Refugee To VP: A Conversation With Gestures VP Of Operations
I met with Soudavone on her typical NYC morning commute from West Harlem down to Times Square, where Gesture’s HQ is located. Surrounded by the locals of New York City and a very full bouquet of red roses she had in arms for an upcoming promotional project, we sat down on the yellowed seats of the 1 train and dove deep into the conversation to uncover who exactly Gesture’s VP of Operations really is.
Who is Gesture’s VP of Operations?
The Journey from Refugee to VP
Everyone has an amazing journey they’ve been on that has made them into the person they are today. For Soudavone Khamvongsa, her road to success and who she is today has been quite an interesting one. Soudavone is Gesture’s first VP of Operations. Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, then later raised in Minneapolis, Soudavone experienced first hand the highs and lows of being an immigrant in the USA.
Though her start in the US wasn’t exactly the “American dream”, beginning her life in the states living the projects, she used her life experience to drive her future endeavors. First in her family to attend college, Soudavone attended the University of Minnesota, with her focus heavily on international relations and global studies, along with the French language.
Once she graduated from university, Soudavone went on to have a humanitarian-based career path. Her first step into the human rights field she helped establish a non-profit “B4Lao”, a company similar to “doctors without borders”. Working on the operational side of things, she was their project/global manager, enlisting her help when it came to anything regarding clinic organization, ensuring smooth pop-up clinics in remote locations in Laos, and even being in the surgery room to help as an interpreter.
Transitioning into the political side of her career as an intern at a congressional office, mostly dealing with strategic communications. To then close off her political career by switching into the aviation field as a flight attendant. Soudavone took a risk dove into the Tech world, after quitting her job as a flight attendant, she took an entry-level job as a Sales Development Representative, realizing her diverse background had a common denominator of work in operations. Eventually, after a few years of working in more operational based roles and establishing her niche, she found herself here at this tech start-up called, Gesture.
Trail Blazing The Way For Women In Tech
It’s no secret that women face so many issues when it comes to building their careers. Soudavone not only being a woman but also a woman of color and immigrant to this country, was hit with more issues than most.
Learning to be one in two worlds, in the sense that she felt she was too different from the local culture of the US and on the other hand not being traditional enough from her own roots. Growing up consistently feeling ostracized, she felt like she was being written into the narrative most immigrants are placed into where you just don’t really fit in and then blamed by those who created the narrative.
One of the cultural changes she faced was right in the office place culture. Specifically noting her struggle with the lack/fake connection each individual would display towards each other.
“You have these weird social rules…who asks you how your weekend was but does not actually care about your weekend. Then you have to then go and engage in it?”
It was shocking for her to realize that those around her did not actually care to the degree she was used to. Coming from a background where the culture to communicate and build a lasting relationship with those in your life, came off as a foreign concept to those around her. Eventually, she would notice a common phrase used by her peers to describe her, intense.
This phrase would make her question how she was around those she knew, was she intense because she was putting her all into those around her or was it because she would point out micro-aggressions? Or was she intense because she felt the anxiety that clouded her past at University? This all began to take a toll, making her believe that all of these “negative” feelings were a perception of her self worth.
Eventually, she came to learn that these challenges she faced were all just cultural transitions. These are all functions in this society and it is something you eventually learn to navigate, which is exactly what she did. What Soudavone now understands is what she experienced was crucial for her overall growth into becoming the woman that she is today.
Leaving a Legacy To Empower Women
Coming to a grinding holt, we stepped off the train and followed the crowd of people all rushing to get up the stairs on to 40th, we had a moment to discuss one of the main issues women are faced with every day in the workplace, the infamous glass ceiling.
“This is a loaded question to ask and very tough question to answer, I can just tell you to aim for leadership but women, women of color, minorities are constantly forced to conform our stories to fit the narrative of the white male experience.”
As a woman of color and an immigrant, her story was very obviously different from the white males in her career. She knows firsthand the issues of what it’s like to feel crushed by this invisible barrier that stops women in this country from progressing at the same rate as their male counterparts.
“It doesn’t matter that I helped develop hospitals all over the world or if I could speak five different languages” conforming to the white male narrative would be the only way for her move forward. It even came down to the way she would speak, code-switching her tone needed to match that of those white males in her industry.
“I think it is challenging for women, this is a question we are navigating, and there is no clear way to do it but I will say I think the trick is finding an advocate that works to leverage our talents and skills and to continue moving with it. To be patient, and to understand, although things are not perfect today, we make small advancements, which eventually turn into bigger impacts. Women can break the glass ceiling.”
Who is Soudavone Today & How Has She Changed?
One of the biggest things that changed for Soudavone over the years is her self belief and her ability to decolonize her own mind. Unlearning so many of the social expectations from a society that hindered her from being the person she was on the inside has been a major revolutionary success. Also pushing out the idea someone is unable to do something because they do not have the specific certifications.
“You can do anything you put your mind to with the right resources and motivation… I’ve also learned that my certifications and accomplishments do not define my self-worth. If my company were to fail tomorrow, I’m still successful because I am still intact.”
Rounding out our final moments gazing over the NYC skyline from the Gesture workspace, after much reflection over how she’s changed over the years and what she has accomplished for herself as a human being. We dove into the idea of a legacy that the women of our time could leave behind, and what she envisioned her legacy in this life to be.
“My legacy is, that I built something that has broken generational cycles of poverty, injustice, and that has shattered glass ceilings. I am building now, a legacy of people who I have been able to touch or coach, to overcome and decolonize their minds, unlearn and to relearn that they can do whatever they set their minds to. I hope that when I go that I’ve changed the face of what success looks like…by creating a movement of people, a generation of leaders that defies what success looks like. To change the narrative of success.”