As a new graduate, fresh out of college in 2007, my resume looked great and the job offers were streaming in. But nothing really got my pulse racing. I’d always been fascinated with Asia—my mom had lived there as a child, I’d studied Japanese for a few years in college, and I had a life-changing study abroad experience in Osaka, Japan. Following that, a business contact had offered me an internship in Tokyo, but I’d turned it down (for a man!).
I never really let it go, though. How could I be sacrificing so much of what I wanted at such a young age? I finally left the boyfriend and had a crazy idea: What if I could launch my career in Asia?
A Leap of Faith
Only a small handful of people told me to go for it. Professors, advisors, friends, and family were all against the idea. But I did it: I bought a one-way ticket to Singapore, gave myself a budget and two months, and told myself that if I didn’t find a job before either one ran out, I’d come home. I didn’t know what I’d gain, or what I’d lose—but I knew I had to try.
Three weeks after I’d arrived in Singapore, I was almost out of the $2,000 I’d budgeted. Everyone was telling me to come home. But then, suddenly, everything changed.
An afternoon swim in Singapore led to a serendipitous encounter with a top Toyota executive, who, after one interview, improbably offered me a position. Within the first few months of my new career, I was branded by one of the big bosses as their “one white face,” a theme that would underscore my life and work overseas.
One White (Female) Face
Young, female, and American, I was the only Caucasian working in Toyota’s 250-person office for three years, conducting Kaizen process improvements in automotive dealerships in the Philippines, India, and other Asian countries. It was a dream job, but I had everything against me: The company, the automotive industry, and the operations profession were all completely run by men—not only was I the only white face, I was also the only female.
Regardless, I threw myself into my work. I was committed to showing Toyota that I could learn from them those things that had brought the company success, and at the same time that I could bring value to them from my young, Western perspective. I cut my hair and dyed it dark so I’d blend in better. I forced myself to ask locals if I could join them for lunch. On my first assignment in the Philippines, I worked Saturdays with the technicians and salespeople so that they could trust that I understood their job.
The gender roles I encountered nonetheless shocked me at times. My first year on the job, we held a birthday party for one of our colleagues. After the celebration, I returned to my desk to continue working—only to have my boss approach me and ask that I “help the other women clean up the room.” When I looked around, I saw all of the men were back to work, but my female colleagues were cleaning the conference room where the party had been held. My jaw dropped—this was 2007! How were women still being treated like this?
At the same time, being an undeniable outsider gave me a distinct advantage: People noticed me. People were curious. While I had to be cautious to use that attention wisely, the fact that I stood out helped my voice to be heard in a very large company, and in the Indian business culture. On my second project in India, I’d built a strong relationship with the dealership owner so that when it was time instigate a change in reporting structure, he listened. I was able to help a staff-level woman who’d worked for the company for seven years begin reporting straight to him. By the time I left, he was going directly to her to get his questions answered—something wholly unheard of before.
My experience isn’t one for everyone, but the lessons I learned are.
First, stepping out of the norm—gaining new experiences and taking on new responsibilities—is an opportunity to explore, experiment, and grow, to discover the capacity that’s hidden inside you. Every day abroad was a surprise. Every day challenged my thoughts and opinions. No, it wasn’t easy, but what I learned from it was worth more than any dream salary.
Next, if you want something, don’t give up. A friend recently reminded me that Thomas Edison tried to make an electric light between 1,000 and 10,000 times. What if I had stopped trying for a job in Asia after in week two? When most people discourage an idea, I think that means it’s probably a good one. The majority of society follows good ideas, they don’t initiate them.
And finally, keep moving. When I left for Singapore, my godmother gave me a print of the Helen Keller quote, “Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all.” It sat on my Toyota desk as a daily reminder that we must dare ourselves to grow. We must move on to the next goal, the next dream, the next discovery. That’s how our lives improve—not just as individuals, but as humanity. Otherwise, I can’t imagine what we’re here for.
Want to hear more about Hilary Corna’s amazing experience? Pick up “One White Face,” her book about her first three years in the real world, what that means to her, Generation Y, and the global economy.
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