#44 Building the Equitable Future of Work and Entrepreneurship with Susan Liao
In this episode, we’re joined by Susan Liao, a product leader and champion of liberatory leadership working at the intersection of digital innovation, social entrepreneurship and non-profit impact strategy.
In this episode, we chat about:
- Her journey into tech and product
- Navigating her life through agencies and startups
- Pivoting from the corporate world to impact-driven work
- Conforming into inequitable systems and role, and shifting away to find her voice
- Why we adapt as marginalized communities and how to break away from upholding inequitable systems
- What’s in Susan’s “kitchen sink”
- The future of work, diversifying the spaces we are a part of, and creating different forms of distributing wealth
- Challenging existing systems of work, capitalism, and labor
- The concept of “Space, pace, and grace” – how are we acknowledging rest as part of our work?
- Honoring the north star of the communities around us
- Creating more intention behind our beliefs, words, and actions
- The importance of rest and filling our cup
You can find Susan at:
- LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/susanliao
- Startups for All: startupsforall.org
- Leaders Like Us: leaderslikeus.us
About Ecocycles and strategy knotworking
Improving cross-disciplinary collaboration with strategy knotworking and ecocycle planning, by Nancy White
Petra Vega (She/Her/Ella), Liberatory Leadership Coach, Facilitator, Radical Social Worker and Emergent Strategist
Respect The Small
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Susan Liao: Now that I’ve been in tech for 20 some years, what I care about is about bringing visibility to the margins, people in the margins, however they identify, but typically it’s people of intersectional identities. When you look at the board members, when you look at who is featured right on the websites and you’re not seeing yourself reflected.
That, to me, is a problem. That’s why I say now I’m here about redefining, reimagining, the future of leadership and foundership because we have to look at where power sits. And how do we radically, I don’t know, even more urgently, shift and redistribute power? And I feel like that starts from, like, top down.
Steven Wakabayashi: Hi, everyone. My name is Steven Wakabayashi, and you’re listening to Yellow Glitter, mindfulness through the eyes and soul of queer Asian perspectives. This episode, we’re joined by an extra special guest, Susan Liao. Susan Liao, she, her, has a mission to make the future of leadership and foundership accessible to all by advancing our most marginalized populations, including women of color, queer, trans, BIPOC folks, as startup leaders and CEOs.
She is a champion of liberatory leadership and product, who works at the intersection of digital innovation, social entrepreneurship, and non profit impact strategy. Susan’s practice, Leaders Like Us, and venture, Startups For All, serve to help purpose driven founders and product leaders from underrepresented groups clarify their North Star purpose and achieve meaningful social change.
Welcome to the podcast, Susan!
Susan Liao: Thank you, Steven. Thanks for the invitation and for holding space for this conversation. Really excited for it.
Steven Wakabayashi: Yes, and we’ve been connected through our work in the non profit with QTBIPOC Design, how we’re starting to intersect your work in your organization, Startups for All, and over the past, God, how long have we known each other?
Time definitely flies. I feel like it was a pandemic, friends, and I just have come to really appreciate you, your work, and I’d love to, just share everything you’re doing with the world.
Susan Liao: Well, samsies, I would say. Time is really nebulous these days, I think, given the pandemic and post pandemic kind of way of working.
So yeah, it’s really interesting because I’m trying to think about the first time that we intersected and where we first crossed wires and I, I don’t remember, but I’m really, really glad now that I am connected. So again, grateful for this conversation.
Steven Wakabayashi: Yes, and I thought you brought up an interesting point.
When I start with the pandemic, given just like the pandemic and all that’s happened and till today, has that made any huge shift in just even the way that you do work or you engage with the world?
Susan Liao: Yes, for sure. In terms of how I do work, how I engage with the world, I think my experience probably is reflected by or maybe shared with many others in that the pandemic allowed me to explore other ways to connect with others, meaning like on Zoom, and being able to be on Zoom with people, you know, across the ocean, across the continents, you know, in different time zones and have these conversations. And I, I’m not new to remote work at all, like I’ve been doing this for a while. But it’s always been in context of agency work, which you’re probably familiar with.
You know, you’d fly to see clients across the U. S. or even I have done work internationally as well. But those would be like one time events. I think the difference with a pandemic is many of us had to look at kind of developing what are our new rituals? How do we, without the habit of being able to like go into an office day after day or have those regular commutes?
Now it’s like, well, how can I still make space for work in a way that feels like it’s not just, I’m trying to, you know, carve out a corner of my bedroom to do work, but there’s all this other stuff. So what are the new ways of working that will now become maybe more habitual that, and I think just navigating that space is, you know, that’s what Kind of I experienced, especially as I was also transitioning from full time work to consulting work and starting out my own venture, as you mentioned.
So there was a lot of experimenting with different, just connecting with different people from different contexts. And we can get into specifics about that later. It’s all about just like, yeah, being in these conversations with people that I typically would not have encountered if, if the rest of the world didn’t open up or be as open to remote virtual kind of engagement. And then post pandemic, so that was like, you know, pandemic times and I was thriving in it. And then what I’ve realized this year, 2023, I’m in the third year of being kind of on my own as a solopreneur, and I’ve realized there’s actually now, while where I was like just embracing and loving the remote work.
I’m realizing now that I’m, like, now experiencing the opposite end of the spectrum, and I don’t know if that’s the same for others, where I’m, like, craving some in person engagement and dialogue, right? Of just being able to go back to the cafes. Like, I’m definitely a cafe worker. Like, before, I like to work where there’s, like, noise happening behind me.
So that’s been the only I would say like downfall of remote work is just having silence because I am kind of a single household here, it is challenging. And so when it wasn’t as safe to go into places, I was like, I need to somehow figure out how I can change my environment, you know, go out for walks.
But now post pandemic, I’m back kind of visiting cafes, but I’m realizing, I don’t know this is enough for me. I feel like I want to, like Steven, even with you, when we’ve been on Zoom. If people, if people listening can imagine you’re on Zoom for people for so long, what would it be like to just be able to randomly have these serendipitous moments where you just like you had before the pandemic, right?
Where you just kind of like you’re going to the gym, you’re going to the grocery store, or you’re like hopping on the subway and you just randomly meet someone from, you know, an adjacent community, right? And you’re like, oh my goodness, like, Steven, so good to see you. Like, I’m missing those moments. And so now I’m trying to think about how can I adjust the way I work or my schedule or my cadence?
So that I have more freedom, I would say, to travel and to change my environment and kind of, kind of encourage more of these like in person serendipitous moments.
Steven Wakabayashi: Yeah. And I’ve been following your adventure on social media lately. And speaking of adventure, it seems like you are doing hashtag van life with your pups.
Susan Liao: Right? That’s part of it. I’m dipping, I say I’m dipping my toes. I’m practicing. I’m kind of wearing that product hat in some ways of like, okay, if I want to be able to have mobility, the privilege of being able to move myself to like across a couple of different states and still work, still earn, still collaborate, how can I do that?
I know, you know, the digital nomad life is not new. At the same time, yes, I have pups and I have family, I have other things I need to take care of. So rather than thinking it’s an either or situation, I’ve been dabbling with, okay, how can I maybe take a day trip here or like a weekend here and yeah. So on social, hello, hi, ace, um, you know, I don’t have to get into it, but I, I did acquire a van. A Japan import, it’s like 25 years old. My MVP, so to speak, hashtag van life, is getting a vehicle that I can rely on that will take me through the mountains of Denver, across snow and rain, and can fit My two pups and yeah, so I’m still on that journey and I’m looking forward to see what what transpires from it.
Steven Wakabayashi: Yes, and speaking of a journey, you’ve made a pretty big transcendence coming from knee deep, waist deep in the corporate world And pivoting not only just to start your organizations, but starting organizations dedicated to uplifting and marginalized communities, uplifting others who don’t have privilege in developing their products or their organizations.
I’m just curious first, why don’t we start with just even your background and foray into tech, because oftentimes I think in our generation, right, being an Asian child, I’m It was to be a doctor, it was to be a lawyer, it was to be all these different careers and even the space of digital and going into product was quite a novelty.
I’m curious, what got you inspired first to enter this industry?
Susan Liao: Yes, so inspiration, how did I get here? And, I don’t know, I wish I could say something more creative, but yes, I’m second gen, meaning my Taiwanese American, so my parents were born in Taiwan, I was born here in the States. They actually met here in Michigan, and I think it was like six months after they met, they got married in a place.
My mother was 27 at that time, which was old in our culture, so I’m the middle child, middle of three. And growing up, it was expected that our futures, our future careers were, we had one of three choices being a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. And I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is very close to Detroit and, you know, Motor City and home of the big three.
So engineering was very prominent as a career kind of amongst our community. As well as, yeah, being a doctor, a lawyer, less, less popular. So it was mainly a doctor and engineer. And in my education, through grade school, middle school, high school, a constant theme was I did, I was that typical stereotype, I did well in the math and sciences.
I enjoyed my electives, including home ec as well. It was just a really good distraction. Yes, from formulas and equations and all that. And I also like to play sports. Growing up for me, and this is where I would say my identity started to, I started to, to feel tension in how I felt and how I identified versus kind of what the culture or my parents expected of me.
And I didn’t have words for this, you know, I’ll just put that out there. I didn’t know what being gay was, I didn’t know what queer was. I don’t even know if like lesbian was a term that came into my, my intent, like my forefront until really close to college. Even though I had that teacher in high school that people, but kind of like make fun of a little bit or point out because this teacher presented herself as less feminine in the traditional way, like short hair, no makeup, you know, pants, button down shirts. And for me, I didn’t really know what it meant to notice that more and also want to play sports and also feel like, you know what, I, when my mom would bring me clothes from Taiwan, her trips from Taiwan, or she’d buy things for the department stores and they were like, They had ruffles, they were pastel colors.
And I thought to myself, am I just a tomboy? I don’t, I don’t really know what this means when I say like, no, I don’t want to wear these things. And yes, I want to play sports. My mother’s telling me, oh, you shouldn’t be doing that because you’ll build muscle and doesn’t look good on you, you know, all these, I don’t know, kind of gender stereotypes.
So That tension between identity and kind of what the culture my parents expected of me and what I saw in our community and what I felt was, I was, that was always present when I was younger. And then in terms of, you know, how that started to kind of affect kind of what I wanted to do with my life. I think that definitely came, that was something that was emerging in college.
Less high school, because my, my kind of ticket to freedom was like, just get good grades so I can go to a college that’s not in state, which definitely was my like sole mission. I was privileged enough to get into some schools like MIT, Princeton and I was able to choose, you know, where do I want to be? And I chose Princeton. I mean, it’s an Ivy League, but it’s also a beautiful campus. And it was smaller. There’s something about being in a small community where I think now looking back, thinking about the conversations I have with my therapist, my goal was really to be seen and heard through different lenses.
And at the same time, I felt the need to conform in some ways. So, in short, I would say, like, chapter one of my career, like, I did try to be a engineer for a little while. I tried chemical engineering, and then I shifted to computer science, also in the engineering department. I did notice, though, that it was a lot of, you know, people around me, like in my CS class, this was computer science class, this was 1996, 1997, there was a class of 40 people and I was one of three or four women.
When you talk about people of color, I mean, yes, there were Asians. Maybe there might’ve been one or two black, brown folks, if not Asian, is, is very little. And so when I graduated, I, my first job’s actually where I really felt like I was like finding some sense of homework with, with design agencies, digital agencies.
And I think back, I think that’s because the staff and the people, the other, my colleagues actually were, that’s where I found more, definitely more of a focus on creative work. Yeah. Thank you. You’re nodding, right, then technical work and also with, um, brands with global offices. And so we also, that’s where I would kind of connect with people from other countries.
My first kind of exposure to international global work. And I think that’s where I felt a little bit of connection because I’m like, Oh, I’m working with other people where American English is not the first language. It’s okay to stumble over your words. It’s, it’s okay to not, to dress differently. You know, side random fact, I interned for Goldman Sachs in college.
I was in their IT department. Even though I was in IT, I had to wear a suit. I had to wear heels every day on a New York subway in a hundred degree heat. And again, like I was like trying to play the game, but I definitely felt like I. Do not, this is not me. And so chapter one of my life, I think, was navigating just professional life, kind of in this agency world, being in, I was in Boston, I was in New York, just exploring, experiencing kind of the greater social world.
And then part two was starting to shift from kind of the agency model, a lot of expansion and learning, exploring to starting to focus, you know, the ebb and flow of, okay, I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I’ve traveled the world. Now it feels like I’m looking for a little bit of like a foundation, like, what do I call home?
What am I coming back to? And how can I start to experiment with my own kind of ideas? Chapter two, I would say, of my career was then more focused in the startup world. This is like when Kickstarter was just coming, like Y Combinator was, I think, also kind of just starting up at the first time I was in New York.
I joined a small company called Print All Over Me. There were four of us. That’s not that typical. And we were part of an incubator, part of, I think it was called like the new school or new museum or something. And so, you know, you go into this modern place, all white walls, again, like early, this like early, early pre, maybe it was like the iPhone had just come out, but yeah, you’re working with other folks that are like trying to like code, design things, do a little bit of HTML programs, CSS stuff.
So chapter two is like dabbling in the startup world. And then chapter three, I’ll just kind of jump to that now and I’ll pause. It was then now evolving. What do I, now that I’ve seen the, the range of agency work where you’re kind of like the wearing all hats for, you know, you’re working in service of clients to the startup world, where I am my own client?
To then, what do I really want for myself? Like what, what is the purpose of all the work that I’m doing, right? Like am I just helping Nike sell more shoes to other people? You know, am I just helping to, I don’t know. There’s a lot of questions I had in mind, which is like, what’s the fundamental purpose of my work and who am I really helping at the end of the day?
Steven Wakabayashi: Yeah, I think there’s so many beautiful nuggets that you put down. The first one, going a little back, you talked about the notion of conforming. And especially for our generation, and still to this day, while a lot of people are like, Gen Z, you have it so much easier, they don’t have to conform as much.
There are many different systems, right, especially the gender binary, heteronormativity, but back then, the aspect of having to conform to even succeed, right, within the career landscape, you mentioned your experience working with Goldman Sachs, right? Yeah. and trying to figure out a career there in that industry.
I’m glad that didn’t work out um for you to share your gem with the rest of the world but I’m just curious uh when it comes to conforming you know what was going through your mind as you were doing all these things right that any parent would be so proud of you know and conforming to these standards that are put upon us and just like how we should be the best child, the best Asian child, right? And moving away and figuring out how to conform to your own needs.
Susan Liao: Yeah, it was interesting because growing up, yes, for sure, there is pressure to, you know, compete in music competitions. But, you know, I, I say the peak of my, um, my career as a violinist was in sixth grade when I won, you know, first chair in the All City Then after sixth grade, it was all downhill from there.
I ended up in the second violin section in high school. And so conforming was just trying to stand out from everybody else, right, and, and having my parents be proud of, you know, these accomplishments, those achievements that you could name. But then in the professional industry, I think there was pressure because my role in all these different chapters have always been somewhat of a central collaborator role.
So in the agency world, I was a digital producer. I was at one point, you know, a VP of digital for an experiential marketing organization. So it was interfacing between the digital team, the events team, you know, all the strategy team. All the different functional teams, as well as leadership. And then in the startup world, as a product person, yes, we for sure touch and engage with all the different functions in the organization as well.
And so I was always the hub of this wheel, so to speak. And I felt for myself that my role is to help the team be the best that they can be, meaning how do I tease out each individual’s superpower so that we can collectively… make for a better product or a, you know, really kind of achieve our goals or even go beyond.
And I think what happened to, for me, there’s always a balance of like the collective versus individual. So in those roles, I was prioritizing the environment, the system, you know, leadership and being able to moderate the conversations and conflicts between teams. But I wasn’t really necessarily paying attention to what I needed for myself professionally to grow.
And also, in terms of identity, I mean, I was definitely, in the agency world, there’s definitely more diversity. But once I started doing startup work, And I was in that ecosystem. That’s when I felt the most, I mean, I’m gonna say like marginalized, but separate. If you can imagine, right, of like the hula hoop of like, here’s everybody’s identities.
And I was like the one or the only, I hate to say like, even like person with, that wasn’t white. I was definitely in many circles like the only queer or like non straight identifying person. I would be the only person that was even aware of pronouns or the only person, you know, just things like that. And so it was when the pressure to conform at first was like, oh, no, it’s fine.
I’m kind of couching framing this as just, I’m here to play the game. That’s why I’m able to succeed, because I can adapt. And then there was a point where I realized that there’s a cost to the adaptation or like code switching. No, I started being aware of like, you know, actually this is not part of my professional requirement to it.
Like it’s trying to figure out what are those boundaries where it’s all of a sudden, am I actually doing this as part of my job description or am I doing this because I’m taking on this burden that the system, right, is lacking in the system. So that’s why now. I think that what I’m trying to really credit myself with in terms of my journey in my professional life is maturing my own North Stars around what is, what do I really care about?
Who are the people that I want to help now that I’ve been in tech for 20 some years I feel, it’s not even that I’m validated, I just feel much more sure and confident that what I care about is about bringing visibility to the margins, people in the margins, however they identify, but typically it’s people of intersectional identities.
As you’re scrolling in your social feed, as you’re seeing advertisements and people are sharing events and talks in conferences, when you look at the organizing team, When you look at the board members, when you look at who is featured, right, on the websites and you’re not seeing yourself reflected, that to me is a problem.
And that’s That’s why I say now I’m here about redefining, reimagining, the future of leadership and foundership because we have to look at where power sits and how do we radically, I don’t know if it’s even more urgently, shift and redistribute power. And I feel like that starts from like top down.
And so that brings me to where I am now.
Steven Wakabayashi: Yeah, I think it’s more than just representation for representation’s sake, and it’s also sad to see the issues around affirmative action and the short sightedness of it, where if we actually zoom out and kind of take the ethos of affirmative action and many of these collective changes to get more diversification in these seats.
Boardroom leadership, I think at the core is to bring different experiences to the table that ultimately, right, make the decisions on behalf of communities, on countries, in organizations. And I thought you said some really fascinating things on the concepts of adapting, right? Where at first, especially as folks who are in the margins, we.
adapt as a form of survival and we take on pride in surviving and we adapt in a way that we somehow fill our ego with it right where we’re like okay I’m doing this stuff like of course look how good I am and I think it takes us a while at least for me even right like 15 20 years working and then realizing oh like why did I even have to do that Why even continue?
Why play a role in the system or upholding the system and adapting to it, right? In these spaces that weren’t made for us, and question to you is, I’m just curious if there were any specific moments or specific events that just happened that broke the mirage of that for you, meaning you’re in the system, right, adapting, conforming, doing all these things that you’re told you’re supposed to do.
I’m curious if there are things that happen in your life that you’re like, oh, wait, like, this isn’t meant for me, or I need to get out of this space.
Susan Liao: Yeah, I mean, I talk about this with my therapist. Those, those moments are probably marked by my, my tears of frustration and tears of just as an expression of, I don’t know, it’s like generational trauma.
I don’t, that’s a big word to put out there, but it’s like, of just like repeated labor. in trying to conform and then realizing that I’ve put all this effort, if you can imagine, like you put all this effort into putting a slide presentation together, you know, stay up all night to work out a report for someone in leadership and then only to find that when you present the report or like the meeting doesn’t happen or you know what, we decided to cut your part out.
You’re like, why did I stay up? All night working on this, but at the end of the day, they’re just looking at one slide and there’s like one question. For example, when I worked at that experiential marketing agency, I mean, I had attained like the highest salary I had ever earned probably in that role.
And my closest colleague was someone that was definitely like against the traditional norm, like presented herself differently. She wore all black, you know, one of those folks, all black, black nails, dark hair, and very direct. But she was the one that brought me into the organization. She had an existing relationship, but one day I just learned that they let her go.
And I can only hypothesize why, and that’s probably because she was, to them, rocking the boat too much, being too loud, disagreeing, kind of expressing too much dissent. But to me, that was like my one, she was my, my girl, you know, she was my, like, we were partners. And without her, I was like, all of a sudden I was left in this ecosystem of like other corporate folks and no one else really kind of presented themselves differently.
So it’s like you lose your one artsy fartsy person. In your community, in your work and like, okay, well then now who can I joke around with? And so there was this moment in a meeting, I remember when I was working with the creative head at that time, we were trying to figure out like, who are the vendors that we want to bring into this project?
And I was advocating for a vendor that I was working with, you know, that we have an existing relationship with. And honestly, I don’t remember the details. All I remember is that I had to walk out of that room. Like I actually slammed, I was like, put down my binder. I was just like, I can’t do this. And I just like walked out of the room and it was no, I don’t want to blame anyone.
There was, it’s not that anyone else did anything wrong. I just had the residual feelings of knowing that the company itself pretty much fired. My friend was like coming to a head, you know, and left me, you know, they were about like 300 people in the organization. So if you can think about it, if you’re like the one and only of 300 people.
It’s all tied together, but just, yeah, the one and only that seems like they don’t want to wear a suit every day. That does a lot. That weighs on you. That’s heavy. I’m really proud that I brought in people, like I hired folks that I’m still friends with that kind of flourished in that role. Just for me, it was not the right.
That was a very clear break where I had to say, like, okay, I can’t be part of the system anymore. So that’s like in the agency world. In the startup world, very similar pattern here, and this is why I talk about it with my therapist. There’s probably like one, probably with two startups that I was with where I was sitting with the E team, you know, the executive team.
And in that planning session, there’s just a lot of There was a lot of discussion. I had things I wanted to say, but I couldn’t get a word in because the CEO is like discussing things with the CTO. They’re going back and forth, and I’m just sitting there, well, you’re talking about the product. Hello, I’m the product lead here.
And it’s just not in my nature. I realize I don’t want to be that person that has to like jump in and be like, hello, and yell out, pay attention, look at me, I’m still here, like, can you please bring me, invite me into the conversation. In that meeting is very similar where my habit was just to sit there silently.
kind of hold it all in and then get so frustrated that all of a sudden I start fearing myself like tearing up from frustration and I have to leave the room. It’s kind of the fear and flight, right? Kind of reaction. And when that happens to me, it’s like, okay, Susan, really what’s going on here? Can you really deal with this?
Yeah. And so those were the tipping points where I realized I can’t continue this way. And yet it was happening company after company. And that’s The third time this happened with the last company where I was a full time, where I was, you know, had a full time role, I really had to, yeah, I said, can I really do this again?
I did shift, I started interviewing with other companies and in those interviews, I was thinking, how can I shift how I ask questions to try to figure out if this will be really a good fit for me because I don’t want to end up in this spot again. The TLDR is I discovered, you know what, it’s not them, it’s the system, and so if I want to kind of have this harmony in life and work and also for my own mental wellness, I think I need to figure something else out because the current systems are not working for me.
Steven Wakabayashi: Yeah, I can definitely relate to that. And also relate to the fact that we have certain cultures, especially in tech, where if you don’t jump in, people are like, why didn’t you have anything to add? You’re so useless. And I remember once I had a very senior person at a big tech organization. I was in a meeting and everyone was dog piling on top of each other, right?
And then I was just like, I’m not going to add to this mess. And afterwards, the next day, I was told by… The person right under them, they’re like, Why didn’t you say anything? I got answer from the person managing this meeting that you’re very useless and why should you even be included? I’m like, I’m not wanting to play a role in this and I think especially with all of these systems, all these organizations, sometimes the reality, and it’s a sad reality, we have to leave to start really creating our own space and having to start from bottom up because the well is, you know, very… adulterated with a lot of different cultures and systems and, and ways that we’ve built inequity across the landscape. And especially as we’re talking about, right, like organizations like 100, 300 in your case, or even like 5, 000, 10, 000, how is it possible that you’re going to somehow make a system that large equitable when not everyone is coming to the table with that intention?
Susan Liao: Yeah. And I thought I could do that by working my way up the ladder. And that’s, that’s the realization that I had,, you know, three years ago that working my way up the ladder is not enough. It doesn’t work because the power is not, actually it does not stop with the CEO. So it’s like, who am I in conversation with?
It’s like, who’s beyond the executive director? I’ve worked in the nonprofit world as well. And there are, there’s. All the other stakeholders that you don’t see in the office, you know, the investors, the funders, the board, and even, do you even want to be at that table? You know, you were talking about, you know. We’re all trying to jockey for position and then it’s like trying to conform or trying to like validate. Oh, you know what? Yeah, I can survive. I can be like this, right? And real question is like, do you even want to be in this race? Do you want to be at this table? I mean, I keep, for me, the imagery is like dim sum.
I love dim sum. Like real, you don’t have your own table necessarily. You go to like big halls and unless you have a large group, sometimes they just You’re at a table that can sit probably like eight or twelve people and they like fit you with somebody else, right? And you just go where, where they seat you.
But sometimes these large halls have different rooms. Like there’s the tables in the parking lot, right? And then there’s the side banquet spaces where it’s a little more quiet. Or if it’s an all you can eat kind of like buffet, there are like tables closer to the buffet. They’re trying to decide like, where do we want to sit, you know?
And that’s where I think for anyone that feels like your environment is toxic or somehow you’re like, why am I not being seen in your heart? Or why does it feel like it’s exhausting to show up? Then my question is like, well, what are the tables that you do want to be? Like, who would you want to be in conversation with?
Like, what is that space? Then the hard part is like, where can I find those spaces? Or how can I create those spaces for myself? Yeah. And I think that’s kind of the future of work. The future of leadership, foundership. One of the themes that I have on a sticky on my wall is connected communities starting to think about, I think many of us, because we want to survive, have found little pockets.
Little spaces kind of like virtually right with different groups that speak to us, whether for me, it’s like an all Asian group or it’s an all queer group or it’s, you know, QTBIPOC group or it’s a women’s group. So they’re related, but they’re not connected. That’s the only, you know, intersectionality.
That’s what I’m noticing now. I’m part of many groups that are focused on female women, founders, leadership, but they don’t acknowledge. gender in terms of that, all the in betweens. And especially there are certain organizations, like executive women groups that are great, but much of what I see, again, in terms of representation is the typical, okay, these are all, they look polished, they’re wearing makeup.
I don’t have anything against that. I’m just noticing that it’s good for certain folks, but For me, I’m still missing, you know, I’m thinking about what about folks that are different from that? And how do you make space for that? Yeah. So the theme of connected communities at the end of the day is something that I’m really thinking about is how do we, , yeah, make space for the collective, but also the individuals within.
Steven Wakabayashi: Yeah. Which is a lot of your work that you’re doing now, and I’m just curious if you could also share kind of what your focus is on, your projects. And what’s taking up most of your time right now? Yeah, you
Susan Liao: know what? Yeah. I call that my kitchen, the kitchen sink these days. I’m experimenting with like, what’s in my kitchen sink?
Where I’m asking people, what’s in your kitchen sink? Yes. So part of kind of understanding like, where is there space for me? I think that’s where my work as a facilitator and coach and advisor, I say sometimes I’m a facilla coach because it’s hard to demark like specific boundaries between the two. But I think about how do I model, when I say like model new ways of work, I’m actually thinking about new ways of having conversations and bringing people together, teams or individuals.
And when we bring people together, what are different structures for how we hold conversation? Which is, for some people, they call that facilitation. For others, it might be coaching. But I think sometimes coaching misses a little bit of the facilitation aspect, which is, you can be neutral, but it’s, to me, it’s really less about the frameworks again.
But how you adjust depends on who’s in the room or who’s not in the room. And so for example, there are some practices from liberating structures, uh, it’s a facilitation kind of like library of content. And I want to acknowledge because it’s called liberating structures, you may think, okay, has roots in like decolonization and, and DEI and that sort of thing.
I’d say no. And definitely they are not the owners of all these practices, but it’s a very open community where they really do think about how do you distribute participation? One of my two favorite structures involved practicing kind of being the listener and the person speaking. Like you kind of trade wearing consultant and client hats so that you’re aware of airtime.
And people can alternate what it doesn’t mean to just listen to what’s being said. And you don’t have to jump in, right? You’re not jockeying for airtime. And so it’s just splitting up the time through timed exercises. So that’s one way in terms of just facilitation, very specific tactical. The other things just around kind of what I’m, how that affects like terms of facilitation and coaching, but also in my own ventures, I’m looking at how do we model, create new business models of how we distribute wealth, right?
And structure the governance and policies. as a startup, but also as a nonprofit organization. In the U. S. it’s like you’re one or the other. There isn’t a special designation for a social enterprise, but you do have that in other countries. But there are issues also with those two. And you’re nodding your head, right?
You’re familiar with this. The data shows, why is it in nonprofit kind of executive and board seats, right? We still very few are people of color. Same thing in the startup world. When you look at the investor landscape, you know, and, and funders. People say it’s not a pipeline problem, so then, then what really is the crux of the issue?
And to me, it’s a system. And so I think for now, what I mean, what I’m really experimenting with is how, what are the different ways of different pricing models, different ways where the person, or I could say the audiences or the, you know, your core customer segment. That you’re focusing on, you know, in the social impact space, we talk about who are the, who is the community, you know, what is the community that you want to, how do you help distribute wealth to them or give them agency in deciding how do they want to be engaged?
And so there are things with like siting scale pricing, which is maybe not new to a lot of people, but I’m also experimenting with honorariums. Being budget transparency using Open Collective, I mean, I can go on and on, and also seeking out other entrepreneurs, leaders, just folks who are experimenting with different things, even if it’s on a small scale.
So it’s not about fast growth. So who’s experimenting, who has close proximity to the problem. I mean, even what you’re doing with QTBIPOC design, right? You’re like focusing on the margins. Yeah. What are the different ways where you engage with the community, or think about? How you can help them not just with a course, but actually think about the bigger picture of actually getting them jobs that are earning decent wages, but also earning in an environment that honors who they are, right?
Yeah. So, it’s all about modeling, trying to figure out people who are doing things differently at the day.
Steven Wakabayashi: I think it’s so good, and to throw one more thing out there, we have very for profit, non profit, most of co op models, and I think the hard part is… In a capitalist system, right, we’re, and that’s my belief is a lot of these decisions are based on a capitalist system because individually they capitalize parts of the capitalist system and play a role in that. But ultimately I do believe as also I’m looking at the companies that I’m creating and the organizations and looking at these different systems, right? I think there’s facets that are really good of a for profit, facets that are really good for a co op model, facets that are good for a non profit model, right?
One as external accountability, co op is internal accountability, for profit is Um, the way that we’re being autonomous within our own communities, right? And I think the future personally is a combination of all these things, right? And it has like roots with Buddhist practices where it’s like it’s a balance, not the extremes.
So much of our work I think is redefining this, especially if we want a different future. And I, I believe we’re also on the tail end of just seeing capitalism, right? Really hitting its peak of just, uh, intense marginalization. Um, wealth disparity is getting worse and worse year over year, right? We have CEOs on TV talking about Ending Strikes, meanwhile they’re taking 1, 000, 10, 000x of their people, their laborers, who do the actual work that puts money into their pockets.
And I listen to a lot of podcasts and read a lot of books also about how we’re spending money on trying to go into outer space and all these crazy ventures, right? And how I thought this was a nice reaction to it, where These ventures don’t make sense if we cannot bring our communities with us. How can we expect to go into outer space if we can’t even take care of the population here on earth?
Who exactly is populating outer space, if that’s right? The notion of having these larger communities if we can’t even take care of… Just the communities and populations that’s here on earth. How is it even possible, right, that even new technology wise, we talk about all these new tech gadgets, it’s gonna change lives.
But yeah, if we can’t even change fundamentally lives of people eating, surviving, getting health care, what is all of this technology when there’s nobody to use it? Yeah. Right? And I think what you’re doing is quite tremendously important to help us rethink so many of these things and also I love the aspect of distributing wealth and I think sometimes these social projects. . are never about wealth. It’s really just about all the other things, right? Except for wealth. But because we are so deeply entrenched within the context and systems of capital, I think we have to recognize and challenge it as a part of our system and what we create if it is meant to thrive and also ultimately to break away from these systems.
Susan Liao: The ultimate theme that I, kind of my North Star. So Fremont North Star is a little bit, you know, as you’re describing, you know, what is, yeah, why, why are we in space? Why are we like doing all these things when there’s, you know, people still can’t get water, you know? And I think about when, like, what is the future of foundership and leadership?
It’s also about, you know, what are our North Stars? How do we align and so that we can recognize the natural evolution of who we are in our communities? I mean, you know, this goes into emergent strategy and a lot of other different practices and concepts around abolition and liberation, but it’s one of the biggest North Stars is just knowing who’s. Like, recognizing that our lives, ebb and flow. And so the typical format of work, the 40 hour week, the cadence of 9 days a week, right? Even the cadence of, like, monthly goals, weekly goals, monthly goals, quarterly goals, yearly goals. start to rethink with what that actually is. I’ve been telling people it’s, I don’t think it’s enough to just say, hey, we’re going to go from 40 hours to a four day week.
It’s not enough to say, oh, I’m going to be a digital nomad so I can choose my own hours. We had to look at the overall, what I say, like a cadence that, you know, space, pace, and grace. What is the pace of our work? How do we start to integrate? Rituals and practices to honor ourselves like rest, not as an add on, as an elective, right?
As a vacation. Okay, you know, yes, we give you more vacation days, but realistically, you know, who is really taking like a six week vacation? How can it even be reasonable net in these, this day and age to say, okay, once you hit your five year mark with us, then we’ll give you six weeks of vacation. And so to me, North stars are important because For anyone that’s listening who’s thinking of becoming their own, you know, boss, leading their own organization, or maybe you, you’ve, you’re already a founder, you’re already, you’re already maturing as an entrepreneur.
Think about who’s in your ecosystem, who’s missing, and, you know, what are the north stars that guide kind of how they, they move in life, and then how’s, how does that affect your own your flow of work? The flow of how you collaborate, right? So if you. running an organization or if I were to like shift Startups For All, like I experimented with a weekly cohort, like an eight week, 10 week, 12 week cohort, and now I’m working with a monthly cohort.
If you have structures where you’re noticing that some people aren’t able to show up all the time, like that’s what I noticed. Okay. Some people don’t show up week to week just because they need to pick up the kids. There’s certain hours that don’t work for them. For some, it’s just like life happens.
They get sick. So it’s not a weekly thing. It’s just like a seasonal thing. Right. Or they have family. Yeah. That where things happen and they need to take like two or three weeks off or four weeks off. So if you’re running an organization or building one, how can you make space so where your organization within your company as a collective can still make progress, but you’re still honoring people’s individual North Stars?
Are you giving them space, right? To be able to step back a little bit. I’m going to use the word radical because most people are more familiar with that, but I think that this means, yeah, just shifting from a five day to four day week, but thinking, Oh, what am I? Might it look like? If it was like three weeks on, one week off, or what might it look like if it was a 10 month year, not a 12 month year?
Or what might it look like if it was like a three hour day, and then there’s rest, and then the last half is like open gym or something? You know? Like we have to move beyond the no meeting Fridays. Or the no meaning Thursday afternoon.
Steven Wakabayashi: But we love our summer fries.
Susan Liao: Well, that’s a big change as well. So that’s good.
But now, like, what else could be?
Steven Wakabayashi: Yeah, what I will say is I think this is where, again, it’s like not one or the other, but There’s this interesting practice in the co op model where, right, we try to define these systems for the whole cohort, right, the 40 hour or the four day work week, but in the co op model, there is autonomy over individuals dictating how much They want to work, and can that dictation and autonomy of an individual’s willingness to elect into how much they want to work also impact maybe how much they’re getting paid, right, at a fractional cost, but getting to decide ultimately how they show up within the community that they contribute as a part of.
And so, it’s so fascinating, we have like nuggets of insights out there. But we’re so stuck on going into one system, you know, wholeheartedly, full force, that we lose foresight of so much amazing work that’s being done. And I’m just curious, going back to even just like your work and how you’re also advising other people, do you have any advice for people who, especially what I hear from our communities is people who are working the corporate world?
Seeing the things that they need to change and they’re inspired to do, but not knowing even how to start or how to even jumpstart their careers in being autonomous away from these systems. Do you have any advice? Do you have any thoughts? Nuggets.
Susan Liao: Yeah, the, the words, or the phrase that, that has been sitting with me is a quote from it’s typically attributed to Gandhi, and I’ve shared it with my, with the founders I work with and also kind of in other spaces is your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, habits become your values, and your values become your destiny. So there’s this chain, right? But it starts with your beliefs, you’re thinking about it, and to me it’s about acknowledging that what we do is an evolution, it’s a continual evolution, and there’s a different way of visually thinking about this, I call it the eco cycle, but it’s thinking about, of everything that’s in your kitchen sink, when you feel like you’re stuck or something’s like, this environment.
I’m in the corporate, I don’t have a choice, or I have to do this, or like, how will I ever get to where I want to be when I don’t have the money or the budget or who will help me, right? Is I think back, well, progress is through small steps. So just by thinking about it, you’re already doing something.
I think the small steps is just take it one, it’s not even like one day at a time. It’s like just acknowledge what you have, and then as soon as you start thinking about it, give yourself credit for thinking about it, because now you’re aware. And the next step I would say is talk to someone about it.
Now you’re forming thoughts and putting thoughts into words, turning intention into action. And by just having a conversation, stuff happens one connection at a time, one conversation at a time. That’s where it all starts, just through conversation. And maybe you’ll find, I can’t promise that all of your conversations will make you feel better. Find a sounding board that helps to fill your cup, where you know, like, after that conversation, you feel a little more energized.
You have a little more fuel going and just have that conversation. And then from that conversation, you can start thinking about what are some small steps or what, what else could be possible is what I say, or what could I start to shift? And again, this is hard to do yourself. So, you know, people talk about accountability spaces and all that stuff, but I think just start with having a conversation from there, there’s a lot that, and thinking and opening and expanding and thinking about what else could be possible. Just knowing that there are other options, I think is very empowering. And there’s, I hate to say there’s research in science, there’s, there are people, um, who have done work in this, but also for myself, my own experience and from people that I work with, I can definitely say when you.
All of a sudden recognize that you have other options on the table, all of a sudden, you know, the problem space or the issues at hand can feel just a tiny bit more manageable. Maybe you’ll get an extra half hour of sleep at night. And sleep matters, as we know sleep matters. So start with that conversation, just dialogue.
Steven Wakabayashi: And so let me ask you, what has been filling your cup lately?
Susan Liao: Oh my goodness. Hugs with my pup Delilah. Filling my cup really is thinking about being able to move. I talk about movement and flow. And being in conversation with people like you, Steven, not to already speak of the obvious. But making time for those conversations.
There’s a principle from emergent strategy that is, a liberatory leadership coach Petra Vega kind of shared with the group of folks I’m working with where there’s always time for the right work. I’m letting that sit because I don’t know if like, what do we, what does the right work look for me? What does that look like?
But I think that there’s always time and space for what needs to be said and heard. For me, filling my cup is finding those spaces where I feel like I’m being seen and heard.
Steven Wakabayashi: Oh, that’s great. And I love the reframe too. And as we’re starting to near the end, if people want to reach out, get to know your work, how can they best find you?
Susan Liao: LinkedIn is really where I am. You can go to Susan, you can just search my name, Susan Liao. I say Liao like meow. There’s a lot of valuable follows there. L I A O find me on LinkedIn. I am Startups for All is on Instagram and there is a website. I am the designer that never updates the portfolio or it’s always a to-do list where the website’s not always updated, but you can reach me there.
Be a startups for all, but LinkedIn is, is really where my home base is right now.
Steven Wakabayashi: Nice. And what is one last bit of nugget wisdom that you want to leave our listeners with?
Susan Liao: Celebrate the small or respect the small.
Steven Wakabayashi: Expand on that. What does that mean to you?
Susan Liao: So, Ruha Benjamin, who is a professor at Princeton, but does a lot of work in the, like is author of like Race After Technology and Viral Justice.
I got these words from something that she said, which is like, we have to, if we’re talking about dismantling current systems, we need to respect experimenting on the small scale. Realize that the communities that we work within Trying to go all out like, okay, in six months, I want 100, 000 followers and I know we’re focusing on the cost of acquisition.
How do we get the cost as low as possible and get as many users on the platform? Like that is not how we advance equity and justice. And especially in the world of AI, in generative of AI and trying to do so much more with less, right? We still need to think about how can we experiment at the small scale.
Meaning, even in my experience, it’s just shifting our frame, using different words and how we speak about things, just like we’ve talked about here, right? Rather than adapting, maybe we think about what is, what is the labor that we’re taking on from others? Or rather than finding time for the right work, thinking about, okay, well, see, this is why I need to write words down, right?
What is it that I need to be seen, to be seen and heard? So just reframing things, to me, that’s like experimenting, respecting the small. I always encourage people to create their own spaces, and experimenting on a small scale might mean just extending an invite, holding a potluck, or just you meet someone again, like serendipitously, You know, in the grocery store, who knows another person like, oh, yeah, we should all get together.
Hey, do you want to get together for dinner? That’s that’s experimenting small scale. Let’s like experiment with a different way of holding space, different way of inviting people. And then in that conversation, maybe try a round robin technique rather than allowing waiting and just saying, okay, what do you think about this?
And it’s silence and you’re just waiting for someone to pipe in. Maybe you experiment with, okay, let’s go round robin and it’s okay to pass if you want to pass. And we’ll go alphabetical by first name, for instance.
Steven Wakabayashi: Yeah. And on our side, definitely if you want to check out the transcript and see other episodes, visit our website at yellowglitterpodcast.com. And, if you’ve enjoyed this episode with Susan, feel free to leave us a rating or review and give us a bit of a star rating. And this is how other people discover us on the platforms, and as always, thank you so much for listening, and thank you, Susan, for an amazing beautiful conversation. We hope your day can be a bit more mindful next time you’re going about your day.
Hope to chat with you soon. Take care. Bye now.