Washington Business Journal: My Story - Capital One Hall's Stacy Butler on the power of that comes from being a survivor
I was born in South Korea, and at a very young age, my biological family left me at a bus stop, presumably so that someone would find me and give me a better life than they could provide. I lived in a foster home until my current parents chose me to be a part of their family. The start of my story sounds tragic and difficult for some to hear, but for me it began an important lesson of my life — a theme that could carry on throughout my life and career: how to survive, because I am a survivor.
I was 2 years old when I met my mother and father. They took me in as their own and nurtured me in a suburb outside Seattle. I looked different and I stood out — a Korean girl in a predominately white suburb, in an all-white family — and I had to learn my next lesson of survivorship to get through those painful adolescent years. To pretend it was OK to hear, “Why do you look different from your parents?” Or, “Why didn’t your parents want to keep you?” Or, “Did you know that pink skin is prettier than brown skin?” I remember a specific incident at my very first job. A woman came in and spoke to me really slowly and really loudly assuming I could not speak English. How humiliating. It’s funny, that is one of the only things I remember about that job.
I attended the University of Southern California, which brought in continued criticism and racist comments. My peers asked if I was a quota diversity candidate, even though a large population of the university was Asian, so I had to fight even harder to earn my entrance. Yet my 4.2 GPA and long list of extracurriculars didn’t seem like valid qualifications to some, even though it only validated the stereotypes they had of me. “You’re Asian, you must be smart.” This pushed me to try even harder to prove my worth.
California seemed to have a much larger population of Asians than what I was used to in the suburban bubble I grew up in. I thought this would put me at ease, but when visiting L.A.’s Koreatown to try and immerse myself in my culture, I was greeted with a sense of disappointment. I only spoke English and clearly wasn’t “Korean” enough for them. It was my first real experience with intraracial racism. I had no idea that even existed. I had experienced racism from other races, but now from my own? I felt like someone had punched me in the gut.
After graduation, I dove into a career. I climbed up the ladder for 16 years in live entertainment and had been offered many pivotal career opportunities — but survivorship continued to be an underlying theme. At times, I was the youngest or the only female or the only person of color represented in my division of general managers. I found it hard to believe that amongst all the support I received from my team that discrimination could possibly exist in my career. How incredibly naïve of me.
At one point, the company I worked for made diversity and inclusion a top priority. As the initiatives began to roll out, I heard the chatter amongst my colleagues, comments like, “Great, I am going to get passed on promotions or job opportunities because I am white.” When I heard this commentary, my jaw dropped and my heart sank. These people that I had so much respect for were literally fighting against me. Unreal.
In 2019, my life turned upside down. I was diagnosed with cancer. I only told those who needed to know so I could keep working because I am a fighter, and weakness has never been an option. I felt like I had to fight my whole life for what I have, whether it be against racism, prejudice or pure ignorance, and this was no different. It was just a different kind of fight.
I kicked cancer to the curb and survived again. With all the things I had overcome, it was time to take a risk. I moved across the country to Tysons to oversee Capital One Hall. I work for ASM Global, and I knew for a fact that a fair and diverse workplace was a priority for them, and once again, I wanted to fight for their success. It was well worth the risk.
Life can be so unfair at times and people can be cruel, but I’m proud that my hardships haven’t held me back but instead pushed me to fight for my place: an Asian-American, female leader in a male-dominated industry who earned every bit of it.
DEI programs have to exist, and it’s encouraging to see them grow. These important initiatives should not be viewed as just a “foot-up” for diverse candidates; they expand the net and make an impact. Diversity in the workplace is so necessary and there is a good chance that I wouldn’t be here today without these initiatives. I want to make sure that my venue is diverse and takes chances on diverse candidates — just like those who took a chance on me. This is how we break the cycle.
ASM Global has strong diversity initiatives, and it is encouraging to not only have them support these efforts, but also demand it. My life has been full of tough lessons, but the top lesson I have learned is to allow criticism to fuel your career path. When you prove that you can overcome adversity and be successful, then you too are a survivor.
Stacy Butler is general manager of Capital One Hall, an events and performing arts venue in Tysons.