Knotch connected with Clara Shih, the Founder & Executive Chair of Hearsay Systems for the latest interview in our Opportunity Makers series. In this piece, she discusses her move to the U.S., how her mom’s hustle inspired her work ethic, and the power immigrants hold to shape their stories and build community.
What was your “coming to America” story?
We packed our bags and left Hong Kong for America in June 1986. I was just four years old but remember how bittersweet it was for my parents to leave their jobs, loved ones, and everything they knew in search of economic opportunity and ideological freedom. They had very modest savings and knew no one in Akron, Ohio other than my Uncle Patrick who helped us come over. Yet they were full of hope for my brother Victor and me, and never lost that hope even when times became tough.
Akron was beautiful. I remember being overcome by how spacious and green it was, and by how genuinely friendly people were. Not at all like the busy and cramped urban intensity of Hong Kong. But in the 1980s, Akron was going through a period of economic decline, and it was difficult for my parents to find work. They hustled for small jobs here and there, but every day I could feel their anxiety and worry. We remained in Akron for three years and then settled in Chicago, where I spent the majority of childhood and my parents reinvented their careers.
What was the biggest adjustment coming to the U.S.?
Everything was an adjustment. Learning a new language, making new friends, finding community, driving everywhere instead of walking, learning new norms and a new culture. One interesting memory I have was being placed in a class for students with speech impediments. My elementary school, Case School, didn’t have an English as a Second Language (ESL) program at the time. That’s how I learned to speak English natively.
What was the biggest challenge in growing up in the US as a part of a multicultural family?
The biggest challenge and also gift of being multicultural is learning to simultaneously hold two different identities while being authentic to both. By day, I wanted to become as American as possible – mastering the language, understanding social norms, making friends, being accepted. At home, we only spoke Cantonese because of my parents’ limited English proficiency. From a young age, I tried to help out as much as possible– setting the table, cleaning up, folding laundry, anything to lighten the load on my parents, who my brother Vic and I knew were already stretched to the brink. We grew up fast and probably had less fun than our peers day-to-day, but on the other hand, our family became very close and has a great sense of purpose from supporting each other.
How do you accredit your experiences as an immigrant to your current achievements?
Witnessing how my parents hustled and adapted has had a profound impact on me. My mother, for example, had been an award-winning high school art teacher back in Hong Kong; no one wanted to hire her to do that in Akron. She reinvented herself and hustled her way into drawing puffy-paint sweatshirts for a local boutique, cutting hair, selling handmade decorative velvet flowers, teaching senior citizens how to paint watercolors, even shoveling snow in the driveway of our apartment complex. She was tireless, continuously learning new skills pivoting, trying new things to put food on the table. This is where I get my bias for action– who, if not me? When, if not now? My mom eventually went back to school and got her Master’s Degree and later Ph.D. in education. She is a lifelong learner and has inspired me to be the same.
How does your identity as an immigrant shape your role as a storyteller?
As an immigrant, I’ve learned first-hand that we are responsible for writing our own stories. Especially in America, we have the freedom to speak up, articulate a vision, and work hard to make our dreams a reality. Stories are also incredibly important for building communities and a sense of belonging, building empathy, and shaping the future we want to see for ourselves, our families, our communities, and organizations we lead. As Maya Angelou famously said, "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel"– storytelling is a powerful way of sharing experiences and emotions.
People often say that immigrants are the bedrock of this nation. What unique value do you think immigrants bring to the US and help shape our culture?
Every immigrant has two things in common: a bias for action and the tenacity to get through seemingly impossible situations where the odds are stacked against you. This powerful combination of ambition and drive has fueled America’s greatness for 200 years, and is why so many of the world’s most creative and innovative companies were started here. Breakthroughs are achievable and reasonable only in hindsight. Each day leading up to the breakthrough, it's just a crazy idea. Tesla Motors, Apple, Youtube, Google, even decidedly American things including ketchup, basketball, and blue jeans, were all crazy ideas invented by immigrants.
We all are familiar with the “American Dream.” What was your early perception of the American Dream and how has it evolved over time?
My perception of the American Dream has always been that America is the land of opportunity, and that anyone who works hard enough can achieve a better life. I’m very thankful this has been my own experience in America, but for too many Americans, the American Dream is increasingly out of reach. Too many kids are unable to get a quality education or worse yet, they are going hungry and don’t have safe drinking water. College costs a fortune, and yet job opportunities are heavily skewed toward the highly educated and highly skilled. As business leaders and community leaders, we can do better and need to do better to make the American Dream real again.
What value would you say young immigrants can showcase as they continue their career journey?
The decision and act of immigrating to a new country epitomize entrepreneurship – the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled. In our rapidly-changing world and economy, an entrepreneurial mindset has become invaluable in every job function. Young immigrants who embrace their ability to adapt quickly, think differently, and work hard will do very well in their careers.