Yumi Prentice: “Don’t just network — community build”

Don’t just network — community build. Networking, as it has become, feels schmoozy, self-serving and kind of Machiavellian. The purpose of networking and the only way for it to actually be useful to anyone, is to find ways to be helpful to each other. So rather than add another person you’ve just met to your LinkedIn contacts, […]

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Don’t just network — community build. Networking, as it has become, feels schmoozy, self-serving and kind of Machiavellian. The purpose of networking and the only way for it to actually be useful to anyone, is to find ways to be helpful to each other. So rather than add another person you’ve just met to your LinkedIn contacts, do something that is helpful to them or their community — or ask for the same. The relationship you will earn with each other will be far more substantive and fruitful.

I had the pleasure to interview Yumi Prentice, President of David&Goliath. Having lived and worked in 3 continents, Yumi has made a life of connecting with people from all corners of the world, and a career of helping brands do the same. With expertise in integrated marketing, Yumi joined David&Goliath in 2017 as President and is responsible for introducing new modes of collaboration that facilitate growth and integration. Yumi feels strongly about encouraging women and minorities to pursue leadership roles. A panelist at ThinkLA’s Path to the She Suite she shared key learnings along her journey, a featured speaker at La Fleur’s Lottery Conference she spoke on the role of compassion in advertising, and as a Time’s Up Advertising signatory, she joined c-suite execs in leading its first town hall meeting. Her leadership style is about giving all people a voice. “Losing your voice is devastating, because the ability to self-express is fundamental to being human. Not being able to do so hits right at our notion of self-worth.” Yumi has also worked at Grey Hong Kong, Grey San Francisco, JWT Singapore, T3 San Francisco and ran a Silicon Valley-based consulting practice. She has overseen global, regional and national initiatives for brands such as Microsoft, Nokia, Schwab and Unilever.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

The road to advertising wasn’t a straight one, for me.

Born in Hong Kong to a Filipino father and Japanese mother, I grew up in Hong Kong, Manila and Tokyo — cities that couldn’t be more economically or socially different from each other — never quite belonging anywhere but deeply seeking to find some connection to people and cultures. In fact, due to quirky citizenship laws, I held a British National Overseas passport for most of my life but never had a “proper” citizenship until I naturalized as a US citizen a decade ago.

Like many others living in Manila during martial law, coup attempts and the People Power revolution, I was exposed to the highs and lows of the human condition. During those times, even while I lived in relative privilege, access to information was sometimes scarce. We’d often tap into TV programming designated for US military families, and find temporary radio frequencies where rogue reporters would tell us what was going on.

Exacerbated too by the massive gap between the rich and poor, I always felt compelled to find ways not just to connect, but also to take up humanitarian causes. My first job was interning with the United Nations in Manila, and I ended up studying social psychology in the UK. I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do with it but was convinced that it would open up possibilities.

At one point I thought I could move into the global sports business, seduced by the allure of the Olympics. But after having worked in the Barcelona and Atlanta Games, I saw the darker side of the machine and became disheartened. With no place to go but back to Hong Kong due to visa issues, I was lucky enough to crash with my friend’s cousin who happened to work at Grey. They took a chance on me as their first interactive “expert,” and I found a way to use my compulsion to connect with people and culture in a way that I could earn a living.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Perhaps the most interesting story for me is the collection of symbolic stories we have displayed on our “Wall of Goliaths” at the agency. When you have a name like David&Goliath, you can’t meekly walk into a room and hope for the best. You’ve got to go in there and swing for the fences. It’s all about being brave.

Yet, we understand that it would be disingenuous for us to urge our clients to be brave if we have no idea what it means to face your fears. So, we ask every one of our employees to share a symbol of their biggest Goliath and we frame it on that wall. It’s a daily reminder of what we need to overcome in order to step into the best version of ourselves. There’s a remarkable display of framed words, pictures, and even objects that mean something to that individual, and symbolize their fears. Our employees don’t have to reveal which is theirs, but every so often, we’ll find one that’s speaks so powerfully that if the employee is willing, we contribute time and money on their behalf to help them overcome that Goliath.

Aside from my own, there are a couple on the Wall that have made me stop in my tracks. The first is simply an hourglass timer, framed. It reminds me of how precious time really is and how very little we have. It challenges me every time I walk down that hall to do everything I can to be very deliberate about how I choose to spend my time. The other one that strikes a chord is a framed mirror. How much of what I really have to overcome, is all just within myself?

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first started out as an account coordinator in Hong Kong, I remember going into our formal conference room just before a big pitch. It was one of my first pitches ever, and we’d worked late into the night. At that point, I was running on adrenaline alone and knew I needed something to eat or I wouldn’t last through the pitch.

I reached out and grabbed an orange from the ever-present fruit bowl at one end of the room. Horrified, my colleagues stopped me when they saw I was about to eat it, explaining to me that it was a fruit offering to the gods.

Of course I knew about the tradition, having lived in Hong Kong for over a decade — but in my haste I saw the fruit basket and not the fruit basket’s purpose. The important lesson was not just to see what is in front of me, but what context surrounds it.

I don’t believe we won that pitch.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I had no intention of coming back to the advertising world after I left it in 2014; I was very happy in what I considered the next chapter of my life, running my own consulting practice. But one day a recruiter called and convinced me to meet with David&Goliath. I went along thinking I could convert them into a client.

I was blown away by what I saw. It wasn’t just that this is arguably the most creatively respected agency I’d met with, but that they had a Director of Philanthropy and even their own nonprofit, Today I’m Brave. Many of the other shops I’ve been at are “passionate about giving back” and do CSR-type work and have volunteer programs, but this is the first agency I’ve ever come across anywhere in the world that has found a way to bring purpose to the heart of its business. If I’m going to work hard, it needs to mean something and it needs to do something meaningful.

In fact as I write this, our Chairman David Angelo is in Sierra Leone visiting a school that our nonprofit helped build for Shine On Sierra Leone. Last October, we raised half a million dollars to build roofs in Puerto Rico for those devastated by Hurricane Maria. We’ve also supported organizations like the Iran and Afghanistan Veterans Association, Homeboy Industries, Covenant House and the Child Rescue Coalition.

But to us, purpose isn’t just altruistic. It’s about helping people and brands get to their core truths and live them bravely every single day. To me, it’s this conviction that makes D&G stand out.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are! On every account we work on, we’re working hard to excavate what keeps the company and its people going — the values and convictions that they share. You saw that with Kia earlier on at this year’s Super Bowl, where we launched a commercial that celebrated the great unknowns who, like Kia, give it everything. Because we didn’t use celebrities, we were able to re-allocate those dollars so Kia could create a scholarship to help young underserved kids who give it everything, get a college education. As the close of this school year approaches and the window for the next one opens, some pretty stoked kids will be walking onto campuses that they doubted they’d set foot on.

You can expect to see more authentic, purpose-driven work come from some of our other clients this year. And we’re also hard at work on our next big cause for the year that we expect to be just as impactful as what we were able to achieve for Puerto Rico.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

To give each other voice. Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow came up with this beautiful practice called “Shine Theory,” that calls on each of us to make sure the other is heard, because “if you don’t shine, I don’t shine.”

It’s important for women in positions of influence to make sure that they recognize other people in the room whose contributions might be overlooked, whose ideas may be ignored, whose voices are being drowned out. We’re in the system so we can improve it, not conform to it. We need to help each other, not compete with each other, so we can all bring our best forward. And doing this requires both the ability to ask for help, and to give it.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Keep the work visible.

When I was running large, globally dispersed teams, I saw how easy it was for teammates to not understand what their counterparts were doing, or even believe they were doing anything of value. It was important they didn’t think that of their boss, not just for my sake, but because it’s incredibly demotivating and soul-crushing to perceive that the person you work for isn’t invested in their job or their people, and you’re having to pick up the slack.

So what I had to do was model a behavior where I’d ensure the work I was doing could be seen by everyone, so it was clear that I was not just actually working, but also that I was constantly contributing to the job we all had. By doing that, I had few questions about what value I was bringing to the table, and I saw that the teams themselves started to engage in a similar way. They exposed the work they were doing to each other, which naturally prompted discussions, conversations and healthy engagement. What’s more, the fact that this kept people talking to each other also meant that they were building relationships with each other. Those relationships are what become vital to any endeavor.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There is no way I could have risen in my career without the help of so many incredible men and women who took a chance with me, offered me some wisdom, and just listened to me at times when it all felt too much to bear.

There is one person, though, that I am forever grateful to, and who I hope reads this one day to know just how much she has inspired me. She’s only 7 now, but I remember her panicking late last December because she forgot to write her letter to Santa. Luckily we were at a Macy’s that just happened to have a specially designated post box for the North Pole. She scribbled her letter while I browsed on my phone, and when she was done, she asked me to help put it in the post box with her. When I read it, it brought me to tears:

“Dear Santa, Thank you for being so nice to everyone in the world. I appreciate all you do, for getting kids gifts, being super kind and more! One of the things I want for Xmas is for homeless to find a family! From, S.”

She didn’t ask for things; she asked for compassion and hope.

A big reason that I decided to take a job in an industry I left is because I want to be able to look her in the eyes and tell her that if she works hard enough, anything is possible. Because that’s a lie right now, for many women and people of color. I don’t ever want to lie to her, and I want to make sure she knows she doesn’t have to ask Santa to make this world a better place. Whatever bit of voice or influence I have right now, I want to use so that she and her generation can realize their hope and compassion into a better world. I’m grateful to my daughter for making hope and compassion my driving force.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Honestly, I think I’m just scratching the surface of what is possible. I’ve come to believe that this goodness doesn’t always have to be grand, like raising half a million dollars to build roofs in Puerto Rico. It can also be incremental, and I think it’s most powerfully executed in small ways.

So many companies are dysfunctionally broken; they suck the souls out of people, force them to compromise their values, and create politically charged environments where it can often be dangerous to speak out. Worse, many of these organizations see people as “consumers” of their wares, instead of human beings they are meant to serve. It’s all some big hustle.

Right now, I believe the biggest goodness I can bring is to fuel the people around me, creating safe and encouraging spaces so they can find their voices and truly bring their gifts to the table. This way, whether it’s during their time with us or as they move on in the world — they know who they are, what they’re capable of, and can empower others to do the same. It’s the only way goodness can scale.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. There isn’t a silver bullet. Early on in my career, I’d wonder if I was making the right decisions and I’d beat myself up if the “right answer” evaded me. A boss once took me aside when she saw me struggle and told me there wasn’t a silver bullet; that we all just figure it out as best we can. To know I’m not missing some magic answer was incredibly liberating, because it gave me confidence in my own smarts to figure it out, and gave me permission to reach out to others to help me figure it out.
  2. Insubordination may be a signal for help. When someone doesn’t do something, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to. It might mean they don’t know how. So rather than get irritated that something I’d asked for wasn’t getting done, getting my ego out of the way and seeing if that person needed help in doing what I had asked was far more productive. And less stressful!
  3. Kindness is not weakness. The old adage is that it’s a tough balance as a businesswoman, projecting strength so you’re not seen as weak, but not too much aggression that you’re labeled the B-word. Not sure how fine a line I’m walking and the reality is, I don’t really care anymore. What I focus on now is how kind I am with those around me, because you’re only known for two things: the work you did, and what you were like to work with. Ultimately, kindness is a serious business advantage that too many miss. And we will lose our humanity if we forget to be kind.
  4. Talk to your people. The higher up you go, the more you need to invest time in talking to your people. That’s not just having an open-door policy, which requires them to come to you. Who knows how intimidating that could be to someone, or if going to the boss’s office could be perceived as an escalation by others? Get out of your office. Talk and listen to people, spend time with them and, better, learn their language and earn a relationship with them. The goal isn’t to be liked or to be popular, the goal is to ensure that any barriers to you are broken because the only way you can fix things is if people can honestly share what the real problems are.
  5. Don’t just network — community build. Networking, as it has become, feels schmoozy, self-serving and kind of Machiavellian. The purpose of networking and the only way for it to actually be useful to anyone, is to find ways to be helpful to each other. So rather than add another person you’ve just met to your LinkedIn contacts, do something that is helpful to them or their community — or ask for the same. The relationship you will earn with each other will be far more substantive and fruitful.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Value impact over time. For some warped reason, the corporate work culture has become distorted to reward number of hours spent working, instead of rewarding contribution to the team and business. Busy-ness has become a badge of status, with people humble-bragging about how long they work and how much they have to do. From a simple economics point of view, clocking insane hours is vastly inefficient and costly to the organization. From a long-term employment point of view, worker burnout yields poorer product and is destructive at so many levels.

Great employees should be recognized not for having worked through the night, but for having made a real difference and for freeing others up to do the same.

We have so little time on this earth; imagine what we could do if we could truly spend it on creating impact.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’m not sure if this is a life lesson quote per se, but there was a time in my life when the sh*t hit the fan, everything was going wrong, and I was in a really bad place. I was in a new church when the priest said in his homily, “you are here because you are needed here, right now.” It was the air that I needed, so that instead of suffocating through the nightmare I was living, I was empowered to figure out how I could be helpful at that moment. It took me out of paralysis and into planning mode.

It’s a thought that I continue to provoke when I find myself backed into a corner. Asking why I am needed here now, gives me the strength to understand what I am supposed to be learning, and what I have to give.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would love to have lunch with former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi. Like me, she’s an immigrant, a person of color, and a mother. She successfully ran one of the largest companies in the world and never lost her humanity, her drive or her business sense. I’d love to understand how she did that, made a space for herself and others, how she inspired those around her to do their best work while living their best lives.

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