The Visibility Mindset for AAPI Leaders with Bernice Chao and Jessalin Lam

November 30, 2022

Podcast Episode 26: The Visibility Mindset for AAPI Leaders with Bernice Chao and Jessalin Lam

Bernice Chao and Jessalin Lam are the co-authors of The Visibility Mindset, a book that explores a variety of stereotypes and barriers faced by Asian professionals, including the bamboo ceiling and the model minority myth. Their book provides real-life leadership examples to help AAPI and allies navigate pitfalls and challenges as we move forward in growing our visibility, careers, and businesses. 

Join us by the Campfire Circle for this thoughtful conversation about their story (which is a testament to the power of visibility), overcoming the unique challenges that AAPI face, the need for a like-minded community, and powerful advice on authoring your first book.

“I always give the comparison of the very American idiom of “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”. I was taught “the loudest duck gets shot.” I was taught “the loudest bamboo gets cut” and “the tallest nail gets hammered down … so, the Visibility Mindset is really understanding:Yes, we get you. We get that this is hard. We know that this isn’t just you. And you’re not alone.’” 

Highlights from the podcast episode: 

We discussed:

[01:46] The story of how their collaboration emerged

B: We actually met virtually. It was 2021 and it was the height of xenophobia towards Asians, specifically, East Asian women. This was a time when I think the advertising and marketing agencies started to realize that they should start including people of AAPI descent on panels. So, Adweek had a conference at Town Hall that was really inspiring. And then I attended another one by Ascend. 

At that time, I was really interested in networking, so I was popping my LinkedIn into the chat. Jessalin was also reaching out and meeting people on her end. So, we actually connected for a virtual coffee chat, where I learned so much about what Jessalin was doing, all the clubs she was a part of, and how active she was in the community. We also shared struggles in our careers, the difficulties we had navigating our cultural identity, and what that meant for upward momentum. 

I shared with her at that time that I had an idea to create a nonprofit organization called Asians in Advertising about five years before. I had finally been working at an agency called David and Goliath, and there were four other people that looked like me. I was really excited and I was like “We need to start a place for us.” There’re so many other great organizations for black people, for Hispanic people, for all different types, and there were some POC groups out there as well. But when I started looking at their board and the diversity makeup, I didn’t see anyone that looked like me. 

I was really craving a community of people that shared the same cultural struggles I have. When I had these people get together in a room, it was great the very first meeting, there was so much enthusiasm and they were like “Let’s do it!” In the second meeting, it got a little bit looser, where they were like “Oh, I don’t know if we really need this.” 

I think culturally, we like to say, making space for ourselves is very uncomfortable. And when we do so, we are afraid of the repercussions it may have to have that spotlight on us. And so I shelved this idea, but I did pay for the URL for the next five years. I think you just have to wait until you meet the right person and just after one conversation with Jessalin, I was like: “Oh, maybe we should do something with this. It feels like the right time.” So, I just basically asked her over email, like “Hey, I have this idea. We talked about it really briefly, but would you want to be my co-founder for an organization called Asians in Advertising?” She was like, “I don’t know what this is. But yes.” 

I built the website on a Saturday on Squarespace, she looked at it on Sunday, and we posted it on Monday with one networking event. I actually only thought a couple of people would care. I thought 20 people would be a huge success. But we had over 600 signups, and this was right out the gate when we had just got on the map. So, it just really showed to both of us that there was really a need for a community like this to be out there.

And I don’t think we met in person till about eight months later. So, it was really nice to finally meet someone that I was seeing on the regular and talking to on the regular in person. And we are so blessed. It’s about a year and a half later, and we’re about 3700 members, and we’re global.

[06:23] Tips to create deep connections through (virtual) coffee chats

J: I’m happy to jump in and share about that and to even add to what Bernice was saying because, from our initial virtual chat, it was also just amazing to hear her stories. 

I would say it’s even just the first meeting that you have with the person, when you’re getting to know them. There was this immediate synergy between Bernice and me where we had the same energy, the same goals, and values. Then, just in terms of how when I met Bernice: 

1- She’s just an amazing person. The fact that she had the foresight to buy asiansinadvertising.com was a big deal and I was like “Wow, you’re amazing. Even though I just met you, let me know what you do with it. I’m happy to share it with my network in the future.” 

2- She was also, at the time, pregnant with her second kid and I was family planning. Now I have a six-month-old daughter, but at the time it was amazing to meet another working mom. I knew this was someone I wanted to stay in touch with because I wanted to learn tips from her. Like, how do you learn how to have a work-life balance as a working parent? And then, she also organizes TEDx Talks and is a creative in the industry and you don’t usually see that, an Asian creative. So, for me, it was just that the more I got to know her as a person, the more I knew this was someone I want to stay in touch with.

So, when you’re having virtual coffee with someone, if it is someone you want to get to know even more, then the next thing is considering how you can stay in touch. Maybe it’s offering resources. In our case, I think Bernice and I stayed in touch by following each other on LinkedIn and seeing what we posted. Then, as she mentioned, when she emailed me to be a co-founder, I was like “I don’t know what it is or what we’re going to create, but we need a community.” I thought “this will be a fun project, like something we do for fun” and then, as Bernice has been saying, how it’s grown so organically has been amazing. 

I think, in terms of when you’re connecting with people to have those deep connections, I would say to make sure it’s someone that inspires you, someone you can learn from. Then, when you’re trying to nurture those relationships, think about what the things that you want to do are, for example:

1 – Did they recommend a book that you read and you can follow up with them? 

2 – Even before you end the first meeting, when you know you want to stay in touch with them, make that suggestion like “I would love to do this again. Maybe we could meet quarterly or monthly; let me know what works for you.” 

3 – You can share events that you’re attending. 

Then, there are opportunities for you to connect again.

[10:09] The Visibility Mindset and the unique challenges that AAPI face

B: To explain The Visibility Mindset, I want to start with the title itself.

One thing that I grew up with, and I think a lot of people in this culture grew up with as well, is the fact of assimilation. I always share that my parents came to this country back in the 70s and they renamed themselves and they became Nelson and Ingrid, I became Bernice and I was born here. But these are very, I would say, white classical names, they’re not even common names, and I think it was just so they could fit in because they knew what they look like, was going to make them stand out.

Culturally, I was taught to keep my head down and blend in. “Don’t rock the boat because if you do, you will get dinged.” This is something that we all share culturally because our parents did this so that they could make it in this country, so they can make a future for us. Because of that Jessalin and I have shared stories about how we go into the workplace, and how standing out is really hard for us because we weren’t given the tools to know how but we’re also culturally told not to. 

I always give the comparison of the very American Idiom of “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”. I was taught “the loudest duck gets shot”, I was taught “the loudest bamboo gets cut,” and “the tallest nail gets hammered down”. So, when I go into a room, and it’s a large board room of free-flowing ideas, like a Super Bowl campaign pitch, I go in that room and I’m like “Okay, I’m gonna just write all the notes. I’m going to be super attentive. And then we go back to my desk and have really good concrete thoughts that I can then turn in later.” Everyone else in the room is popping off half-thought-out answers, first thing in their brain but I am not comfortable with that because I don’t want to look like I’m showing up not 100% because we were told to do that.

So, The Visibility Mindset is all this, it’s really understanding: “Yes, we get you. We get that this is hard. We know that this isn’t just you. This is something that you could have learned. And you’re not alone, a lot of people are feeling this way. But how do you have that mindset that when you do go in the room, you know that you have to speak? And are there things that you can talk about so that it’s comfortable for you?” So, whether it’s a clarifying question, whether it’s adding to that idea. But, like this amazing thing Jessalin had just mentioned to me offline and that I want to bring here, you can do that knowing that your idea doesn’t have to be perfect. When you do say it out loud, you’re just helping to build more puzzle pieces for everyone else to kind of grow up from.

J: I also wanted to share my experience, because when it comes to the title The Visibility Mindset, I think for Bernice too, but I’ll speak for myself, I’ve experienced a lot of toxic workplaces and being the only person of color in the workplace. When there were times of trying to speak up to get a promotion, I would be passed up for the offer, and then, to be transparent, a white person is hired or promoted into a leadership position that I could have easily gotten. 

So, that’s the feeling of feeling invisible in the workplace, that’s the reason for leaving companies. And that’s why we wanted to create something with more of a positive twist of like, how can we create this visibility mindset and teach people, whether it’s our community and even allies, how to support the Asian community. Because, especially with Asian culture, it’s challenging speaking up or asking for help, and that is what leads to having more visibility. For networking, you need to know how to ask for help, or to get a mentor, you need to know what the things that you speak up for are and what the things that you’re looking for are. 

We teach those tips in the book. It’s definitely a lot of unlearning things, the old ways or things that have been taught to us culturally, or even through corporate America from the experiences that we have and being able to learn and reframe different ways to redefine the future of the workplace.

B: The book itself has 12 chapters and it’s actually broken down into three sections. The first section is called Improving Yourself. So chapters here will be about finding your voice, knowing your personal brand, and how to build it. The second section is called Working With Others. So, we’re talking about mentorship, microaggressions, and networking. And then lastly, the third section is called Redefining the Future of the Workplace. So, about leveraging allyship and integrating DEI into learning and development. So, it’s a very easy-to-use roadmap of how you can actually use the tips that we learned from Asian leaders and bring them into your own life.

[17:37] Leveraging allies, asking for help, and being vulnerable

J: Leveraging allyship is key and that’s why with our book we tell people that it’s not just for Asian professionals, it’s also for allies to understand what we’re facing when it comes to the workplace and how you can support us. So, one example is that allies can help when it comes to educating themselves. In addition to that, they can also speak up for the community so that it’s not always the burden of the marginalized community that has to speak up for itself. 

In one of my previous workplaces, with everything happening with the Asian community, I mentioned to a colleague of mine that I was disappointed that the leadership didn’t say anything about it, and it was just a casual conversation. The next day, this colleague, who was not in an executive leadership position and is just part of the black ERG, sent out an email to the entire staff to say, “here’s what’s been happening with the Asian community, and here’s what you can do to support, here are articles you can do.” 

I was blown away because, at that time, I was still digesting everything that happened and I honestly didn’t have words for educating people. I was still processing it and figuring out what I wanted to do and everything. It definitely made me cry happy tears to see that, to know that there are people out there. 

And that’s something that people can do to be an ally. Not only he checked in with me, to see how I’m doing, but he also took action without even waiting for the company to do something about it and that speaks volumes.

J: In our book, we also talk about mental health and well-being, which are really important. We have one chapter on Prioritizing Your Mental Health and then we have one that’s on Finding Your Optimal Work-Life Balance. We made sure that the one on mental health was a separate chapter because it’s a topic that our community doesn’t really talk about often. 

I’ll speak for myself as an Asian, that I hadn’t seen a therapist until 2018. So, it was only in my adulthood that I finally saw my first therapist. It’s hard to ask for help because, and I’m still working on this now, when something’s not okay, I’m like “Oh, everything’s okay” but in reality no, it’s not. There are also things that I need to do, like communicating the needs that I have. A lot of it is practice and being able to utilize that or leaning on people for support and accountability.

When it comes to mental health, it’s also about reminding people to “put your oxygen mask on yourself, before you put it on others.” So, it’s really important, and in the book we talk about that too, and how to be visible, you really have to be more intentional with how you’re showing up, and how you’re taking care of yourself is going to impact that, in all aspects of your life, not only just in the workplace. And, for Asians, a lot of us grow up thinking that we don’t know how to ask for help, so we teach a lot of tips on how they can practice. And it does take time too.

B: When it comes to advice around how to show up as yourself, even when it goes against what we were trained to do, I try to find ways to show up that can make both parties understand it. So, I don’t want to come in there totally different, being just who I am unapologetically, I actually go into the room in a way that makes me relatable. 

One of the things that we talk about in the book is that a lot of managers and those who hire people, when they look at the next candidate to hire, they want someone that’s a mirror of themselves because they see a lot of potential in someone that really resonates with them. So, when I go into the room and my creative vertical does not look like me — I’m a tiny 5’2”, probably look a little younger than I actually am, Asian woman — and I’m usually up against a six-feet-plus white man who’s probably graying a little earlier and just looks a lot more distinguished than me, or the presence is just bigger. 

There’s also just the cultural aspect. Even though I’m American, I was born in Northern California, I don’t have the same points of reference. I can’t go in the room and be like “Oh, yeah! Totally down with the latest sneakers and the latest thing in football.” I just don’t have those points of reference. So, most of the time I go into these rooms, and especially before the main meeting or the main briefing, I don’t have anything to say. I’m usually in the room just nodding along like “I totally get it totally know that hair metal band from the 70s. Mm-hmm, yeah, totally.” and I don’t. It’s so uncomfortable for me to pretend I know. But it’s also super awkward if I go “no clue what you’re talking about. Can we change the subject?” What is that balance? 

So, one of the things that we actually talk about in the book is, what can you learn before you get into the room? For me, I get a sheet of everyone who is in the room. I do a little dive on the internet because we all are somewhere on social media, on LinkedIn. However, I’m just trying to find ways that I can have those points of commonality. So, I can direct the conversation there. So, I can lean into an interest that we both share so that I still can be authentic, and still make this person see me as someone that they can get along with as well. And that’s one of those tips that we offer. 

[25:39] Advice for younger Bernice and Jessalin

J: For me personally, and this is probably how it led me to be in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, is that I’ve personally always been myself at work, I’ve gotten in trouble for it or not got promoted for it, but I always speak up for myself.

A lot of people now applaud me, they’re like “Wow, you’re so brave!” but I’m looking at it as survival though, because if I’m not going to speak up for myself, who else is going to do it? 

I don’t have someone to sponsor me throughout, especially early on in my career. So, I would say, for my younger self who didn’t know: “keep doing what you’re doing. You’re doing a great job. You’re going in the right direction.” At that time, early on in my career, I gathered a lot of mentors, I asked for help and really tried to figure out what I wanted to do and pave the way, not by myself, but in the sense of like building a community and building my network and being able to have those people to lean on when I needed the help. I remember, early on in my career, I worked in toxic workplaces and I explained what I was dealing with to a mentor and she was like: “You’re like an abused puppy and you don’t realize it.” I was like “What? What are you talking about?” I didn’t get it until now, because now I, fortunately, work in a great workplace. 

I wouldn’t know what a good workplace is when it’s my first job out of college or second, third, or whatever, because I haven’t experienced a good workplace. So, I would say to my younger self: “if anything, look for a place that is going to celebrate you, appreciate you, and elevate you. Like, when it’s putting you in for a promotion or creating opportunities and making sure that you’re heard and wanting to hear your perspective because those are the places that are gonna help you thrive and grow.” And early on in my career, my younger self would fit a lot of those environments that didn’t allow that. So, that’s what I would say to my younger self.

B: For me, I’m definitely more on the introverted side. When I was struggling, I just held it in. In Chinese, we have a phrase called 吃苦 (chīkǔ), which actually means eating bitterness. I was taught to never let the crack show and that whatever’s happening with you, that stays home and that other self that looks really shiny goes outside. So, I didn’t know to ask for help and when I was really struggling and I felt really terrible and really hopeless, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t realize how important advocating for yourself is. 

So, I would tell my younger self that: “no one can do a better job than yourself”, that “you have so many ways to show up in the world that people can really see who you are,” and “to not hide things that you’re suffering with, either talk to people, have a community network to share those experiences,” 

Also, celebrate all your wins because if you’re not in “the club”, “the bro club”, the hanging out dates, and the football watching, you’re not open to some of those opportunities. So when first-of-mind promotions opportunities come by they think of the person that they last saw and if it’s not you, you’re probably not thought of. But you can also write these things on LinkedIn and share them on your own channels, and maybe when they do come up with those promotions, they can think of your name subconsciously. Someone can Google you and be like “Oh, it’s on your about page.” You can just talk about your wins and there’s nothing wrong with that. You’re just celebrating things that make you unique, so that you can be included in those conversations, as well. So I would tell my younger self: “advocate. You are your best advocate.”

[30:23] The process of birthing a book out into the world

B: We probably had a different process than most people. There’re so many different ways to get a book out into the world, you can self-publish, there’s Kindle Press, which is Amazon, you can have a proposal submitted to a bunch of agents to then get you to a publisher, or you could have a deal with a publisher straight out.

For us, in January of this year, we actually got an email from a publisher who I think Googled Asian career help, found our organization and actually pitched us a book for us to write. So, we didn’t already have a proposal, we didn’t have anything as a semblance of it other than who we were as a nonprofit. 

We were really fortunate. Our acquisitions editor is actually an AAPI woman herself and she really wanted this book. So, she really believed in getting more Asian voices out there into the community. And she has been a huge champion of ours, and has been working with us in terms of the book development, what we would talk about, and really finding that white space in the market to come out as the first ones to really address this head-on.

J: I was also birthing the book while I was pregnant and on maternity leave. So, I feel like it definitely is a lot. What has helped me is having Bernice as the co-author and having us as a team. Because we have different skill sets, we were able to divide and conquer. We wrote six chapters each and then were able to cross-check and reference each other’s chapters and were able to share our different perspectives. Also, it was really helpful to have that accountability of each other to be like, “Okay, I’m writing today”, or being able to check in with each other. So that’s a big part of that. 

I did want to add that: If you’re thinking about writing a book, do it! We need more authors out there, especially people of color and women. 

We’re really lucky with our partner at Wiley, she actively looks for people of color and female first-time authors and we definitely need more of that. So, we’re just really excited that we’re part of that and I still can’t believe it’s real.

B: We also collaborated with others in the AAPI community to make this book a reality. The interviews are with people we knew in our circle that we really respected in their careers, or in what they were doing outside their careers to actually help the space as well. We definitely wanted people that really resonated with things that we wanted to kind of bring out in terms of visibility. We didn’t want it to be like “Oh, here’s a chapter and then a random interview”, we definitely wanted to correlate and make sure it was authentic to the person we were actually interviewing. So, that’s what you’ll see in the book.

[34:17] Jessalin and Bernice’s big dreamy vision for the future

J: I’ll say that with the book The Visibility Mindset, we are definitely hoping that it can be an essential career guide for the AAPI community and allies and that people can use that. Hopefully, there’ll be more books that are like that, because, even with Wiley, they’re saying that it’s the first of its kind and it’s been so many years since the book Breaking The Bamboo Ceiling

We definitely want people to be able to reference that and also just be able to continue to be visible. It would be amazing for us to keep seeing representation when it comes to leadership, specifically when it comes to Asians, because even right now, in the Fortune 500 leadership only 2.6% are actually Asian. So, it would be great for there to be more representation, not only just for Asian leaders but for marginalized communities and for them to be elevated. 

For me now, being a first-time mother with my daughter who is six months old, I’m hoping that when she grows up, she won’t have to face a lot of the toxic workplaces that I had. I want her to be able to feel like she can be comfortable in her own skin and to be herself and be able to thrive in whatever career or life that she has and see representation that we didn’t see when we were younger.

B: To add to that, one of the stats that we read was that 20% of Asian American men and 16% of Asian American women don’t feel like they fundamentally belong in the workplace, and that’s the lowest of any group out there, you know, including black women, LGBTQ plus. It makes me so sad that so many people just don’t feel like they belong in the room, and that feeling is something that I know very well. So, my hope is that we can change those percentages, even just by a fraction, to make sure there’s space for everybody in the room, that they can feel included, and that they can share their voice and be themselves.

Connect with Bernice Chao

Website: bernicechao.com

LinkedIn: Bernice Chao

Connect with Jesslin Lam

Website: joyofjessalin.com

LinkedIn: Jessalin Lam

Connect with Tania Bhattacharyya:

LinkedIn: Tania Bhattacharyya

Instagram: @taniabhat

Website: lumosmarketing.co

Also mentioned in the episode: 

Practicing Inclusion on Purpose with Ruchika Tulshyan – Episode 17 of the Campfire Circle

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