Celebrating AANHPI Women Leaders: Interview with Jennifer Li Dotson

By Anh Vo, Chief Culture Officer and Thandi Cai, Marketing Associate

In honor of AANHPI Heritage Month, Chief Culture Officer Anh Vo dives into what it means to be a woman leader of Asian descent in the nonprofit space with former Vice President of Philanthropy for the National Bureau of Asian Research and current AFP Global member, Jennifer Li Dotson. 

These AANHPI women leaders share with us their motivations, visions for the future, and how they navigate the world of philanthropy and beyond, using their experiences as Asian women leaders. We hope this interview inspires and empowers others to claim their unique truth and join the conversation as we celebrate the diverse voices of AANHPI Heritage Month.

The video below combines the interviews of two Asian women leaders. The transcript following is the conversation with Anh Vo and Jennifer Li Dotson. You can read the transcript between Anh Vo and Alice Fong here.

What role has your racial and gender identity played in your approach to honest partnerships?

Jennifer:  I’m a daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, born in Vietnam, raised in Hawaii with a multicultural background. I grew up with a very distinct feeling that my Vietnamese heritage was very different from my Japanese heritage was different from my Chinese heritage, especially in the foods that we ate as well as the celebrations that we have, especially holidays and festivals. My racial identity has given me a unique perspective on diverse Asian cultures and traditions. To be authentic with you, I’ve still had to do a lot of code switching in some situations to navigate different social contexts.

My mother and maternal grandmother were hugely influential in the way that I was raised, both were strong female role models. My mother worked three jobs to provide for our family. I spent most of my time with my maternal grandmother. I felt like strong female role models were the center of and continue to be the center of my world. I endeavor to do that for my daughter. My gender identity also influences my desire to connect with other working moms and seek out advice from fellow mothers. Overall, my racial and gender identities have shaped the relationships I cultivate and the communities they belong to.

Anh: Thank you. I can see commonalities that we share, including Vietnamese heritage and growing up with strong female role models. 

Jennifer: Absolutely. It is wonderful to be able to connect on so many levels.

How have those identities played into your development as a leader?

Jennifer: I haven’t had a lot of professional, female Asian role models in my work. I really lacked that representation. However, many of my first bosses had executive assistants that were Asian females. They were leaders to me because of the influence and access they had. They had the ability to teach me as a young woman while I came up in the professional ranks. They were the ones that took me under their wing, showed me the ropes, coached me, and would whisper into my ear, “This is how you do things; this is how you figure it out.” While becoming a leader many female Asians have propped me up, encouraged me and coached me. They gave me the tools that I needed in the workplace to become a leader. I’m so grateful to them.

Anh: That is amazing.

What shifts do you want to see in female Asian leadership?

Jennifer: According to the census, 5.9% of the American population is Asian [2020 US. Census]. Does that represent our workplaces? I know that in the fundraising sector, 5.9% of our fundraisers are not Asian. So, I’ll ask the audience; how much of your workplace is made up of Asian females? It is a very small number. We need to encourage more Asian females to come into the philanthropy sector. We can take action, like asking our organizations to make an intentional decision to encourage more Asian female leadership. Look at the makeup of your board of directors, look at the makeup of your C suite. If it is not representative of 5.9% of our population, then something needs to change. Many of our HR colleagues are very intentional in increasing diversity and creating space for people of color. We all need to be very intentional in making our organizations more credible and representative.

Anh: Yes!

Jennifer: I have three opportunities for those listening to be involved and to create the shift we are talking about. Every month, I have an in-person BIPOC affinity group that meets the first Wednesday of every month. It’s here in the South Sound of Washington and everyone is welcome. Having a cohort and authentic relationships so that we can lean on each other is very important. The second opportunity is a quarterly virtual affinity group that is open to people around the world. We talk through the challenges that we’re facing and create a community, so we are not alone in our professional experiences. Lastly, we have an online affinity group 24/7 that people can join right now. Please reach out or add me on LinkedIn. We’re creating change and pushing for that positive shift. On a day-to-day basis, we need each other.

Anh: Well said. My aspirational thoughts for us, as female Asian leaders, is to kick ass, take names, claim your space and share your voice. However, once you claim that space and share your voice, you then must worry about blowback consequences because you’ve done so.

Jennifer: Yes. The fear of blowback. There have been some heavy conversations around the one year anniversary of the murders of the seven women in Atlanta. People fear publicly posting how they feel because they fear the blowback. It is heartbreaking and that fear is overwhelming.

Thank you for bringing that up and saying it out loud. It’s good to know that we’re not alone in that burden.

Anh: Thank you for your time today and your thoughtful answers. Folks are going to benefit from all the wisdom and insights that you shared along with the three opportunities to join a supportive community.

Jennifer: Of course. We are breaking down that “aloneness.” If we can incrementally decrease that aloneness, we are incrementally increasing the positive shifts that we’re looking to achieve.

Anh: Absolutely. Thank you. I would love to find ways where we can continue this conversation and invite more voices in.

Read our next interview Celebrating AANHPI Women Leaders: Interview with Alice Fong.