A video of the Commencement ceremonies for the Classes of 2020 and 2021, including Salle Yoo’s speech, is available here.
I’d like to thank President Amy Marcus-Newhall, the faculty and staff of Scripps College, my board chair Lynne Thompson, Class of ‘72, and most importantly, the students of the Class of 2021, for inviting me to share this special day with each of you. It is truly a privilege to be here.
I’d also like to start by inviting each of you to take a moment this morning, to give thanks. This graduation celebration is the culmination of years of hope, hard work and sacrifice, not only by you, the graduates – but, by your family, or your chosen family, your friends, your professors, and the entire Scripps community – all those who were there for you, who encouraged you, who sustained you over the years, especially these past two years. So, I invite you to take a moment to turn to the people next to you, or around you, or to the people in your thoughts who could not be here today, and say “Thank You.”
Congratulations Class of 2021! 30 years ago, I sat in your seats, at my Scripps graduation. Yes, I know! It’s hard for me to fathom too, but I graduated from this college before any of you were born!
I remember, vaguely, how I felt that morning, my graduation morning. Still recovering from finishing and defending my thesis (down to the wire) and then getting it printed and bound (yes, that was a thing – is printing still a thing?). Excited to finally walk down Elm Tree Lawn with my class. But mostly, filled with anticipation and a little bit of worry as to what the future might hold.
On that morning, I had some outline of a life plan – I was headed to law school – I knew that I wanted to work and have a family and that I wanted some measure of financial independence to take care of not only myself, but my parents, who had sacrificed so much for me and my brother. But beyond that . . . it was all hopes and dreams. And, I was not entirely sure how I was going to bring those dreams to fruition.
That morning, more than 30 years ago, I looked at the podium and saw the trustees of Scripps College, none of whom looked like me – and thought, could that possibly be me someday? A child of immigrants, who was fortunate to attend Scripps mostly on scholarships – could I one day be able to give back to Scripps, in that way? It seemed like the most remote of possibilities.
I certainly did not ever conceive that I could/would be invited to speak to a graduating class.
But, ready or not, here I am. Feeling kind of unworthy, to be honest, and I’ve spent the last couple of weeks questioning what possible advice I could give to the Class of 2021.
You, who have already experienced, survived so much. Through the seismic shifts, not only in your college experience – from abruptly going home during your junior year, due to a worldwide pandemic, and then having to finish out your college years online – but also, living through the immense challenges – societal, political, environmental, that we have all experienced in the past few years. You already know your strength, that you are capable of so much. What could I add with words that you haven’t already learned through living?
But, following the advice of one of my mentors – here I go, with a couple of lessons that I have learned over the past 30 years – in the hope that they might be helpful to you in your life journey.
Leap Before You are Ready and You’ll Grow into it
A few years after law school, to break up the grind of law firm life and to make connections outside my profession, I looked for opportunities for community involvement and decided to join the Korean American Chamber of Commerce in San Francisco, a group founded by first generation Korean American business leaders.
After a few years as a member, one of the leaders encouraged me to run for President of KACC.
This was a group of mostly Korean American CEOs and other c-suite people. I did not feel ready to lead them. In fact, as a junior lawyer, a woman in her early 30’s, I felt distinctly unready.
For those of you who might have had a similar moment, it’s not just you — studies show that women tend to wait until they feel qualified, ready, before seeking promotions or leadership roles. This is one reason why women progress more slowly to positions of leadership.
But, I talked over the suggestion that I seek the presidency of KACC, with one of my mentors, and he said something that I’ve never forgotten.
He said “This is an opportunity. Just say “yes” and you’ll grow into it.”
So, I said “yes”. I leapt. . . and grew into it . . . and gained confidence that I could successfully lead something that I didn’t feel 100% ready or qualified for.
So, Practice Leaping. Don’t edit yourself out. Don’t wait until you feel 100% ready or deserving of the promotion, the responsibility, the role. Bite off more than you think you can chew and Grow into the responsibility/the role that you’ve taken on. You will succeed.
And, if you need a little more of a push — as an executive of a couple of tech companies, I’ve had the opportunity to observe how men and women operate. Let me assure you, plenty of men seek positions/promotions that they aren’t quite qualified for — and because they seek it, sometimes, they get it. Don’t hold yourself back, don’t be the person who tells herself “no” — they aren’t.
Next, when faced with an important decision, make sure that you are asking yourself the Right Question
As I mentioned earlier, after law school, I joined a large law firm and began the trek hopefully, towards partnership.
I embarked on this journey during a period of time (2000’s) where The ABA Journal reported that basically, if you were a minority woman, in a large US law firm, the chance that you would make partner was statistically “zero”. In other words, so few of us made it, that it didn’t matter, statistically speaking.
That article lit a fire under me. I was not willing to accept the fact that my career ambition was meaningless, even as a statistic.
Rather, it made me dig in and try to do what it takes to make partner — and then, hopefully, be in a place to help other women and minorities solve the puzzle, and also make partner. It wasn’t easy, but with hard work and the support of many mentors, allies and my own support network (to keep me sane and laughing through the process), I made it.
And, then about 10 years ago, I was having lunch with a friend, who was a legal recruiter.
She asked me if I would consider going in-house, to shift my plan for my life and work for a company, instead of working at a law firm.
Well, for a number of reasons, my work life balance was a bit out of sync that week – and it opened me up, just a little bit and I told my friend “maybe”. She immediately gave me a job description for a company I had never heard of, a company that had developed an App that allowed someone to request a ride.
This was in 2012. Your parents and grandparents will remember that the only way we could get a ride back then, was to stand on the corner and wave our arms and hope that a taxi would stop and pick us up. And depending on the color of your skin, your gender, your age and perhaps, what you were wearing, you may or may not get picked up.
[To be certain, I don’t blame the taxi drivers – remember, they start everyday in the hole – with the need to earn enough to cover their car rental for the day as quickly as possible, so that they could then start earning for themselves.]
My interest was piqued — I researched the company extensively, tested the App around San Francisco, fell in love with the product — and threw my hat in the ring for the job.
After many rounds of interviews — I received the job offer.
I was then at a crossroads. As I mentioned earlier, I had stayed on the law firm path because I was committed to doing my part to increase the number of minority women partners in large law firms.
Lawyers are also, by nature, risk averse. If we weren’t, we’d have gone to business school. If I looked at the decision from the perspective of “why would I leave my law partnership, take a pay cut, and join an unknown, risky start up” the answer was clear – “no way!”
However, I decided that the right question to ask myself was “when is the next time I’d be offered the General Counsel position of a tech company”? When I asked myself that question, the decision was easy (“Maybe, Never”).
I left that hard earned partnership and joined a small, relatively unknown start up of less than 100 people, called Uber.
So, when faced with a crossroad in your life, perhaps a hard pivot from where you thought you were headed — make sure that you are asking yourself the right question.
Doing so could lead to tremendous opportunities to learn and grow, and take you on an adventure previously unimagined.
Hope is the Greatest of Them All
Thirty years ago, as I sat in your seats, I thought about the words on Honnold Gate – specifically, wondering whether my life would reflect those values of a life lived with Courage, Confidence and Hope.
I realize now, and particularly in the last two years, that what fuels me, what I submit should fuel all of us, is HOPE. Hope is the visioning, that propels courageous action, that actuates change.
Hope propelled my parents, 45 years ago, to leave Korea with their two children under 6 years old and take the first flight of their lives, to build a better life, in a foreign country, where they had no family.
Hope is what drove me to go for partnership at my law firm, at a time when the data told me that I, because of my gender and race, was unlikely to make it.
Hope is what gives me the confidence to take leaps in my life, to be open to opportunities to grow, both professionally and personally, before I feel ready.
Hope is what moves each of us, and the world with it, from What Is, to What Should be. It is what helps us to persevere through adversity and propels us to realize that better future.
And, I think what sets the Class of 2021 apart, is that you already know this – you’ve lived it. In other words, I believe that you, along with the other pandemic classes, have a leg up, because, at the commencement of your adulting, you’ve already had to reach deep, during dark times, to envision a better day, to reach this day and to move yourselves forward.
And because you’d had to exercise such Courage, I suspect that you have greater Confidence in your ability to effect change, both personally and collectively, than any other class before you.
So, as you pause today, to celebrate your achievement, my Wish for you is to Leap and Grow into the opportunities presented to you and, that at critical junctures in your lives, you take the time to ensure that you are Asking Yourself the Right Question.
But most of all, my Ask is that you operate from a place of Hope for the Future, however bleak the present. Then, using the knowledge that you’ve gleaned from your Scripps education and the skills that you’ve learned here, to organize together and advocate for change – I Ask that you go out there and be the Change. Move us towards a future that is truly just and equitable for all, where all voices are heard and where we care for Mother Earth.
I’m excited to see where each of you go and where each of you will take us and the World. Congratulations!