Ahead of Summit West 2020, NationSwell is profiling leaders and luminaries from a diverse array of fields to discover how they lead with purpose and inspire others to do the same.
For 15 years, the Opportunity Network has empowered students from historically underrepresented communities by providing them with the support needed to succeed in college and thrive in evolving workplaces. NationSwell spoke with Opportunity Network President and CEO AiLun Ku, a Council member, about how she’s been able to lead by putting purpose into action throughout her entire life.
NationSwell: Thanks for speaking with us, AiLun. How does your current role position you to lead with purpose?
AK: As the president and CEO of the Opportunity Network, I have the privilege to lead with purpose every day. As an immigrant to the United States from Taiwan at a young age, it was quite tough navigating the American education system and finding a place of belonging. And in my self-discovery journey, I learned that I am good at building and growing community-driven organizations, and given my lived experience, I care deeply about work that sits at the intersection of social justice and education, which OppNet provides me the opportunity to do. My vision is that not only will first-generation students and young people of color influence the future of work and learning, but we will be represented at every level and in every space leading those conversations. And that’s pretty much sums up my job description and the work we do at OppNet!
NS: Can you tell us about a specific time in your professional or personal life that you made a difference by putting purpose into action?
AK: In high school, I worked as an interpreter for a social worker whose job was to check in on the sponsoring families of individuals coming to the United States seeking asylum. Mandarin is my native language, so at 16, I was responsible for giving voice and information to Chinese children and families that have gone through unimaginable hardship in their pursuit of safety.
This job was an early and formative contradiction to how I was treated in the school system. My family and I moved from Taiwan to New Jersey when I was 10. We all had to learn English. In school, with Mandarin as my first language and English as my second language, my first language was deemed a deficit in the American education system instead of an asset.
So, being an interpreter at a young age really helped me transform a part of my identity into purposeful action.
NS: What advice do you have for others on how they can better act with a clear sense of purpose?
AK: While I think striving for clarity is important, I also think doing purposeful work with a little bit of fuzziness around your own vision is okay, too, because self-discovery takes time.
I think self-discovery is such an important practice that takes time, patience, mistakes, generosity and a lot of grace to perpetually make happen. I believe that self-discovery builds the foundation for one to identify and hone strengths and skills that can then be applied to something that gives those strengths and skills meaning — which, to me, is purpose.
One way to consider striving for more clarity in one’s own journey of self-discovery is the practice of inquiry. I am a big fan of asking questions and charging myself to finding the answers. For everything you do or want to do, ask questions, investigate, take action and harness those insights found; check in with yourself, and then do it again.
The next time, though, ask tougher and more complex questions, investigate broader and deeper, take bolder actions based on you insights and challenge yourself to act with more clarity, even if it means stepping back from something.
NS: Who are others leaders or luminaries who inspire you to act and lead with purpose, and why?
AK: There are so many! Alaa Murabit, a medical doctor, Canadian Meritorious Service Cross recipient, one of 17 Global Sustainable Development Goal Advocates appointed by the UN Secretary General and a UN High-Level Commissioner on Health Employment & Economic Growth. She is someone who lives her purpose and speaks truth to power thoroughly and deliberately. She is one of the most steadfast advocates for women and children’s rights and security at the global scale. I learn from her every time I listen to her or talk to her.
Amanda Nguyen, Founder and CEO of Rise, an organization that “organizes and empowers citizens to pen their own rights into existence.” She was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her work in organizing to pass numerous state-level Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights and also the United Nation’s Universal Survivors’ Bill of Rights. She is one of the kindest, most fashionable, smartest and fun people I’ve had the chance to meet. She is someone who personifies leading with purpose.
Ai-jen Poo, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Domestic Workers Alliance. I learned about Ai-jen when I was very early in discovering the alignment between my strengths and purpose. It has been enlightening to watch her organize, stay true to her values and partner with incredible social justice activists who also lead with purpose, like Alicia Garza, Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter and Principal of the Black Futures Lab, and Cecile Richards, former president, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund to co-found Supermajority, “a new home for women’s activism, training and mobilizing a multiracial, intergenerational community that will fight for gender equity together.” She is always about the collective “us.”
I think it is important to note that there are also leaders across our organizations that lead with purpose at every level. We not only should look outside of our organization for examples of leadership, but also from within and deep inside our own communities and spaces.