A sea of faces, almost none like hers; a blur of signs she couldn’t read; the jumbled sounds of a language she didn’t understand—these are Inhi Cho Suh’s memories of her bewildering arrival in the United States at age 5. Seeking the best possible education and opportunities for the family, her father had already left Seoul, Korea, for Spartanburg, SC, where an uncle was a professor. Her mother followed less than two years later with Inhi and her younger brother, Sanghi, who clung to her as they negotiated a transfer in Chicago, with no English among them, and finally made it to a tear-filled family reunion. “I remember the feeling of being lost in a world,” says Inhi, now 34, who endured isolation—and even merciless teasing—as the only Asian kid in kindergarten, learning English through do-or-die immersion. But today, as one of the youngest VPs at IBM, she has more than found her way—and perhaps even paved the way for others like her. “Her ideas are fresh. She’s young. She’s passionate. She understands the technology side of what we do and is an excellent marketer and manager,” says Nancy Pearson, her supervisor. “We try to identify that talent early in a career and offer the experience to attain that goal. That’s why you see her in this position at such a young age.” As such, Inhi remains in some ways alone. “I have three factors that make me different from most high-level corporate executives: I’m young, Korean American and a woman,” she says. “The biggest challenge is that it has been hard to find an exact role model.” Inhi has also encountered clients who underestimate her abilities. One even said, “We’d prefer a male executive.” Her response: “This is probably reflective of why you’re having so many business challenges.” (Her solution: She referred the client to several male executives, none of them white. “At least they got some diversity,” she says.)
Her advice to Asian women who want to advance in corporate America is, first, “Be conscious of the differences that may be associated with Asian women in business leadership roles,” she says. Be aware of the stereotypes, such as the quiet and deferential follower. Likewise, some managers assume that while an Asian employee may have good analytical skills, she likely lacks management acumen. How to counter these stereotypes and get those around you to move beyond even unconscious assumptions? “Understand your personal brand. Are you a strategic thinker? A leader? A change agent?” Develop those skills, market them, request “performance benchmarks” and keep improving, she says. It’s also essential to “vocalize what it is you want. Until you do,” she says, “it’s difficult for others to help you.” Indeed, Inhi attributes her swift rise to her ability to identify her personal brand. She learned about leadership from her mentors—neither of whom is an Asian woman, she notes. “Understanding their successes and challenges allowed me to look at the business world differently.” As vice president of information management product strategy in IBM’s Software Group, Inhi is responsible for portfolio direction, messaging, industry solutions and channel marketing. She works with clients, she says, “to help them increase operational efficiency and better manage today’s ever-growing explosion of information.” As a mother, of course, Inhi has had to “increase operational efficiency” in her home and family life as well. While she has embraced and absorbed American, even Southern, culture, she has relied on Korean values—in particular, an emphasis on the collective duty of family—to help her and her husband, David, make tough decisions. Balancing the demands of work, including frequent travel, with those of their son, Jacob, 22 months, is a family affair. Child care has been “a combination of a village and outsourcing,” she says, explaining that they enlisted the help of a rotating crew of relatives when Jacob was just months old. And Korean comfort food— particularly the steamy seaweed soup filling her freezer, courtesy of her sister-in- law—doesn’t hurt, either.
Coming to America
The Seoul of Inhi’s childhood—poor, still recovering from war—was hardly the financial and commercial center it is today. Inhi recalls her family’s modest home and playing with the neighborhood kids in the alleys outside amid the smells, and temptations, of the vendors selling sweet and spicy rice dough and roasted sweet potatoes. The words “culture shock” hardly describe the transition that took her away from all that. She entered American kindergarten with no Asian peers and no English. She was also “teased terribly,” she says, about her English, her eyes, her name. “I remember saying, ‘I wish I had an American name—it would make life so much easier,’” she says. Ultimately, “I was accepted in the sense that I had friends, but I never felt like I truly belonged.” Still, she—and her brother and parents—dug in, resolute, and made good on their dreams, the family embodying the classic American-immigrant success story. Her mother and father, while college educated in Korea, had to learn English and work two jobs each to make ends meet. Within four years they’d started their own businesses, her father teaching martial arts and her mother working as a seamstress. Inhi, for her part, eventually excelled in school and became an accomplished violinist and practitioner of the martial art tang soo do. (Her friends marvel at her quiet humility. “She won’t tell you she’s a black belt,” says longtime pal Jennifer Mario.) Inhi attended Duke University, where she thrived in the multicultural environment and developed an interest in science, law and public policy. Upon graduating, she worked in the student affairs department. On a friend’s suggestion, she took a “just for now” job at IBM and has been there ever since. Inhi’s husband found her—literally—when her group got lost on a church camping and hiking trip, and he and a friend were sent to track them down. On their first date, Inhi, feeling cautious, invited her friend Stefanie and Stefanie’s mom along. “Her mother grilled him so hard that Stefanie was kicking her under the table,” Inhi laughs. “I learned more about him then than I’d have learned in twenty dates—including that he is gracious under pressure.” David, also Korean and also at IBM, grew up in St. Croix. “He is my rock,” she says. David admires his wife’s fearlessness, he says: “Fear doesn’t stop her from achieving what she sets her mind to.” That includes a law degree, earned at night, while working full-time for IBM. Inhi had deferred that goal earlier but never quite let go of it. She believed that legal training would help her analytical and information-processing skills stand out from those of her peers. (She also thought that farther down the road, she might want to pursue a law-related career.) David helped make it all happen, preparing dinner for her nightly when she came home at 10:00 p.m. “There were no boundaries,” Inhi confesses. “But at that time, I didn’t need them.”
It Takes a VIllage
Of course, that changed when Inhi became a working mother and had to not only set boundaries but also prioritize. ’’I told myself I wasn’t going to be the best mom in the world, or even try to be. And make sacrifices. It was only one week after her return from a 12-week maternity leave that she was offered the promotion to her current position. Inhi hesitated, not sure how she’d handle the additional work responsibilities with a newborn at home—or if she even wanted to. Enter the women of her family, who essentially moved in, one by one, to take care of Jacob over the next five months. “The support from my family in helping to take care of Jacob played a big role in the decision to take the opportunity,” says Inhi. “Having my mother, mother-in-law, aunt and sister-in-law watching him gave me peace of mind and allowed me to focus on work.” Even with family help, adjusting to work was tougher than Inhi expected. The inveterate planner found that she couldn’t so easily plan her way around pumping twice a day—though IBM provides space to do so. But she found it challenging to organize her time around being away from her desk. And the emotions that came with separating from her son were overwhelming. When he was eight months old, Jacob entered day care, a day Inhi remembers as one of the hardest of her life. “I handed him to his teacher as he reached out his arms to me, crying as if I was abandoning him. I cried my whole car ride to work,” she recalls, choking up even now. The next day, Inhi was hosting a women’s networking event at work. During her speech, she found herself going off script, describing how hard it can be for working mothers to feel pulled between career and family. “It all came to the surface. I got a bit emotional,” she says—and so did her audience, shouting words of been-there encouragement. “It was like an open mike,” she says. Fortunately, Inhi has been able to take advantage of IBM’s famously family-friendly policies, working from home two days a week and, when Jacob was younger, conducting telephone meetings with understanding colleagues while wearing him strapped to her back. Though a deep-seated go-getter, she set realistic expectations for herself while she was pregnant. “I told myself I wasn’t going to be the best mom in the world, or even try to be,” she says. “Once that really sank in, I just did what I could and was happy about it.” For example, there’s no guilt that she has no time to make an elaborate baby book. Instead, she simply jots down all of Jacob’s milestones—“Laughed!” “Woohoo, slept ten hours!”—on the family calendar. “I figure I’ll give him the calendar and he can write his own story,” she says. These days, Inhi wakes up at 6:30 a.m., is at work by 8:30, returns home by 5:45 p.m. in time for dinner and is often back working in her home office after Jacob’s in bed. She travels for work about twice a month for as long as a week, often internationally. But she never works weekends, observing an email blackout until Sunday night, and tries to make time for girls’ nights with wine, dessert and board games. Her friends joke that she always wins, but for Inhi, it’s more about confidence— and imagination—than results. Says her colleague Rachael Rusting, “Imagine someone who is always thinking I wonder if we could try…or what would happen if we could…and you’ve got Inhi.”