ready to start their career or professional life, what advice would you give to them?
Yuhsien: For young professionals in our communities about to start their careers, I would strongly advise them to stay intellectually curious, contribute and share with others, and build a supportive social and professional network. Communication is one of the key components of this process. Embracing the spirit of contribution and sharing helps develop leadership skills and opportunities. Additionally, taking responsibility and risk is essential for any growing professional or leader. In other words, it’s about doing things outside the box.
Committee of 100: How has your Chinese American/Asian American identity influenced your work?
Yuhsien: For quite a while now, I have been focused on developing the next generation of AAPI leaders. I understand the challenges both for first-generation parents and second-generation youth. I have worked hard to build a place that welcomes collaboration among Chinese American, Korean American, Indian American, Black, and Latino families. As I grow, I hope to create a space where young adults feel the support from our communities and provide them a safe and supportive place to grow. A student who feels confident to grow and connect with others will then feel the need to contribute back to their communities as they succeed in the future. BranchOut! is part of this grand experiment.
Readers can find out more about BranchOut! at www.velbranchout.org as well as on Twitter @veritasuscecc. Connect with Yuhsien on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/sharonywu/) or on Twitter @wuxx0085.