The month of June brings upon many things we acknowledge and celebrate. Two resonate closely with our next TONL Narrative Spotlight: Pride Month and Immigrant Heritage Month. Hear from Laura Clise, CEO of her latest business venture, Intentionalist, as she recounts her unique experience being adopted, her journey acclimating and finding herself as she struggled with her identity, especially as a lesbian woman in a predominantly homogeneous, Caucasian community and where she feels the most herself in this newly found inner happiness. Read her full narrative below and be sure to shop her collection of images!
Family Over Everything...
I grew up here in Seattle. I was born though in South Korea in Seoul. So I'm a naturalized citizen, but I was adopted when I was 6 months old. So when I think about my high highs growing up here in Seattle I think about my family. I have always been incredibly close especially to my late grandmothers. One of the things that I think makes my family interesting is that we are a little bit of a mishmash; my Mom is third generation Japanese-American from Hawaii and my Dad is European...he's a white guy from Seattle-haha! Then my brother and I are Korean adoptees, although we are not biologically related.
I've known for as long as I can remember that I was adopted. For me, what that translated into was that I was special and that I was wanted. I knew that my parents really, REALLY, really wanted to have a family and that they were super excited when they had the opportunity to adopt my brother and me. I was the first grand child on my Dad's side and developed a really close bond with my paternal grandmother. She taught me about traveling to other places and other cultures. She helped cultivate my passion for the arts, for ballet, for the Opera, for the symphony. But, she also had an incredible work ethic. She had gotten married when she was young and started her family when she was in her early twenties. But, after they were all out of the house, she went back to school, got her Masters degree and she worked with terminally ill children. Throughout her journey, it was always impressed upon me to be cognizant of the privileges that I had and to do what I could to give back. Then, as I pivot over to my Mom's side of the family, my great grandparents immigrated from Japan to Hawaii to work on the sugar cane plantations. My Grandma would tell me that when she had to go to school, she had to walk 3 miles barefoot to take the bus and that when she was in 8th grade that was it for schooling because she was a girl and then she had to go start working in the fields. She didn't love that, but she found her way. She was able to get a job doing house work and so she saved her money and put herself through sewing school. She eventually found her husband and they started a small business together. So, what my Mom's Mom really instilled in me was a sense of gratitude for family and for opportunity but also just a real cognizance that you have to make the most of what you have.
There was a lot of low for me growing up and it didn't have to do with my family. I think that in many ways my parents raised a very strong, independent kid and that's who I was. But, that also meant that I didn't share a lot about things that were hard. What was hard for me was that I didn't really have friends. I think as early as I can remember I didn't fit in. I wasn't cool; I wasn't popular. I wasn't pretty. As wanted as I felt by my family, I felt equally unwanted by my peers. So, childhood and adolescence were really really lonely, difficult times. I think that what I learned as a result of that was how to figure out how to be helpful and of service to other people. My experience was that people weren't interested in spending time with me for me, but if there was something that I could do to lend a hand or lift them up..even if it was helping them with their homework or talking with them after a break up...I learned really quickly how to figure out how to be helpful to people. What has been interesting is how that lesson wound up influencing my path after I left Seattle.
Facing Coming Out...
I came out in the 90s...before Ellen. Which I think can be a helpful milestone. And I think that on the one hand it felt like the risk was relatively low because as I had mentioned, I didn't have that many friends, but I think that initially it caught my family off guard and that was hard. I'm incredibly blessed in that I never worried that I would be shunned or kicked out on the street or anything like that. I am incredibly blessed, but I think that at the same time it took some time. For me it was putting a name to another reason why I didn't quite belong. But, what I found was as I started to step into that identity (even though I didn't fit the type of person that was coming out in the 90s who were a lot more bad ass and queer power and activist than I was ready to be) I think that it helped me to see the need to be out and the importance of putting a face and bringing a voice to being your authentic self.
I think one of the things that you don't learn when you're first coming out or that didn't occur to me is that it's not like a "one and done" sort of thing. You come out in high school and then you've got to come in college. And then you have to come out to your Varsity sports team during pre season and then you have to come out to your Freshman floor and then it's an ongoing process. And then once everyone in the college environment knows who you are, knows what you're about...maybe it tapers off for a little bit and then you graduate and then you go to the workforce. My first day of work at my first job, my new team took me to a welcome lunch and there were a couple of guys who made gay jokes at my welcome lunch. Eventually they found out that I was gay and there was a little bit of awkwardness but there were still comments that happened even after that. I would say on the other hand, after I graduated from business school, and had the opportunity to develop a corporate social responsibility program for a French multinational energy company, I was super cognizant that I was in so many ways not the majority of what existed at that company. I mean to start with, I wasn't an engineer. Secondly, I was a woman. Third, I was a woman of color. Fourth, I was leading a department focused on sustainable development, I was under the average age of 55 and then on top of that, I was gay. So in my early experience developing the department that I was leading was one where people often stopped and guessed whether to take me seriously. I looked young, I was female, I wasn't an engineer. As a result, I made the calculation not to come out. I had been out up until high school at the point, but I decided not to come out that first year and try to prove that I could create value and add to what we were doing as a company and earn the respect of my colleagues. Eventually, I came out. I think that what I had found was that when I was able to be myself, that unlocked a whole other level of creativity and productivity and possibility that hadn't been possible previously. In retrospect, I wished that I would have just been me and find a way and I think that it all would have been okay.
If you ask my wife, we met at a bar. If you ask me, we met at a Seven Sister College Networking Happy Hour. It was an alumnae networking happy hour. Both are true! My wife is often a little more to the point. But, in my mind, the context matters because it's not like I met her at a bar! We were at a networking event for alumnae of the Seven Sisters' Colleges and she was there having gone to Wellesley and I was there just having had dinner with a friend who was an Mount Holyoke graduate. But, also if you ask my wife, she likes to make it sound like I "crashed" the Seven Sisters' Networking event as the outsider that I was, but I didn't have my shit together enough to actually intentionally do that.
Comfortable In My Own Skin...
So what really comes to mind is a really incredible experience that I had last summer. I had recently left my corporate job with the intention of pivoting into my entrepreneurial venture but I gave myself a couple of months to work on a passion project and it went a little something like this: I'm somebody who likes to do things that haven't been done before. I love attempting to instigate awesome. I had my sights set on bringing this Seattle professional sports community together for what became the first ever joint Pride collaboration. It started with just a couple of the pro teams and then grew to include the Seahawks, the Sounders, the Mariners, the Storm and the Rain. We were able to bring owners and athletes together for a joint press conference, we were able to work with athletes on a joint PSA that was then shown in all of the different sports stadiums. The organization whose Board I serve on (Athlete Ally) had a presence at each of the games. And the moment that stays with me is standing at the back of the room during the press conference and being incredibly moved seeing my hometown teams all represented and all speaking to a collective respect and acknowledgment and commitment to equality and inclusion within and beyond sport. I think that that felt like me because on the one hand it had my fingerprints all over it and yet what made it powerful was that the message was carried by leaders and athletes in the community. It wasn't me up there talking; but I had had the opportunity to help instigate, craft and facilitate something new, something different and something unique and something powerful that directly reflected my values and my commitment to using whatever privilege and platform I have to reinforce the need for all of us to come together and support equality and inclusion.
What I Wish Others Knew...
[I wish people knew] that I judge my life by what I am able to give back and that there is intention behind the work that I do, the Boards that I sit on. I think that coming back to [to the question of] when I am most me, I would say I am most me when I am in service of other people. When I am in service of a higher service or calling. I think that coming all the way back to a really early understanding of the privilege that I have enjoyed throughout my life. I am deeply committed to honoring the privilege and doing what I can with what I have to make a difference.
You read the narrative, now use it as inspiration.
Shop the collection on "Laura: Coming Into My Own" below!