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Navigating Change and Embracing Diversity: Karin Wu’s Inspiring Journey in Marketing and Leadership

In celebration of AAPI Heritage Month, we had the privilege of sitting down with Karin Wu, Elevo’s Senior VP of Marketing, to discuss her remarkable career journey and insights into leadership and diversity. With over 30 years of experience spanning multiple industries and continents, Karin shares her story of navigating cultural challenges, embracing change, and advocating for inclusivity. Join our very own Micaela Hamakawa, Director of DEI, as we delve into her inspirational journey and learn valuable lessons on career growth, perseverance, and the power of diverse perspectives.


Good morning, Karin, how are you?

Good morning, Micaela. I’m doing great! Good to see you.


Good, good! You, too! Happy AAPI Heritage Month.

Thank you. I’m so happy that we celebrate that here. It’s really amazing.


Me too! Well, thank you so much for joining us. For everyone watching, Karin Wu recently joined us as Elevo’s Senior VP of Marketing, and we are so thrilled that she agreed to take the time to tell us a little bit more about herself and her experience. So, thank you so much, Karin – excited to chat with you a little this morning and celebrate AAPI Month in this way with you.

Of course! Thank you for having me. It’s an honor.


Awesome. Well, I would love to start off and ask you to tell us a little bit about yourself and your background for the people who haven’t gotten the opportunity to meet you or hear from you yet.

Sure. I’m old, well, not old, but I’m not super young. So, my career actually spans over 30 years now. You can break down my educational background and career almost into decades. My parents being traditional Chinese parents (even though I was born and raised in Brazil) as I was graduating from high school, I said I wanted to be an artist, and they were like, “What are you going to do with an art degree?” In their minds, commercial arts wasn’t a thing back then. (This was in the 80s.) So, they were like “What? Are you going to do paintings like Van Gogh? Are you going to have to die before you become famous?” That didn’t seem like a good career choice for them. So, they gave me the traditional choice of law school, medical school, or business school. And I thought, okay. I don’t love any of those, but since I was already speaking Portuguese, Chinese, and English, and I’m interested in international cultures, I’ll study international business. My first decade of my career was doing international business.

My first real job was with Nintendo, and I was on the Marketing Team. They had a super strong Marketing Team; in fact, they don’t have a Sales Team, so Marketing drives the demand of the product. When they launch a new product, it’s super well-coordinated. They basically allocate, so they had a Product Allocation Team to work with all of the distributors and retailers. I learned a ton working there. I was in charge of Latin America marketing, and the Columbine school shooting happened around that time. So, I started thinking about what I wanted to spend my life doing. I didn’t know if I wanted to keep doing video games, as awesome as Nintendo was. I think I wanted to do something in education, so I transferred into an EdTech company up in Seattle called EdMark. They were eventually bought by Riverdeep, which is also an Irish company, that then bought HMH, the education publisher. In that role, I was in charge of all international sales and marketing across the globe. I did a ton of travel in that role. And, what people didn’t tell me was that, especially as a woman, it’s really difficult to juggle doing international travel or really to grow your career while you’re raising small kids. I started to feel the pressure of doing those two things at the same time. I would travel and people would find out that I had kids and they would ask me, “What did you do with your kids?” If I were a man, they would never ask me that. One time, I almost said I left them at the airport, like what kind of question is that? I just came across a lot of very blunt situations in which just being a woman climbing the ladder, I noticed it was more difficult being a woman, specifically an Asian woman. But, I continued to push forward until 9/11 happened. During that time, I was doing around 70% travel and I flew out of Boston a lot because Riverdeep was headquartered there, and so, on 9/11, I received 103 emails. We didn’t have smartphones at the time, so no texts, but I got 103 emails asking me if I was alive. If I was on one of those planes. And, that was a bit of a wakeup call for me. I could have died. My daughters, who were really young at the time, didn’t even know that I was really passionate about art. They would just tell people, “Oh, my mom is VP of Something.”

I decided I was going to quit being a VP of International Sales and Marketing and go back to school for fashion design. So, I did. I went back to school for fashion design at the Art Institute of Seattle, finished the degree very quickly since I already had a Bachelors, and then started working for Cutter & Buck, which is a golf apparel company. They found out I spoke Chinese, and most of the manufacturing was done in China and other countries in Asia. So, they started sending me on trips to do the factory inspections since I was a Product Engineer. My youngest daughter got sick on one of my trips with a 105-degree fever. I was in Thailand, and it takes two days to come back. I thought to myself that I really didn’t want to be doing this. So, as the universe would have it, one of the teachers at the Art Institute had to move, and she was teaching Intro to Manufacturing. The Academic Director and I had become friends, since we were close in age, and she asked me if I could come teach the night class. I told her I’d never taught before, and she reassured me that eventually, I could get my Masters in Education if I wanted, but the syllabus was already set and I could just come in and take over. It was a project-based learning class. I thought it sounded like fun. It was a night class and I was working full time. I fell in love with teaching, and I ended up quitting my job as a Product Engineer and teaching full time. At that time, teaching full time could be condensed into teaching three days a week, and as it happened, my mom got breast cancer and I was able to fly down here to Southern California to take care of her after chemo.

I ended up teaching full time for ten years, later becoming the Academic Director. From that, I went into nonprofit management. I really like teaching, but I didn’t like the cutthroat framework of the Art Institute. If you didn’t have a certain number of students, you would cancel the class, even though that meant delaying graduation for some people. Teachers weren’t getting basic raises, while the CEO was getting huge bonuses. So, I really wanted to experience what the nonprofit world would feel like. One of the teachers at the Art Institute was on the board of a nonprofit in Seattle that actually pioneered SEL services for children affected by HIV and AIDS, which is amazing. They created all of these incredible programs, but I cried every day. Seeing children suffering every day is very difficult, especially if you don’t have a thick skin for it, and I didn’t. I decided I wanted to continue doing something in education, but more on the technology side that I was exposed to before.

I moved down to Southern California when both of my daughters decided to come down to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. I took a job at MIND Research Center and I worked with them for seven years as their VP of Marketing and their EVP of Social Impact, which is all of their corporate philanthropy partnerships. I loved that team and I met Brian LeTendre there, as he was a part of that team, as well. We of course reunited here, and I’m excited to work with the entire Marketing Team here, including him, to build an amazing team that can support the growth of Elevo.

But, between MIND Research and Elevo, I was at Think Together and I was helping their Executive Team and Board of Directors make strategic decisions about the next five to ten years. So, that’s the story of my career.

Oh, my gosh, I love it.

I’m grateful for my career and I’ve learned so much along the way.


Thank you so much for walking us through your career. You’ve clearly done so many different things and I’m a little in awe. You’ve done it all! And, I’d love to hear from you about if you noticed different things in each industry as you were gaining more experience and learning more and growing. Were there any stark differences that stood out to you navigating those spaces as an Asian woman?

For myself, not only as an Asian woman, but for everyone, yes. A lot of people are afraid to change industries because once you’re in an industry, you get comfortable with it, and it is difficult to break into a new one. So, for anyone early in their career, I would say don’t be afraid to change industries. It isn’t as hard to learn a new industry as you would think. It’s a lot like learning another language. Once you know two or three, you can learn the other ones. You already have a strong foundation of diversity and you’ve created synapses in your brain that allow you to learn new things more quickly. I think that, growing up in Brazil in a Chinese family, going to an American school, I was just exposed to a lot of diversity all the way around. That prepared me to be in a constant state of learning. It also trains you to codeswitch, which is a good and bad thing. So, as a woman, you learn to not be intimidating, and this was the case in the 80s and 90s, where you were told not to be emotional, or loud, or bossy. Now, thankfully, everyone is learning more about the value of diversity in approach, backgrounds, and communication styles. Hopefully, as a country, and definitely as an organization here at Elevo, we’re all learning to value different ways that people speak. Some are very concise and to the point, while others are less direct and maybe are not as concise. I tell people to try to value and listen to all different styles and learn from all of them. Don’t be so quick to judge if one particular style is good or bad. A lot of that programming that came to us during the early days of the Industrial Revolution to now, where certain standards were set for what is valuable in leadership. Unfortunately, those standards were led by white men, so it’s very white-male driven. And, it’s on all of us to challenge that as best we can.


Could not agree more! I love that we’ve seen the shift in society as we’ve progressed forward, and I love that you were seeing that as you were navigating your career.

And, I would say that a lot of the leaders I’ve worked with thankfully were open to that. There also has been a lot who were disappointed and were not open to being challenged. So far, a month in here, the impression that I’ve gotten from Nick and Chris and the entire executive team is that they are very open to being challenged and paying attention to how we as a leadership team grow into the future.


Love to hear that! We’re so happy to have you on board. So, you mentioned that you speak several languages. Could you tell us a little about the languages that you speak and how it’s gotten easier to learn new languages? How does that help you in your career and in working with so many different people from different backgrounds?

I feel that I’m just very fortunate. Being a mom now (my oldest daughter is 30 and my youngest is going to be 27), I was not able to impart my language skills onto them. It’s very difficult to speak to your own child in a language that isn’t what the environment is speaking. I have to give my mom and dad huge kudos for speaking Mandarin to me in Brazil, even though that’s not the language there. They were still learning Portuguese at the time, so I think it was easier for them to naturally speak Chinese to each other and to their children. I grew up speaking Chinese, but I did not learn Portuguese until I started going to school when I was 3 or 4. Then in 8th grade was when I transferred to an American school and I remember how difficult it was to learn English, but because Chinese and Portuguese are so different, I think it was just easier for me to continue to adapt to a new language, but the three languages are very different.

Spanish I actually learned while I was at Nintendo. I was first hired there to be in charge of Brazil Marketing and then we expanded into Latin America, so when I started working with Chile, Argentina and Mexico, they decided I needed to learn Spanish. They brought in a tutor for me to learn the difference between Portuguese and Spanish very quickly. Those are the four languages that I know how to speak in varying degrees of fluency, and sometimes when I travel, I fall in love with the language there and think to myself that I should take the time to learn it since there are so many more tools now! Back when I was learning English, I would literally memorize the dictionary. It was a lot more tedious than now.


How was it growing up in Brazil? You went to an American school in Brazil and are of Asian descent. What was that like? Did you meet other Asian students? 

Brazil is actually home to the largest population of Japanese immigrants, so outside of Japan, the second largest condensation of Japanese people is Brazil, so there was definitely a strong Asian community in the area. I think that Brazil is very similar to the United States in that it’s a bit of a melting pot in certain regions. They welcome and are really warm to all of the different people, but like in the US, there’s that layer and then there’s another layer of racism and discrimination and biases. I’ve experienced that in both countries but it’s something that we all learn to live with and as we get older, try to fight against in the best ways that we can. I love that we are developing these Employee Impact Groups at Elevo to help people of the same backgrounds discuss how they can be more active in creating community and also creating partnership to elevate the sense of belonging and inclusion in the organization.


Definitely! I am really excited about the EIGs and I know that you have some experience with EIGs actually if you wouldn’t mind speaking a little bit about that and how you saw those positively impact the organization that you used to be at. 

Probably like many organizations, these groups didn’t become a major focus point until George Floyd and the civil unrest that followed, and unfortunately, sometimes it falls on people of color in the organization to lead in a situation that is very uncomfortable for a lot of people and to lead the forming of DEIB groups and affinity groups and impact groups, so because I was on the executive leadership team there, I became kind of the defacto leader for that and then brought in other executives into the effort. Then we created additional groups in which leaders emerged to lead those groups. It was a really good experience to be able to start all of that and see it grow. It was really amazing for me to see how comfortable people were to share what they thought the organization could do better and then for me to be able to take those ideas and turn them into action was the most valuable part of it, but the community itself is valuable too. Sometimes you just need to talk to people who have the same lived experience that you do.

I agree – it’s so important to have that safe space to come together and talk about things that maybe the community is facing with people from a common background and then making an impact on the organization so we can do better and grow in this space, very excited, thanks for filling out the EIG form! 


I have a couple more questions for you – I know that a piece of advice you gave to people early on in their careers is to not be afraid to switch industries and to explore what they might be interested in, which I absolutely love. I’m wondering if you have any advice from your experiences for a young woman of color starting off in her career. 

Work really hard. No one, regardless of background, should be entitled to anything. Work really hard and own your own education, both the input and output. I ended up with three degrees plus continuing education because whenever I identified a gap in myself, I just pursued more learning. I think that’s important; to really own the strength of what you bring to an organization. And the second thing is to learn to advocate for yourself sooner than later. I think it’s very difficult for women to advocate for salary and title increases because we’re just not taught how to do that. There’s all these studies that have shown that if a job has ten requirements, men will apply if they have three while women won’t apply unless they have all ten. That’s just one data point to show that we tend to be harder on ourselves than anyone else would be, so take chances and risks. Seek out people who will sponsor you and will speak for your growth. Lean towards people that ask you questions like “What do you want to do? How do you want to grow in your career?” I try to do that and just met with everybody on my team to ask them all that question. It isn’t just about their growth within Elevo, but their growth in general. It’s the job of the leader to learn what people want to do and their timelines and then match all the puzzle pieces with the needs of the organization. So I would say, advocate for yourself, but also gravitate towards the leaders that also see your value and work with them so you can grow.


That’s great advice. What’s one strategy you would suggest people implement if they are noticing that they admire somebody in the organization that maybe isn’t in their department or their manager, but maybe they would be interested in talking to me and helping me grow?

That’s a great question. Everybody’s always busy, so you have to be mindful of peoples’ time, but I think you’d be surprised about how great leaders are always open to mentoring, even in an informal capacity, people are always open to advising and helping to put you on the right path, so don’t be afraid of reaching out to a leader or peer that is not in your department. And if you see a peer who is doing really well and you want advice or to learn something from then, make a peer to peer mentor and make yourself available for others too!

We definitely have many people here who are leaders regardless of their role, so that’s great advice, thank you! 


In honor of AAPI Heritage Month, is there something from your culture that makes you happy and joyous that you could highlight for us? 

Yeah – FOOD! For a lot of Asian cultures, food is a love language. In Chinese, one of the customs is to ask someone who is visiting “Have you eaten?” not “How are you?” and my parents explained to me that that comes from a passing down of customs because back in the day, journeys were very long without planes and cars, so the first thing you’d ask when they arrived was “have they eaten”, and I thought that was really cool! Language follows culture and culture follows language and I feel like a lot of our language has to do with food and customs around food! So that brings me a lot of joy and I also love how close my family is. We spend a lot of time together; often having a 3 hour meal, and luckily both my Asian and Brazilian cultures are food driven.


I am Japanese American and can definitely relate to that! Okay last question for you and thank you so much again, Karin, for joining us for this interview. I’d love to hear about what you are most excited about for your journey at Elevo.

Oh great question! I really feel like midway through my career I reached that point where I realized that chasing titles and salary growth doesn’t really bring you happiness. Of course you have to have that baseline to pay the bills, but once you hit a certain point in your career, hopefully you’re chasing growth and fulfillment, and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do that the last decade or so. So when I had the opportunity to speak to Nick and Chris and the leadership team here at Elevo, I really got the sense that I was the right person at the right time to join the organization to help it grow to the next stage. Whatever that growth looks like, helping manage the changes and helping to build stability and structure on the team so that every single person can thrive and grow with the organization; that really gets me excited, so I’m excited to do that and continue to iterate as the organization grows!


Great answer! And again, we’re really excited to have you at Elevo, Karin, and thank you so much again for taking the time to do this interview for AAPI Heritage Month at Elevo. I’m very inspired hearing you talk about everything you’ve learned in your career and about where you are today, so I think it will inspire a lot of other folks out there!

Of course! And thank you for everything you do. I think what you do is extremely important and it’s amazing we have a dedicated person for DEIB in the organization, so thank you!

Thank you and shoutout to our executive team because they see the value in DEIB and are investing in it, so “thank you” to them! 


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