Episode 27: Karen Mok | Building a Community for Asian Women to Thrive & The Power of Individual Age
Even though I have so many flaws and even though I have struggled with depression and anxiety, even though I question myself, that confidence in my agency is
Below is an abridged audio transcript of Episode 27, the sixth episode for Season 3 of Rock The Boat: Against All Odds, edited for clarity.
This week, we have Karen Mok on the show! Karen is the co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of The Cosmos, a community dedicated to helping Asian women flourish and thrive. Today, their community reaches 10,000 members in 10 hubs across the country, including Boston, Chicago, Denver, LA, New York City, Seattle and more.
Over the summer, The Cosmos hosted a summit in Brooklyn, the first of its kind created for Asian women by Asian women. The Summit included experiential art, workshops, speakers, and a small biz market for Asian women-made goods.
We also talk about:
What it was like growing up Asian in the South
The many projects she dabbled in before The Cosmos
Mental health, and why it’s important to create space for Asian women to openly talk about the topic, and
The power of individual agency.
I. Karen’s Origin Story
Karen: So hi, I'm Karen Mok. I'm the co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of The Cosmos, which is a community for Asian women to flourish and thrive.
Lynne: So Karen and I actually share something in common. We are both Asians who grew up in the South. Karen grew up in South Carolina. I grew up in South Florida (though some say, it’s not really the South….topic for another day). I’m currently recording this in Chattanooga Tennessee where my parents now live. Either way, the South is definitely in my roots.
Karen: So, I was born in North Charleston, South Carolina. And North Charleston is a small town and it's a population of less than 1.5% Asian.
And I looked this up on Wikipedia because I just had to understand why I didn't see myself or anyone that looked like me, besides my family, growing up.
My parents are immigrants from Hong Kong. And I often get asked, “How did your family end up in South Carolina, of all places, where there is no Asian community?” And I've actually asked my parents this question and I always hoped for a romantic story about the American dream and a backyard, and a fence, which we had, but it was more I think my parents just being able to find a job in South Carolina. My dad was a chemical engineer and this was his first job coming out of college and I don't think he thought too much about leaving his nucleus, like their Asian American community in New York City, where they immigrated to because of, in his words, just the need to survive. I think there's a deeper thread when I have started to get to know my parents more. Both my parents are the ones who chose to do something different from every other member of their family, and that is a trait that I see in myself, but I think they haven't as openly reflected back to me. Like we're all the black sheep. We're the ones who left New York. We’re the ones who chose to do something different with our lives. And I have a lot of respect for that because I think it was super scary for both of them to move to literally the middle of nowhere and start a new life without any support system.
Lynne: I think this speaks to the immigrant experience in general. We often forget the full extent of the gamble our parents and previous generations took to move to a new country, leaving their family and everything that they knew for a new country, where most people don’t look like you. It’s a brave act.
Karen: I remember in preschool, I saw my sister on TV, you know how in elementary school, kids have their TV show, and they film it, and they do the news. I remember speaking out loud in Cantonese. I was four, so I was still just working on the English. And all these kids just turned and looked at me like, “What did you say?” And I was like, “Oh, oh, that's bad for me to speak my native language.” And a couple days later when my mom dropped me off from school, I turned to her and I said, “Never speak to me in Cantonese in public ever again. And she tells me this story because it broke her heart and I know it broke her heart because she never let me forget that I did that to her, even years later. And I was so deeply embarrassed being of my family and my culture being different that I, at that time, generally had no filter for just wanting to reject it. And I always go back to that moment because it started the pattern of 18 years of rejecting my Asian identity.
And I have arrived at a point where I don't blame little Karen for what she did. She just wanted to fit in, just wanted to belong, much like any kid does growing up.
II. Karen Becomes An Entrepreneur
Lynne: While all of this was happening to her as a child, Karen, as a coping strategy turned to her schoolwork. It was her way of feeling like she had control over something. She didn’t have many friends, or a support group. So she was a little sad, but also playful. And very adventurous.
When asked to choose between an aerobics class and an entrepreneurship class in high school, she dug into her adventurous side and chose the entrepreneurship class.
Karen: And so I end up taking this class, didn't even know what entrepreneurship was. And my teacher was just one of those teachers who just sees potential in her students and we had to come with a business and I came up with a greeting card business because at the time, I was like super sentimental.
And I was like, “Ugh Hallmark cards are so generic. I can make personalized cards.”
And I wrote all these poems inside. I had like eight lines and they were all based on feelings. So there were love cards. There were regret cards.
I didn't really think anything would come of it, but she submitted my application to this entrepreneurship camp that summer, I was 16, and I got it and it was at the College of Charleston just like the local University and it was a camp sponsored by Yes Carolina and the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, which is a nonprofit that provides entrepreneur education in low-income cities in the US. And at this camp, I met all these other entrepreneurs from around the state. And I didn't really know what VC’s were, I didn't know what pitching was. I was just like, “Oh, this is fun!” Yeah I really really want to go back to those times because there's a freedom by which you're playing and experimenting, creating.
Lynne: And she was such a natural. This greeting cards business ended up winning the camp competition, which then gave her $500 and the opportunity to pitch and share her business around the local Charleston District.
Karen: I remember one event I went to, where I was pitching the mayor of Charleston, which at the time was literally the biggest person in my world. And I got up there and I looked out and there was this moment of quiet and that is the moment I first felt powerful because everyone was listening to me and I could capture their attention with my voice. I think that is so important for a young person to have because that is the moment I discovered I had agency. And it was magic. I wasn't nervous. Didn’t any stage fright. It just came and I have since-- I have never had a fear of public speaking because I think that was like the scariest thing I could have done. I think it was I expected to feel nervous, but instead I felt my own power and that changed everything for me.
You know, I still felt very trapped, but I also felt like I could get myself out of an environment.
Lucia: That is such a powerful experience to have at such a young age. Especially in a place where she always felt so caught in-between.
Lynne: And at such a young age! It gave her a confidence that, Karen says, she still carries to this day.
III. Career Path
Lynne: Karen decided to go away to college, despite feeling guilt for leaving her family and carrying the burden of having to support herself through college and beyond. The constant fear and worry that comes with financial instability and insecurity began to dictate how she lived her life. So, when it came to making decisions about her career, it often meant choosing the more financially secure job. After graduating from college, she swam between jobs in International Development, investing and the VC space. Her work as a VC took her to Asia which opened her eyes to a whole new perspective of Asia and Asia America.
Karen: I was investing in Asian entrepreneurs across 14 countries. I managed that region for a fund in Europe and I had an immense privilege to be able to travel, to be able to be on the ground and learn and be exposed to the variety of Asian nationalities within Asia. And we talked a lot about the disaggregation of Asian America.
We don't have a Birthright trip to go and understand where we came from and the deep inequalities that are within Asia and how we view people who are darker skinned, lighter skinned.
I came back and I was like, okay, I'm back in the States. I've chosen to come back because I realize I'm much more American than I am Asian, in terms of my belief system, and I recognized that immediately when I was in Asia. The moment I started speaking, people treated me as American, not as Asian. And I promised myself that when I move back, I would not complain about the tension and the in-between but actually really work proactively on creating something beautiful out of that experience.
IV. The Cosmos
Lynne: Karen’s experimenting with various Asian American community projects culminated in a meeting...with a rather serendipitous connection in New York.
Karen: It's a very Millennial love story. So we're both working on storytelling projects. And a mutual friend of ours, Crystal, she's like, “You two should meet, in New York.” And so we met and, you know, by then, I'd had a lot of conversations with Asian-Americans. I’d done like over a hundred interviews with different Asian Americans. So I was like, okay like this is probably not going to amount to anything, but I want to meet and hear their story. And so, having low expectations, we just started talking and we started sharing-- her experience, my experience in an accelerator, and we're just like, why isn't there anything for Asian women?
And I honestly didn't think it would happen because I, at that point, I'd had so many starts and stops with different side projects that I’d kind of like given up on anything working. And that was also a moment of self-doubt, where I was like, maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm just bad at this and I should stop. But Cassandra came through like Cassandra and I think are both just, like extremely Google Doc, Google Calendar-oriented people and we started a working doc and we wrote a Medium post, as I was like, that's how you launch things in 2017 and people wrote in.
Hundreds of women wrote in like, “Oh wow. This is something.”
Lynne: That something led to a retreat in Seattle, where they expounded on the hundreds of responses they received to the question posed in their Medium post: “What does it look like for Asian women to flourish and thrive?”
Karen: We had 20 women show up, didn't have a name. They just kind of knew who we were from the internet and we spent three days together. And these ended up being women who are doing amazing, incredible ventures in Asian-American space today. And it was so nourishing. I think we all felt so lonely in our journeys, not just as entrepreneurs, but as being Asian women, and yet not being able to articulate what that Gap felt like until we were all together. There were tears, there was so much emotion. And I was just like, if this happened, I bet there are so many more women out there who have a similar experience and I want to help them and we launched The Cosmos a month and a half later.
Lynne: Despite how smooth everything seemed from the outside, Karen says she was actually struggling to keep it all together at the retreat. The burnout and stress of planning the retreat had caught up with her. The day after the retreat in Seattle, she took a two-month medical leave from her job to take care of her mental health. And one month later, she was officially diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder.
Beyond mental health, Karen also wanted The Cosmos to foster greater financial knowledge for its community members. Having experienced her own struggles with financial instability, Karen knew that in order to be financially stable and independent Asian women needed to become more empowered.
Lucia: So Karen and Cassandra are building, through The Cosmos, a community to elevate the health and wellbeing of Asian women. What does true health and wellbeing look like to them?
Lynne: When I asked this question to Karen, she had two answers. The first is a community. It’s basically what The Cosmos has already been doing: supporting their growing community through events and meetups to talk freely about mental health. The second is something they call Wellness Confidence. Karen says they are currently working on a product that will bring mental health experts to Asian American women, as well as a network of Asian American practitioners. Ultimately it all goes back to normalizing the way we talk about mental health.
Karen: In my own journey to understand my mental and physical health, I've gone to so many different doctors and I'm going from one end to city to the other, but I still feel like the moment I walk into my work environment, I can't think about that. And there's a wellness room, but there's nothing in that wellness room, but a chair. And so this actually is the way the cultural norms of how we work and it's all about.
Thinking about how wellness is trending and thinking about how Asian American culture could be something that we authentically create and experience, not just for ourselves, but I think for other people, other communities to experience our culture and for it to be welcoming.
Karen: Even though I have so many flaws and even though I have struggled with depression and anxiety, even though I question myself, that confidence and my agency is unshaken and it's a bit contradictory, right? Especially when I'm in mental health spaces, if you're depressed, you're incapable or you can’t-- you don't believe in yourself. There's a lot of the “Symptomatic depression looks like X, looks like someone who's really struggling to set themselves.” And I understand where that narrative can come from. I also want to provide a narrative of depression and anxiety that isn't just like oh this person is super sad and incapable. It's like you can function with mental illness. You can actually be a creator, an entrepreneur whoever you want to be and that is not a narrative that I think is still presented in a lot of medical environments.
Lynne: She calls it contradictory but Karen, standing confidently in her vulnerability, is being herself. It’s what she and her co-founder Cassandra are doing with The Cosmos, simply allowing women to be themselves. And what a revolutionary act. They’re breaking the narrative of Asian women as quiet caregivers. Breaking the narrative of mental health as debilitating. And flipping these assumptions completely on their heads.
Lucia: Karen sure is not afraid to rock the boat.
Karen: It’s to have agency in a world where it's been denied to you or where it's not assumed that you would have it. It's to trust in your voice and to share your voice in a world where you've been silenced historically or today. I think to defy the odds and expectations that are so easy for yourself just to come to when you're feeling overwhelmed, or when I'm feeling overwhelmed.
And to always come back into your own power because that is the source of how you're going to get the energy to rock the boat. It’s your own agency.
The Cosmos is currently in the process of launching a membership for Asian women that they call wellness confidence. The product launches this winter.
To learn more, sign up for the product or for their newsletter, go to their website jointhecosmos.com.
Follow Karen Mok on Instagram.