Anna Chan on activism, careers in tech, ESEA eats and celebrating culture

Second-generation British-born Chinese Anna Chan is the founder and director of Asian Leadership Collective. An active member of the East and Southeast Asian (ESEA) community, she volunteers her time in both professional and personal capacities to create awareness of ESEA issues and champion ESEA heritage. Having taken up roles in various Employee Resource Groups, Anna has had diverse interactions with senior leaders, executive sponsors, and diversity and inclusion teams. She is also a woman in tech, providing an inspiring example of how one can balance activism and the demands of a fast-paced, full-time job.

In addition, Anna’s love of food led her to initiate and co-found the #ESEAeats movement on Instagram with Georgie Ma. This movement has been covered by Eater LondonHuffington Post, and Gal-Dem and is considered as leading the narrative on ESEA culture and creating a space for “our community to celebrate our food and heritage. Through this exclusive interview, Yinsey Wang explores a bit about Anna’s experiences and journey so far. Anna also generously offers some insights and tips about pursuing activism and careers in tech, as well as her thoughts on leadership.

YW: What motivated you in founding Asian Leadership Collective?

AC: The inspiration behind Asian Leadership Collective came from a question I had asked myself very early on in my career in advertising and tech: “Why is there is no-one who looks like me in executive positions of power?”.

I started my journey in championing the ESEA community through volunteering my time on top of my day job as co-lead, then president of an Employee Resource Group. It was an amazing experience, from organising the first Lunar New Year celebrations in our London office to contributing to DEI initiatives. Whilst building more awareness of ESEA culture at work and celebrating heritage, I also had the opportunity to connect with more people from within and outside of my community.

This work would not have been possible without the passionate circle of people I had around me: a strong female Employee Resource Group committee, friends, mentors, and those who believed in me. I had achieved so much in terms of my work for the community, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the lack of executives who came from an ESEA background in the UK. I would be looking around in rooms full of DEI panel attendees, panel speakers, and business organisational charts – “Where is everyone?”. Asian Leadership Collective exists to show that ESEA people are leaders and that our contributions should be reflected in senior ranking roles within companies and organisations.

YW: What have been the key lessons you have learned in being an activist in the ESEA space? What would you recommend for others looking to participate and volunteer?

AC: I am so grateful to the community of activists, advocates, cheerleaders… whatever you would like to call them, that we have built in the UK in the last few years. I remember a post I had written in 2020 saying that I hope to hear more diverse voices and see many more movements, as this was only the beginning, and in 2021 we all delivered!

It has been such a wonderful thing to experience, to see people grow, and to be a part of something which impacts people’s lives. There is still lots to learn and achieve, my key lessons and recommendations would be:

  • Know your values: Be very clear on your values as they should impact and guide everything you do. Share them with those you are close with as well as people you will be working with. I believe that self-awareness is one of the best gifts you can give yourself and knowing your values is the best way to communicate this. If a partnership breaks down, fundamentally there will have been a misstep on communicating or sharing the same values.
  • Diversify your learning: This goes back to understanding your limitations as well as addressing your unconscious bias. You don’t know what you don’t know, so seek them out! Whose voices aren’t you hearing, stories that aren’t being told as part of an intersectional community. It is important to do your own research and there are so many mediums to choose from: podcasts, books, and community groups. Never stop learning.
  • Plan your breaks: With anything, plan breaks! It can be very full on emotionally, mentally, and physically advocating for something you care about and that is close to your heart. Plan in those delicious #ESEAEats and #ESEAJoy!

And lastly, have fun! Reach out to organisations, groups, people who are doing the work you resonate with and speak to them. That is how so many of my opportunities have come about, do not be afraid to introduce yourself and share your ideas.

YW: You are also a woman in tech, a business owner, and balance your activism with your professional life. What are the challenges (if any) in achieving such a balance?

AC: This is something I work at every day to try and get the right balance. Last year was my first as the director of Asian Leadership Collective and I have learnt so much. One of my personal goals is to invest in things which will free up my time and headspace, so that I can come into work (whatever it may be on that given day) refreshed and less exhausted. It is so easy to get caught up and overwhelmed, especially in the online space.

Being clear and realistic with my goals and time for the year helps me plan way in advance for Asian Leadership Collective’s work so that there can be flex in between my work in tech. I have been using the calendar in Notion to plan out my weeks and because I am a visual person, it is so rewarding to see what has been done as well as moving out less time sensitive things. I have also recently started using work focus playlists on the Headspace app. I know how long the tracks are and they allow me to concentrate without worrying that I am about to miss a meeting or something important!

YW:  What tips would you give to other women considering a career in tech?

AC: Find people who have been on this journey before and ask them questions! Even if you do not know what you want to do specifically, find someone you admire for a certain skill, career, or personality and speak to them. It can be really daunting to ask someone to help and guide you, especially when you really admire them, but they are just people.

When you apply for roles in tech, do not assume you wouldn’t be selected for interview if you don’t tick every box in the job description. Do be prepared to say how you will develop those potential skill gaps and do not sell yourself short. You will have transferable skills to support your personal growth and career, no matter where you start, you will always have something to offer.

There are so many courses (free and paid for) so get out there and do not be afraid to “go back to school”.

YW: Tell us about an initiative with the Asian Leadership Collective that you are most proud of and why.

AC: There are so many highlights to the first year of Asian Leadership Collective. If I had to pick, it would be the removal of the Brian Wong story from David Walliams’ The Worlds Worst Children.

It was a pleasure to work alongside Georgie Ma (Chinese Chippy Girl @chinesechippygirl), and a rather famous Wong to highlight the harmful racist stereotypes used and for the second largest consumer publisher in the UK to not only listen, but action some of our recommendations. There was national-wide coverage of the removal of the story, which is bittersweet, as not everyone agreed with our thoughts on the story being removed.

However, I think it is a powerful message to send to our community and beyond. That things can change when we work together to challenge systems which exist. I hope that it encourages people to take up their own work and lead the charge. We need you!

Other highlights include: #ESEAEats one year birthday celebrations, being one of the many inspiring partners of the first ESEA heritage month in the UK, and setting up an ESEA directory in collaboration with @representlove to showcase our community’s talented people!

YW: You also founded the hashtag #ESEAeats. What is your favourite ESEAeat?

It is no secret that I am #TeamNoodle! I feel like this is due to my mum making us eat a lot of rice when we were younger! My favourite #ESEAEats dish would be either Beef Ho Fun or Pho. Since #ESEAEats launched, I never knew so many people made #ESEAEats with their Christmas leftovers! It’s been a pleasure to see what creativity and thrifty-goodness people come up with. Big shout out to @mrshuongblack and @guan_chua for being regular Christmas leftover #ESEAEat-ers with their inspiring dishes.

YW: What, in your opinion, makes a good leader?

AC: I believe that anyone can lead. A leader is not just someone with a perceived senior job title, an owner of a company, or head of a group. You do not need “permission” to be a leader and you certainly may not always “feel” like a leader everyday – and that is ok. A leader is someone who is present and receptive to the needs of situation they are facing, knowing their strengths and limitations, and not being afraid to ask for help. Be a leader who uplift others and empowers them to do the best they can to reach their fullest potential, otherwise you may fall into the trap of gatekeeping and not leading.

YW: Who are you most inspired by and why?

AC: I have been asked this before and I really find it difficult to pinpoint just one person who is inspiring or is a role model. I think people are inherently good at different things at different moments in their own lives. I have many people I look up to and this usually strongly reflects where I am on my journey.

Recently, I have been inspired by Lucy Do who owns and runs The Dodo Micropub in Ealing, London. She is an example of a leader who shows up and is not afraid to speak about the ups and downs of being a business owner during the pandemic. She supports local food businesses, understands what it is like to wear many hats in running a successful business, and advocates for her local community #HanwellMassive! I can really empathise with her work, personality, and the values she stands by – a leader and representing in an industry traditionally dominated by men.

YW: What does being Asian mean to you?

AC: For me, my upbringing in a small North-Western town in the UK meant assimilating to fit in to the majority. Although I was aware of my Asianness growing up, I had never made a point of showing my pride of being Asian. Mostly because I had never been surrounded by others who would instantly understand the lived experience of a British born Chinese girl who lived above a takeaway. I am so happy to be proven very wrong in my later years. I have been able to connect with many other people who have had similar experiences and together, we proudly celebrate our heritage. Being Asian means being unapologetically proud of your roots and heritage. It means the most amazing food and dishes which tell the stories of nostalgia, love, family, and community.

I love the #VeryAsian movement from @michellelitv as I feel that it embodies all of these things. Let’s keep celebrating our Asianness!