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Tina Tchen is challenging companies to build better workplaces. As the CEO of Time’s Up, she’s focused on equality in the office. As a lawyer by trade, Tchen has also been a political aide as chief of staff to First Lady Michelle Obama, and the executive director for the White House Council on Women and Girls. She sat down with us this week to talk about how she creates impact at scale- and what it’s like to manage up when your boss is the First Lady.
On Her Childhood
Tina: My parents were Chinese refugees. They came to the United States in 1949 in the wake of World War II and the Chinese Civil War. And really left behind most of their family, like their parents…. My dad actually had heard about the discrimination that a lot of his friends and family had experienced on the east and west coasts. And he thought it was because that's where the large concentrations of Chinese were. So he decided to settle us where there were no Chinese.
Literally up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio there were literally six families, I think, on the east side of Cleveland back in the '50s and '60s…. I was very much the curiosity. I have vivid recollections of sort of being the kid that everybody stared at in the grocery store.
Which, actually, built up this resilience to become the only woman sitting in a board meeting, right? I think a lot of my ability to do that actually came from having lived through that as being the other person and the curiosity in the classroom for so long.
On Paying Your Dues
Tina: I've often said to young lawyers, "Look, that's part of how you learn how to do the work." You don't instantly walk in and say, "I'm going to go to trial and be a trial lawyer," and walk into the courtroom and lead a case.
In your first year, you have to, like any good craft, learn the craft. And some of that involves doing some of what we used to call the ‘scut work’….
What's not acceptable in paying your dues, though, is running the gauntlet of bad behavior…. That's what we're fighting for in Time's Up, is to create workplaces where everybody's respected and allowed and able and empowered to reach their full potential and not held back by the kinds of unconscious bias or conscious bias that occurs in workplaces.
On Transferable Skills
Tina: As much as I have done politics, within a week of getting to Washington DC, I realized that as political as I had been in Chicago, I had no idea how Washington worked…. I really quickly realized I was in the deep end of the pool with not a lot of precedence for anything that I was going to do. Except to your point, I did harken back.
And I realized, for example, that the president and the first lady were like my CEO clients, right? [Then] I realized I needed to treat them the way I treated my CEO clients with how I needed to prepare them, what level of information and detail did I need to give them, what level of research did I need to do to take into the meetings I was going into, right?
…. That's what you learn how to do as a lawyer, in ways that I had not fully appreciated until I got there. That was, to your point, directly transferable. And I think, quite frankly, made me better able to pretty quickly adapt. Even though I was in the deep end of the pool, it didn't take me that long to sort of figure out where are the levers of power, how do you pull them, how do I pull really effectively for what I wanted to do.
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