Audrey’s Women of Influence | Princess Soma Norodom

Story by Jody Hanson. Photo by Brad Callihoo/Billy Otter Productions. 

“It is all about education,” the gregarious Soma Norodom exclaims with infectious enthusiasm. “It is the only way out of poverty. Particularly for girls, so that is why the [Soma Norodom Foundation] is going to give scholarships to 10- to 16-year-old children from very disadvantaged circumstances, so they can study.”

Surely a noble mission, but how did the all-American Soma — homecoming princess, sports commissioner, commencement speaker of her graduating class of 1988 — end up starting a not-for-profit foundation in Cambodia?

The modern history of the Kingdom of Cambodia is best described as one of civil war and chaos. Tucked in between Vietnam and Thailand, the country was in constant danger of being swallowed by its neighbors. When the Norodom family succeeded to the throne in 1860, King Norodom I allowed the French to establish a protectorate. It wasn’t until 1953 that King Norodom Sihanouk declared independence. He was overthrown by a military coup in 1970, and this paved the way for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror.

In 1975 — Soma was 5 at the time — Pol Pot invaded Phnom Penh and the Norodom family fled to the United States and settled in Long Beach. “I didn’t want a title, because in America it doesn’t matter,” remembers Soma. “Who cares if Sihamoni Norodom — the current king — is my cousin? None of my friends even knew about my family history or that I was a princess. I lead a normal sort of life. My hobbies are eating, playing sports and shopping. How American is that?”

Her situation changed in 2010, however, when her father, Prince Vatvani Norodom, decided he wanted to die in his home country. As the oldest daughter, Soma returned to Cambodia to be with him and provide family support until he passed in December 2012. “I really didn’t want to be part of the royal family,” she says. (The Cambodian monarchy was reinstated in the ’90s.) “They are constantly in the spotlight, and people expect a lot.”

Instead of hanging out in royal circles, Soma made it her project to study the language (she is now fluent in Khmer), learn about the history of her new home country and educate herself about social and cultural issues. “Honestly, I had no idea about anything when I first arrived,” she says. “But I threw myself into it. A steep learning curve for sure, but it was a good experience, and I bonded with Cambodia. I became a dual citizen in the total sense of the word.”

When Soma was outed as the “royal rebel” by the local press, she could no longer stay under the public radar, and she ended up a columnist for the Phnom Penh Post. Some of Soma’s articles annoyed the government, but she didn’t pull any punches, even though she was criticized.

“My platform has always been education, so I wrote a lot about it when I was working for the newspaper,” she says. “Every chance I got, I tried to put in a plug for education for the poor, particularly the girls.” In addition to writing, Soma volunteered her time for events like International Day of the Girl and served as ambassador for the Happy Tree Orphanage, an NGO that looks after children who are HIV positive. “We can learn a lot from these kids,” she says.

While being a royal in the Kingdom does have its downside, it also positioned Soma to meet the right people. So when she started her foundation, she was able to get key players for the board of directors. “They are all respected, well-connected people with backgrounds in education and business,” she says.

“Unable to afford to go to school in Cambodia, these illiterate kids have to scavenge through the garbage to find recyclable things to sell,” she continues. “With the scholarships from the foundation, they will have their school fees paid and have uniforms and books. It will give them a chance for a better life. Remember that in Cambodia there aren’t many social services. So if you are born into a poor family, chances are that is where you will stay if you don’t get an education.”

In addition to working with existing NGOs, such as A New Day Cambodia, Soma is going back to her American roots, specifically the California State University system, to help her foundation. A member of the Fresno State alumni, she is working with the university on a program to bring interns from America to Cambodia for three months to help with business plans and learn about the culture. “As well as helping poor kids get an education, we want to expose Westerners to what it is like in the developing world,” she says. “It will be a learning experience for many people at various levels.”

When asked what is going to make the Soma Norodom Foundation different from the thousands of other NGOs currently in Cambodia, Soma answers without a hint of hesitation: “I live here. The foundation will be a hands-on experience for me, and I’ll be able to see exactly where the money is going and what we are able to accomplish with it. Further, I will be able to monitor the value added.

“Too often people set up NGOs and then go home — or hide out in BKK1, the expat suburb of Phnom Penh — and forget about the original mission,” she continues. “I’ve become Cambodian and I care about what happens to the uneducated paupers. I’m not afraid to get down and dirty with the people from the Stung Meanchey garbage dump.”

The foundation may still be in its early days, but there are already expansion plans in the works. “We are going to start off with the 10- to 16-year-olds. As they get through secondary school, we would like to extend the program to include university education as well,” says Soma. “Cambodia is a developing country that desperately needs professional people: doctors, teachers, pilots. There really isn’t a middle class here — people are either rich or poor — and we need to create one. Once again, it all goes back to education.”

This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here. 

AUDREY’S WOMEN OF INFLUENCE | Komal Ahmad, CEO of Feeding Forward

Story by Ada Tseng. Photo by Deborah Nagai-Cromer.

Like many children of immigrants who have worked hard to provide for their families, Komal Ahmad remembers being taught not to waste food at her daily family dinners. “It was always like, ‘Finish your food!’” says Ahmad, imitating her parents’ stern Pakistani accents. “‘People are starving in Africa, and you’re not even finishing your food? Who do you think you are?’”

Ahmad, the 23-year-old CEO of the nonprofit organization Feeding Forward, grew up in the suburbs of Las Vegas, where homelessness was neatly tucked away. But when she began to study at the University of California, Berkeley, the problem was impossible to ignore. Just across the street from Crossroads, the university’s popular dining hall that served much of the student population, was People’s Park, a public park that acts as a daytime sanctuary for Berkeley’s large homeless population.

“As college students, our eyes are bigger than our stomachs, and there were various initiatives to try and reduce food waste, like getting rid of trays so you only take what your hands can carry,” says Ahmad, who graduated in 2012 with degrees in international health and development and global poverty and practice. “But at the same time, it was frustrating when I asked the dining managers what they did with the excess food, and they said that, due to liability reasons, they can’t donate it, so they have no choice but to throw it away. And it was so absurd to me, because I felt like they could just walk across the street, and I guarantee the homeless people at People’s Park won’t sue you.”

While for many of us, these moral frustrations are fleeting, Ahmad made it her mission to do something about it. She’s always been devoted to public service (Gandhi’s “Be the change that you wish to see in the world” is a quote she lives by), and as a naval medical officer for the U.S. Navy during her four years at Berkeley, she deployed to Tanzania to help launch a mobile HIV clinic during the summer after her second year in college. What she found was that treating people was one thing, but without greater public health education and effective systems in place, patients would be back in a week with the same problems. After her return to the United States, she felt helpless, unsure whether any of the initiatives she started would be continued — and knowing that, as a college student, there was no way she could realistically go back to Tanzania to sustain them herself. She realized that even if her goals were global, she needed to start local.

So she turned to her own neighborhood. While she was skeptical about giving money to Berkeley’s homeless, she was always happy to give food. And when she would periodically strike up conversations with them, she realized that many of the homeless people around campus were former veterans in their mid-20s and 30s who had served their country but were now on the streets.

She soon discovered that the ingrained concern about liability that was keeping Cal Dining (and many other organizations) from donating excess food was based on a misconception. In 1996, President Clinton passed the Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, that has been renewed since, which allows individuals and corporations that donate food to a non-profit organization in good faith to be free of any liability as long as they don’t engage in any gross negligence.

Once the Cal Dining managers understood this, they were quickly onboard to donate their extra food to people in need. By starting the organization Bare Abundance (a play on words referring to the Cal Bears), Ahmad mobilized her fellow Berkeley students to volunteer to redistribute food from campus dining halls and events. She essentially started a movement that spread to other universities also interested in reducing food waste and eventually co-founded the Food Recovery Network, an overarching nonprofit that united all the campus organizations. By the end of this December, Ahmad expects that 100 universities across the United States will be fully functional with food recovery programs embedded in their dining halls.

“There is more than enough food to feed the entire population over three times, but the problem is that we have an inequitable distribution of food,” says Ahmad. “And it’s staggering that even in a wealthy and powerful nation like the U.S., we still have so many people begging for it.”

While giving surplus food that would otherwise go to waste to people who would otherwise go hungry seems self-explanatory, facilitating this trade is not without its struggles. Often, once restaurants are relieved of their liability concerns, they are quickly onboard, but it’s the receiving organizations that are skeptical of the good will. Connecting with charities and soup kitchens on a personal level was necessary to build familiarity and trust in the beginning, and the next crucial step involved figuring out how to streamline the process in order to respect the time of workers and volunteers. Ahmad remembers one day when the Cal Dining manager had called, alerting her of a university catering event that no one showed up to, leaving 500 sandwiches that needed to be picked up within two hours. “We’re dealing with perishable foods here, so I drove there, loaded up my car, and immediately started calling a list of agencies everywhere from Oakland to Berkeley to Richmond,” says Ahmad. “One-third of them didn’t answer their phones, one-third of them said they didn’t need food today, and the last third said, ‘Thanks, I’ll take 20 sandwiches,’ which left me thinking, ‘Great, but now I have 480 sandwiches left!’”

At that moment, it became clear that even though she wanted to do something good for society, no one has six hours to drive around aimlessly with 500 sandwiches. She yearned for an iPhone app that would automatically locate the supply and demand for food and link the two sources together. Though computer science was not her forte, she sought out programmers who would help her create a program that would steer the market. This past January, Ahmad and her team placed fourth out of 88 teams at Foursquare Hackathon 2013 and won a mentorship that helped them develop their software platform and matching system. Feeding Forward, an online and mobile interface that facilitates communication between food service organizations and charities in the San Francisco Bay Area, was born.

“Now, say you have 100 sandwiches to donate,” says Ahmad. “You can go into the mobile app, upload a picture, list a pick-up time, give your contact, and when you post, you enter a virtual marketplace. The algorithm matches the amount and type of food you have with the needs of soup kitchens and homeless shelters and matches you with a nearby volunteer who’s available to deliver at that particular time. The volunteer confirms the food’s been received, the receiving agency sends back pictures showing the donors the people they’ve fed, and that’s Feeding Forward.”

Officially launched in April 2013, Feeding Forward’s food recovery programs have altogether recovered more than 250,000 pounds of food to date. Earlier this year, they won the prize for outstanding social entrepreneurship venture at Innovation Alley, a pop-up tech area at the Jewish Community Federation’s Israel in the Gardens event in San Francisco.

Now that Ahmad is confident the organization can make a sustainable impact, she’s passionate about accelerating and expanding their movement. “The Bay Area is our case study. Our goal is to implement Feeding Forward in cities nationally, and from there, I’ve already initiated conversations with other countries, in Hong Kong and Israel, so we can eventually go global,” says Ahmad. “Because ultimately, inequitable distribution is a global issue in both developing and developed countries.”

For more information about how to support and donate to Feeding Forward, visit Feedingforward.org or their Facebook page

This story was originally published in our Winter 2013-14 issue. Get your copy here

AUDREY’S WOMEN OF INFLUENCE | Ping Fu, Chief Strategy Officer and Vice President of 3D Systems

Story by Ada Tseng.

 

While speaking about her new memoir, Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds, a story that follows the author’s disgrace as a “black element” during China’s Cultural Revolution to her rise as a successful tech CEO in the U.S., entrepreneur Ping Fu often wore a pair of eye-catching, hot pink platform heels to interviews and publicity events. The shoes, made by 3D printers and designed by Janne Kyttanen, creative director of 3D Systems, were lightweight, machine-washable and customized to fit Fu’s feet perfectly. One of the pairs even had a special pocket on the side to hold an iPhone.

“Shoes are the ultimate science-meets-art object,” says Fu, a pioneer of 3D imaging software technology. “We all like shoes to be beautiful, but they are also, scientifically, very difficult to make. They have to have the perfect balance, shape and form for how each individual walks, things that are very difficult for a computer to interpret. But because everyone can relate to them, they show that life and technology are not two different things. Technology must transcend humanity to touch people’s lives.”

In addition to shoes, Fu often wears 3D-printed jewelry and carries 3D-printed bags, not only because she embraces being a female executive in technology, known for being a young man’s world, but also because the 50- something believes that you have to live and experience what you create in order to know how to take your creation even further.

While 3D printing has been around for decades — Fu started her company Geomagic in 1997 after seeing a 3D printer print a solid object for the first time — it’s only been in the last couple of years that the industry has exploded into the mainstream.

“This is the most exciting time for advanced manufacturing,” says Fu. “Not a day goes by where there isn’t news of another major company using 3D printing to enhance its business model.”

This is not the first time Fu has been at the forefront of technological innovation. While working at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in the ’90s, she was part of the initial team working on the software project NCSA Mosaic that ended up becoming Netscape, the first widely used Web browser that made a tech star out of Fu’s colleague, Marc Andreessen. When Fu decided to build her own company, she opted out of starting a then-trendy dot-com, instead searching for a project that would utilize her background in visual computing.

“I was really hooked by the 3D printers,” says Fu, who believes her interest in manufacturing goes way back to her pre-teen and teen days building radios and making car parts in Chinese factories. “I did some research and realized there were a lot of 3D scanners and 3D printers, but what was missing at the time was some sort of 3D software that fit in between. That was the beginning of what I thought Geomagic should be.”

At one of her first investor conferences, Fu asked the crowd to imagine your kid printing out his first sculpture; an orthopedic surgeon printing a 3D model of your prosthetic knee a week before your surgery; walking into a shoe store, getting your foot scanned and returning the next day for your custom- fitted boots. Soon enough, others had visions for how this type of technology could help their own industries.

“All of these were just ideas, and I said that Geomagic would turn these ideas into reality,” Fu remembers. She laughs. “Frankly, at that point, I did not know that it could happen. Little did I know how long it would take to turn the very difficult technology into reality.”

Now Fu believes that 3D printing is even bigger than the Internet. While the Internet changed how we display and share data, 3D printing would allow us to use data to make tangible objects. With the trifecta of 3D scanners, software and printers becoming more and more accessible, mass production (which has long been outsourced to factories abroad) will be replaced with mass customization (which will be distributed locally, near customers).

“In the next few years, I believe that we will fundamentally disrupt how things are designed and manufactured, and this will have an impact on everybody’s lives,” says Fu. “Products will be more customized, service more personable, manufacturing will be distributed and products made locally, and it’ll be more green because we’ll make less of what we don’t want and we’ll ship fewer things overseas.”

In fact, in 2010, she was appointed to the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship run by the U.S. Department of Commerce, and one of her current goals is to focus on how 3D printing can help create more jobs domestically, while simultaneously opening up a more genuine cultural exchange internationally.

Back in 2005, when Fu was named Entrepreneur of the Year by Inc. Magazine, some advised her to take advantage of her initial hype and sell Geomagic to the highest bidder. Instead, Fu elected to take her company to the next level, and it wasn’t until February 2013 that she sold Geomagic to 3D Systems, founded by Chuck Hull, the inventor of the first 3D printing machine. It was a homecoming for Fu, as it was Hull’s presentation that had inspired Fu to start Geomagic in the first place.

Now the chief strategy officer and vice president of 3D Systems, Fu continues to “write software for the future not yet imagined,” as she first fantasized when she decided to study computer science as a new immigrant in America. Fast forward to the present: “Today Invisalign, an orthodontic treatment without wires and brackets, is printing 65,000 custom aligns per day,” she says. “Soon enough, we’ll be ordering our own customized shoes.

“It’s going to come quickly, like a fresh wave washing up the shore,” says Fu. “And I just think it’s really exciting.”

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WHO INFLUENCES PING FU? When asked who influences her, Ping Fu rattles off a long list of names, from Mahatma Gandhi to Nelson Mandela, Sir Harold Evans to Michelle Obama. But it’s Chuck Hull who she calls the greatest mentor of all time. “Thirty years ago, he printed the first 3D printed part,” says Fu. “To put it into perspective, at that time, Macintosh had not been released, and there was no direct connectivity of 3D modeling software to 3D printers, so the fact that he could even print a part was a miracle. And he’s still in the company! Talk about resilience and tenacity. Chuck is the hero. Without him, we would not have this technology today.”

 

This story was originally published in our Winter 2013-14 issue. Get your copy here

AUDREY’S WOMEN OF INFLUENCE | Tulsi Gabbard, U.S. Representative for the 2nd District of Hawaii

Story by Susan Soon He Stanton. 

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard is a rising political star. The 32-year-old has been nicknamed the “Democrats’ Darling” and is viewed as an embodiment of the Obama era. She’s also one of six representatives born in the 1980s, the first group of millennials in Congress. And while a lot of negative things have been said about millennials, dubbed the “Why-Worry Generation” by The New York Times, Gabbard easily shatters the apathetic stereotype. She is one of the first two female combat veterans, the first Hindu and the first female of Samoan ancestry ever to serve as a member of the U.S. Congress. And though the congresswoman is busy dealing with the chaos of the federal government shutdown this past October, she briefly steps off the floor between votes to speak with Audrey Magazine.

“Congress is starting to reflect the diverse makeup of our country,” says Gabbard by telephone. “It’s an opportunity to bring voice to many different constituencies and people from all around the country who may not have been able to look at Congress before and say, ‘Hey, I can relate to that person.’”

A year into her first term, she laments a dysfunctional government that has failed to deliver on its core functions. “When you talk to people who have been here for decades, they say this is the worst climate that they have ever seen in Congress,” she says. She believes the solution is “more bipartisan friendships like [that of the late Hawaiian Senator] Dan Inouye and [the late Alaskan Senator] Ted Stevens. People who understood what it meant to serve, to put your country and the mission first and work together.”

In an effort to mend a fractured Congress, Gabbard has teamed up with Republican and fellow millennial Rep. Aaron Schock to spearhead the Congressional Future Caucus, the first such caucus dedicated to pragmatic bipartisan solutions with the millennial generation in mind. In an interview with BuzzFeed, Schock said, with the increasing number of representatives under the age of 40, that “helps give the opportunity to make people think more long term. People in their 30s and 40s look at life differently than people in their 60s or 70s.” Gabbard adds that her bipartisan efforts do not mean she will set aside her principles, but it does require Congress to “work together, listen respectfully and discover those areas where we can find workable solutions and bring those about.” She wants people to recognize that “no one gets their way 100 percent of the time, but the same can be said for any relationship or partnership that you have, be it in a business or in the home or in a friendship. It’s about recognizing the diversity of our country, doing our best to work together and making that happen.”

Gabbard is no stranger to finding the middle ground in political disagreements, even at home. Her pro-marriage-equality stance during her 2012 campaign ran against some of the statements her father, state Senator Mike Gabbard, had said over the course of his career. “I love my parents both very much; it’s no secret we disagree sometimes, surprise surprise,” says Gabbard. However, she adds, the unconditional love between them is “unbreakable.” When she was 15, Gabbard and her father co-founded the Healthy Hawaii Coalition, a nonprofit focused on teaching environmental awareness to children, and to this day they call each other for advice on a variety of issues. Gabbard, who was home-schooled along with her siblings, says her parents encouraged her to be of “service to other people and try to be a positive impact on their lives.”

Her desire “not to be a problem, but to be a part of the solution” motivated her at 21 to knock on doors with homemade black-and-white flyers during her campaign for a seat in the state Legislature. Gabbard won the election in 2002, becoming the youngest person ever elected to the Hawaii Legislature and the youngest woman elected to state office in American history.

In 2004, she decided not to run for a second term and instead voluntarily deployed to Iraq with her National Guard unit, serving two tours of combat duty in the Middle East. This past September at the National Conference on Citizenship, she accepted the Major George A. Smith HOOAH Award, recognizing a veteran who defines citizenship through service to our country, both in uniform and beyond. Not only is Gabbard the first Pacific Islander to receive the award, she is also the first female to be so honored.

Given Gabbard’s career thus far, many may be surprised to know that in her youth she was afraid of public speaking. Discussing feelings of self-doubt as she broke race, age and gender barriers, she offers advice to women who may suffer from “impostor syndrome,” a psychological phenomenon where people can’t seem to feel that they belong or deserve their accomplishments. “The first and most important question that every person should answer for herself is, ‘Why am I doing what I’m doing?’” she says. “If you are motivated by selfish reasons, then you may be faced with some of these issues. This is not just in politics, it’s in business and the military and in all industries.” Gabbard says to view career challenges not as personal advancement but as opportunities for leadership. “When you recognize that it’s not about you, but a responsibility and a privilege that you have, it changes the entire framework of your role and the path that you have ahead of you.”

It’s something she keeps in mind as she strives to balance the personal with the professional. Surfing, capoeira and vegetarianism are among her eclectic, and some would say, atypical interests. When asked if any of her extracurricular activities ever felt in conflict with her role as a politician, she responds, “I think all of the interests that I have are part of who I am. They are part of my experience or choices that I’ve made in my life.” She continues, “When I go to paddle out for a surf, there’s nothing congressional about it. I am the same person that I was before I was elected, before I went through the campaign, as I am now, and there’s no reason for that to change. Rather than a detraction or something to downplay, every part of who I am helps me to keep balanced and focused so I can do the best job that I can in Congress.”

Indeed, Gabbard values the influence Hawaiian culture has had on her as a person and on her approach to politics. “I carry the Aloha spirit with me, be it in the military or in Congress or in my dealings with people,” she says. “It is ingrained in who I am; it’s what I keep at the forefront. And I know for sure that it is complementing the work that I do.” Referring back to the government shutdown, Gabbard adds, “We need to bring more Aloha into the conversation that we are having so that they can be substantive and constructive.”

And with that, Congresswoman Gabbard excuses herself to return to the floor to vote, certain to bring some of that much-needed Aloha spirit to Congress.

This story was originally published in our Winter 2013-14 issue. Get your copy here

AUDREY’S WOMEN OF INFLUENCE | Laura Lee, Director of Entertainment East Partnership at YouTube

Story by Teena Apeles. Photo by Conan Thai.

Overseeing more than 150 television, film, new media and original entertainment partnerships for YouTube is no small feat, especially when they involve striking deals with networks as big as NBC Universal, as cutting edge as Vice, and as treasured as the Discovery Networks. Welcome to Laura Lee’s world. As head of YouTube’s Entertainment East Partnerships since 2007, 38-year-old Lee is the highest-ranking Asian American woman at YouTube and is one of the highest-ranking Asian American female executives across all of Google. And, she will tell you, her job is certainly no cakewalk, but it is thrilling.

“No day is typical for me,” says the New York-based Lee by phone, whose territory includes the East Coast and all of Canada. Not only does she work with TV networks, she also advises top magazine publishers, like Time, Inc. (Time, Sports Illustrated, People) and Condé Nast (Vogue, Vanity Fair), on what kinds of video to produce for their channels.

One day Lee could be meeting with Jimmy Fallon and his production team, brainstorming about how to expand his YouTube audience en route to becoming the king of late night. (She notes that his channel hit a million subscribers recently.) Another day she could be working on an initiative like Ignite New York (ignitenyc.org), which Lee and her team conceived to make sure that all local creators — whether in news, music, education or sports — understand how to fully utilize YouTube. As a native New Yorker, she is particularly passionate about this project. “What we are trying to do with Ignite is not just for film or TV, but for any kind of creator … to let them know that through YouTube they have a platform to become a global brand.”

Lee says that one rewarding aspect of her job is helping a brand “give birth” on YouTube and then charting “their progress to adolescence.” Lee points to the hipster magazine Vice as an especially inspiring success story, which went from print to a “multiplatform creative juggernaut.”

“Some brands have made the transition effortlessly, but some of them, they need a little bit more handholding. But that is part of what I do,” says Lee. “It is really talking to all these different brands and making sure that we are getting the best of their creativity [so] that we can broadcast that to the world.”

A quick review of her enviable résumé reveals that Lee is good at getting original content to the masses. She was vice president of business development and operations at MTV, has produced an original series for VH-1, and oversaw the development of sports projects at Spike. The interesting thing is, Lee first started her career as an investment banker — while spending nights performing at nightclubs with her R&B group.

“I think that I always walked that fine line between being the subdued Asian daughter, but on the other hand wanting to make sure that I always engaged and nurtured my passion,” she explains. “My problem was, do I really take the big leap and try to do the singing thing 100 percent, or do I go to business school? And my parents said, ‘You are going to business school.’”

Lee did finish business school, albeit without a job because she couldn’t let go of her desire for a more creative endeavor. But look at her today. No longer the “subdued Asian girl,” Lee says that not a lot of people expect to encounter an assertive Asian female in the workplace. It’s something Lee and her Asian American friends in the industry are quite cognizant of. “We joke around about that bamboo ceiling and that we are experiencing breakthroughs,” she says. “But we would like to see more, and we hope that it is our generation that does it.

“Each company has a different rhythm,” she continues, “and to be successful in any company you have to be able to adapt and fall into that rhythm, hopefully without sacrificing your own personal style,” she says. Indeed, Lee went from wearing torn jeans at her first YouTube meeting (someone commented that she looked like a kid), to more grownup attire. “I love wearing dresses, and I love wearing heels,” she says. “I just feel more confident.”

So how many hours in a “no day is typical” workday does it take to break that bamboo ceiling and become the highest- ranking Asian American woman at YouTube? “I don’t want to scare people,” says Lee, laughing. “The honest answer is that I am a work in progress.”

This story was originally published in our Winter 2013-14 Issue. Get your copy here

AUDREY’S WOMEN OF INFLUENCE | Janet Yang, Film Producer and Cultural Ambassador

Story by Ada Tseng.

Janet Yang remembers every little detail about her first trip to China as a teenager in 1972 during the Cultural Revolution: the flight to Hong Kong (because there were no direct flights to China at the time); the rickety bridge they had to walk across to get to Shenzhen; the giant Samsonite suitcases of flour, sugar and rice they brought for their relatives, whom her mother hadn’t seen in over a decade (being careful not to go over the import quota); the little old lady porters with bound feet who hoisted up these giant suitcases on their shoulders; the military songs blaring over loudspeakers; the interrogation at the border; the flood of relatives that came from all over the country to meet them at the train station in Canton; her relatives’ fascination over shower caps and contact lens cases (they hadn’t seen plastic toiletries before); and her cousin’s textbooks she flipped through that read, “Down with American imperialists!”

This was soon after the famous Nixon-Kissinger trip to China, the first time an American president had visited and a symbol that ended 25 years of separation between the two countries. Yang’s parents were part of a generation who came abroad to the United States for school in the ’50s, with every intention of returning to China — until the Cultural Revolution happened and the government started targeting intellectuals. Suddenly it didn’t seem safe for them to return. Though the United Nations ambassador from China was now encouraging American visitors, many were still fearful.

“At the time, it was such a big deal, even for overseas Chinese, to go back to China,” says Yang. “It was a very, very mysterious place, because it had been so cut off for so long, so much so that my parents decided we shouldn’t even all go together. They split us up — my mom and I went first; my father, brother and sister went on a separate trip — because the mentality at the time was: ‘If we all go together and get stuck there, who would help us get out?’ It was like a big black hole back then.”

Today, Yang is a successful film producer who is widely considered the go-to person for Hollywood industry professionals who want to tap into the exponentially growing China market. And nowadays, that’s a lot of people. BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research recently estimated that by 2017 the China box office could yield $5 billion annually for Hollywood studios, compared to $2.2 billion today.

“To me, to have experienced this dramatic shift in one lifetime is amazing,” says Yang. “Everything’s topsy-turvy now. It used to be such a big deal for us to bring over sunglasses and watches to China. Now, they’re buying up our country. When Chinese people come to the U.S., they just want to shop, because they can’t believe how cheap everything is. It’s so weird.”

Yang calls her 1972 trip to China a life-changing moment. “Before, I was really just an American kid growing up in a Jewish neighborhood,” she says, “and then the world opened up.” She immediately started learning Chinese, and once she got to college — she was a student at Brown and a visiting student at Harvard — she asked all her teachers to look out for opportunities for her to move to China. Ironically, her parents were dismayed. What would she do with a Chinese studies degree? At the time, it seemed to have no practical application whatsoever.

She moved to Beijing in the early ’80s, as part of the first wave of American expats going to China, and she worked at the Foreign Languages Press Office. The Cultural Revolution had just ended, and it was a fascinating time for experimentation.

“The most interesting thing for me was that artists were coming out of the woodwork,” remembers Yang. “After being fed one thing for so long, writers and filmmakers were trying to create [art], and I was so taken by their bravery. I realized I was carrying all these biases about what we could do, because the images of Chinese onscreen [in America] were so horrible, and it was the first time I realized, ‘We can make things.’ Even if it was a bad movie, it was still exciting.

“That’s when I decided that film was important,” she continues. “In the beginning, I just wanted people outside of China to see these Chinese films. I figured it was a good way to introduce them to China and also see Chinese people in a different light. I wanted people to have the same experience that I had.”

She returned to the U.S. to get her M.B.A. and was then hired to run World Entertainment, a company in San Francisco that imported and distributed films from Hong Kong and China. Eventually, she was hired at universal to help open up the China market, and that’s when she met a lot of Chinese filmmakers early in their careers, including Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, and introduced them to other Hollywood executives.

The first time Yang worked on a film in China was in 1986, for Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, starring a 13-year-old Christian Bale. They were in Shanghai while Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor was shooting in Beijing, and with two high-profile films being simultaneously shot in China, they all recognized they were part of a groundbreaking moment in history.

“People were clueless about China back then,” says Yang. “I mean, they’re still clueless now, but really clueless then.” Yang helped set up a system for Hollywood to work in China. She knew there needed to be a bilingual person who understood American filmmaking working with the head of each major department. At the time, the first crop of Chinese students were coming out of UCLA film school, and Yang gave many of them their first opportunity to work on a major Hollywood studio project. She and her team spent months in China, getting all the permits and laying the groundwork so that once Spielberg arrived, he could quickly work his magic.

Now a veteran with an extensive understanding of both the American and Chinese movie industries, Yang has served as president of Ixtlan, a production company she formed with Oliver Stone, for seven years; was instrumental in the productions of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and The Joy Luck Club, two rare Hollywood films with Asian American leads; and was sought out by Disney to produce High School Musical: China, the first time a global franchise was made specifically for the Chinese market.

But it all came full circle in 2012 with the production of Shanghai Calling, directed by Daniel Hsia and starring Daniel Henney as a Chinese American lawyer who is sent to Shanghai on business. It gave her the opportunity to help tell a story about contemporary China, one that showcased why she loves splitting her time between the U.S. and China — and why she dedicates herself to not only being a film producer but a cultural ambassador who can bridge the gap between two very different countries.

“If it weren’t for China, I’m not sure if I’d even still be producing,” says Yang. “It’s such a wild and woolly world out there these days. I grew up in a Hollywood where it was easier to make films. I know I have some supposedly impressive credits, but I couldn’t make any of those films today. Not one. So everything has a time, and it’s really just about trying to keep up without losing yourself. China has opened up a lot of different opportunities, so I’m happy I’ve stuck around long enough to do this.”


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 This story was originally published in our Winter 2013-14 issue. Get your copy here