power player

Focus on Lillian Tsai, president and founder, TsaiComms, LLC

Lillian Tsai is in a league of her own: as one of the most prominent and well-connected Asian-American women in the region, her schedule is packed with speaking engagements, production meetings, power lunches, and networking events. With more than 25 years’ experience in high-tech marketing, Lillian is the driving force behind many key professional and business networking opportunities for Asian Pacific Americans.

"I want companies to be successful; however, more importantly, I want to do whatever I can to help Asians achieve the success that they work so diligently to attain."

She is the founder and president of TsaiComms, a marketing communications and strategy firm that specializes in marketing and community outreach programs targeted to, for and about Asian cultures. While working on growing her business, she also serves as president of the Northwest China Council and the Asian-American Business Alliance, where she plays a key role in enabling professionals, business leaders and entrepreneurs build relationships and create synergies with other like-minded individuals. Along with Gloria Jung, she co-founded the Portland chapter of, a global professional network that hosts “simultaneous” networking happy hours on the last Thursday of every month in major cities across the world.

For Lillian, there is nothing more satisfying than the work involved in promoting a more in-depth understanding of Asian culture and setting an example for other up-and-coming Asian-American professionals and business owners. Born and raised in Malaysia to Chinese immigrants, Lillian moved to the U.S. at age 19. Despite spending all of her adult years in the United States, she remains very much in touch with her culture. Indeed, Lillian considers her proximity to the Chinese culture as a key ingredient of her success. “I consider myself very American, but I’m also very proud to be Chinese,” she said. ‘When I moved to the States, I wasn’t assimilated into the culture. Rather, I was acculturated.”

Recognizing the need for disseminating “cross-cultural intelligence” to U.S. companies, Lillian launched TsaiComms LLC in 2003. Working with training partners, she helps educate companies and agencies about culturally appropriate ways to reach out to Asians in the U.S. and abroad. “My goal is to help businesses and nonprofits understand how to work better with diverse Asian cultures,” she said.

At TsaiComms, she offers cultural intelligence workshops about the Chinese, Korean, East Indian and Vietnamese cultures providing tips on cultural norms, etiquette and protocol that enable the American workforce to work more productively with their Asian customers and business counterparts. These workshops typically include bridging communication gaps, offering tips on negotiations, conflict resolution, and avoiding social and business etiquette faux pas.

“We’re often asked, ‘Why can’t I get my Chinese counterpart to respond to e-mails quickly? Or ‘Why is there a wall of silence?’ We help people understand that for those whose second language is English, understanding the way that Americans communicate, which include idioms and colloquialisms, is often difficult,” she said.

The demand for solid, reliable information on Chinese culture and Asian-American marketing outreach intelligence has ensured a busy calendar of speaking engagements for Lillian. “Both topics seem to be increasing in popularity in Oregon, which goes to show that both private and public entities are now recognizing the importance of understanding culture and its impact on the workforce and business relationships,” she said.

In her work as a consultant to Portland-area companies and non-profits, Lillian has learned that the best outreach consists of sincerity and a long-term commitment to cultivating business relationships. “I tell companies to hire staff who can speak the language or dialect of the people they’re trying to reach,” she said. “Recognize that Asians have a long-term orientation, while Americans tend to be impatient. Consistency and respect are very important to Asian-Americans.”

For Americans who are used to instant gratification, negotiating with Chinese counterparts is often a problem. “What we try to get American companies to understand is that inter-personal relationships are very important in our culture. You need to make a sincere effort to develop long-term relationships,” she said.

As a Chinese-American woman working in marketing – a predominantly Caucasian industry – Tsai had first-hand experience with issues surrounding Asian-American professionals. Lillian is a tireless advocate for providing opportunities for young Asian-American professionals and entrepreneurs, often serving as a catalyst, instrumental in making connections among and within her broad professional network.

Despite hard work, raw talent and intelligence, many Asian-Americans aren't getting the recognition and promotions they feel they deserve, she said. “They watch their Caucasian colleagues get promotion after promotion, and wonder what they have to do to get ahead. Asians have now hit the ‘bamboo ceiling’,” said Lillian, who also offers career development advice to Asian-American professionals. “In my career, I learned the hard way that in order to break that bamboo ceiling, I needed to change my Asian behavior, and not just mimic that of my Caucasian counterparts.”

Dividing her time between growing her business and her work with various business groups, Lillian maintains a hectic schedule but remains committed to her life work. “What I find most satisfying about what I do is bridging the gap between the East and West,” she said. “I want companies to be successful; however, more importantly, I want to do whatever I can to help Asians achieve the success that they work so diligently to attain.”

Embodying the highest elements of professionalism and integrity, it’s no wonder that many consider Lillian a mentor and friend. “I have learned from my long career that if I don’t stand by what I believe in, and if I am not being a good role model for my children, the rest of my fellow Asian Americans, especially women, then I lose my sense of identity,” she said.

Summer 2006

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good advice

Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Tips for Asian-American Professionals

Be more assertive. Speak up but make every remark memorable.

Keep coming to the table. Be visible to the right people, whether it's your boss, your boss's boss or the CEO. Make yourself seen and heard.

Self-promote shamelessly. Don't be afraid of beating your own drum.

However, don't forget where you came from. Don't lose your sense of humility, honor, honesty, integrity and self respect.

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