Initially, it wasn’t apparent how my connection to the community would help me advance my career, especially in the for-profit world. However, your unique mix of experiences and community connections may generate the most distinct and valuable ideas that anyone around you has seen.

In the Spring of 2003, I got my first meaningful job through the Nikkei Community Internship Program (NCI). The program continues to support college students to gain professional experience in organizations and institutions serving the Japanese American community. I was placed in the development department at the Japanese American National Museum, where I provided administrative support to campaigns reaching museum members and supporters. I was doing entry-level work, but the experience has influenced my career journey to connect work, identity, and my passion for community at each step. 

Initially, it wasn’t apparent how my connection to the community would help me advance my career, especially in the for-profit world. As my career progressed, I learned about different industries and developed new skills that enabled me to bring value to my career and the community. By sharing the trials, triumphs, and failures that supported my growth to reach my professional aspirations, I hope to offer some actionable ways it may apply to your career.

Photo Credit: Jimmy Woo via Unsplash

All experiences have value.

Gaining experience in non-profit and for-profit organizations has been an enormous asset in my career. After leaving my internship at the museum, I had the good fortune of working at the Japanese Community Youth Council in San Francisco’s Japantown. Being a part of Japantown was exciting because it enabled me to build relationships with the community outside of LA. I was working, volunteering, and growing my network in the neighborhood, sometimes seven days a week. However, my excitement and dedication to the community came with few boundaries or a system to separate personal from work. The consequence was complete and utter burnout in my early 20s. I had become so emotionally entangled in community issues that I could no longer be objective or handle the disappointment of setbacks. The harder I tried, the less effective I became. I finally had to step back entirely from my work in the community. 

Photo Credit: Jeremy Huang via Unsplash

The experience taught me hard lessons about balancing my passion for community with personal boundaries. It also opened me up to shifting into a new space and exploring a different industry. I became a trainee in the retail banking industry. Working in a regulated for-profit setting taught me about operational excellence, attention to procedural detail, and how to design organizational change. Though I initially felt like a sell-out because I was there to make money, I often reflected on how the banking skills I obtained could contribute to other settings. After five years in banking, I transitioned to working at a multicultural marketing agency based in Seattle. I applied my background to grow the agency’s operations, reach AAPI audiences, and establish its first satellite office in Little Tokyo.

To some, my career is a confused journey that jumps from industry to industry without a discernable focus. I disagree. I see my various roles as a reflection of my hunger to learn new things and apply the skills I’ve built to support organizational success, especially when change is needed. Careers today are rarely linear and most people entering the job market expect they’ll work many different jobs for different organizations. This diversity of experience is an incredible asset that shapes each person to offer unique perspectives and skills that all organizations need. Recognizing and embracing what you bring that’s different from others, can position you to grow personally and professionally. Your unique mix of experiences and community connections may generate the most distinct and valuable ideas that anyone around you has seen. 

There are no menial tasks, only leadership opportunities.

Early in my career, I was keenly aware of the menial jobs I would get assigned. They felt administrative, undesirable, forgotten, and minimally impactful on the organization's broader goals. I would become frustrated by these tasks and the lack of impact. By focusing on what I didn’t like, I failed to embrace the leadership opportunity it presented. To do a seemingly lowly task with high integrity, precision, and timeliness was to take a little-seen assignment and make an impression on others. 

After completing my bank training program, I was promoted and assigned to oversee branches in Washington, based out of Seattle International District Chinatown. The bank operated a foundation that gave grants to community organizations. However, the bank lacked relationships with local community organizations serving AAPIs. I was asked several times to fill a seat on behalf of the bank at various community benefit events. For those familiar with running the community dinner circuit, you can be as visible or invisible as you’d like. I could have sat at these events, had a few superficial conversations, and gone home having done my duty. Instead, my personal goal was to gain a deeper understanding of the Seattle AAPI community, meet leaders in the community, and learn about the issues they were tackling.

Photo Credit: Headway via Unsplash

I gradually built a network by using introductions at dinners to conduct follow-up meetings and reach out to learn more. As I learned about community needs, I connected with the bank’s foundation staff to offer suggestions and referrals to key issues. My role in attending dinners transformed into influencing the direction of foundation giving and strengthening the bank’s reputation in the neighborhood for supporting local AAPI organizations. None of what I did was expected or a part of my job description. Although my actions were motivated by my desire to connect my work to the community, I gained a reputation as someone who takes initiative and has the potential to grow. It put me on the radar of leaders in the bank and helped to open career advancement opportunities.

Whether you’re managing a team or just getting started, a leadership mindset applied to your work may enable you to accelerate your growth and build a strong reputation among those who can support your journey to the next step. If you should encounter a task that you’re less than thrilled about or seems beneath your skill set, consider how you can elevate your duties and shift perceptions around the task. You may find that it helps you achieve better outcomes and serves as a model for others to follow.

Embrace the journey.

I know there’s a lot left for me to experience and learn. Throughout each chapter, I’ve developed skills and relationships that supported my next opportunity. My time as an intern at JANM was a formative experience to see how work and community could come together in a job. In this next chapter, 21 years later, I’ve come full circle and arrived back where I began— at JANM. The intern in 2003 could never have imagined having the privilege and responsibility to champion the museum’s mission and serve the community as JANM’s Chief Impact Officer.

As I look back on my professional journey, I see that I was building toward it all along. As journeys should, my journey has had many trials, triumphs, and failures along the way. Each has been an invaluable growth experience, though the tough ones have taken much longer to appreciate. In whatever stage of career you find yourself, embrace the journey and bumps in the road that can provide important lessons and equip you to reach your aspirations.

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