by Irene Lee, NetKAL VIII Fellow
“Being a Student Again” was an appropriate theme for the Homecoming weekend, which included alums from past NetKAL classes. It is also a good motto for all of the NetKAL VIII sessions thus far, because when you gather 28 amazing Korean-Americans from various walks of life in one room to learn about leadership, it feels much like school or summer camp.
The presence of NetKAL alums really made Homecoming weekend an extra special event. We all felt incredibly lucky to have them there with us. Their participation in the “unplugged” panels provided a platform to share their successes as well as their failures (and some were complete with poignantly placed expletives!). One of the highlights of the panels was Iron Chef UK Judy Joo, who wowed us with stories of her experiences as a chef and TV personality. She attributed her success simply to hard work, being in the right place at the right time, and creating her own luck. After filling ourselves with delicious eats from ‘wichcraft, NetKAL VIII Fellows Esther Lim and Jane Norman led a team-building exercise in which we flexed our creative muscles by constructing the tallest tower using spaghetti noodles and marshmallows, which was no easy feat! Many groups ended up with lots of sticky fingers and little to no success, but it certainly was a great test of communication and teamwork.
The final panel of the day involved a heated discussion on the “Bamboo Ceiling.” Does it exist? What can we do about it? How do we press forward to see more Korean-Americans rise into exclusive, top-level management positions in major companies?
This discussion reminded me of the time I had interviewed with a prosecuting agency, before I became a deputy district attorney. My interview panel consisted of two Caucasians, an African-American, and a Korean-American. They grilled me about my knowledge of the law, and at the very end they posed a simple, but direct question: “Do you have what it takes to stand up to a judge and be an advocate? Can you be a voice in the courtroom?” I assured them I could. Minutes after my interview concluded, they had called a mentor of mine, telling him that I had all of the qualifications but they just could not see me fighting in the courtroom. Being female and Korean-American, it did not take much for me to realize why they thought so.
Thankfully, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office believed in me and, to date, I have completed over 900 hearings and more than 30 jury trials for them. However, when I appear before a judge or jury, I am often aware that I have to prove that I deserve a seat at the table more than some of my colleagues do. Whether it is referred to as the Bamboo Ceiling or something else, there is a palpable sense that some do not see Korean-Americans as deserving a place in the courtroom, boardroom, or the main stage of national politics.
A common solution that was presented to tackle this issue was to find successful mentors to help us up and then become mentors for those who are up and coming. We have also been given the challenge to make NetKAL the most relevant and powerful network possible, which will propel more Korean-American professionals into positions of power and influence. I joined NetKAL to be part of this sphere of influence and to be equipped to mentor the next generation of Korean-American leaders. So, for me, these ideas are the embodiment of NetKAL.
The final presentations of the weekend were of the three community projects for our class. The first, a Korean-American community day of service, centered around the Saturday of Chuseok, actively demonstrating that we are relevant contributors to our communities. The second, two paid internships for Korean-American college students in Washington D.C., in partnership with KALCA (Korean-American League for Civic Action), which will help pave the way for future movers and shakers to make a difference in politics. Finally, the third, a “list-serv” that connects Korean-American college students with unique internship opportunities directly from NetKAL alumni, such as in the public sector, entertainment, and fashion industries.
Our three community project ideas reflect our desire to bring a greater presence for Korean-Americans as well as provide opportunities for the next generation to be bigger, brighter versions of ourselves. Our main hope for these community projects is to render the Bamboo Ceiling obsolete.