Padilla DE+I Collective: Q&A With Communications Consultant Poh Lin Khoo

The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis two years ago raised awareness of the urgent need for greater diversity, equity and inclusion (DE+I) initiatives. These calls were particularly strong within the communications field, and while Padilla had begun its DE+I program in earnest in 2019, the George Floyd tragedy, which happened only a few miles from Padilla’s headquarters, compelled us to accelerate our efforts. 

Padilla established a Diversity + Inclusion Council to ensure we are being intentional in creating a more diverse work environment. The Council – with guidance from Senior Leadership – focuses on the following key areas: Recruitment, Training, Retention and Content, which includes content we develop for ourselves and our clients. DE+I client counsel is part of the work we provide within our Corporate Advisory Group – and specifically, the Social Impact team.

To supplement Padilla’s internal expertise, we assembled the DE+I Collective comprised of external advisors to help ensure an inclusive and culturally appropriate approach to public relations and communications for our agency and clients. Throughout the year, we will be profiling Collective members to shine a light on their expertise, experiences and the immense value they bring to Padilla. 

Poh Lin Khoo (Poe Lin Coo) – a multi-lingual immigrant and self-funded first-generation college student – has worked in marketing and communications for more than 20 years. In 2020 she founded Khoo Consulting LLC. She helps brands increase visibility and build and manage communications efforts. Critical to her business is coaching organizations to break down structural barriers to create equitable and inclusive cultures that foster growth and productivity for everyone.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I grew up in a large family in Malaysia, as the second youngest of nine kids, in a traditional Chinese culture. When I was young, we had to flee in the middle of the night from a racial riot that burned our childhood home down. We moved to subsidized government housing where we lived among gangs and sex workers. My parents always focused on education, and set-up a system of support where we looked out for one another, and for ourselves. For example, they showed us how to navigate the transportation and hospital systems if an emergency arose when they were at work. They saw me as someone who could advocate for my own well-being. They believed I could. I learned the value of resiliency, hard work, and of most significance, courage.

You live in the Twin Cities. Tell us about your journey to the U.S. 

My first time in the U.S. was in Andover, Massachusetts, after I earned an American Field Service award to attend a year of high school. I learned about independence, expressing myself and not feeling like I needed to apologize. After that year, I went back to Malaysia, but I knew I wanted to be in the U.S. so I developed and implemented a strategy to secure funding for college. After a year of unrelenting pursuit to influence company CEOs to pay for my college tuition and fees, I arrived in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, with $200. I knew no one. I cleaned houses and was a governess for room and board. Through those experiences, I realized this: You can change your trajectory and the first step is to believe you can.

What career lessons have you learned that help shape your work now?

I often have been one of the few people of color within organizations. One time, a company leader greeted everyone and shook their hands. When he came up to me he looked at my name tag and just walked away. I think he didn’t want to mispronounce my name. His decision to not acknowledge me created judgment and made me feel dismissed for being different. I also had a boss who told me he was moving me to another department because the way I spoke didn’t resonate with the way he spoke. Because he didn’t want to be uncomfortable, he was asking me to assimilate. I felt discounted and marginalized in those situations, but I use those experiences to help guide others. I had been thinking of starting Khoo Consulting for several years, so the last time I was asked to assimilate is when I decided it was time.

Why did you join the Collective?

Through my business network, I connected with Padilla’s president, Matt Kucharski, who introduced me to the Collective. I’m very impressed by the work you do – that you don’t assume you know everything about equity and inclusion. I don’t know everything about equity and inclusion. Padilla creates a respectful environment where everyone is willing to learn more. I also like how Padilla has reached out to people who have lived experiences and can bring a different set of eyes to your work, for the benefit of all.

You have faced a lot of adversity, but you persevered and are thriving. Were there days when you wanted to give up?

I work through adversity to create better opportunities for people in my community. I have come to realize, being vulnerable tends to take a toll on my mental well-being. However, I also know the work I am doing can bring change – and maybe save lives. For example, we are working on a breast and cervical cancer awareness project to inform, in particular, people of color, immigrants and refugees about the importance of annual screenings. As we know, there is a lot of cultural taboo about going to the doctor when you are not sick.

I also challenge myself to take breaks when I need to so I can continue this work with the necessary energy. I keep going because I hope to inspire people who look like me to have a place in our society as advocates and changemakers.

What is one of the most important things a person can do to learn from others and their experiences?

We are all so clouded by our implicit bias. We see someone and we don’t know anything about them, but we think we do. It is so much easier to make a quick assumption, but it takes work and a desire to break down your own barriers to really connect with people and talk – particularly with those who are different than you.

This Q&A was coauthored by Traci Klein and Stephanie Chan.

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