Culturally, Asians tend not to create space for themselves. There are countless proverbs and idioms that praise silence and stillness. We're taught not to speak up, not be loud and not be a burden. It's how our “model minority” stereotype was born. As a Korean American growing up in southern Georgia, this is what was expected of me.
As hard as I tried to fit in, however, I realized early on that I'd never be considered fully American. I would always be seen as an “other”—as evidenced by my peers' relentless slant-eye gestures and name-calling.
When I got older, this informed the way I showed up at work. Head down. Just work. Don’t cause a stir. I tried to blend in so as not to be called out. One day, during my annual review, my creative director told me that I should speak up more. He said my opinion mattered and that people cared what I thought. This one piece of feedback from someone I deeply respected changed my entire outlook.
No matter where you work or what role you play, someone around you has spent their life feeling like an other. They have felt different in ways that made them feel separate, isolated and unimportant. Cultural heritage months cannot be the only time we acknowledge that this is a reality for so many people we work with, whether they are Asian, Black, Latinx, gay, bisexual, transgender or a person with a disability. We need to normalize these differences into our creative ideas and ensure everyone feels at home in our agencies.
For so long, people different from the mainstream were set up to hide and fail because of the systems in place. Agencies should encourage employees to bring their whole selves and bake DEI into recruitment, hiring, creative impact and culture—and can start with a few small steps:
Create a dedicated social impact mission
Make it clear to employees, colleagues and clients that the agency is committed to doing right by your people and fostering diverse perspectives. Our agency recently added this to our overall mission: "Do right by diverse communities and perspectives." Our goal is to use the power of creativity to make meaningful work that creates real impact in the world. I am currently working on initiatives to fight AAPI hate crimes, advocate for reproductive rights and support Ukraine.
Have an always-open door policy
Employees at all levels need to know that executive leadership actively listens to them. Invite employees, especially employees who have felt othered in their lives, to tell you whether your DEI practices are hitting (or missing) the mark. When events like the invasion of Ukraine, the murder of George Floyd or the recent Buffalo shooting happen, ask your team to explain how they see it through the lens of their lived experiences. Being told that my opinion was valuable changed my career trajectory; you can do that for someone else.
Support employees in their efforts to make a difference
We are in a time of action and activism. Employees who have felt marginalized in their lives are looking to make a difference in the world. Agencies can help by supporting them in their efforts, whether that's an agency-sponsored event or time off to help make change.
Recognize that all lives are different
The best way to make everyone feel included is to ensure that your policies and procedures include everyone. In light of the threat to abortion rights, add time off and travel support for employees in areas where access is restricted. Make sure policies cover employees and their partners—regardless of gender—and support their unique journey and family circumstances, including miscarriages, fertility treatment, adoption and foster parenting, as my agency has done.
I entered this industry removing the hyphen in my first name in an effort to blend in, but I'm now proud of my perspective and what sets me apart. It's been a personal journey of identity and having the space to be me.
As agency leaders, we have the power to change the status quo and to help all people feel included. We have a moral and ethical responsibility to transform our industry into one that is inclusive of all people, both in our offices and in our work.
Sign up for Ad Age newsletters
Get the latest news and analysis delivered to your inbox