Transcript: Grounded, Centered & Growing with Cindy Shao

Read this post or download the pdf of the Born Leader Podcast: Episode 3 transcript.



Welcome to the Born Leader Podcast, where we believe everyone was born to lead. I’m Gaea Honeycutt, Founder and CEO of the Hypatian Institute, a leadership development organization that creates innovative vehicles to cultivate competitive advantage for emerging and established leaders.

I’m excited to launch Born Leader. We’ll explore leadership in its many forms, through interviews with and profiles of leaders in our communities—people who demonstrate that we are all born leaders and that there are many paths to discovering that potential.

I was inspired to create this podcast based on my experiences as a business leadership and strategic development consultant in the nonprofit, for-profit and public sectors, and I draw on my experience as a chamber of commerce founder and executive. I’ve seen how people build confidence when they discover success is possible after learning from others who have walked a similar path. Everyone has challenges and sometimes all it takes is seeing yourself in someone you admire to overcome obstacles.

That’s part of the reason for launching the Hypatian Institute. Named after mathematician, astronomer and philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria, Egypt. We deliver high-quality, affordable leadership and education development that supports people of all persuasions in gaining knowledge, harnessing personal power and realizing their potential.

Born in the 5th Century, Hypatia was renown as one of the last great thinkers of her era in what had become a city torn apart by competing philosophies and religious beliefs. The educator was known for teaching all who sought knowledge. She would walk the streets of Alexandria discussing great philosophers with anyone who inquired. And she wrote discourses about texts and concepts, making them more accessible to students.

In short, Hypatia opened the doors of knowledge to others. And the Hypatian Institute seeks to do the same in this day and age. It’s our goal to help people understand the opportunities the world offers and that these opportunities are meant for them regardless of background or circumstance.

In this first episode, we welcome my friend and colleague, Dr. Cindy Shao. Cindy is the Founder and CEO of the Asian American Chamber of Commerce, a regional chamber based in Northern Virginia. Since it’s founding, the organization has grown steadily—in membership and strategic partnerships. Any given month, you will find the Chamber’s calendar filled with three or more programs, and Cindy attending dozens of regional meetings and events. She has been, as Board member Vance Zavela puts it, “The driving force behind the growth and success of the Asian American Chamber.” Her leadership extends throughout the region, and with her tremendous efforts with the Multicultural Chamber Alliance and the Women’s Leadership Forum.

You would think with that ringing endorsement, Cindy would be a larger than life personality, but she’s probably the least assuming person I know, which you will hear for yourself in this episode.

Cindy will share her story of unusual transition from research in the textile industry to the business world, and her grounded, well-balanced approach to leading an association that only continues to grow.

Gaea:         Thank you so much for joining us today, Cindy.

Cindy:       Thank you for having me.

Gaea:         I know that you’ve been running this chamber for some, what, seven or eight years now?

Cindy:       Yeah, over six years.

Gaea:         Over six years. And your background, though, is very different. It’s not what you would expect from someone who starts a chamber and is all into business. You, when you came to the United States back in 1998, was it?

Cindy:       Yeah.

Gaea:         You went to go pursue a PhD in textiles at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Cindy:       Yeah.

Gaea:         What was drawing you to textiles? Why did you start out in that industry?

Cindy:       Oh, that was my major. So, I did my college and graduate studies in China. My, uh, education training in the textiles field is more textile engineering. So, we learned how to use the raw materials such as the natural fiber, including silk or cotton or wool. How to make that into the final product, final fabric. And, there is a different area we have to learn—like the finishing and the weaving and the . . . uh . . . patents . . . how to design—so all the different aspects of this textile industry. So, we learned the whole processes.

Gaea:         Are you still interested at all in that? Do you think about that kind of thing? Think about textiles as you go in your daily life?

Cindy:       Ah, right now, I think now my life goes to a totally different direction. And, I work with people—especially business people—all the time. So, it’s a totally new field.

Gaea:         How did you make that transition? Because you’re starting out in textiles in 1999, and then . . . and then, gosh, 1998 . . . and then, um, less than ten years later, you’re founding a chamber. And, I know that there were things in between there—you worked in a newspaper, doing advertising, correct?

Cindy:       Yes.

Gaea:         So, exactly how did you make that transition and find yourself, um, starting this chamber of commerce?

Cindy:       Yeah, uh . . . When I look back, I feel this is actually very natural and a smooth transition. ‘Cause while I was in Georgia Tech, I start to get involved with independent media, and I have always done reporting . . . and uh later . . . and I start to do some marketing and sales for the newspaper. And, that’s how I interact . . . started to interact with the business world. And, I joined Chamber events and other business groups. So, I start to explore this new field and I like it. I like working with people every day and learning about different businesses. How do they work? How people build their network and grow their organization? It’s interesting for me.

Gaea:         So, it’s intellectually stimulating.

Cindy:       [LAUGHTER]

Gaea:         You’re just naturally gravitating towards everything that has to do with business and growing a business.

Cindy:       Yes, I feel, um . . . ‘cause this is a . . . Someone told me you have to be a people person—you really like people, and then you can enjoy working with people. So, I feel I am that type of people person compared with doing research in the lab. I feel this is something that’s more fascinating for me.

We’ll be back after this break with Cindy Shao to learn about her lessons in growing the Asian American Chamber of Commerce and remaining centered in a demanding leadership role.


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Hello, you’re listening to Born Leader from the Hypatian Institute. I’m your host, Gaea Honeycutt, and joining us today is Cindy Shao, Founder and CEO of the Asian American Chamber of Commerce based in Northern Virginia. In speaking with her board members, they attribute the success and growth of the Chamber to her leadership and to the team of member leaders she recruits, cultivates and empowers. According to Vance Zavela, who also serves as Partnership Developer for the Fairfax County Office of Public-Private Partnerships, Cindy seeks opportunities for partnerships with the business community and government to grow Asian American businesses and organizations, while also promoting diversity in the Chamber membership and beyond.

As Oanh Henry, owner of Allegra Print, puts it, “The Chamber can only exist if you have a great leader who really brings people together, and a great team of people who share a passion for the mission of the organization.” She also points to the Chamber’s focus on developing the board’s leadership capacity and developing partnerships with friends and allies. In remembering Cindy’s transition from Chairman to CEO a few years ago, Oanh noted that the Asian American Chamber needed a leader that could move beyond viewing the organization as only a vehicle to break through cultural barriers, and to then focus on the organization as the growing business that it is.

In the second part of this episode, Cindy shares more about the challenges and the keys to success, in launching and building the Asian American Chamber. 


Gaea:         What has been your biggest lesson since you’ve launched the Chamber?

Cindy:       Well, the biggest lesson . . .

Gaea:         You can have more than one lesson. If you have a few lessons that’s okay, too.

Cindy:       There are definitely lots of lessons because this is a . . . a new field and we kind of learn as we, um, build the organization—all are new for me. Some people go to school to get different training in the business world . . . or management. For me, I kind of learned these things along the way through the real practice.

Gaea:         So, it’s sort of trial by fire.  At least, you know, on the job training for you.

Cindy:       Yes. Yeah.

Gaea:         What do you think has been the best thing you’ve done in terms of making the Chamber strong and helping it grow? What’s been your best move?

Cindy:       The best move is more . . . just uh . . . kind of learn the best practices and you learn from others. Because when . . . for me, when we interact with others, we actually learn every day. We learn by their success. We also learn lessons, you know, from their failure. So, there’s just so many things we learn every day.

Gaea:         Has there been anything that has surprised you about the Chamber and about running the Chamber? About the members and how they interact? Is there any aspect of it that has surprised you?

Cindy:       Yeah, running an organization is similar . . . like you raise a baby. And there’s challenges at different stages.

Gaea:         Now, you have three of those. You have three babies.


Cindy:       Yeah, I have three babies!

Gaea:         So, you have three children and then you have this Chamber. What would you say is most similar between starting and birthing this organization and then raising people to be, you know, amazing adults when they . . . when they get grown up?

Cindy:       It’s, ah, very similar. Like at first when you have kids, um, you’re not that prepared. You don’t have the experience. You have to learn. Uh . . . It’s a fresh world. So, starting an organization is similar—you never expect what will happen. So, it’s a new field. And, after you’ve kind of been past that first two or three years, and you are familiar with, you know, the operations and the organizational . . . like, ah, structure to manage . . . but still, there’s growing pains and growing challenges. So, for raising a baby, with birth and growth and aging and, you know, natural process . . . the death . . . the whole process. So, it applies to business, as well.

Gaea:         So, you’re always so calm. Whenever I see you, you’re always so well balanced. You seem very unflappable. Where is it that you find in yourself this calmness to deal with all the challenges that get thrown at you?

Cindy:       Ah, okay. Well, actually, I personally feel . . . how do you say . . . the personality and character . . . naturally, for me, that comes from my practice—my spiritual practice. I feel that really helps me to navigate through all the challenges and always have a peaceful mind whenever there’s anything. So, there is something that grounds me. I will just . . . for me I will just personally, really appreciate the practice I do, Falun Gong. That really helps me benefit a lot, personally, mentally and physically, so I can deal with many challenges.

Gaea:         It keeps you centered, keeps you focused?

Cindy:       Yes, yeah, yeah. So not easily affected by what is happening. Because then every day there’s new challenges.

Gaea:         Do you find that anything has become sort of standard and routine having started the Chamber? Or is it still just always a bunch of new things, just and faster and faster paced?

Cindy:       There’s always new challenges. Yeah. And, also the same things you have to deal with, but you have to . . . you cannot always stay at the same mindset. You have to learn. You have to also, uh, find creative ways to solve the problem, to work with people and collaboration, teamwork. So, that’s just a constant challenge. 

Gaea:         Now, when you started out, you were actually Chairman of the Chamber. And then, you went from the governance side to the management side. How was that transition for you?

Cindy:       So, for me, because the Chamber was new and the Chamber needed someone who could be very persistent . . . and I felt also, the Chamber needed new energy, new leadership team . . . so, we started to have . . . like a term for the chair and vice chair . . . the officers of the chamber. So, every year there will be a new team.

Gaea:         Right.

Cindy:       Yeah, I feel the Chamber needs that type of dynamic leadership. I want it to really grow stronger, and then, there can be other options for the organization.

Gaea:         Now, over the years you’ve grown to how many members—200 and some odd? Or have you spiked through 300 already?

Cindy:       We have, right now, close to 300 members. We have some very dedicated, very active Chamber members. Right now, we always want to get more inactive members engaged.

Gaea:         Right, right, right . . .

Cindy:       Yeah, that’s our challenge.

Gaea:         Your size actually rivals the size of regional chambers. You know, we have so many chambers in Northern Virginia—something like 20 regional chambers in Northern Virginia. Just in this area where your office is, which is the Tyson’s Corner area, we have about three or four chambers operating—Fairfax County, Falls Church, Vienna, which is now the Tyson’s regional chamber, and then we have McLean. With so many chambers around that are . . . you know, some of them are, you know, smaller than the Asian American Chamber, how did you grow to that size? What were some of the principles you used to grow your organization and scale it up?

Cindy:       For us, I feel its just persistence, consistency. We run events all year long and we actively promote the Chamber, get the word out and we welcome people. They feel when they come to the events; it’s a friendly environment. And, we also try to follow up and keep members engaged. Also, I feel we are . . . have that unique niche here. We are multi-regional—we serve Maryland, DC and Virginia. We are also very open. It’s an open platform. So, we attract not only Asian business owners and professionals, we also attract some non-Asians who are friendly—they want to do business with the Asians. And then, actually, many members, they love this type of environment. And we promote diversity, so people . . . everyone can fit in. They can see many Asian faces here.  They can also see, you know, other faces. So, it’s . . . ah . . . inclusive.

Gaea:         So, you don’t have to be from the Asian diaspora, so to speak, in order to participate in and join the Asian American Chamber.

Cindy:       Yeah, yeah. We embrace diversity.  We really are because we believe to do business, you cannot limit yourself. You want to expand.  You want to make connections with all the communities.

Gaea:         What would be your advice to a new entrepreneur who is, you know, starting a business and wants to grow a business? What would be your advice to an entrepreneur just starting out?

Cindy:       There are so many resources out there. People can take advantage; they can gather all the trainings and education. I feel people should utilize those resources. So, there is a federal resource, state level and county level, other resource and business organizations that offer those supports, including chamber. We are nonprofit, but we are the ultimate networking platform.

Gaea:         Okay.

Cindy:       You can build a stronger network, so you have great potential to grow your business. And, you can learn from others. You can gather referral partners. I just encourage every new startup to go to different resources and some great organizations to get help and support.

Gaea:         What do you have coming up this fall at the Chamber?

Cindy:       This fall, we have our big signature events: Asian Business Summit and Expo October 16, at the Fairfax County Government Center.

Gaea:         Oh, okay.

Cindy:       So, we expect around 300 people and there will be a business expo and workshops, networking. And, each year we try to feature several Asian countries also.

Gaea:         There are so many things going on with the Asian Chamber. You have the expo and, of course, every month you have mixers, you have your business referral network. So, where can people go to find out more information?

Cindy:       So, please just visit our website, You can find upcoming events and the benefits of joining the Chamber, and all the other information.

Gaea:         Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Cindy. I really appreciate you sitting down with me. I always enjoy seeing and learning from you.

Cindy:       Yeah. Thank you so much for this opportunity.


I’m afraid it’s time to wrap up Born Leader today.  I want to thank Cindy Shao of the Asian American Chamber for joining us and talking about birthing, leading and growing a start-up association and finding balance in a demanding environment.

In the next episode, we’ll speak with scientist turned activist Karen Mulhauser, and learn about how she leaned in decades before the term was coined.

And, thank you for listening. If you want to learn more about Cindy Shao or other guests on the Born Leader Podcast, visit That’s H-Y-P-A-T-I-A-N Institute dot com. Or follow us on twitter at HypatianInst. Talk to you next time on the Born Leader Podcast from Hypatian Institute.

Produced by the Hypatian Institute, Inc., Born Leader is a podcast founded on the belief that everyone is a born leader and there are many paths to discovering your own potential. We explore leadership through interviews with and profiles about everyday people who demonstrate we’re all born leaders.