In honor of Women’s History Month, Common Impact is spotlighting prominent female leaders who are leaving their mark on their organizations and communities. Today we hear from Caroline Kim Oh, head of CKO Coaching & Consulting and former President & Executive Director of iMentor, an education technology and youth mentoring nonprofit.
You provide executive leadership coaching through your own consultancy and formerly served as President & Executive Director of iMentor. Tell us about your career and your experience as a woman in leadership.
I started at iMentor right after graduate school. It was literally my dream job. Two years later, iMentor’s board of directors appointed me to be its new executive director. I was only 28 at the time and I did not feel very qualified as an Asian immigrant woman with an accent. Because of this, I tried to work harder and longer than anyone else to make up for whatever I lacked in experience and skills. I also leaned heavily on the two co-founding board members, Rich Buery and Matt Klein, and my mentor Barbara Chang to support my growth. I grew as a leader at iMentor by doing a lot of things I’m proud of – and also making an equal amount of stomach-churning mistakes.
After over twelve years of leading the organization and promoting and supporting my successor internally, I took some time off, then relaunched my career as an executive coach with an emphasis on women and BIPOC leaders. If leading iMentor was an accidental move into a fulfilling leadership role, becoming a coach was a deliberate one to create my new dream job.
Who are the women who helped you get to where you are today?
I don’t mean to turn this into an Academy Awards Ceremony, but I have a whole crew of women who have surrounded me with moral and practical support over the years as I grew into a leader. Of course, there is my mother whose sacrifices, love, and strength have shaped me and continue to sustain me. My mentor Barbara Chang who helped me prepare for my first board meetings and continued to be there for me as I went through many of life and work’s ups and downs. My first coach, Jan Brown, supported my relaunch as an executive coach. I also have a small army of girlfriends, former colleagues, and coaching clients who take it upon themselves to promote me, refer me, and create amazing opportunities for me to grow and expand my work. Tarika Barrett, Veronica Chambers, Erica Hamilton, Anu Malipatil, Mary Ellen Miller, and Joy Lieberthal Rho are just a few of the women I cannot thank enough.
Have you experienced or witnessed gender bias in the workplace during your career? Did it change how you behaved at all?
Sure. I’m a small Asian woman who was often the only one who looked and sounded like me in the room. It’s something that used to really bother me, but now I own the fact that what sets me apart will help people remember what I say and do. I’ve also had a lot of unpleasant things happen to me as a woman in a work setting, including being overlooked, talked over, petted on the head like a puppy by a donor, and even pinched, to name a few.
It’s not easy to separate the intersectionality of gender, race, and class that contribute to bias in the workplace. I am someone who has internalized these dynamics as part of my effort to “assimilate” as a teenage immigrant and thrive within the constraints that the American workplace has put on women. “You get what you get and don’t get upset” is the kind of attitude I lived with for a long time and now try to undo as a woman leader and mother.
It was also the dynamics within my own family that sometimes made me hesitate from stepping up as a leader. While I know my parents of course are so proud of all my accomplishments, they muted their professional expectations of me as I got married. For example, they were mortified when I lived separately from my husband when he was in a medical fellowship program in Louisville, KY and I continued to lead iMentor in New York City, traveling back and forth.
In some ways, it was the mentors and friends in my life – male and female – who saw my potential and pulled me up or nudged me when I had a bias against myself as an immigrant woman of color. My husband, who would wonder out loud why I wouldn’t step up to lead when opportunities arose, also helped me recognize this bias I had against myself. As women leaders, we have to know what’s most important to us, not what’s important to others – even those who we love and respect – and focus on these few things.
We’ve recently seen terrible acts of discrimination against the AAPI community, and it has led to a broader understanding of the discrimination that the AAPI community has faced for decades in this country. How has being Korean-American influenced your career in the social sector? Have you ever felt that discrimination first hand?
I grew up in Seoul, Korea until I was thirteen. Even though I used to wish that I was born and raised in the United States so that I didn’t have to spend so many years trying to learn English and fit in, I now feel privileged to understand both languages and cultures.
A big part of working in the nonprofit sector, for me, was that I too went through a lot of hardship and wanted to help others and contribute to solutions. But while working in the social sector, I often felt like an outsider and someone of privilege, even though my family and I struggled for many years. The model minority myth is real and powerful, and I constantly felt that I had to prove my street credit. This myth allows mainstream society to hold up Asian Americans as a false “proof” to other marginalized communities that they too can be successful if they stay quiet and work hard. It shames the Asian Americans not fitting into the mold and separates “other” Asian Americans from the rest of the communities of color.
In recent years, I have felt so much more kinship, collaboration, and support from not only my Black and Latinx friends, but also the broader communities of people of color and allies. I’m so encouraged by the younger Asian Americans that are taking up more space, protesting, speaking out, and speaking up loudly everywhere I look.
What is one of the most important lessons in leadership you’ve learned?
Leaders need to work on themselves before and while leading others. Leaders who do not look inward or take care of themselves first almost always lead with fear-based emotions or self-importance, which inevitably leads to a toxic power dynamic and culture over time. With continuous learning, self-accountability, and reflection, leaders can lead in a way that builds people up and moves the work and mission forward.
Another lesson is that a leader’s job is two-pronged: people and getting things done. Both parts are equally important. If you can connect with and care for people, but are not able to corral them towards a common vision or goal you set out to achieve, you are a wonderful, important person in the community, but not a leader. If you are talented at getting things done and meeting goals, but consistently fail to bring others along, you are an amazing individual contributor, but not a leader.