How did the idea for the Centre for Asian Australian Leadership (CAAL) originate?
So it all started with a conversation in January 2019 between my friend and former ANU colleague Sung Lee, who was working at PwC Australia. Sung and I talked about and reflected on the lack of Asian Australian leadership across our institutions and industries and how the impact of the ‘bamboo ceiling’ and certain systemic barriers meant that a lot of individuals from Asian Australian backgrounds were not able to reach their full potential.
To address this, we decided to pitch this idea of holding an Asian Australian Leadership Summit to the Australian National University (ANU) through its Chancellor at the time Professor the Hon Gareth Evans. At the time, I was working for Gareth as his executive officer and as the person responsible of ANU’s Melbourne engagement strategy. Thankfully, the ANU supported the idea, along with PwC who also supported and endorsed it through Sung’s internal advocacy and leadership. We then began to plan and start scoping out what the Summit would look like.
Soon after, Gareth was invited to deliver the Asialink’s Sir Edward 'Weary' Dunlop Lecture. With only three to four weeks' notice to deliver the lecture, Gareth and I decided to use this opportunity to talk about the ‘bamboo ceiling’ in Australia. During the lecture, Gareth spoke about and called out the ‘bamboo ceiling’ and the impact of not fully utilising the Asian Australian community within Australia. As part of his speech, he also announced the launch of the first ever Asian Australian Leadership Summit planned for September 2019. Gareth’s speech got national media coverage, with a lot of attention being given to the content of the speech, particularly from those of Asian Australian backgrounds
That led to this momentum in delivering the Asian Australian Summit on the 12-13th of September 2019 in Melbourne, which now involved ANU, PwC Australia and Asialink. The Summit left a lasting memory for me - being the first Summit and Conference I’ve attended in my professional career where I wasn’t the visible minority. There were emerging leaders and senior leaders of Asian descent across all professions - from the public service, startups, business and corporate, media, higher education, not for profit.. There was also a strong group of allies from non-Asian backgrounds there to support the cause.
On the last day of the Summit, I led a reflection session, where one of the biggest feedback we got was to keep the momentum going beyond a Summit and that it shouldn’t just be a ‘talk fest’.
So I took that feedback back to the ANU, and Gareth and I developed the concept for CAAL, a centre that would devote resources and energy to solely focus on and solve these issues facing Asian Australians, such as how do we actually increase more Asian Australians in senior leadership positions? How do we achieve impact through evidence-based research and effective advocacy? How do we explain the presence of the leadership gap for Asian Australians and propose ways to overcome it in order to create a more prosperous and unified Australia?
So we pitched the idea of CAAL to the ANU, in addition to strategies around funding, outreach, training and research. In Gareth’s role as Chancellor, he was able to convince the most senior representatives of ANU’s senior executive leadership team including our Vice-Chancellor, to support and establish CAAL. I'm a true believer in allyship, mentorship and sponsorship because of people like Gareth. CAAL was established in January 2020, and it remains one of my fondest and proudest achievements in my professional career. Doing it alongside Gareth with encouragement from Asian Australian leaders like Sung Lee and many others was a true honour.
What has the process of setting up CAAL been like?
It has been a long but exciting journey. I always tell people that CAAL is not just a job for me, but a deeply personal journey as an Asian Australian, in helping those in my professional network but also the future generations of Asian Australians to achieve their potential without any barriers or discrimination in place.
We see CAAL as a nation building project, which is why the ANU is involved. As the national university of Australia, ANU has a responsibility to tackle issues of critical public policy importance that faces Australia and I'm very pleased and grateful that the University sees this as a national priority.
In terms of being able to set something like CAAL up, I think it's vital to have evidence-based research and a clear, concise narrative about why this is important. It’s also necessary to have strong allies, mentors and sponsors who will put skin in the game to actually make this happen.
I see myself as an ‘intrapreneur’, in terms of building CAAL within a larger entity. Someone in my network told me the other day that we've turned CAAL from a ragtag operation to a centre that people respect and seek inspiration from. CAAL plays an important role in the cultural diversity space and in the wider diversity, equity and inclusion movement too. Another important aspect is that we have been embraced wholeheartedly and warmly by the majority of the Asian Australian community which has been heart-warming to see.
What are some of the biggest challenges that CAAL faces?
One of the biggest challenges we have faced is the general criticism that CAAL undermines Australia's multiculturalism and cohesion by causing segregation for singling out Asian Australians as an entity and identity. That's something that we're still trying to navigate.
That’s one of the reasons why I focus on CAAL being a nation-building project, because it is. We’re hoping that the evidence-based research, outreach and training initiatives that we develop can be replicated with other multicultural communities in Australia. If we are successful in bridging and closing the gap for Asian Australians in leadership positions, then we are confident we could potentially replicate this for other communities, especially since each multicultural community also deserves their own spotlight in the sun. Even though they might have different issues compared to Asian Australians, the work that we’re doing now is beneficial to Australia as a multicultural society.
Another challenge is achieving financial sustainability and getting sufficient resources to support high-level research, outreach and training initiatives. Good evidence-based research costs money and if we are to continue breaking new ground, it requires both financial and non-financial investment on a consistent basis.
Based on CAAL’s research and the experiences you’ve heard from engaging in the vast Asian Australian network, how do you think we can best empower and nurture emerging Asian Australian leaders?
There are multiple angles at which we can best empower and nurture our Asian Australian leaders. Fundamentally, Asian Australians need to be able to aspire to achieve positions of leadership like any other person.
CAAL is tackling this issue from three main areas – research, outreach and training. I also think there’s a fourth pillar - community empowerment. It’s important to build an ecosystem, and to create a personal and professional network that Asian Australians can lean on in difficult times. I think it’s important that we tap into the authentic abilities of Asian Australians - not trying to get them to be something that they're not - and bringing these systemic issues, which are often invisible, into the light.
So our research at CAAL takes on a couple of approaches. One focuses on fairness and equity. Asian Australians, like every other Australian, should have the opportunity to aspire to be who they really want to be free from discrimination.
The other is getting buy-in from companies, organisations and workplaces to invest in nurturing Asian Australian leaders. We’re doing this by measuring the level and effect of Asian Australians in senior leadership positions across Australian businesses and companies and to better understand the level of profitability, productivity and performance that having more Asian Australian and culturally diverse leaders in leadership would generate. Since shareholders and executive leaders need to see what is the ROI is, this is an important and necessary part of the argument and in strengthening our narrative.
My ambition and aspiration for CAAL is to be a national hub of ideas and place of support, for Asian Australians to reach out to, and trust that we will address the issues and break down these barriers for them. CAAL exists for the public good, and exists to ensure that the ecosystem is well nurtured and supported.
What are some significant research projects that CAAL has worked on that will make a huge contribution to tackling the ‘bamboo ceiling’ in Australia?
There are currently two major research projects that are being developed at the moment.
One is looking at how we collect and gather data on ethnic and cultural diversity in Australia. How exactly can we develop a national and consistent approach in collecting ethnic and cultural diversity data to enable us to improve policy design, resource allocation, service delivery, and programme planning from a government and public policy standpoint. From an organisational standpoint, we need to use this data to help organisations better understand the makeup of their organisation in order to develop tangible strategies like targets to actually increase representation in leadership. But more importantly, this project will help us understand who we are as a country and what our makeup is. We can only do that by capturing more reliable and consistent data to measure our ethnicity and cultural diversity.
The other significant project which I’ve touched on is in measuring the level and effect of Asian Australian and other ethnic diversity in senior leadership on the performance of Australian companies. This is a huge project that would result in a massive impact on the narrative and the advocacy for greater Asian Australian leadership.
The Asian Australian movement has grown significantly in the past few years, what with more Asian Australian representation in politics (double figures in the 47th Parliament of Australia), more Asian Australian journalists, commentators, entrepreneurs and increased open discussion of the shared experiences of being Asian in Australia. What do you think is missing in the Asian Australian movement, and what are you excited to see more of?
I have been thinking a lot about the Asian Australian movement and ecosystem as of late. As the push to break and smash the ‘bamboo ceiling’ in Australia continues, I have been doing a lot of reflection on what is currently missing and what is needed to take the community and movement to new levels.
We have gotten this far thanks to the efforts of early networks and organisations such as the Asian Australian Studies Research Network (AASRN), the Asian Australian Democracy Caucus (AADC), the Asian Australian Lawyers Association, Contemporary Asian Australian Performance (CAAP), the Asian Australian Alliance and the Asian Australian Foundation to name a few. I would argue 2019 was a significant year for the movement due to the impact and momentum generated by the inaugural Asian Australian Leadership Summit.
In addition to the above, we now have an annual national awards program to specifically celebrate Asian Australian leaders, a published book titled Fostering Culturally Diverse Leadership in Organisations: Lessons from Those Who Smashed the Bamboo Ceiling authored by Karen Loon, Asian Australian podcasts such as Level: Asian Podcast, Shoes Off, Unapologetically Asian and As I Am, issues and industry specific organisations such as Shapes and Sounds Pty Ltd and Asian Australian Organisational Psychology Inc. and ethno-specific community organisations and service providers. We even have international movements such as the Asian Hustle Network expanding their brand and reach in Australia. Not to mention, we also have a growing number of Asian Australian leaders championing the cause not just privately but publicly as well.
From my perspective, I think what is currently missing and what I’d like to see more of is the various Asian Australian entities and initiatives working more closely together. While this is starting to change, more needs to be done to improve the situation if we are going to build a successful and thriving ecosystem that makes a genuine and lasting impact across Australian society and to our nation.
What work, outside of CAAL, have you done that you are proud of?
One of my proudest professional career achievements occurred between 2013 and 2015 where I played a leadership role in co-initiating and co-facilitating a friendship and sister city relationship between Hobart and Xi’an – China’s ancient capital and the most populous city in Northwest China.
Inspired by my first visit to Xi’an in 2013, I decided to take the initiative to introduce a relatively unknown part of China to Australia through Hobart and Tasmania, which ultimately led to the development of one of China and Australia’s most unique sister and friendship city relationships. The experience of being the co-facilitator activated my hidden superpower of being a Chinese-Australian - that is having the abilities to understand, connect and build trust between both sides through my linguistic knowledge and cultural lived experiences. And because of this experience, it has firmly set me on the path to push for what I now call ‘diversity diplomacy’ and for Asian Australians and other multicultural Australians to have a seat at the leadership table to help Australia develop closer ties with our region and world.
As a Chinese-Australian, working on this project gave me a tremendous sense of fulfilment because it not only clarified my purpose, it brought my homeland (Australia) and heritage (China) closer together.