Meet Laura and Olivia, Co-founders of Project EMplify

Photos provided by Olivia Chen

Project EMplify, co-founded by Taiwanese Americans Laura Huang and Olivia Chen, is a global non-profit initiative dedicated to addressing inequality and disadvantage through personal empowerment. Their programming includes a book matching program, mentoring sessions, and workshops to help underserved communities discover how they can find and create their edge, as outlined in Huang’s debut book, EDGE: Turning Adversity into Advantage. Their goal is to reach underserved individuals, including the AAPI community, and create positive impact.

Laura is an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, where her research examines early-stage entrepreneurship, and the role of interpersonal relationships and implicit factors in the investment decisions of financiers such as angel investors and VCs. Part of her work analyzes and challenges the subtle cues that can lead to implicit bias in the investing and decision-making process. She’s also an adversity researcher. “One theme I see in my years of research,” she shares, “is that failure is a part of life. Many times, we stop trying when we face adversity. What prevents us from continuing is not necessarily the actual failure itself but the emotions that are associated with failure. Perhaps, it is feeling embarrassment or nursing an injured pride.”

Wanting people to tactically overcome these emotional roadblocks inspired Laura to write EDGE: Turning Adversity into Advantage: “you should think of your life as a continuum… there is always something new to learn and improve upon. In some areas, you will be stronger and in other areas you will have room to grow. Instead of focusing on worrying and getting caught up in the fear of failing, focus on understanding your unique edge and how you enrich others. When you experience setbacks and difficulties, focus on knowing the value you provide, as this perspective will make you stronger and better, rather than jaded and bitter.” 

We also asked her about the holistic challenge of combating inequality, and the ways personal empowerment, while deeply meaningful, may not singularly radically transform the unjust systems that create disadvantages in the first place. 

The Project EMplify approach, she answers thoughtfully, is to help individuals control the controllable: “we want to uplift the next generation and provide them with the critical skills they need for life and work. Over the last 12 years of my research, I found a consistent theme: hard work does not always equate with success.

What is critical for success is soft skills, or what we call foundational skills. To equalize the playing field and to help underserved communities, Olivia and I cofounded Project EMplify, a global nonprofit initiative that allows us to bridge the gap between what is taught in school and what is needed in the workplace.”

The Project EMplify curriculum focuses on empowering unprivileged communities, including teachers teaching in those communities, via book matching, workshops, and mentorship programs. Our training is based on Laura’s research-derived EDGE framework, which stands for Enrich, Delight, Guide, and Effort. 

“The EDGE framework,” she continues, “is a new way of thinking about your traditional soft skills (i.e. how to be a good team player or how to lead others). To be effective in today’s life and work, it is critical to understand the biases we face. By understanding the stereotypes we carry, we can guide the perceptions that others have of us.” 

The program also offers robust mentorship opportunities. “Mentors are critical,” Laura continues. “They provide a sounding block and a safe place for mentees to talk about sensitive issues they are facing, such as issues related to the bamboo ceiling, work promotion, or discrimination. With Asian hate crimes at an all-time high and as Asian American co-founders [ourselves], we wanted to give back to our community and provide them with concrete steps and tools. So we launched our mentorship cohorts for our Asian and Asian American community, a place where we can come together and help each other by having open dialogue and candid conversations. Our goal is to uplift our Asian and Asian American community to flip adversity and stereotypes in our favor. We want to change the narrative via Project EMplify by teaching soft skills to navigate life and workplace challenges. At Project EMplify, we want everyone to understand and hone their EDGE.” 

Olivia also recently helped organize and speak at a #StopAsianHate rally in Taipei, though she reveals that doing so required her to step out of her comfort zone. “Normally,” she says, “I’m more behind-the-scenes, especially when planning events.  So when I was first asked to speak at the Taipei’s #StopAsianHate rally, I hesitated. Culturally, as a Taiwanese American, I was encouraged to be respectful of elders, to be quiet, and definitely not to rock the boat. But, with everything happening, I decided to speak up for all those that are still afraid. I wanted others, including my son, to know that his voice, our opinions, and our lives as Asians and Asian Americans [are worth hearing].” 

Her friendship with Laura helped her trust in the research: “Laura is incredibly encouraging and supportive of me speaking and making my voice heard. She often talks about the idea of Doubling Down. Do more in the areas that you are afraid of. Seek more of these challenges that you normally tend to avoid. These are the areas where you see the most growth and learn more about yourself, so you can better hone your unique EDGE. 

 What I learned is that it does take courage to speak up and confront the injustices and racism we are facing. As a community, I’m amazed by the transformation and inspired to keep raising our voices so we can collectively be seen and heard.” 

With Project EMplify, Olivia hopes to mobilize her son and the next generation, especially AAPI youth, to understand the stereotypes and perceptions they face—so they can turn them into their advantages and push for the changes required for them to lead safe, productive, joyful lives. 

We’d actually first met Olivia when she was helping spread the word about another Taiwanese author, Jill Chang, and her debut non-fiction Quiet is a Superpower. Her passion for books and authors, she shares, became especially meaningful when paired with her desire to connect with their experiences: “Growing up, books were and still are a huge part of my life. However, I knew subconsciously that none of my favorite authors or book characters looked like me.

I’m so thrilled by this new generation of Asian and Asian American writers because they are so talented and have incredible abilities to write universal stories that we all can relate to.

I was particularly drawn to Abigail Hing Wen’s book Loveboat, Taipei because not only was Ever, the main character, Taiwanese American, but Abby wrote and included 30 unique characters that were all Asian. It was simply amazing to be able to read about Taiwan and little cultural references like the World Journal which my parents read when I was growing up in the Bay Area. These small touches reminded me of my childhood and made me feel seen and heard.

When I first heard Jill give a talk, she shared the struggles of being an extreme introvert and the tips she cultivated over the years in accepting herself as introverted and how it is now her superpower. What I love about Jill is that she is an authority on introversion and more importantly, she brings a wealth of knowledge regarding the subject from an Asian viewpoint, having grown up in a Taiwanese culture with traditional parents. Jill is considered Asia’s Susan Cain and her book, Quiet is a Superpower, is a best seller in Asia and on Amazon.

“Fun fact,” she adds, “she is the first Taiwanese author to be translated by her publisher Berrett-Koehler into English.” (Which we knew, by the way, but only because she slid in our DMs to tell us last year. She’s truly the best cheerleader!) 

“As you may have guessed,” she continues, “I’m a huge fan of Laura’s book EDGE: Turning Adversity into Advantage, as the research she has done over the twelve years is revolutionary in changing how we see and conduct ourselves. As a thought leader, Laura is the first Taiwanese American woman to be hired by Harvard Business School and she is an expert on understanding how stereotypes and biases affect the workplace. She is a phenomenal speaker, and I am continually inspired to grow and hone my own EDGE.”

EDGE was also recently translated into Chinese and released in Taiwan. “It’s been an incredible experience,” says Laura. “ My publisher Commonwealth Magazine Publishing, editor Isabella Yunyi Wu, and marketing manager Sandra Tseng, were all wonderful to work with and extremely supportive. Taiwan holds a special place in my heart because it is the birthplace of my parents. I was thrilled and yet nervous for my mom to read the book because I mentioned her several times in the book. This is also the first time she read something that I’ve written in her native tongue. Though she is not overly expressive with praise and tends to be more reserved, I know she is proud and quietly tells people about my book.”

Laura’s story, while hopeful to many, may be especially encouraging to readers of “Like you, I’m the child of immigrants, grew up in a Taiwanese American household speaking multiple languages, and always felt I was never ‘American’ enough nor ‘Taiwanese’ enough. Growing up, my parents constantly instilled in me the belief that I need to work hard to achieve success. And yet, I found that this was not entirely true because perceptions, attributions, and stereotypes also all play a role in who is successful.” 

This interest in the social conditions surrounding the meritocracy myth drove her to over 12 years of research about workplace disparities. 

But the work doesn’t stop with EDGE, or its Chinese translation (or even the position at Harvard Business School): “Project EMplify has been actively working with nonprofits in rural communities to share our curriculum and uplift the next generation of young Taiwanese individuals and companies to embrace their unique EDGE via our programming. Our partners include Commonwealth Foundation, KIST, Lead for Taiwan, and Teach for Taiwan.”

We conclude our conversation by asking both Olivia and Laura about the books they would recommend to our community: 

From Laura:

My “Well-Balanced Meal” MBA Reading list can be found on my website

From Olivia:

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Dear Girls by Ali Wong

Year of Yes: How to Dance it Out, Stand in the Sun, and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki 

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