“Most people are not strategic by nature; We tend to be reactive.”
I’m not sure Yeona will remember quoting these words to me some years ago when we first sat down to chat about my career path, but they’ve stayed with me. They have become the foundation of my thinking – whether about my career goals, projects, or any life experience.
Yeona has a long history with Explorance, being the first female to sit on the Board of Advisors before joining as one of our first female executives. One of her early mandates was to empower her female colleagues, whether through mentoring or by simply sharing her own story to inspire. This Women’s History Month, I decided to sit down with Yeona to get her take on how far we’ve come, where we are going, and what work is left to be done.
For those who don’t already know you, can you tell us a little about your background?
Yeona: I would say I am an earthling with Korean heritage. From an educational perspective, I first studied Computer Science and Statistics at Seoul National University. I then acquired a Master of Business Administration and then a Ph.D. in Computer Science, more specifically Artificial Intelligence, from MIT. My work experiences have all been related to technology development and application aspects of business.
What attracted you to pursue a career in Computer Science and Technology?
Yeona: I’d say it was Star Trek. When I was about 6 years old growing up in South Korea, I came across the TV program, and it fascinated me – even though I had no idea what they were saying. All the actors were speaking in a language that I couldn’t understand. Later, it was my uncle who told me that this language was called English.
I remember I was fascinated by one scene in Star Trek when a crew member spoke to a gadget, and voila, the gadget gave him food. I remembered thinking, “what a great idea!” If we had such a gadget, I wouldn’t have to wait for my mother to prepare a meal, and I could easily get what I wanted to eat. And then, a bunch of folks was beamed from one place to another. I asked my uncle, “How do they do that?” He said, “It is technology.” And that’s what inspired me to study Computer Science.
It’s interesting that at such a young age, the things that stood out to you about Star Trek had to do with removing this traditional role of women, but also this idea of transferring oneself to another place.
Yeona: In South Korea at that time, “success” for a woman meant getting married and having children. But I’d say even at a young age, I didn’t consider myself limited to that role. Star Trek helped me broaden my scope beyond what I saw in my country – that’s why I like to say I am an earthing.
Are you still a Star Trek fan?
Yeona: Of course. My favorite is Voyager with Captain Janeway. I also like Seven of Nine. There are many points where Seven and Captain Janeway talked about what it is like to be an individual versus being part of the collective that resonates with me.
Is there a woman from history that you find especially inspiring?
Yeona: The woman who inspired me was Madame Curie – the physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first and the only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice, and the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two scientific fields. She was known for her honesty and moderate lifestyle. She gave much of her first Nobel Prize money to friends, family, students, and research associates. Also, in an unusual decision, she intentionally refrained from patenting her radium-isolation process so that the scientific community could do research unhindered. I read her biography when I was in fourth grade, and it opened my eyes to what women can do and be.
What barriers or obstacles did you have to overcome to get to where you are now?
Yeona: I guess the biggest barrier is “thinking.” Like most people, how I think is greatly influenced by where I grew up. This idea of what women can and what women should do. It can be limiting, and even though I disagree, when I am making a decision, there remains some residue of my upbringing that can get in the way. I’ve had to train my brain to understand that it is ok to do things that are outside what is typically considered acceptable for women.
What advice do you have for women who want to pursue a similar career path as you?
Yeona: I was very lucky to have a father who encouraged me. He told me that I could be whomever I wanted to be and do whatever I wanted to do. His advice helped me become a problem solver – setting a goal and figuring out how to achieve that goal, despite all the challenges and barriers I might come up against. So, I’d share this advice with any woman who wants to pursue a similar career path as me.
In addition, there seems to be a trend of telling women to “lean in” to leadership qualities that are typically attributed to male leaders. That’s fine, but what has always worked for me is to focus on and promote a world where we put “people” into leadership roles when they are competent rather than confident. We should vet them for expertise, track record, and relevant leadership competencies such as curiosity, empathy, integrity, and coachability.
Despite all the challenges and obstacles, I’d advise women to dare to dream big, go for it, work hard and be persistent.
This past year has shed light on many of the challenges that women face. Why is Women’s History Month important this year?
Yeona: First, March 8th was the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, so that’s an incredible milestone. In addition, we celebrate Women’s History Month to remember those trailblazers that came before and their accomplishments to society. This year more than ever, we need to remember them, celebrate them, and draw on their strength as most of us are stuck at home due to the pandemic, and women struggle to find a way to balance work/life. As we reflect on the progress of those that came before yet struggle through a pandemic, it can feel like it’s a step backward in many ways. We need to think about what we want the world to be like in the next 100 years and continue to work to get there.
How has COVID-19 set us back, and will we recover?
Yeona: Women have had to leave the workforce due to schools and daycare centers’ closures during this pandemic, indicating that they are still primarily responsible for childcare. The impact of COVID-19 on professional women might be felt for years to come, particularly given that long-term unemployment makes it hard to find another job, and even when you find another job, your pay will likely be lower. I remain optimistic, however, that women will figure it out and recover. We need to focus on influencing policymakers and companies to help women regain their footing in the workplace.
Despite it all, we’ve seen some exciting advancements for women recently in the news. What does this representation mean for women?
Yeona: Inspiring in the sense that changes are happening, and women have more role models to inspire them. I just hope to see such changes happen faster and at a greater scale across the globe. Let’s make changes together!
Thank you, Yeona. As always, it was a pleasure chatting with you!
Culture of free will•Employee engagement•Explorance culture•