Ten months ago, I decided to take one of the biggest risks in my life by leaving my corporate job in retail to start a business with a purpose and do it full time. I had a great paying job, but I knew I wanted to do something more, helping others out. I took some time off and visited my home country with my parents, to do some soul searching while researching the arts and crafts cottage industry of the Philippines. It was then that I discovered weaving co-ops (in some of the most remote villages) that provide jobs for women artisans, mostly mothers who didn’t finish high school and learned the family trade from their own mothers.
I wanted to share their stories and help preserve the arts and crafts culture of the Philippines, merging my love for fashion, arts and helping other people. It was an “aha” moment for me, aligning what I wanted to do and what makes me happy. Fast forward to today, my sister, Cookie Jo, and I launched Buri and Beach in January with a mission of empowering women from the weaving communities to our customers.
As soon as we launched, I began networking and was recruited by Dr. Joy Kouns-Lewis to be part of the selection committee for the Ohio Asian Awards presented by the Asian American Commerce Group (AACG). I was honored to be asked to be part of this committee. When I initially met Dr. Kouns-Lewis, I was immediately impressed at how good she is at her job, recruiting people. In my estimate, 70 percent of the people in AACG (or in the committee) were recruited by Dr. Kouns-Lewis. She is, after all, the vice president of Human Resources and Risk Management for Children’s Hunger Alliance, while also serving as the vice president of the Asian American Commerce Group, professor at Keller Graduate School of Management, faculty member at Davenport, Excelsior and Strayer universities and the founder and CEO of her own consulting company, The Joy of Coaching.
With a resume as such, Dr. Kouns-Lewis was someone I was looking forward to chatting with about her mission in helping and empowering women (and men). She agreed to lunch and to be interviewed.
Rick: Everything you are involved in has a cause, which accomplishment are you most proud of?
Dr. Kouns-Lewis: One of my greatest accomplishments is completing my doctorate degree. I never really imagined that I could reach that point, from a time and cost perspective, given that I was working full time and going to school full time too. Having this advanced degree served as a catalyst, particularly for helping women in advancing their career, finding the right career direction for them. In fact, I was touched recently when a college classmate, whom I hadn’t heard from in over 30 years after I left the Philippines, instant messaged me on facebook. For years, she had been searching for me under my maiden name and she recently found me. I just added my maiden name to my profile. In short, she told me, “You were the only one who was able to help me during the low points in my life and I never stopped searching for you. I can recall how you helped so many women in college who were just lost.” Hearing feedback like this validates how I feel…that this is really my calling, to be able to help women, find their purpose in life, find their direction and career, and even help them when they’re having challenges in their personal lives.
Rick: What is your mission as a life coach?
Dr. Kouns-Lewis: I believe my purpose is to have a positive influence on those I encounter and to help them become better as they get to know me.
Rick: How did you get where you are today?
Dr. Kouns-Lewis: Hard work (laughs)…Filipinos have a strong work ethic. I believe in education, and I also have a strong faith. The other important thing is having connections and a strong network.
Rick: What does networking mean to you?
Dr. Kouns-Lewis: I think networking is putting yourself out there and strategically connecting with people who can have a positive influence in your life, either through them or through their connections. To me, networking is an important part of someone’s career, not to ignore the fact that you need to be connecting with people who can help you or you can help them. It’s really two ways. You never know when you’ll help someone where it may lead you to.
Rick: What is the difference between a mentor and a sponsor and how do you choose them?
Dr. Kouns-Lewis: This is one of my favorite topics in coaching. When picking a mentor, you have to be strategic about your choice. And it should be someone who can guide you informally or formally, someone who will enlighten you, advise you to think things through. However, what is really important is having sponsors. A sponsor is someone who can vet for you and say positive things about you. Someone who is your champion. Your first sponsor is your boss. Build a good relationship with your boss as they will advertise your brand and when you leave, or you move to another job or another organization, they will be the ones that will be your reference. And if you have that relationship, they will recommend you for the job.
Rick: What is the best advice you received from a leader/mentor?
Dr. Kouns-Lewis: The best advice I received is never give up and always do the best that you can. Your brand is very important so you always have to protect your reputation and have integrity.
Rick: What advice would you give someone who is just getting out of school and starting out their adult career?
Dr. Kouns-Lewis: They really have to do some soul searching for what makes them happy. Assess your own talents and know your strengths. If you say you’re not really good at math or science, then you don’t really want to go into that field. Make sure there is alignment between what you want to do and what makes you happy.
Rick: For women who are currently in the workforce, what do you consider are their biggest hurdles in getting ahead?
Dr. Kouns-Lewis: Not setting clear goals and action steps. What is it that you want in life? Identify your objective and then develop action steps to get there and just do it. When you hit those goals and targets, it will propel you while improving your self-confidence. The lack of setting realistic action steps towards a goal has a negative effect, decreasing confidence which can be discouraging and in some cases, people just give up.
Rick: What advice would you give someone looking for a career change?
Dr. Kouns-Lewis: I would say again, going back to do some soul searching and an assessment. If it’s not financial and you really want to make that shift, just make sure you are willing to make the sacrifice and don’t get discouraged if someone tells you that you don’t have the experience. If you are re-starting, do some volunteer work or internship in that particular area of interest. I review so many resumes a day and I focus on their experience or related experience. That’s how I decide if I’m going to call a person for an interview. And if you get a phone interview with a recruiter, sound confident and almost imagine yourself face to face with that person calling you.
Rick: In your professional observation, how would you grade US companies in creating a diverse workplace? How is Columbus, Ohio doing?
Dr. Kouns-Lewis: I can speak for Columbus as I was recently at a conference sponsored by the Women’s Commision headed by the first lady of Columbus, Shannon Ginther addressing pay equality. Women in Columbus are paid 78 cents per $1 paid to men, worse than the national average and the poverty rate for female-headed households is six times greater than that of their counterpart. The CEO of Cardinal Health, Michael Kaufman, made a commitment to have more women in leadership positions in his company. He said the fix is a performance expectation, finding someone qualified based on race and gender to occupy some of those leadership positions. If you make it a mandate, a performance expectation, it will improve. It has to start at the top.
In that conference, I was the only Asian out of 300 people there, yet there was a good representation of African-American leaders, like Dr. Frederic Bertley, the CEO of COSI, Gale King, the chief administrative officer of Nationwide, Steve Francis, chief diversity officer of the city of Columbus. Other minorities are less represented and we need to improve that.
Julie Nugent, the vice president & center leader at Catalyst Research Center for Corporate Practice, said that it’s still a long process and some companies are getting it, but it’s not showing based on the numbers right now. There’s still a ways to go. Diversity is a fact, however, inclusion is a choice. Diversity helps the bottom line and there a lot of talented diverse people.