Washington Leadership Program: Career Reflections

On July 24th, 2013, Asian Pacific American interns and young professionals gathered at the U.S. Capitol for the final session of the Washington Leadership Program.

The session focused on a panel of APA professionals reflecting on their career paths and providing advice for aspiring APAs. CAPAL’s own Chair, Rebecca Lee moderated a panel comprised of five wonderful speakers: Gregory Cendana, Executive Director of Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), Molly Chen, Project Management Associate of Chemonics International and past Peace Corps Volunteer, Rakesh Kilaru, Associate at O’Melveny’s, Michael Mau, Executive Staff Officer of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and Parag Mehta, Special Assistant to the Director at the U.S. Department of Labor.

Panelists began by sharing about their background. Chen spoke about taking a risk to go abroad after her work in business. Mehta also spoke about the long journey he took to get where he is now. Starting as a Presidential Management Fellow with the White House, Mehta went from a low level Fellow to a valuable asset after President George W. Bush was appointed, even as a Democrat, because of his familiarity with the White House. He went abroad but returned to the U.S. after having an epiphany when someone in Barcelona recognized his Ron Kirk t-shirt at a club. Mehta began work with the Democratic National Committee, moved to Vermont to campaign for Howard Dean and with help from previous connections who were willing to advocate for him, he was able to gain recognition in his work.

Kilaru tracks the roots of his work to his involvement with the Model United Nations in high school. He was able to utilize mentors to go to and succeed in law school. On the other hand, Cendana’s first job was at Baskin Robbins. His journey to where he began started in the personal sphere, as his father would talk about his negative experience with his union. Cendana attended a United States Student Association (USSA)’s Grassroots Organizing Weekend (GROW) at UCLA where he learned more about social issues in the context of post-prop 209 and where he cultivated key leadership skills. Because the same organization as Cendana’s father’s union sponsored the GROW training, Cendana started to learn more in order to better understand the discrepancies he saw. Mentors and people in his networks eventually approached him about becoming part of APALA. Part of his passion as the youngest and first openly gay APA Executive Director of APALA is advocating for APA communities and empowering youth to know that youth have power and can become leaders.

Mau wisely explained that usually one doesn’t realize defining moments when they are happening and only categorize these moments as defining in hindsight. He said that many of these choices are not clear decisions, and they arise by balancing what you are and are not going to get. For him, his defining moments were really a series of choices. He was not going to go to college and instead went into the military. He advised WLP attendees to try different things, find out what you want or don’t want (which is also important), be prepared and do your best. Mau ended up attending college and became a history major. Through connections and hard work, he was able to transfer his skills to CIA work.

In the audience question and answer, panelists touched on questions of mentorship, activism, advancing one’s career, and most memorable moments.

Chen explained that Peace Corp experiences were key personally and her experiences have dictated her professional path. Kilaru gave some tips to interns: work hard. Do good work and attend networking and leadership events – then put in the effort afterwards to follow up and continue developing relationships. He also recommended taking time off before graduate school.

Mau agreed saying only go to graduate school if it will help your career – not as an alternative to finding a job. Mau made distinctions between coaching, mentoring and sponsorships, noting that it is extremely important to be considerate of people’s time (come prepared to meetings, come with an ask).

Mehta spoke about how for many people in politics and for people who work on social issues, work is conducted under core values. When they are challenged, when do you make noise about it versus when do you quietly step away? Mehta spoke about the importance on re-examining your values and asking yourself, who are you doing it for and why? If you want to be an activist, you have to be willing to pay the price. Mehta recounted a personal story of an instance where he was almost fired and Rep. Honda helped him recognize that you should be an activist: do the activism, but do it in the most effective way and in a way that lets you continue your activism.

When asked about the role of his APA identity, Cendana spoke about how we can connect communities by acknowledging the intersections of identities and issues. Mehta noted that it is important to take on the responsibilities to support the community and keep your doors open. Mau explained that he is ABC- Asian By Choice because of his ability to racially pass; however, he chooses to connect with his APA identity because he sees value in being APA and the APA experience.

The panelists gave some more key advice for succeeding and advancing in one’s career: seek opportunities, apply for jobs even if you are not 100% qualified, utilize networks for job searches, be proactive and fill gaps with your skills, use your personality, strategize promotions as if they were new job interviews and ask for feedback.