By Jinnie Lee
The biggest career wins often come with risk. On our series, The Big Bet, Chief speaks with some of the most powerful members in our network about that single moment when they bet on themselves — and won.
Chief Member Cathy Butler recalled the pivotal feedback she once received that would inspire her to launch her own company. “Early in my career, I was told that I was too ‘professionally modest’ and that it would be something I'd have to overcome to get ahead. What my manager didn't recognize is that modesty was part of the cultural values that I grew up with, and overcoming it was easier said than done (assuming I wanted to overcome it in the first place).” For many Asian and Pacific Islanders working in corporate America, like Butler, “professional modesty” is ingrained in their DNA — akin to respect and humility that are considered of utmost importance in their culture. Unfortunately, in the American workplace, it can also be perceived as “meek” or “lacking executive presence” — a subjective prerequisite for corporate advancement.
Due to toxic perceptions of what “good” leadership looks like being at odds with the cultural upbringing of many Asian Americans, Asian women account for just 1% of promotions from SVP to the C-Suite — the lowest of all ethnicities. Butler wants to do something about that. With fellow Chief Member Van Tran, Butler founded API Rising, an organization providing “culturally conscious coaching, intentional career development, and workplace awareness” specifically for the Asian community to rise.
For Butler, becoming an advocate for this community was a natural step in her career — after all, she’s experienced first-hand many of the challenges Asian executives face in corporate America as the CEO of the digital ad agency Organic. The launch of API Rising felt necessary “after years of seeing the lack of culturally-relevant support, watching the share of promotions decline for API [professionals], and wanting to drive change for our own community,” she says.
In this edition of The Big Bet, Butler shares how mentors have played crucial roles in her professional development, how she’s taking a leap of faith in her own venture, and how having a fearless mindset has pushed her to make bold choices.
“I wanted to be a CEO early on in my career and was lucky enough to find a sponsor who unlocked opportunities to learn about all aspects of the business we were in: growth, P&L management, operations, product, and employee experience. It gave me the chance to learn the cross-organizational skills I needed to be effective as a leader, and taught me that having ambition and being intentional about my career choices gave me control of my career. I have spent many years mentoring and coaching, and the theme of not having agency over career growth always rose to the top as the biggest challenge. API Rising is built on the belief that being intentional about your career is key to advancement.”
“My original plan was to be a music journalist which is what brought me from California, where I grew up, to New York. But the lifestyle wasn’t for me — I like to sleep too much. My mom was the fiercest small business owner that could ever be, so I had a great role model of being a boss. Once I decided I wanted to be a CEO, I only looked forward.”
“[It’s happening] right now! I am retiring as the CEO of Organic and focusing on bringing all of my experience to leadership coaching. I’m completing my leadership coaching certification this summer and building out API Rising and the Diverse Coach Collective. I think my unique experience being a woman of color in a CEO role can guide the next generation of leaders.”
“Maybe it’s bold to say, but I don’t [have any fears when it comes to my career]. I am always guided by a ‘nothing to lose’ mindset. By taking one step forward, I know where I stand and can assess where to go from there. That applies to sending an unwelcome email to having tough conversations. Asking myself, ‘What do I have to lose?’ always takes the fear away.”
“It can be lonely at times looking around the table, but I remind myself that I belong there. I have been laughed at, doubted, and put into a box, but I learned along the way. And that's where I always focused, asking myself: What can I take away from this situation that will help me in my long-term goal? Focusing on what I was learning in the moment or situation removed my own self-doubt, and gave me forward momentum."
“Everything is a choice, and choose the path that brings the most joy."
*Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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