June 2009 | By Jane Leung Larson
“All joking aside, when people ask me my career advice, it’s easy to say if you go to law school with the president, it helps!” said Christopher Lu, White House Cabinet Secretary, who has been working for his Harvard Law School classmate since joining Senator Obama as his Legislative Director and Acting Chief of Staff in 2005. Lu was one of three notable Asian Americans who have chosen public service over corporate ladder-climbing, a choice that in each case has meant a large cut in pay. Julie Chon, International Economic Advisor to the Senate Banking Committee Chairman, left the financial sector in 2004 to begin work advising Senators on economic and financial legislation. Karen Narasaki, President and Executive Director of the Asian American Justice Center, comes from the world of corporate law, as does Lu, and is now a nationally-respected advocate for civil rights.
Moderating the panel was John Podesta, former White House Chief of Staff for President Clinton and currently President and CEO of the Center for American Progress. Putting their mentoring caps on, the panel gave these tips for those who want to venture into public service:
• Whatever task is given to you, do it well. There are a lot of people who literally have started in the mailroom in a Congressman’s office and have worked their way to the top. (Lu)
• When you get to a fork in the road in your career, take one of the forks. Far too many people agonize over which choice to take. Public service is not a straight trajectory but a zigzag back and forth. There are no really perfect opportunities. (Lu)
• Lightning will strike one day in your career, and you have to be prepared for those opportunities. That means understanding the issues, developing the right work habits. It’s all about preparation and hard work. (Lu)
• When you come to crossroads in your career, you need to be able to make a choice. What prepares you to make these choices with confidence is knowing who you are. To make the sacrifices necessary to serve in the public arena, you need to understand what your political values are. (Chon)
• Constantly learn and apply what you learn to everything you do. (Narasaki)
• Role models and mentors are important in whatever career you choose. Those who have been the recipients of good mentoring have a responsibility to provide it to others. (Lu)
Narasaki spoke about the breadth of opportunities available: “It’s important for Asian Americans to start branching out. [For example], the president of AARP is an Asian American. In all of my civil rights colleagues’ groups, like La Raza, they all have Asian attorneys or Asian staff. On my staff I don’t just hire Asian Americans only. I think it’s really important to walk the talk in terms of diversity. Work at what you’re passionate about. We need Asian Americans everywhere. The non-profit sector is huge and broad. We employ 8% of the nation’s workforce. There are a lot of opportunities to work in different fields. We have most of the needs that most corporations have.”
Podesta closed by saying that although one often works harder for much less pay in public service, there is “a tremendous honor in serving the public” that money can’t buy.