My Secret to Personal Branding & Networking: Getting to do the work you love AND care about
Here’s a secret: you can find opportunities to work with huge organizations, represent thousands of students, or attend prestigious conferences, just by being who you are. By the end of this interactive blog post, hopefully you will have a clear idea of what your personal brand is, and how to honor and utilize your own identity while networking to achieve all of your future goals and aspirations.
I’m going to sort my personal growth into a full-fledged activist and youth advocate in three stages that you can also follow along with:
Stage 1: Discovering Yourself
Stage 2: Building Your Profile
Stage 3: Extending Your Sphere
But first, let's get some background on me: I actually grew up in Michigan, in a small town outside of Detroit called Novi. In my school, and in my general community, there wasn't a ton of diversity, or when there was, it was extremely segregated.
When I did see the Novi AAPI community, which was usually at my Chinese language school, many of the kids my age were not at all in touch with their culture and heritage. That being said, I grew up with only a couple of other Asian classmates in my school, and became the target of frequent discrimination, bullying, and racist stereotyping, from being called “Ling ling” and “ching chong”, to getting excluded and mocked by other students on a daily basis.
Years of internalized racism taught me to be afraid of bringing up my Asian American identity, and feeling entirely disconnected from my identity and culture made me turn to every other possible feature and characteristic to try to define who I was.
But upon moving to Rosemead, California in my freshman year of high school, I found a drastic change in my direct community: I became a part of a community where 62% of the population is Asian. Furthermore, a majority of us are immigrants: about 10 out of 12 houses in my neighborhood alone have families that don’t speak English.
Being suddenly surrounded by people who looked like me and immersed in my own culture helped me to heal my own relationship with my culture and racial identity, especially after only having negative experiences regarding it. Then when the Stop Asian Hate movement hit, it became a calling for me: to protect my community, and to make my community members’ voices heard. What was terrifying was knowing that my neighborhood was experiencing first-hand the violence against Asian Americans during that time: just two blocks away a teacher who taught at my local elementary school was beaten nearly to death with a cane.
And just like that, I found my own entrance, my own “in” that I was really passionate about and wanted to work on. BUT: what I will say is that even something like “anti-Asian hate” is too broad and vague, especially if you weren’t directly affected by it as a survivor of a hate crime. This is not to diminish any movement or issue, but to acknowledge that we are INTERSECTIONAL HUMAN BEINGS. We aren’t defined by just one thing, and we need to honor that in the work that we do. So how do we honor intersectionality? That brings us to…
STAGE I: DISCOVERING YOURSELF
I first discovered this as a college application writing tip, but I’ve since realized that it’s a wonderful tool for helping you to figure out who you really are at the core. So I want you all to do this alongside with me right now: write down five pillars that encompass to the best of your ability your identity: who you are, what you care about, and who you want to become in the future. They don’t have to be all serious, they just have to be the MOST important things about yourself in your opinion. Then write down how they have affected you, or how you utilize that part of your identity in your life.
Here are my five pillars of identity:
Content Creator and Intaker
Now if you haven’t added it yet, I want all of you to add “teen” to your five pillars of identity, because although it might not seem like it directly impacts your everyday life, your age is still very significant, especially in any line of work involving leadership or activism.
We have finally come to the part where intersectionality comes in, and my story continues: as I said before, anti-Asian hate was still too broad of a field for me to just enter into, especially with there already being existing groups doing amazing work that was way out of the caliber of what I could do just as an individual. I wanted to lead and spearhead my own part of this movement, but I didn’t know how at first.
That’s when I realized I could connect two, three, even multiple parts of my identity to create a unique niche for myself within this movement that I felt really empowered and passionate about: AAPI youth activism through content creation, narrative visibility, and artistic expression.
Therefore, creating personal branding to me is all about finding your niche, and honoring who you are as an intersectional, multi-faceted human being. So try your best to make those connections between the things you love, and bring together the different worlds to make space within this world for you!
Now, I want you to take the five pillars of your identity that you have written down, and draw lines to connect the ones that can be connected, and write above the lines HOW they connect, or how you intend to connect them.
This to me is truly DISCOVERING YOURSELF: the niche that you want to inhabit and begin to represent, so that the world can start to see you as that niche as well, and realize the importance of HAVING that niche.
After you discover your niche, and find various ways to connect your different identity pillars in order to create a full, comprehensive brand for yourself that you feel truly represents who you are, you’re ready to start networking and climbing!
Let’s pick back up on my story, and how I built a profile for myself within the activism world that could clearly encapsulate who I was.
Of course, just because you know who you are, and what you’re passionate about, doesn’t mean that those opportunities automatically just come to you. So for me, although I knew that I was most passionate about AAPI youth issues, I didn’t really have an outlet or platform to do that work yet, since actually in my community, there weren’t many other Asian teens who were into activism. Instead, I took the long route, doing as much work as I could as long as I felt like it would lead to progress and a better future for anyone anywhere.
I started my own youth organization, Future Voters LA, which was an initiative focused on promoting youth civic engagement during the 2020 election. Although I love the work that I was doing, this wasn’t necessarily something that helped me to build my profile, because it didn’t end up being related to any of the other work that I would do in the future. But I wouldn’t say that it was all for nothing, because we ended up registering over 3000 new voters, and I also learned invaluable skills regarding leadership, and nonprofit management during this time.
From there though, I randomly joined a webinar about youth activism one day, only to learn about the youth liberty squad, which is a youth activism group based in LA and sponsored by the ACLU of Southern California. Although application season had already ended, and I probably wouldn’t have gotten into the program either way because I hadn’t done enough work in activism yet, I still wanted to get involved, so I emailed deleting stuff who spoke at the webinar that day; and she actually replied, willing to help me start a statewide version of the YLS in California. After building this cohort and base of students, I realized that I was now able to do a lot of the work I was actually passionate about, because I had found an audience that was also passionate about the same things.
So in May of 2021, with the youth liberty squad and various other youth organizations I reached out to, I held an entirely youth-led anti-Asian hate rally in DTLA, which was what truly catalyzed my work and served as the basis of my activism profile. From there, I was lucky enough to work with the API Legislative Caucus of CA to pass a $150 million bill providing relief to anti-Asian hate crime victims, and speak at a LAUSD press conference alongside the founders of Stop AAPI Hate, AAPI Advancing Justice SoCal, and more about ending school bullying towards AAPI students.
All these opportunities stemmed from starting one event that truly encapsulated who I was as an activist, and what I wanted to do with my platform. I am now the go-to person for many organizations when it comes to AAPI youth advocacy, especially for public speaking and press conferences. Eventually I formed my own statewide organization, Youth Against Hate, which focuses on supporting youth campaigns for change across California and beyond and uplifting the youth voice to traditionally adults-only spaces.
DON’T MAKE THE SAME MISTAKE I DID: I took a detour, doing as much advocacy work as I could without centering on exactly what issue it was I wanted to work on.
But also, I’m not saying you can only care about one issue: like I said, we’re intersectional beings, which is why we’re going to build our profiles on intersectionality, rather than just one field of work. And I’ll get more into tackling multiple issues you’re passionate about later on.
Most mainstream fields of activism and in general fields of work already are very well-developed so it’s hard to rise to the top of the heierarchy without either a lot of time, patience, and pain, or really good connections/wealth. But what we can do is build a profile that is so unique, you become the go-to person for that niche, and no one else in the world is doing exactly what you do. Or at least get as close to that as possible.
STAGE II: BUILDING YOUR PROFILE
I want you to look back at the five pillars that you have written down and the connecting lines between them, and add a note of one issue or field of work that aligns with three or more of them. Then from there, brainstorm a specific event, initiative, Instagram reel series, or whatever activity you think could help solve that issue. Bonus points if you could connect all five.
I want you to start with activities that you can start yourself, by gathering others to join you or just in your free time do. But after that, I also want you to consider pre existing groups and companies who might be doing work in the same line of what you’re passionate about, and put them down as a connecting line that you could explore as well.
Like for me, AAPI Teen advocacy happened through public speaking at conferences and doing spoken word, holding scholarship writing and art contests surrounding sharing teen stories, and creating a reel series on social media that shares more about my experiences with my online audience.
But I do this in partnership with an international ad agency, Intertrend, which opened me up to the opportunity to attend events and participate in partnerships with other groups I’m now really passionate about like Teach AAPI, focused on promoting an inclusive ethnic studies curriculum surrounding AAPI history and heritage. I recently got to attend their Palate for Learning Donors Dinner with the founders of the organization, as well as chef David Chang who leads the restaurant Momofuku and was a judge on Top Chef, and Sherry Cola a standup comedian. It was super cool to meet them and many other leaders in the AAPI activism field, especially with an initiative targeting change in AAPI youth.
By creating personal branding that is undeniably unique because of your own uniqueness, you are contributing to the greater initiative to create greater diversity within our world and ensuring that everyone who might be able to relate to your experiences can also feel heard through you.
With that, all of you should have some options with what your next steps are. You can take any of these ideas you ideated with me and turn them into reality, and although it won’t be easy doing it will be SO WORTH IT, because it will continue to pay off as you will get more and more work in the same field you started in. Then by slowly covering all your bases, perhaps two or three at a time, and continuing to do events and participate in groups that do the work you absolutely love and absolutely reflect who you are.
That being said, once you’ve created a profile, you get the chance to work with the organizations and people you love, look up to, and admire:
I got to be a part of a student music video shown as a promotion for the Netflix movie tick, tick, BOOM with Andrew Garfield, that was centered around mental health because I was both an actress and an AAPI teen mental health advocate. It’s not often that we see students of color on screen who struggle with mental health issues, and having more visibility was so important and so wonderful. Especially since Lin Manuel Miranda himself sponsored and selected our music video!
I was awarded Youth of the Year this past year by Congresswoman Judy Chu for my work with AAPI teen advocacy within San Gabriel Valley, and got to meet her, speak with her, and give a speech at her annual Leadership of the Year Awards for the 27th Congressional District with all of the other recipients including Planned Parenthood SGV, Jed Leano the Mayor of the city of Claremont, and more.
I’ve given speeches for the superintendent of LA County and the ACLU SoCal Bill of Rights Dinner (where I met THE RuPaul).
All of these awesome opportunities that a younger me DREAMED about became a reality once I really sat down and thought about what it was that made me me, and what work I wanted to focus my time on.
But from there, as you continue to add to your resume and deepen as well as set in stone your own niche, there comes a point where just these three to five central pillars are no longer enough- with the way that we grow up, there’s always something new that enters our lives and changes the way we see ourselves with each year. So how do we accommodate and address the changes in our own identity within our personal branding and consequent networking as we continue our own learning and growing processes?
STAGE III: EXTEND YOUR SPHERE
I would totally recommend you all to do work that maybe you’ve never tried before, and get involved in new passions that you might not know a lot about just because you’re curious. But rather than sacrificing everything you’ve already built with your personal brand, I would recommend to strategize before involving yourself, because it’s easy to go crazy and not be able to dial it back.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, please also don’t focus only on your niche and not let yourself fully enjoy ALL of the things you love; don’t let personal branding restrict you, instead let it empower you, and help you discover yourself and reach your fullest potential.
So extending your sphere is much like a balancing game, of not doing too much, but also not restricting yourself either. What I will say is once you’ve established yourself within a certain unique niche, it’s actually easy to find more opportunities to do work you’re passionate about, even in unrelated fields, because you will have so many connections from all of the work you’ve already done and become known for.
For example, while this doesn’t necessarily relate to any of the pillars of my identity, I love museums and always wanted to work in one. I started with USC Pacific Asia Museum Teen Ambassador, which related to my passion in AAPI advocacy especially making events related to the stop asian hate movement, AAPI heritage and culture, and talking to artists of AAPI/API ethnicity. Then, the core staff organizer of the PAM Teen Ambassador program sent me a flyer for the Getty’s Student Gallery Guide Program, which is a program I recommend you all to do if you’re at all interested in art, enjoy going to museums, etc.! I luckily got to hear about it because of my pre-existing connections in the museum sphere, and applied and got in! And THEN, my Getty SGG officers sent me and the other teens an entire google sheet of internship opportunities with various museums, art organizations, etc., and connected us to them as well. I became a MOCA Teen, and that’s when I knew I was no longer really interested in this administrative side of artwork; which is totally fine, especially for activities that aren’t necessarily part of your central brand.
While this might not be related to the central pillars I talked about before, they are nevertheless a part of my identity, and even more complex but true is the idea that our pillar identities don’t remain the same either.
For example, the way we perceive and understand our racial and cultural identities can shift and change over time, and extending your sphere can help you continue to perfect your personal brand by acknowledging those changes and incorporating them in your current and envisioned future work.
We never fully know ourselves, but rather than just constantly changing the profile that we’ve built for ourselves based on what we’re currently passionate about, and sort of trial-and-error-ing it until we figure out what exactly has changed, we should always go back to step one of finding and adding new pillars to your core identity once you find them FIRST, so that way you can PLAN OUT how you will incorporate your new passion.
Furthermore, once you build your unique profile and niche, it will become easy to know if a new activity is for you or not. If it is, extenidng your sphere in that direction, one that naturally excites you, will keep you on track with your own growth in your identity. You’ll naturally streamline towards a couple of directions that reflect back to your pillars and who you are innately.
When an activity isn’t for you, you’ll know that for sure too. It becomes hard to do, or you find yourself hating it, or just thinking it’s useless.
Now it’s your turn to consider how you might extend your sphere in the future: let’s do that together right now!!
Reflect on one way that one of your identity pillars has changed over time, or possibly how your relationship with it has changed. Then, based on that change, draw three lines out to an empty space and write down three ways you could honor that change, perhaps by branching out into a new field or activity or advocacy effort.
And those are all three steps to creating your personal brand and starting to network! Remember, this process is cyclical! So just because you’ve already built a profile for yourself in something, doesn’t mean you can never revisit the self-discovery stage to see if there’s any tweaks that need to be made so you can sustain your career goals. Or just because you’re still discovering yourself doesn’t mean that you can’t look ahead towards how you will expand your sphere, and start exploring (in moderation) different options.
But what’s great about personal branding is as long as you DO IT, as long as you put the work in, you will get a return. By constantly trying to learn more about ourselves, and truly understand and recognize our identities rather than push them away, we can cultivate a life where we’re doing the things we love, and the opportunities we’ve always wanted come to us.
So I hope that you’ve all taken something from what I’ve shared today, and thank you for reading to the end!! And as always, I write this