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1. What is your organization?

I founded Simple Steps in 2017 in the San Francisco Bay area with the mission to empower immigrant women by helping them improve their self-esteem and rebuild their careers after a hiatus. To achieve our mission, Simple Steps has been developing a collaborative community of participants and mentors as well as organizing and hosting informative events and meet-ups. We aim to build a stronger and more engaged community for immigrant women pursuing their career aspirations.

Returning to the workforce is a difficult task for anyone after a career break, but it especially poses a challenge for immigrant women, who have language barriers, cultural differences, a lack of professional networking, and an insufficient support system.

 

2. What made you decide to start your organization and/or switch careers?

Many immigrant women had a great education and solid professional experience back in their home country, but that is not easily transferred to the new environment in the US. In many cases, they have to restart their career from scratch. This is especially true when they arrive as a dependent of their husband, as there are restrictions on being employed or starting a business until they obtain a work permit. Additionally, many have to take care of kids for a while, so it becomes harder to get back on track because they spend time away from retaining or developing their career.

Having grown up in South Korea, I moved to the U.S. when I was 30. I personally experienced and witnessed the difficulty of having to start over. At the time, my husband was working full-time, and I didn’t have a support system, so I raised my two boys mostly by myself. My career was definitely put on hold, and I remember it as one of the most frustrating and discouraging moments in my personal life. I was exhausted both physically and mentally.

I knew that it was almost impossible to overcome this issue through individual efforts because this is something that can be only solved through collaborative efforts and support from a community, a business and people who care about it. As such, I thought I would build a community where immigrant women struggling with low self-esteem and a career gap can share their stories, explore opportunities, and encourage each other to move toward achieving their goals.

Working in the nonprofit sector has long been my career aspiration, and I went back to school to build my professional network and restart my career. Since completing a Master’s degree in Public Administration in 2011, I have worked in several different nonprofits in New York and New Jersey where I met great mentors and fellow women who faced similar challenges. After moving to the Bay Area two years ago, I decided to start my own organization and was finally able to found Simple Steps in May 2017.

 

3. What obstacles did you face in getting started and thinking of yourself as an expert in a new setting?

When I first founded Simple Steps, I focused on helping women return to corporate work. I assumed that many of them were interested in returning to a full-time job as they had been committed to their career in the past. It wasn’t difficult for me to find professionals and experts who supported our mission and were willing to help us. However, it was much, much harder to find moms who truly wanted to return to a corporate career. Most women in our community want to balance their work and personal life and hope to find fulfilling, flexible part-time jobs. It totally makes sense to moms. However, the reality is that such opportunities are very few and the demand is much greater than the supply.

At this point, I changed my direction toward community-building rather than simply helping women get jobs. Reflecting on my personal experiences, I remembered not knowing whom to ask about changing careers from the for-profit to the nonprofit sector, whether or not it was a good idea to go back to school as a mom with a three-month-old baby, and how to help myself be more confident and remain engaged within the community as a minority. I really wanted to have a community that was created and led by women who were willing to keep trying things out until they would be able to find a way to live a more fulfilling life.

I realized that we needed to ask more fundamental questions and discuss how to answer them. As I knew from my own experience that I was always eager to find like-minded women and build such a community, I started to talk with people around me and initiate pilot projects for those women. Whenever I hear “that is really a great idea. I always thought of creating a women’s community like Simple Steps”, I feel like I have all I need. Every day, I spend a lot of time thinking about more efficient and effective ways to build a strong community and connect women with similar interests or careers.

 

4. Were your family and friends helpful or obstacles in launching your business? How so?

My family and friends are really helpful and a great resource for me. I had been in the Bay Area for only two years and knew just a few people in the beginning, so I asked them a lot of questions. Whatever I requested, they did not hesitate to connect me to other resources and constantly invest their time and skills in Simple Steps.

My husband is my constant cheerleader and supports me no matter what I envision. It was not an easy decision to start a nonprofit as a solo full-time volunteer founder with two young kids in the Bay Area, one of the most expensive metro areas. We agreed that we would live as a single income family for a while until Simple Steps would receive enough funding to be able to make a payroll. It is a privilege for me to follow my dream thanks to my husband’s emotional and financial support. I feel really grateful that my two little boys are proud of their mom and that I can be flexible and spend time with them when they get back home from school. Instead, I work late at night after my kids go to bed and some weekends to stay on schedule.

 

5. Were there any partnerships or advice that were particularly helpful?

I’m trying to build partnerships with organizations who share the same mission and goals as Simple Steps. There is a national organization with a mission to eliminate employment barriers for skilled immigrants. When I first reached out to them, they were very welcoming and we discussed how we can collaborate with each other. I was amazed that there were so many great organizations and people out there trying to take small but meaningful actions to tackle this hard-to-solve problem. Even just sharing ideas is very helpful and motivating.

In addition, I have been developing relationships with potential employers willing to give opportunities to skilled women and hire them, and I am actively looking for more of those partnerships. We have a success story from one of our members who was hired at a startup company. This startup’s CEO is a mom with two young kids, and I knew immediately when I first met her that she would support our mission and that we would be partners. We hope that we can develop wonderful practices for members who are looking for similar opportunities.

I believe I can find similar partners, and we can start from there. Once we prove ourselves competent and capable, we will be able to have role models for women, and more and more talented and committed women will come to us. Then they themselves will become a role model and in this way, we would create a virtuous circle.

 

6. Was outside funding/cost a challenge to getting your business off the ground?

Not really because I committed myself to working full time as a volunteer. I knew it would take a few years to take this off the ground and get funding from foundations or companies. In order to scale, I would first need to define our core values and the most competent programs we would offer. Once we have a proven track record as a capable and trustworthy organization, we will be able to apply for grants and pitch competitions for nonprofits. One good thing about the Silicon Valley is that nonprofits have more opportunities and resources to experiment new ideas. Corporates or community foundations offer working space and conference rooms for free or at a low cost to nonprofits, much like what VCs and accelerators do for startups.

Currently we rely on small donations from our community members. Thanks to that, at least I don’t need to spend my own money to cover operation expenses for administration, programs and events, etc. Most recently, we hosted our first exhibition for artist moms pursuing their career aspirations and passion for art. We organized this event to build a community of artist moms in the Bay Area. Although it was a one-day event, it cost about $3,000 to rent a venue at the Palo Alto Community Center, purchase art supplies, and promote and market the event.

 

7. What are some successes you have had with your business that make you proud?

It’s been just one year since I founded Simple Steps. I’m proud that we have more than 230 people on our mailing list, and I have personally interacted and shared ideas and thoughts with about 70% of them. The first six months were really hard. When I initially planned the exhibition last year, I was not sure if we could find enough artist moms and persuade them to join us. It took more than four months to recruit 35 artist moms. Most of them were hesitant about signing up for the exhibition as they hadn’t been active artists for five or ten years. It turned out to be a great opportunity to raise awareness for Simple Steps and our mission. I was thrilled to get a lot of emails asking about the next exhibition and how they can participate as an artist. One of the artists said, “I found a reason to live longer and healthier thanks to this opportunity.”

Not only people in the art field but also any women planning to get back to work cheered us on. Slowly, more people knew about us, supported us, and appreciated what we did. When we create a workshop on career development or a seminar with experts in various fields, it quickly becomes fully booked. When we ask for volunteers for events, we don’t worry about being short of helping hands. When we are looking for a person with a specific skill set, it does not take long to find perfect candidates. That keeps our community members motivated and engaged within Simple Steps.

Since our first seminar with Silicon Valley female founders in May 2017, more than 70 women have attended our networking events, 50+ women participated in job preparation workshops and career seminars, 40+ moms came to our monthly social meetings called “coffee chats”, and 51 female artists joined the exhibitions. We successfully helped two women get hired through Simple Steps.

 

8. What are some of your current challenges?

I constantly ask myself how to maintain long-term engagement for our target audience. At first, they were happy to learn about Simple Steps, and some of them joined our activities and contributed to building a networking of women. Others did not come back to us if they didn’t get tangible outcomes or benefits in a short period of time. In many cases, it takes tremendous time and effort to pass a milestone, and we should be patient. I hope people will set a higher goal after learning about Simple Steps, but at the same time, I need to learn how to understand their commitment and expectation levels so that Simple Steps can better serve the community’s needs.

Another challenge is the English proficiency of our members. Most of them have been living in the United States for a while—the range is usually five to ten years. One of the biggest issues for them in returning to the workforce is the language barrier. Stay-at-home immigrant moms have limited opportunities to practice English if they don’t push themselves out of their comfort zone. I’m continually searching for better solutions to improve their English skills.

 

9. What would be your biggest piece of advice you would give to yourself ten years ago?

I remember the first year when I was in the United States. As a thirty-year-old, I couldn’t open a bank account by myself because of the type of visa I had. I was very depressed and my self-esteem was really low. I thought that I wouldn’t be able to restart my career here in the United States. That lack of confidence affected how I participated in graduate school. I had a hard time speaking up in classes. One day at the end of the class, a professor whom I really admired told me, “I know you are a very brilliant woman. You should be more confident of yourself. Why don’t you just share your ideas?”

For me, it took several years to get to the point of losing my inhibitions. Now I do not care much about my imperfect English, fear of rebuilding my career in the nonprofit sector, and lack of professional networking. I am a true believer in the power of positivity. I would have been much better off if I had this approach ten years ago.

 

10. What are your hopes for your business for the next five years?

I really hope that Simple Steps will be able to build a more inclusive and broader community – not limited to a specific ethnic group. Then we could improve our prospects and help and support each other in finding more opportunities. I hope we will be able to push more and more women to get out of their comfort zones. Simple Steps would be a facilitator to encourage them to start and do something they desire, even small things like staying connected. I think that’s the first step in taking action.

I wish we can grow beyond the Bay Area and build a sustainable and self-evolving community open to all immigrant women.

Date of Conversation: April 23, 2018

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