When the Odds are Stacked Against You: Evolving From Hopelessness to Leading with Purpose

When the Odds are Stacked Against You: Evolving From Hopelessness to Leading with Purpose
Photo Credited to Adrian Ong
Written by: Beena Yusuf

“If you can read, you can cook, but how well you cook is entirely up to you.” 

Those were the simple but very poignant words of wisdom from a Chinese mother to her daughter. That short but powerful statement that was shared at the tender age of six ultimately gave her the life lessons she needed to not only survive but thrive as an Asian immigrant in America. 

But as a young foreign student who came to the United States at the age of seventeen from Malaysia, she had no idea how real or prevalent the odds were stacked against her. There were countless reasons for her to fail, but somehow, her story evolved into what many would categorize as the American Dream. She remembers arriving with very little, a used car that was paid for by her parents, because mom knew her daughter would not be able to get anywhere in Los Angeles safely if she didn’t have wheels and with no one to show her the way. For many immigrants, there is typically an existing support system waiting for them once they arrive in America, but Dianne Lee arrived in Los Angeles not knowing a single person. She found, through the local newspaper, a room to rent from a Filipino family for $400 per month and depended on instant ramen noodles (this was a time when ramen noodle restaurants had not existed) and Costco’s dollar pizzas to feed her insatiable appetite. She remembers living from paycheck to paycheck and wondering if she had set aside enough money for rent and gas each month. There was a period where she even juggled having three jobs so she could start to acquire proper attire to be considered for professional positions and the opportunity to widen her palate. 

It took a while to get her feet on the ground before she realized that every time someone or something tried to knock her down, those challenges were helping her prepare for the next chapter of her upward trajectory in America. As a first-generation college graduate from a working-class family, she is a proud alumna of Indiana State University. Dianne’s success story is nothing short of a miracle. Through hard work and willingness to take chances, she ended up in a leadership position in a highly male-dominated industry, the construction industry. She entered the industry almost 20 years ago, at a time when women’s participation was scarce, and there was a lack of emphasis on diversity and inclusion initiatives. Today, she is the Executive Director of Business Development and Strategy at Kitchell. A firm that provides owner representation, construction, and project management services. Dianne represents a team of architects, engineers and construction experts and ensures the company’s brand and reputation are at the forefront. 

Inspired by a series of events in 2020 including the Stop Asian Hate movement, she decided to author her book titled – Leveraging Stereotypes to Your Advantage, Turning stereotypes into Opportunities, Finding Balance between the yin and the yang. It is a raw and honest collection of real-life experiences and how she has been able to navigate the good, the bad and the ugly. As a first-generation Californian, she sheds light on the many unexpected career opportunities and courageously expresses her resistance to accepting cultural norms. She is a fierce advocate of women in construction and dives right in on opportunities to help others thrive through networking, educational opportunities, volunteerism, and special initiatives. Her book underscores the importance of using stereotypes as opportunities for growth and change.

Her call to action was further reinforced when she was interviewed for an article by an organization called The Org. As part of the research, the article shared staggering statistics that reinforced Dianne’s passion and need to share her story. She knew then that she was on the right path and journey to help bring about meaningful change. 

The study conducted by The Org. that was published in 2020 reveals this data. One in 87 white men in the US holds an executive position. That number drops to one in 123 for a white woman. If you are an Asian man, that number drops even further from one in 201, and if you are an Asian woman, you are the least likely to be promoted, with only one in 285 Asian women likely to hold an executive position. 

In an extremely cosmic way, Dianne was able to combine her love for business development with a focus on establishing and building client relationships to guide and mentor the next generation of women in the construction industry and beyond. She is able to leverage her position as Executive Director with her passion for paving the way for women and minorities in a very Caucasian and male-dominated industry. She successfully utilizes her influence with industry organizations as a way to advance both missions. As the past president of the Asian Americans Architects and Engineers Association (AAa/e), a volunteer organization with its mission of providing a platform for empowering professionals working in the built environment, she was able to pioneer the concept of featuring a series of an all-female panel. Depicting women leaders and their teams, leading multi-billion dollar projects in the industry. She does this because she knows that seeing is believing, and to collectively succeed, she needs to show what is possible. 

Today, she continues to serve the organization by volunteering as a Mentor in the mentor-mentee program. She provides much-needed guidance for the next generation of leaders by showing how challenges and failures can be prerequisites for success and how to maintain a positive outlook while designing a life and career that is limitless. 

She recommends reflecting when challenges present themselves and staying focused by asking these particularly important questions. Why did it happen? What was my role in the issue when it happened, and what am I supposed to learn from this experience? 

She emphasizes the need to embrace the opportunity to learn from every negative experience and to not let these lessons pass us by. At a time when many are striving to be an “influencer,” she advises, instead of seeking superficial influence, to commit to developing the skills and knowledge necessary to be a valued team member so they can advance in their careers as an influential leader. She recommends utilizing performance as your brand with quality of work over quantity as a distinguishing factor while strategically utilizing platforms to amplify messages and movements that will inspire the change they want to see in the world. 

The odds may have been stacked against her, but her mother’s teachings are staring her right in the face and because of that, despite what life throws at her, she continues to find ways to be receptive to growth, to pause and reflect and is now using her voice and her platform purposefully as her superpower to advocate for others facing similar challenges. 

Dianne Lee’s story is a testament to the power of resilience, hard work, and advocacy. She serves as an inspiration to others, showing that even when the odds are stacked against you, it is possible to find and lead with purpose. 

About the author

Dianne Lee is an executive in the construction industry and is a first-generation immigrant from Malaysia. She is the author of Leveraging Stereotypes to Your Advantage. A self-documented journey of her path to America as an Asian immigrant, written with the purpose of inspiring – igniting – empowering and uniting all women to achieve greater equality in the workplace. 

Dianne is a Certified Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Leader (CDEIL) and Certified Business Management Expert (CBME). 

To learn more about Dianne Lee:



Leveraging Stereotypes to Your Advantage is available on Amazon.


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