What My Filipino Heritage Taught Me About Leadership
Celebrating Asian American Heritage Month with Associate Partner, Ron Rapatalo
As we close out AAPI Heritage month, I have been reminiscing about my leadership journey and how it intersects with my cultural upbringing. Like many immigrants, my parents came to America with the promise of a better life, not just for them but for their children, and I know that without the arduous path they endured to help me, I wouldn’t have been able to pave the way to where I am now.
Although they never directly primed or coached me to be a leader, my parents indirectly taught me leadership skills from a young age through their inherent thoughtful and graceful demeanor. From the deep loyalty my father garnered from his clients at his income tax business to the way my mom would thoughtfully curate relationships with everyone in our community, their Filipino values demonstrated authentic leadership through and through. They knew how to meet people where they were. While I’m part of a new generation and currently hold a leadership position, the number of Asian American leaders is still low in spite of the hard work of generations prior. As a leader and a relationship builder, I often find that I am the only person who looks like me at the table.
In 2021, less than 1% of elected leaders were Asian American, despite the population of the United States being 6% Asian American. Additionally, a 2020 analysis of the C-suites at Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies shows that just 38 CEOs of the total 682 executives (5.6%) identify as Asian or Indian. While Asian Americans often get pigeon-holed as the “model minority,” few are rewarded with a clear path to leadership.
Looking at these statistics, I feel an immense sense of both pride and pressure for my role as a leader at Edgility. Fortunately, I’m able to lean on my deep-seated cultural values–particularly two Philippine concepts– to authentically lead in a way that both incorporates my upbringing and allows for impact in the workplace.
The first is Pakikisama. The rough translation of this word is ‘being united with the group.’ Remembering that you have something in common–at least one thing–with everyone you meet fosters unity. Pakikisama allowed for a more significant expansion of my parents’ hearts and minds to allow any person into their lives, treat them with kindness and respect, and remember that we all share common ground in one way or another. In the confines of American corporate structures, a myth of rugged individualism reinforces that people are successful simply because they worked hard on their own. However, Pakikisama reminds us of the collective effort it takes to succeed. Looking back at my journey, I know certain teachers, friends, my family, and the combination of American values and Philippine values have gotten me to where I am today. Pakikisama is a means of offering trust and diplomacy to achieve a shared goal.
Another cultural concept I lean on is Utang na loob. Which roughly translates to ‘a debt of one’s inner self’ or ‘debt of the heart.’ Relationships are not just built for a moment in time, but for a lifetime, with kind acts towards each other as building blocks. In Filipino culture, gratitude is not simply expressing thanks but never forgetting when someone does something kind for you. If someone has your back, it’s a given that you will do what you can to have their back as well. In my work at Edgility, I have ‘Utang na loob’ for many people, including colleagues who have shared candidates and clients with me, mentors who helped me grow as a leader, and many more. Having ‘Utang na loob’ evokes a sense of gratitude for the people in my life, allowing space for deep feelings of camaraderie and presence with those who have supported me along the way.
While these may be unfamiliar words to some, these concepts aren’t simply ‘Asian American values,’ but rather ‘human values’ highlighted in these words pulled from Filipino culture. With AAPI hate crimes on the rise, Asian American leaders continuing to go unrecognized in the workplace, and polarization spreading across the country, I hope that sharing my cultural values inspires you to look inward and see how they relate to you, your family, and your experience. Ultimately, sharing stories and celebrating the strength of our diversity will enable us to meet in a place where we will always, always, find common ground.
Matibay ang walis, palibhasa’y magkabigkis.
(A broom is sturdy because its strands are tightly bound) – Filipino proverb.