The terms influence, courage, and inspiration are bandied about with increasing frequency these days. Like copies of copies, their true meanings fade through careless repetition. Groundbreakers Speak, presented by Dallas-based Against The Grain Productions, gives voice – and therefore returns power – to these words.
On Saturday, August 8, the 4th annual Groundbreakers Speak: A Conversation with Asian American Movers and Shakers took place at the Hilton Anatole Dallas. Co-hosting this year with the National Association of Asian American Professionals of DFW (NAAAP-DFW), Against The Grain Productions (ATG) presented a panel of seven Asian American influencers, each with a compelling personal story and call to action.
To be sure, though all panelists and hosts were Asian American, the significance of this event transcends any single demographic. Through programs such as Groundbreakers, and the popular Fashion For A Passion show and auction, ATG “cultivates creativity for a cause.” That cause, whether supporting orphanages in Asia, local community outreach, or scholarships for the next generation, defies borders and ethnic labels.
The latest installment of Groundbreakers continued a tradition of career diversity among panelists. From the entertainment industry to blogging to social work to lobbying, each member’s perspective was unique. As panelists prepared to deliver individual speeches, ATG co-founder Tammy Nguyen Lee thanked the audience of near 200 attendees and added an inspiring mission statement: “Be unafraid, daring, and courageous. Go in a direction you haven’t gone before.”
Amplifying this sentiment in her welcome remarks, NAAAP 100 Winner Thear Sy Suzuki asserted, “One characteristic is common to all leaders: courage.” With that, a truly inspiring hour of personal stories began.
The first panelist to share his story was Quan Phung, television producer and President of Slingshot Media. A self-proclaimed “TV addict,” Phung recounted a childhood influenced by multiple legendary series, from Sesame Street to 21 Jump Street. Later, he would be involved in the development and production of many successful series himself, including House and How I Met Your Mother. Currently working on an exciting new project with Keanu Reeves, he emphasized the importance of raising your voice, even if you are alone in a given opinion. Said Phung, “I hope that whatever paths I’ve taken will inspire others to pursue their own paths in life.”
Actress, blogger, and philanthropist Tiffany Hendra (pictured below) took the microphone next. A friend to us at DFW Style Daily, following her Face Time interview earlier this year, Hendra recalled a lifetime of hearing the question, “What are you?” A native Texan, she is one-quarter Japanese, with exotic looks that don’t fit into a typical box. Those looks defied categorization in her early career, until the industry boom in “ethnically ambiguous” talent put her in high demand. Hendra credited the many courageous members of her family with guiding her to a path of service and, of course, great style.
Next up was Larry g(EE), another friend of DFW Style Daily. The pop-soul singer-songwriter also expressed gratitude to his parents, both hard working and supportive of his creative goals. Injecting humor in his story, g(EE) recalled joining the church choir as an initial step in his musical evolution. “Being the only Filipino in a Gospel choir was interesting,” he laughed. Needless to say, having a unique brand of soul is now an asset for the award-winning performer, who parted with the statement, “Never be afraid of who you are.”
Caren Lock then guided the audience through “finding her way” from a difficult experience in law school to a fulfilling career as Regional Vice President and Associate General Counsel, with a focus on lobbying, at TIAA-CREF. Lock is also the founder of the Orchid Giving Circle of the Dallas Women’s Foundation, which helps to fund Asian American nonprofits in North Texas.
Ben Smithee followed Lock, former Dallasite and current New York-based Marketing Executive, in-demand speaker, and Chief Strategy Officer at RELEVANTS. Born in Korea and adopted in childhood, Smithee never met his birth parents. His beloved adoptive parents instilled in him a special version of the A, B, C’s: accountability, belief, and courage. And what does it take to be a Groundbreaker? Smithee answered the question of the day with, “It takes a lot of hard work, and it takes a lot of tools.” He also stated, “I just hope to inspire one person to live a better version of their life, and follow that little spark in their heart to do more.”
Next, children’s advocate, activist, and founder of Color Me SAFE, Gauthami Vemula moved each member of the audience with her personal story of purpose after experiencing a life-changing abusive relationship. A “social entrepreneur,” she now works to “build a bridge” between Child Protective Services and the families it is meant to serve. Alternately heartbreaking and uplifting, Vemula’s journey brought many to tears, then back to high spirits, as she lightened the mood with a description of her satirical blog, Wheatish Complexion. Therein, she candidly discusses the experience of being a first generation Indian woman balancing two cultures.
Speaking of blogs, last but certainly not least, award-winning blogger Phil Yu of Angry Asian Man ended the day on a humorous and insightful note. Believing there is no such thing as being “not Asian enough,” he expressed, “This community encompasses all kinds of people, and is better for it.”
Capping an afternoon of true influence, courage, and inspiration, it was announced that ATG co-founder Tammy Nguyen Lee would receive a NAAAP 100 Award at the evening’s NAAAP DFW 2015 Gala. For more information on Against The Grain Productions, as well as donation and volunteer opportunities, visit www.againstthegrainproductions.com. All images, credit Jarvis Jacobs.