As a 2011 alum of the International Leadership Foundation (ILF) Fellowship program, Kenny Chen has developed personally and professionally since then. Born in Wisconsin and raised in Las Vegas, Kenny graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in Psychology. He spent a year working in San Francisco before going to Hong Kong, working throughout Asia, and finally coming to Pittsburgh. His family is all from Taiwan. We caught up with Kenny as he told us about his past and current projects, including his involvement with the Heroic Imagination Project, and how his work has been influenced by his experiences as an ILF and Coro Fellow.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
“I’ve always been very interested in problem solving and critical/analytical thinking ever since I was a kid. I sometimes refer to myself a ‘brain enthusiast’ because I like things that deal with the human mind, such as logic, learning and decision-making. I chose to study social psychology because I wanted to go down a path where I could have substantial impact in a variety of fields. I knew that anything of importance I did in the future would have to involve other people, so I decided to use this understanding of individual behaviors and group dynamics as the foundation for making a difference.”
“Stepping out of one’s comfort zone, breaking social norms in a positive way and being mindful in reflecting on life. I consider these key factors in being an everyday hero.” Could you please let me know how specifically the Heroic Imagination Project is realizing this statement?
“A lot of what the Heroic Imagination Project (HIP) teaches—or tries to inspire people with—is the idea that the challenges in our lives aren’t as complicated or overwhelming as they may look. They may seem really complex, but, if you look at our behavior, we are actually pretty simple. People often behave in the same kinds of ways, for the same kinds of reasons. Essentially, we’re predictable. So by understanding our personal tendencies—why we do the things we do; why other people do what they do; and how all of this is affected when we come together in groups—we gain a very powerful component of effective leadership.
“One of the ideas we promote at HIP is that leadership isn’t only about concentrated power at the top of a hierarchy. People tend to t leaders as being the small minority that give orders. But what we’re saying is that everybody has the capacity to help people, lead others, or influence a group. It requires having the right skills and awareness to know what’s actually going on and when to stand up, recognizing that the issue of standing up always comes with a degree of risk and fear. We want to give people the ability to take measured risks and make effective decisions despite that fear, which starts by educating people about their own behavior and group tendencies. From there, they can start changing that behavior and understanding, and becoming a transformative influence on the people around them.”
How have the ILF and Coro Fellowships impacted your life?
“ILF was a turning point that really launched me into this whole realm of civic leadership and public affairs, and Coro has given me the opportunity to take the skills I learned at ILF and push them to the limit. I don’t think I’ve ever changed as much or as quickly as I did in those two months as an ILF Fellow. Before going to D.C., I thought I was a relatively confident, effective, and skilled person, but then I went there and saw how fast-paced it all was, surrounded by talented, powerful people. For example, working in the Office of the Secretary of Transportation, I had a chance to meet people like the Vice president of China Airlines, who impressed me with his balance of tact and formidability. Being in D.C., the political capital of the world, gave me the perspective and motivation to look at everything that was going on: the importance of keeping up with current events; the power of networks and interpersonal relationships; the complexities with media, business, and politics… It was almost overwhelming to begin with, but as I got used to it, I expanded my capacity to be an effective citizen no matter where I am.
“Additionally, the weekly CAPAL trainings and Fellowship assignments always pushed us to network and do public speaking. This definitely pushed me outside of my comfort zone, but I’ve learned that that’s the most important thing if you want to keep growing and improving. ILF encourages you to do that in a really great way. It got me started early on thinking about the importance of networking, mentorship, and getting the most out of the organizations and environments that I work in, while also finding ways to give back in meaningful ways.
“After ILF, it was my goal to also take on the Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs and follow in the footsteps of our CEO, Chiling Tong, because I knew it would be the perfect way to expand upon the experiences I had gained. Since ILF focuses on empowering young Asian Pacific American leaders in public service, I felt well supported, and enjoyed sharing the 2-month experience with the ~30 other Fellows in my class. In contrast, Coro has 12 Fellows per center for a 9-month program, and requires these Fellows to work closely together on a lot of different projects, concerning a wide range of topics and sectors. Coro has given me the opportunity to work with diverse groups of people across boundaries of race, class, gender, and belief, which has allowed us to learn a tremendous amount about ourselves and others. The challenges so far have been great, but the rewards have been even greater.
The most important lessons come from real, hands-on experience. What were some challenges you faced?
“I think, over the course of my professional experience—only two and a half years out of college so far—ILF definitely gave me the first taste of what that all looks like. ILF gave me a clear look at inefficiencies that happen in the government and a lot of other organizations. Problems are inevitable, and they come up by virtue of people being people, people having egos, people not always getting involved, etc. I’ve found that he biggest issue in any organization—no matter the sector, big or small—is communication. ILF is great at what it does, but nothing is perfect, especially when I came back to ILF and saw that a majority of the issues we faced was because somebody had a misunderstanding or people weren’t on the same page. Your ability to communicate has profound impacts on all your relationships, your personal understanding of the world and how you decide to intervene in certain situations. I encourage everyone—especially potential Fellows who are still in college—to take theater or rhetoric classes, or do Toastmasters. Learn the skills that will allow you to be a more effective communicator and be persistent in finding opportunities to practice. If you can build up your confidence, control your emotions, and be crystal clear with people, I can almost guarantee that you’ll be successful wherever you go.
What is your future plan (for your own life, for your business) and/or goal?
“I have a checklist that I want to accomplish within the next five years before I turn 30, which is relates to my long-term goal of being an influential, cross-sector professional. I am passionate about a lot of things, and I see a niche for myself in being a person who bridges gaps and facilitates opportunities for collaboration between organizations. To do that, I plan to continue building networks and influence in the government, nonprofit sector, large corporations, small business, media, and education.
“Within the next five years, my checklist includes: working with a large corporation that’s innovative and socially responsible; being involved with the creation of a small business or startup in order to provide valuable service to other people; serving on the Board of Directors for at least one international nonprofit; and being involved with the campaign or election of a political official ideally on state level.
“I would also like to build relationships with as many media outlets as I can, or at least develop a more in-depth understanding of the industry. For being such huge drivers of decisions and public knowledge, most media networks don’t do nearly anywhere of a good job as they should, and I want to do something about it. Within education, I want to be involved with giving back. I want to engage with organizations that I’ve been a part of—school organizations, Berkeley, ILF, Coro Fellows—and I am consistently mentoring people and involved with middle/high/university school-type activities. So, that will be a constant. Grad school is on the table as well.”
Additional info on Haiti fundraiser
Through the Coro Fellowship, Kenny spent 4 months working with Hôpital Albert Schweitzer Haiti, a hospital in rural Haiti. He was tremendously inspired by their mission and how much they were able to accomplish with such limited resources, but also saw how many challenges they still faced on a daily basis. In an effort to do what he can, Kenny has decided to start a fundraiser to help support this hospital’s efforts to provide preventive healthcare measures such as vaccines, education and clean water infrastructure for the 350,000 people it serves. January 2015 marks the 5 year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, and is also when Kenny is turning 25. If you’d like to give Kenny the best birthday gift ever, please help him make a difference by contributing to his fundraising page at http://give.everydayhero.com/us/kenny.