AAPI Month: Co-Founder Cecilia Tse

AAPI Month: Co-Founder Cecilia Tse

Part of my fabric has always been about challenging the status quo and breaking down barriers and stereotypes. In fact, my dad used to tell me that I should become a lawyer because he felt I enjoyed arguing so much. As a little girl, I championed our family getting a puppy by scouring the classifieds, finding an ad, calling and making an appointment, and convincing my dad to drive us all there (and back, puppy in tow). But I never dreamed I would be breaking the career stereotype. I was so focused on taking the stable, “safe” route that was encouraged by my culture and family. As a daughter of immigrants who either didn’t have the access or ambition to achieve more, I felt the pressure to succeed in whatever I did, especially as I chose a safe career like finance despite learning that I didn’t have a real passion for it. That pressure, unfortunately, led me to a phase of deep burnout, which ultimately helped me understand that I needed to do away with conforming and uncover what I really wanted.

During high school, I loved the logic of math and I was good at it. I found the concept of derivative financial instruments fascinating. Thus began my pursuit of a career in finance consulting, where, after over a decade, I began to notice that so many of us were scrambling and constantly trying to keep up. No one told me that I needed to be on track to make partner yet I continued to apply my self-imposed work ethic and Type A personality to perform to the absolute best of my ability. I was highly skilled in my work until I started noticing how much harder it felt to continue on my trajectory. The majority of leadership in my field didn’t look like me, eat like me, have unspoken family obligations like me, or otherwise identify as I do. I was told that simply by being who I was and where I was within the organization, I was effectively a leader representing fellow minorities. I was suppressing my dreams yet still sticking out.

What We Sacrifice for Safety

I was working or thinking about work 24/7, including Sundays when I often would go straight from bed to the computer or work calls without even getting dressed. I was late to social events with friends or would cancel at the last minute. I was drinking most nights with my colleagues as a way to commiserate with each other and with clients as a recommended means to build relationships and earn more stars on the partner track. I look back at times when I had so much trouble falling and staying asleep, how I would have a constant knot in my stomach, how I was heartbreakingly irritable (an understatement) towards people I care about most, and what vices I grasped for to numb or reward myself. It was clearly me burning out. I had put myself last, time and time again, despite grasping for safety. So much was off.

While the field and profession certainly account for some of the pressure I felt to perform and keep up, I have come to learn that a lot of it stems from a place of pursuing safety and stability. I had internalized the dreams and expectations of parents, families, and society.

Safety, but at What Cost?

Safety, for me, was about financial stability. Yet to achieve this, I endured situations that made me feel less than. I’ll never forget when a client asked me and two fellow female colleagues, “Since when did the team become so female heavy? Which one of you is going to clean my office?” and then proceeded to single me out as the only ethnic minority in that group and summoned me to his office via email to collect his lunch for him.

An Escape from Burnout

As the long hours and all-encompassing demands of my job took their toll, I began diving into the wellness world as an escape and then to regularly renew and rejuvenate myself from what I thought was an experience isolated to my job. I recognized the whitewashing that the modern wellness world can be riddled with, yet found authentic corners and I captured the parts that worked for me. I was deeply burnt out, and my mental and physical health needed tending to. The wellness world shone a light on a path I only wished I could spend more time traveling on. It was then that I also started really reconnecting with my identity and particularly my womanhood.

As an ethnic minority, we’re constantly having to think about how much of our Asian-ness to suppress in society or allow people to see. I was forced to think about what I really wanted, even if it felt “unsafe” originally. This included reflecting on much of my identity as an Australian-born and raised Asian and how much of it shaped my career, especially when it played such a direct role in my burnout. I knew through my own experiences with the healthcare system and the burnout I had gone through that health and wellness was an area I wanted to double down on. And while it was scary, I didn’t make this decision on a whim. I had thought long and hard about my passions, abilities, determination, and the opportunity. There was a clear need and corresponding gap in the market where the same cycles of burnout, dismissal, and systemic oppression were impacting other women and people in a way that I couldn’t stand by and just watch happen.

Choosing Wellbeing and Redefining Safety

I did eventually make a change. I became the Wellbeing Strategy Leader for the professional services firm I had been working at. It was an effort to not only pivot my career but also to help empower over 200,000 of the firm’s employees to prioritize themselves and their wellbeing and prevent their own burnout. At the time, it felt like my dream job and was one of several meaningful steps that led me to building hey freya. It laid the foundation for a new sense of safety in pursuing what was authentically me. 

In hey freya I have discovered a new definition for what is safe: something that is yours and mine, and not built in the systems that have oppressed and hurt us but rather around them. hey freya creates a place to go heal, to rejoice, and exist completely as your truest self. 

I hope to share this story so that our community knows that hey freya is building something because it’s what we wish we had had and because we’ve been there ourselves. Each of our identities has uniquely shaped our perspective on this problem and our experiences have been exacerbated by the broken system and lack of solutions. My number one goal as a founder is to build trust so our community feels seen by what we’re building and can come to us for answers and genuine support – a place I didn’t have when I needed it most.

Celebrate With Me

This month I’m celebrating all the ways in which my culture, family and identity brought me to where I am today – building hey freya alongside the best women I know. I want to know what you’re reflecting on and celebrating this month, or what you’re letting go of. Let us know on Instagram where we’re keeping the conversation going.
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