Turn Your Personal Passion Into a Transformative Mission

One man’s journey from Korean-American childhood to changing the future

This autumn, the Network of Korean American Leaders (NetKAL) organized a national conference that featured speakers ranging from an Olympic swimmer to a North Korean defector. NetKAL’s annual conference series features entrepreneurs, artists and business leaders speaking about what leadership means to them and how their immigrant experiences have influenced their goals, careers and leadership styles. This year, the speakers illustrated how the power of the personal narrative can connect with audiences to great effect.

Raymond John did it best. The executive director of 12+, a nonprofit he co-founded in Philadelphia that works with low-income students in public schools to help them go to college, had a rocky start to his talk. His mic didn’t work and his presentation didn’t load properly onto the overhead screen.

Undeterred, he quickly took the audience back to his childhood growing up in Fairfax, Virginia. As the only Asian American kid in kindergarten, John was self-conscious about the rice and Korean dishes his mom would pack for him; his lunch looked nothing like his classmates’ sitting next to him. At that moment, however, his teacher walked over and said, “how colorful, can I have some?” With that simple gesture, the teacher instantly created an environment of possibilities, John recounted. Such is the power of teachers and their ability to foster an atmosphere free of bigotry.

At home, John’s immigrant family held very strong values around education and espoused a “culture of expectation” that he would go to college and succeed. Given that he’s a product of a public school ranked 111th in the nation, he believes he could not have gone to college — let alone an Ivy League, University of Pennsylvania — had his parents not instilled this sense of college being a natural extension of high school.

“We often take it for granted, but [this culture of expectation] is a powerful motivator,” he said.

His experiences in school and at home combined with a broken public school system he witnessed led John and his close friends to start 12+ in the city of their alma mater, Philadelphia. In a city where only 1 in 10 public school graduates earn a college degree and there is one teacher for every 600 students, “are we perpetuating a culture of low expectation and disengagement?” he asked.

His group, 12+, is transforming school culture into one he dubs the “college-going culture,” which includes counseling, tutoring, mentoring and other support services to ensure that students are set up to pursue college and succeed. Over 85% of 12+ alumni have received their post-secondary degree or are on track to receive it within six years of their high school graduation.

John told the story of why school culture matters through his own immigrant experience growing up as one of the only Asian American kids in Fairfax. He took what could have sounded abstract and related it to the audience by personalizing it.

Next time you plan a speech, think about which stories from your own experience could get your point across in an accessible and interesting way. People remember stories, not PowerPoint slides.