Hard work plus focus and determination (and a little bit of luck) equals success.
At least, that’s the formula that has worked for Holly Ham, executive director of the White House Initiative on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. Ham, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, has a 22-year career in the private sector and recently joined public service under President Donald Trump. She spoke as a federal servant to approximately 200 employees at NAVAIR’s National Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month event here May 23.
Ham focused on the theme of the month, “Unite Our Mission by Engaging Each Other,” stressing the skills and characteristics necessary to engagement: inclusion, persistence, relationships, effort, dedication and leadership.
“In our office, engagement is key as we reach out to communities across the country,” Ham explained as she detailed the role the White House Initiative plays in sharing information and listening to the communities that comprise the 22 million Asian-American Pacific Islanders across the U.S. Her office’s work spans several critical challenges: education rights, accessing funds for marketable ideas and understanding the importance of the 2020 census.
She urged NAVAIR employees to “continue to engage and expand with one another” and praised their dedication to their mission.
“You’re dedicated to providing warfighter needs, giving them the confidence to succeed,” she said. “You’re out there producing readiness. You’re driven to excel, to succeed, to make a positive impact.”
Making a positive impact comes naturally to Ham. She immigrated to the U.S. in January 1980 after a dangerous journey from war-torn Vietnam to Indonesia over the South China Sea. Her family settled in Pasadena, Texas, as refugees, and Ham said the welcoming community helped ensure their assimilation and integration, introducing them to American staples such as baseball, football and hamburgers.
Growing up, she stumbled on an old IBM computer and wrote her first code, displaying the words, “Hello, world” across the screen.
“I was fascinated by the idea I could write logic to manipulate the outcome,” she said. That encounter piqued her interest and curiosity in computer science, which blossomed into her first job in Finland as a software engineer.
After her time overseas, she returned to the U.S. to work for an electronics firm. She considers her quality manager there to be her first mentor, because he recognized her business acumen and encouraged her to do more than just write computer code.
“Mentoring is one of the best-kept secrets,” she said. “I’ve seen my career and the decisions I’ve made change, because mentors opened doors I didn’t know existed.”
The Asian culture tends to be reserved and reticent, she said, which is why it’s important Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders speak out about their ideas and share their personal journeys and stories. To help them, she encouraged managers to continue to build the “employee pipeline” and engage with their teams.
Asians and Pacific Islanders comprise 6% of the U.S. population and are the fastest growing ethnic group, Ham said. At NAVAIR, Asian females make up 1.7% of the population and Asian males 6.4%. Native Hawaiian females make up 0.1% of the NAVAIR population and males 0.5%.
“During Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we celebrate the remarkable accomplishments of Americans of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage that have enriched our great country and helped define our history,” according to the presidential proclamation, issued April 30, 2019, as quoted by Ham.