Going Against the Flow: Cynthia Owyoung, Founder of Breaking Glass Forums

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Cynthia Owyoung is the Founder and CEO of Breaking Glass Forums, accelerating more diverse leaders and inclusive organizations. She has established and led talent development and diversity and inclusion initiatives for nearly 15 years at organizations both large and small, including GitHub, Yahoo and Intuit. Prior to her calling in human resources, Cynthia launched a strategic planning consultancy, increasing the capabilities of non- and for-profit organizations in organizational development, brand marketing and business strategy. She also built a decade-long career as a Brand Strategist for leading global brands and advertising agencies, developing campaigns for Microsoft, Levi Strauss and Apple.

Cynthia currently serves on the Board of Directors for Abilities United, a non-profit dedicated to the advancement, inclusion and independence of people with developmental disabilities. She earned an MBA in human resources from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, a BS in marketing and finance from UC Berkeley’s Haas Business School and a BA in psychology, also from UC Berkeley.

<p> <strong>Cynthia Owyoung</strong> </p>

Cynthia Owyoung

What does entrepreneurship mean to you? What underlying characteristics do you see in successful entrepreneurs?

Cynthia: It means making my dream become a reality. It means being able to control my own destiny. And it means creating bigger impact. I think most successful entrepreneurs have passion, drive and a willingness to be uncomfortable. They have to jump into starting a business without having all the answers and not knowing whether they will succeed, and they do it anyway because they have conviction that what they are doing is different from what anybody else is doing.

What are you most proud of having accomplished? If you could change something from your past, what would it be?

Cynthia: My proudest accomplishment is stretching others. I am always looking for ways to support people in achieving their goals and I try to give them opportunities to learn new things in the process. For example, I launched the Women of Color Leadership Conference last year and asked many of my former colleagues to participate as speakers and facilitators. I reached out to those colleagues not just because I knew they would be supportive of my idea, but also because I thought they would gain a new skill or perspective through being involved. The conference was a success to me because of that.

If I could go back in time and change something, I would try to reduce the number of times I cried at work. I've had moments where I've reacted very emotionally to criticism or when things didn't go as I expected, and while experiencing emotions is never wrong, I think it often contributed to being perceived as weaker or less competent to handle things than others.

Tell us about an instance when you went against the flow to achieve your goal.

Cynthia: My entire career has been about going against the flow of expectations. When I was young, my parents expected me to be a doctor or lawyer but I chose business instead. When I graduated from college, my peers went into corporate or consulting jobs, but I chose the nascent and obscure field of advertising account planning. In business school, all of my classmates were going into strategy or finance, and I chose diversity management. So going against the flow is natural for me because I've never liked doing what everybody else is doing. I like following my own passions.

What drives you? How do you measure success for yourself?

Cynthia: My primary motivation for everything is to take care of my family. My family is Chinese so the concepts of being one part of a whole and putting family before self ruled how I grew up. So I can draw a direct line between everything I do and how it will help the people I care about. One of my life goals is to start a nonprofit to serve adults with developmental disabilities in the Asian community. I'm going to do this because I have a brother who is developmentally challenged and so many people like him need more support than what their immediate families can provide. So this will allow me to not only take care of my brother, but also others in my extended community.

Measuring success isn't about dollars or checkboxes for me. I usually ask myself 3 questions and if I can answer yes to all of them, I consider it a success. Have I made a positive difference in someone else's life? Do I feel good about the actions that I took? And did I learn something in the process? By this criteria, some of my biggest failures have actually been huge successes to me.

Increasing diversity and inclusion in tech is an acknowledged problem. Why do you think the industry isn't making more progress in solving it?

Cynthia: I think it's because tech is looking for a quick fix and the truth of the matter is, there's no quick fix to this. It's going to take time, effort and resources, which runs counter to the tech industry's pride in its ability to hack through just about everything. Companies have to do more than just implement diverse recruiting programs, they need to develop and engage more diverse talent and figure out how to embrace the diverse perspectives that they bring into leadership. Which is a big reason why I've launched the Breaking Glass Forum for Women Executives, happening March 16th in San Francisco (register here). I'm trying to develop more women in leadership roles and create a community of support that will work to change the status quo inside companies.

What advice would you give to your 22 year old self? What do you know now that you wish you knew back then?

Cynthia: I used to agonize over every career decision that I made. Which school should I go to? What company should I work for? Should I interview for that new job or not? What I've learned over time is that every career decision isn't "make or break" and there's really no wrong path you can take. In the end, whatever I chose has been the right path for me because of what I learned, who I met and what it led me to. So I would tell my 22 year old self to not stress so much about every single decision I made. Life will work out just fine and I could save myself a lot of energy and angst.

Check out the other interviews in Going Against the Flow series at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/charu-sharma/ or goagainsttheflow.com.

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