Suki Xiao is a Chinese-New Zealander, Career Coach and Founder of "As You" with a mission to empower women of colour to have confidence and clarity in their career and leadership. A former Agile Coach at Xero and other tech companies, she is now mentoring people around finding their purpose and redefining their grind. In this episode, we talk about impostor syndrome in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion space, what it’s like to define yourself as an Asian woman coach and bringing your whole self to work. We also touch on what femininity means to us.
Elina: Let’s dive into it, Suki! Tell us where you come from? What are some of the things that affected you and your upbringing?
Suki: I was born in the southern part of China, in a province called Guangdong and moved around to quite a few different cities with my parents when I was little. We moved to New Zealand with my mum when I was 12. We settled in the Eastern suburbs of Auckland, in Howick which was then called Chowick because there were lots of Chinese immigrants there. And I can see why a lot of Chinese people settled there: there are a lot of Chinese restaurants and supermarkets already so that makes settling into New Zealand a lot easier.
When I first came here, I didn’t know much English at all and there was a lot of racism and discrimination back in the day. So I worked super hard. I knew I was academically good already when I was quite young but I worked super hard to be top of class, and I remember not speaking a word of Chinese or Cantonese or Mandarin at school at all, because I just wanted to speak English and prove myself academically.
But at the same time, I found myself really wanting to blend in to the Western culture, to the point of even considering whether I should be dyeing my hair blonde just to blend in.
Elina: Hearing those things always gives me such a heartache. It's such a shared and common experience of migrants and people of colour in general. How do you think those things played into how you sort of defined yourself later on and your identity?
Suki: Right now my identity is made up of being a Chinese New Zealander. And it is really helpful for me to know which part of my culture is very useful and which part is in conflict with one another. Another part of my identity came from my strong family and our values: working hard, being independent and strong, which all comes from my mother. And then another part of my identity comes from my work as a coach supporting others, especially supporting other women of colour. And then another part of my identity is my hobbies like meditation, playing frisbee, mount biking and things like that.
Elina: Tell me a bit more about your coaching career? How did you get into it?
Suki: I've always been really interested in personal development and self development. I used to volunteer for Youthline as a counsellor for a number of years.
If I was able to know myself better, or to be braver, when I was going through high school and university, I would have chosen to go down that route to have more psychology or coaching early on. But I was so caught up with my own Chinese identity, expectations, family and societal expectations, what success is supposed to be like, that I chose to study a law degree and go down that path of corporate success.
And it wasn't until four or five years ago that I got into Agile coaching, which is around team leadership, coaching for companies, and through that having one on one's with people and, and seeing how their lives, like at work, as well as outside of work, and how they might not fit together, that has really led me into discovering more about their purpose and life coaching. But when I was marketing myself as a Purpose Coach, what I found was that people didn't really want to pay money, or talk to others about their purpose much. And what people really wanted to talk about was their career. People knew when their careers weren’t going well. So I started calling it “Career Coaching” instead, even though everything that I teach and mentor about is the same stuff as Purpose Coaching [laughs].
Elina: Do you have a specific demographic that you work with?
Suki: I actually didn't realise who my major demographics were. In the middle of last year, one of my coachees said “You should be the best Asian woman coach globally, why not?”. I never thought that about myself, being an Asian woman coach. But when I look at my clients, the majority of them are Asian women or women of colour, actually. I was like, oh, yeah, that makes really good sense. Because that's how they relate to me and my journey, and societal and family expectations that we place upon ourselves.
Elina: What I observe often is that people with all the different identity intersections like queer culture or being a migrant or whatever else, come to work and leave a lot of it behind. Not everyone does it of course and the industries are shifting but a lot of the jobs just require you to be a good lawyer without looking or accounting for all the other experiences and skills you bring with you. Your work is centred so much around your identity and you talk and lead from that place.
Suki: Yes, I bring my whole self and my whole authentic self to work. And I really agree with your observation, because what I've observed as well is that
People cut off parts of their identity when they're at work. They just want to be known as a good leader, a good manager, a good engineer, not to be known as a woman engineer, for example. And I think that is to our detriment, but also, at the same time, it's a survival mechanism too. I would really want to acknowledge that because work has a certain norm, or a certain prototype for success. We're all trying to fit into that norm. And the scene is shifting now with all the conversations that are going on with Black Lives Matters and No Asian Hate and the great resignation as well.
I've had years of internal racism and disassociating myself, as a woman of colour. It's only recently that I've become comfortable in this space, acknowledging my own lived experiences. And acknowledging that I do have unique value to bring. Because through years of this disassociation or assimilation as such, I haven't really shone a light on it. I think only by being vulnerable about this, that we allow others to share stories about themselves.
But also when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, and calling myself an expert in that, I do feel like an imposter. Because I don't have a degree in this or I haven't written a book and with all the other experts in this field that are running unconscious bias trainings and have all the accolades. I have to really drag myself back quite quickly from that space and go like: Hey, I do have lived experiences of not being included, of being an internalised racist, of being discriminated against and working through the identity challenges and working with others through it too! So I do need to acknowledge my coaching background and expertise. It's just in a very different way to the so-called societal “expert” title that there is, huh.
Elina: Love your reflections, Suki! Firstly, around the whole idea of bringing your whole self to work. We know we want to have more spaces that are safe and vulnerable yet, as you said before, currently it's not really safe for a lot of people to bring their whole selves to work. So how do we make it safe? And secondly, where does this responsibility lie in society?
Suki: My take on this is that it lies with both: the person and society because there isn’t one without the other, the reaction and action in treating people and them reaching to that treatment is a cycle. That's the dichotomy, or the power dynamics that I see that are going on at the moment. I am a person that really believes in and also works in self leadership. And you know that quote: be the change that you want to see in the world? So yeah, I believe the easiest change to do is within ourselves. And that takes a lot of work, internal work to acknowledge what we mean by our own identity, where do we belong? And then bring other people along who might not feel the sense of belonging too or other allies who want to be a part of this.
There is a book called Effects by Michelle Peeking and she speaks about how men apply for jobs when they only tick 60% of the boxes and women only apply when they take 100% of the boxes. Before we used to say that women need to get more confident and self-assured in order to really succeed in the workplace, so we were putting that burden on women to change. And now it's really acknowledging that it is because society favours men, and they promote men based on potential rather than achievement and promote women based on achievement, not allowing them to make as many mistakes, therefore women behave this way.
So I do acknowledge that there's a lot of societal issues that make it unfair to place all the responsibility on the person to do the work. At the same time, I don't see it as an either or, I see it more as that I am not being a victim of the system and working on yourself with others, and by doing that we are also changing the system. So it’s a circle. I want us to acknowledge the experiences we’ve had that made us feel not included. But we're not here to continue feeling like that. And we're here to acknowledge that people have made mistakes, whether intentionally or unintentionally. But let me do my part so that I can heal myself and allow others to heal too.
Elina: Yes, and I think it’s justified that people are at different stages of their journeys. Some people are angry with the systems, and might not have the resources to heal. So if someone is on that journey of healing, how do we tap into this collectively? We have a lot of changes that need to happen in organisations, and some people might not be aware or might not be on that journey of understanding that they are contributing to exclusionary practices. If you were standing in front of a CEO like that, let’s say, what would you want them to know or do differently?
Suki: I would really use a coaching method of helping that person to discover the answer, but for themselves, and how I would bring that to them is to ask: What is the situation that you have felt that you've been excluded, or othered? And really go into that place of empathy, and then to tap into how other people might feel like and then from that point of view, what would you do differently for them to be included?
I really believe that people are capable of coming up with the answers themselves, IF they're able to work with the people that have been impacted by the system. I think a lot of efforts that I see at the moment for diversity, equity inclusion is being done to, rather than done with.
We have statistics that show diversity & inclusion is great for profitability, and there is a moral case of human rights too. And there are examples of value that ethnically diverse leadership has really produced. For example, Pacific health provider engagement with vaccine roll-out and how much more effective it was in New Zealand. I think that really shows the value of ethnically diverse leadership. But if we can really define that better, and communicate that, then then others would also value us more.
Elina: Even on this podcast, so many people talked about how much they valued seeing representation of themselves in leadership, or how some groups disengaged from services and products when it was done to them, not with them. I feel like all these big topics we are discussing today is something that you work with everyday, Suki. What are some topics that maybe you haven't explored enough, and would love to dive into more for yourself?
Suki: I want to understand more about femininity. I never thought of myself as a “girly girl” or someone who is feminine. But even during our #PassTheMic collage workshop, I’ve explored a lot of feminine tones and pink colours. So I felt like oh, I should do more exploration of that side of me: the compassionate, empathetic, relatable, feminine side of myself and bring more of that out.
Elina: I can so relate, Suki. My whole life, I haven't felt like I'm feminine enough, whatever that means. And only recently doing Michelle Kasey’s sensuality coaching, I started to unpack this and also started seeing how many people also talk about not being feminine enough. And it's such a surprise to me to see how many others feel the same? What do you reckon contributes to this? Like, what it means to be feminine? Who established that in society?
Suki: I've got very strong role models who are women in my family, like my mum. And from a societal point of view back in the days, that wouldn't be what you would say a wife does in the family. The ideal worker, the success prototype in society would typically be men. And we strive to be more like that guy that is at the top. So I think that’s a big part that contributed to me not feeling feminine enough; we disassociate this part of ourselves that we see is not of value or hindrance to our success.
Elina: Growing up in Kazakhstan we had so many gender norms and stereotypes and what was and wasn’t OK for women to do. Your guy friends at school could tell you that they didn’t like if you wear your hair curly or that they didn’t like this colour on you. So from when you are a kid, you are constantly exposed to these norms. I remember thinking that feminine meant being a girly girl who needs saving or needs to be helped. And I always felt very different to that. My mom was a huge role model in my life. She was a single mom, super strong, worked really hard, whereas most of my friends’ mums stayed at home. So I can relate to not feeling feminine enough because I thought strong isn’t feminine.
Suki: I had very similar narratives to your culture too: feminine is being the housewife or being submissive? And I definitely do not agree or associate with that definition of femininity.
Elina: Ah, what a chat Suki! Let's get to our four quick fire questions: first one is what is your favourite dish that makes you want to lick your plate and your fingers?
Suki: Oh too many… [laughs] I love Chinese food or Asian food actually. There's this dish called T G. It's parboiled chicken and then it's very plain in flavour. And you can almost see the redness in the skin and in the bone when you cut it open. Two places in Auckland that I love are Tai Ping supermarket, they do amazing Peking Duck! And the chicken dish, I will get it from the Golden Garden Restaurant on Dominion road as well.
Elina: If you could be the main character in a movie or TV show? What would it be?
Suki: I love watching Chinese dramas; it helps me to actually know more about my culture and how much of it is ingrained and myself. If I can see it on screen, then I can tease out the parts that I don't really agree with. Yeah, so the one that I watched recently was a drama from last year. It's called the Law of Balance. And the main protagonist is a really strong woman. And I could really relate to her journey of figuring out who she is, and what she is doing on Earth.
Elina: Okay, love it! If you could propose one policy to the New Zealand Parliament or maybe to a specific organisation, what would it be?
Suki: I used to be a policy advisor so I’m thinking: is this practical? [laughs]. How do we bring an implementation policy about real inclusion, really diving deep into what that means, rather than the tokenistic lip service type of inclusion, which we've had a lot of.
Elina: And the last question that is one of my favourites is what makes you feel like a badass?
Suki: …Owning my story, talking about the challenges bravely and courageously, spreading that message for others. I acknowledge my experiences and the traumas, and the healing work that I've done myself and then I go forth to impact the world. Yeah, that's a message that I want everybody to have.
Thank you so much for listening, folks. We've recorded this conversations from the comfort of our homes, you know, the global pandemic at all. So we really hope you felt that cosy listening to your friends over the phone kind of vibe. If you haven't already, check out our remaining series with 14 other incredible conversations. Share, Subscribe, send to someone who might benefit from either feeling seen or you know or learning more about ethnic voices in Aotearoa. This wonderful podcast has been brought to you by collaboration of Belong Aotearoa, Storyo, Planet FM and Sport Waitakere. With thanks to our funder, the Auckland Council Regional Development Fund. Follow us on Instagram @passthemic.aotearoa and @story.co And until next time.