AAPI Leadership Spotlight: Breaking Cultural Stereotypes and Driving Opportunity Through Mentorship

Ten Thousand Coffees Team -
May 25, 2022

Angela Cheng-Cimini has worked in progressively senior HR management roles at top global companies throughout her career. Recently appointed Senior VP Talent and CHRO at Harvard Business Publishing (HBP), Cheng-Cimini also serves on the board of directors, where she’s activating change in senior leadership roles for underrepresented and visible minorities. In this leadership spotlight for AAPI month, she highlights the role of mentorship in her career, the challenges faced as an Asian-American woman in corporate America, and her recent foray into working with Ascend Leadership, the largest Pan-Asian non-profit organization in North America and a Social Impact Partner of Ten Thousand Coffees (10KC).

10KC: What role has mentorship and building your network played in your career? 

Cheng-Cimini: The path to my success wasn’t intentional or planned, and it wasn’t quite linear either. It required work, having the right networks, access to mentors, and a bit of serendipity. I learned at my first job out of college how to politically navigate an organization. How do you get yourself connected to people that will help you advance your agenda, help you get the right handshake, and how to bounce back when you're on the wrong end of a political fallout? 

I was fortunate to have had a great mentor, Jim Lawler, who was the VP of HR at that first job. Corporate America can be pretty cutthroat, and he shielded me from things that I could have never expected. I owe him a debt of gratitude. Jim has been a steady influence and a true mentor to me. So, now I take the time to share my leadership stories to advise others. I know how important mentorship and networking was (and still is) to my success. I’ve had early-career people find me on LinkedIn and reach out for guidance. I try to pay it forward by making time for them. I think it’s important to respond when asked for help and when you have something to offer.

10KC: Talk to me about your exciting new role as CHRO at HBR Publishing. How did you get  there? 

Sometimes getting the right role is a combination of articulating what you want and sometimes it's just luck. The opportunity at HBP presented itself through my networks. I  met up with a friend of 30 years who I hadn't seen in two years because of COVID and is also a recruiter. She said, ‘Oh, my gosh, I have this perfect role for you’ and it was the CHRO role at HBP.  Six weeks later, I was in the chair! 

10KC: It’s AAPI month, and we’re highlighting successful Asian leaders to elevate their voices and showcase their stories of success. What type of personal or professional challenges do you think you’ve encountered as a woman of color and how have they influenced you today? 

Cheng-Cimini: I have encountered racism and had to combat stereotypes personally and professionally. On the spectrum though, I know my experience is more gilded than others. My parents ensured that I had as many opportunities as possible. There’s some guilt associated with that privilege, and I know that my success is not entirely my own. So many people helped me along the way.

Sometimes we hear about this stereotype that Asian women are docile and quiet. And while that is certainly not always true, there is an often-held belief in meritocracy, that if we keep our head down, our work will speak for itself. That's not always the real world and certainly not my experience.

There's a reason why we say the squeaky wheel gets the grease! Several early-career Asian women have shared with me their challenges when asking for pay raises. I tell them, ‘First, start with data and second, know your value.’ If your employer does not acknowledge both of those things, then consider going someplace else that does. That will take some courage, but do try to find that strength to be bolder and speak up for yourself. Ultimately, you have to be your own best advocate. I learned that lesson when I was finally successful at articulating what I wanted – and got it.

At one organization, I expressed to the vice-president of HR that I wanted to be a director by the time I was 30. And I got there! I find that Asian women in particular can be reluctant to be explicit about their goals or ambitions, because it runs against type and seems too aggressive. The culturally-Caucasian side of me is less afraid to talk about what I want and go after it. I have finally learned how to optimize both sides of my cultural heritage to find success.

10KC: You’re the HR Lead of Ascend’s New England chapter. How are you helping drive Ascend’s mission forward? What are you doing for AAPI month with Ascend Leadership and at HBP? 

Cheng-Cimini: At the height of the anti-Asian hate in the media, I was feeling very isolated. We were still in the pandemic, and I wanted to get connected with the Asian community. I found Ascend Leadership through extensive research. After I joined, I learned that they were looking for another volunteer to lead their HR vertical so I happily volunteered. I'm now building my AAPI connections through the Ascend Cafe which leverages the 10KC networking platform and have been introduced to other Cornell alumni (my alma mater), and getting more involved politically and socially. One effort of Ascend Leadership to highlight is an initiative called 10x25, the goal of which is to have 10% of Fortune 1000 board directors be Asian American/Pacific Islanders by 2025. 

Recently, I spoke to my own organization about AAPI Heritage Month. Joining Ascend gave me the confidence that this is a subject that would be interesting to a lot of people. Over 150 of my colleagues heard me speak about 300 years of Asian-American history. I had so many people say, ‘Oh my gosh, I knew Chinese workers came to build the railroads, and I know the Japanese were interned, but I didn't know much else.’ It was eye-opening for many of my colleagues, even those of Asian descent. I was given an hour to talk about the Asian-American experience, and recognized that as a tremendous privilege. 

10KC: ERGs (Employee Resource Groups) are a great way for people to build their networks and gain access to mentorship and sponsorship. How do you support these initiatives in your role at HBP?  How can ERGs help with networking and mentoring?

Cheng-Cimini: We're launching our first wave of ERGs this year at HBP. We're starting with People of Color (POC), LGBTQ, Abilities and Women. We know that investing in these efforts will support a more inclusive workplace and help us achieve our diversity, equity and inclusion goals. There's something to be said for community within community. 

The CEO and I have recently taken part in listening tours with small groups of our BIPOC population from across the company. These conversations have been illuminating for both of us and influence how we now have conversations about race and inclusion, how we recruit, onboard, train and support our employees. The ERGs are just one way for us to provide more support to underrepresented groups as they travel along their career journeys at HBP. 

10KC: If you could recommend a book to anyone, what would it be?

Cheng-Cimini: Right now I’m reading Net Positive by Andrew S. Winston and Paul Polman on my Kindle, published by our own Harvard Business Review Press. The book has been really activating for me personally and organizationally. I’ll be taking small actions to limit my impact on the environment and will lead conversations on sustainability at work.

10KC: What’s your favorite caffeinated beverage?

Cheng-Cimini: A London Fog.

Webinar

AAPI Leadership Spotlight: Breaking Cultural Stereotypes and Driving Opportunity Through Mentorship

Angela Cheng-Cimini has worked in progressively senior HR management roles at top global companies throughout her career. Recently appointed Senior VP Talent and CHRO at Harvard Business Publishing (HBP), Cheng-Cimini also serves on the board of directors, where she’s activating change in senior leadership roles for underrepresented and visible minorities. In this leadership spotlight for AAPI month, she highlights the role of mentorship in her career, the challenges faced as an Asian-American woman in corporate America, and her recent foray into working with Ascend Leadership, the largest Pan-Asian non-profit organization in North America and a Social Impact Partner of Ten Thousand Coffees (10KC).

10KC: What role has mentorship and building your network played in your career? 

Cheng-Cimini: The path to my success wasn’t intentional or planned, and it wasn’t quite linear either. It required work, having the right networks, access to mentors, and a bit of serendipity. I learned at my first job out of college how to politically navigate an organization. How do you get yourself connected to people that will help you advance your agenda, help you get the right handshake, and how to bounce back when you're on the wrong end of a political fallout? 

I was fortunate to have had a great mentor, Jim Lawler, who was the VP of HR at that first job. Corporate America can be pretty cutthroat, and he shielded me from things that I could have never expected. I owe him a debt of gratitude. Jim has been a steady influence and a true mentor to me. So, now I take the time to share my leadership stories to advise others. I know how important mentorship and networking was (and still is) to my success. I’ve had early-career people find me on LinkedIn and reach out for guidance. I try to pay it forward by making time for them. I think it’s important to respond when asked for help and when you have something to offer.

10KC: Talk to me about your exciting new role as CHRO at HBR Publishing. How did you get  there? 

Sometimes getting the right role is a combination of articulating what you want and sometimes it's just luck. The opportunity at HBP presented itself through my networks. I  met up with a friend of 30 years who I hadn't seen in two years because of COVID and is also a recruiter. She said, ‘Oh, my gosh, I have this perfect role for you’ and it was the CHRO role at HBP.  Six weeks later, I was in the chair! 

10KC: It’s AAPI month, and we’re highlighting successful Asian leaders to elevate their voices and showcase their stories of success. What type of personal or professional challenges do you think you’ve encountered as a woman of color and how have they influenced you today? 

Cheng-Cimini: I have encountered racism and had to combat stereotypes personally and professionally. On the spectrum though, I know my experience is more gilded than others. My parents ensured that I had as many opportunities as possible. There’s some guilt associated with that privilege, and I know that my success is not entirely my own. So many people helped me along the way.

Sometimes we hear about this stereotype that Asian women are docile and quiet. And while that is certainly not always true, there is an often-held belief in meritocracy, that if we keep our head down, our work will speak for itself. That's not always the real world and certainly not my experience.

There's a reason why we say the squeaky wheel gets the grease! Several early-career Asian women have shared with me their challenges when asking for pay raises. I tell them, ‘First, start with data and second, know your value.’ If your employer does not acknowledge both of those things, then consider going someplace else that does. That will take some courage, but do try to find that strength to be bolder and speak up for yourself. Ultimately, you have to be your own best advocate. I learned that lesson when I was finally successful at articulating what I wanted – and got it.

At one organization, I expressed to the vice-president of HR that I wanted to be a director by the time I was 30. And I got there! I find that Asian women in particular can be reluctant to be explicit about their goals or ambitions, because it runs against type and seems too aggressive. The culturally-Caucasian side of me is less afraid to talk about what I want and go after it. I have finally learned how to optimize both sides of my cultural heritage to find success.

10KC: You’re the HR Lead of Ascend’s New England chapter. How are you helping drive Ascend’s mission forward? What are you doing for AAPI month with Ascend Leadership and at HBP? 

Cheng-Cimini: At the height of the anti-Asian hate in the media, I was feeling very isolated. We were still in the pandemic, and I wanted to get connected with the Asian community. I found Ascend Leadership through extensive research. After I joined, I learned that they were looking for another volunteer to lead their HR vertical so I happily volunteered. I'm now building my AAPI connections through the Ascend Cafe which leverages the 10KC networking platform and have been introduced to other Cornell alumni (my alma mater), and getting more involved politically and socially. One effort of Ascend Leadership to highlight is an initiative called 10x25, the goal of which is to have 10% of Fortune 1000 board directors be Asian American/Pacific Islanders by 2025. 

Recently, I spoke to my own organization about AAPI Heritage Month. Joining Ascend gave me the confidence that this is a subject that would be interesting to a lot of people. Over 150 of my colleagues heard me speak about 300 years of Asian-American history. I had so many people say, ‘Oh my gosh, I knew Chinese workers came to build the railroads, and I know the Japanese were interned, but I didn't know much else.’ It was eye-opening for many of my colleagues, even those of Asian descent. I was given an hour to talk about the Asian-American experience, and recognized that as a tremendous privilege. 

10KC: ERGs (Employee Resource Groups) are a great way for people to build their networks and gain access to mentorship and sponsorship. How do you support these initiatives in your role at HBP?  How can ERGs help with networking and mentoring?

Cheng-Cimini: We're launching our first wave of ERGs this year at HBP. We're starting with People of Color (POC), LGBTQ, Abilities and Women. We know that investing in these efforts will support a more inclusive workplace and help us achieve our diversity, equity and inclusion goals. There's something to be said for community within community. 

The CEO and I have recently taken part in listening tours with small groups of our BIPOC population from across the company. These conversations have been illuminating for both of us and influence how we now have conversations about race and inclusion, how we recruit, onboard, train and support our employees. The ERGs are just one way for us to provide more support to underrepresented groups as they travel along their career journeys at HBP. 

10KC: If you could recommend a book to anyone, what would it be?

Cheng-Cimini: Right now I’m reading Net Positive by Andrew S. Winston and Paul Polman on my Kindle, published by our own Harvard Business Review Press. The book has been really activating for me personally and organizationally. I’ll be taking small actions to limit my impact on the environment and will lead conversations on sustainability at work.

10KC: What’s your favorite caffeinated beverage?

Cheng-Cimini: A London Fog.

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