In this series in partnership with Squarespace, we’re highlighting the stories of three successful women of color. They speak honestly about the challenges they’ve faced, how they’ve persevered, and the ways they’re pushing boundaries in their respective industries. Read on for part two and check out parts one and three.
For most of Bernice Chao’s career as a creative director in advertising, she was the only female Asian in the room. “I’ve been super isolated in terms of numbers,” she says. “In most creative departments where I’ve worked, I’d say 10% were female and maybe 2% were people of color. Tack on being a mother, and I’m the only one.”
Despite this lack of representation, she didn’t see her ethnicity or gender as an issue—at first. “I just thought my work was not good enough when I saw coworkers getting to work on better projects,” says Chao, who recently joined the medical scrubs company FIGS as the VP of Brand Creative. “Then when I began to notice who was getting promoted, it was people who weren’t bringing as much to the table. I started to realize there was an implicit bias.”
This realization planted the seed for Asians in Advertising (AIA), a nonprofit Chao launched in March 2021 with her co-founder, Jessalin Lam. “AIA’s goal is to create a free platform and community to help elevate Asian and Asian-Americans to higher leadership positions. We want the AAPI community within advertising to come together in a space where we are often excluded,” Chao says. “It’s a place where we can connect in order to advance our goals and careers. We can help answer questions, offer advice, and have discussions about issues that the Asian community faces as a whole or in their respective careers.”
Here, Chao shares why AIA almost never happened, how its dynamic website has helped the nonprofit succeed, and the importance of having mentors you can relate to (and how to find them).
What inspired you to pursue a career in advertising?
From a young age, I was always interested in art and design. Luckily my parents were supportive of me taking drawing and art classes. After high school, I got a scholarship to attend the Art Center College of Design. From there, I freelanced for a bit and thought advertising was really cool. I loved the variety and the energy.
What challenges have you faced as an Asian woman in the industry?
I had a lot of roadblocks throughout my career about being recognized and heard. Ad agencies, especially creative roles, tend to be white-male dominated. I noticed the good projects were only going to what I called the “bro club.” I also always had to dress up for work because people assumed I was much younger than I am; there was a time when I started a new art director role and someone asked if I was there for an internship. I always felt I had to constantly prove myself.
How did you come up with the idea for Asians in Advertising?
A few jobs into my career, I was finally at an agency where there were six other Asians—that felt like a lot even though it was about a 200-person company. For the first time, I saw an opportunity to bring together my peers, who likely went through experiences that were similar to my own. It sparked the idea for what became Asians in Advertising and soon after I bought the URL for AIA and wrote a whole action plan.
I organized a few meetings with my peers, and after about two of them I saw a decrease in interest. There was hesitancy to create an Asian-only group because it was too exclusive. I ended up shelving AIA at that time because I felt like I was the only one who thought there was a need for this collective group.
What made you go back and revisit the idea?
During the pandemic I started examining my career and felt stuck, so I began reaching out to other Asian women who were also moms on LinkedIn asking for career advice. I felt so much camaraderie; hearing their voices was so encouraging. In January 2021, I attended a virtual Ascend webinar where I connected with my current co-founder, Jessalin. She lives in New York and I live in Los Angeles—and we had no common friends—but my first talk with her blew my mind.
I told her about AIA, and she immediately said let’s do it. I built the website on a Saturday, she looked at it on a Sunday, and our very first LinkedIn post that week had 25,000 views. More than 600 people from around the world signed up for our first virtual networking chat. We knew the need was there.
How has having a website helped with the success of AIA?
I absolutely credit the success of AIA to the Squarespace website. On the backend we’re just two women working on a computer from home, but having that website be your first entry into the organization makes us feel professional. Plus, it’s easy to use, responsive, and intuitive.
With Squarespace analytics, I can also see how and where people are finding us. I can see that after the U.S., most of our visitors come from India. We always had it top of mind to include the Southeast Asian community and seeing that just reinforces what we’re doing.
How has AIA grown since launching?
Our network is now about 1,500 people, just those who hear about us and wanting to share our message. It has been a fun journey. People have sent us notes like, “I couldn’t have gotten this job without you.” Hearing these voices is really inspiring and shows the need there is for this community. We’re still in our early stages but we can tell there’s a craving for more.
In May of 2022, AIA will host its first conference during Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) heritage month called “Breaking Barriers,” during which experts will talk about a variety of topics including branding, salary negotiation, and mental health.
Beyond AIA and your full-time job, you also teach classes on design and speak at TEDx and other conferences. How has having a website helped you market yourself?
For me personally, having a Squarespace website has helped me leverage growth in my career outside of my full-time work. For example, I highlight my experience as a speaker for TEDx and various professional panels on a separate page. The extra effort I put into highlighting my experience as a public speaker is because of the stereotypes others may have about my speaking abilities as an Asian American.
I also have a page called For Juniors which has resources for junior and emerging talent in advertising. I started this during the pandemic, and it’s helped a lot of people while at the same time increasing my SEO. I’ve had about 10,000 views just to that page since it launched in late July 2020.
In addition, two people have found me through my website for book projects. One is called Advertising by Design (4th Edition), which is a college textbook, and the other is called Branding Quickies: A Collection from 20 Women Killing it in the Branding Game.
I teach marketing and advertising courses, and I tell all my students they must have a website portfolio to work in advertising. I also teach a General Assembly workshop on how to build one on Squarespace—anyone can do it!
How have you found mentors later in your career?
In the last two to three years, I started looking outside my industry and company. A lot of people are willing to help. If you send a personalized message explaining why you want to connect, the more likely it is they’ll respond. I would write and say that I’d never worked for a woman of color in my 20-year career and that I’d love to talk. About 90% of the people I messaged ended up responding.
What advice do you have for new moms or those who aren’t sure if becoming parents will affect their careers?
Your career isn’t over just because you’re a mom. You can still do both. Once a 7-year-old came up to me and was like, “I want to grow up to be president, but then I can’t be a mom—I’d have to choose.” And I told her she didn’t. You can absolutely be a good mother and be good at your job. I am not less of an employee because I’m a mom; I work just as hard, if not harder.
And any advice for those who want to start a nonprofit?
Just do it. If it doesn’t work out, then it doesn’t work out. If it does, then you have something great.