A Time to Lead: A Message from ATG President Tammy Nguyen Lee

President/Founder Tammy Nguyen Lee

I was honored to be asked to be the keynote speaker at the SMU Crain All-University Leadership Conference, which took place on Saturday, February 4th just a few hours north of Dallas at the Tanglewood Resort in Pottsboro, Texas. This was a wonderful opportunity to get a chance to speak to young leaders from all over the campus who had come together for a weekend of inspiration. Although I was given several months notice to prepare for this event, actually coming up with a speech that would address this incredibly broad topic in a way that would be relevant and impactful to this young audience of student leaders was a bit of a challenge. It wasn’t until I watched an episode of American Idol that inspiration came (just goes to show you, you never know how or when inspiration will hit). I wanted to share this message of leadership with all of you:

This year’s leadership conference theme is “Leadership: Is it in you?” Well, for me, leadership has been the fabric of who I am. 

Let me give you some background on some pivotal events that shaped my life – I came to this country as a boat person, less than 18 months old, a refugee from the bitter aftermath of the Vietnam War. My mother, in her early 20s, was from a well-to do educated, upper middle class family. Bravely, she had decided to escape her home country with a 3 month-old child for the opportunity for a better life. Under the communist regime, she would not be given the opportunity for a higher education and was forced to work in labor camps.  Risking the unknown on the South China seas with an infant, she bravely set out to find a better path for us.  We spent over a year in a refugee camp before being sponsored over to the U.S. by a church in Maryland. 

Although I was less than two years-old when we arrived, the significance of getting the chance to start over with very little was never lost on me and has always defined our family’s lives and perspective. If you understand this, you appreciate all that this country can offer, as well as the enormity of the responsibility we have to our community and family overseas in Vietnam and here. As the first-born child of an immigrant family, we had to sacrifice so much, so working hard to achieve was a given. And it was in that way that leadership in me began.

From a young age, my mom taught me that ‘right and responsibility go hand in hand.’ So, even as a child growing up, I did what was needed to be done – in my family, in school, in the community…to help, to affect change, to make a difference.  It was our responsibility, because we were given this right to freedom.

As a young adult, my values and my sense of identity evolved. Up until that point, I always wanted to fit into the mainstream…and as an Asian American, like many of us that are bi-cultural, that really is a challenge. How do you fit in when you look so different? There was the racism and the identity issues. I learned to express myself and find my voice through writing and through Theatre. I became curious about how I was different and embraced my uniqueness.  Instead of becoming something my parents expected and wanted of me (like to be a lawyer, as they still do this day), I chose a different path for myself. That need to express myself became my career path – to become a filmmaker, to tell stories that would educate and inspire others. Being a leader is often about taking the road less traveled, being a pioneer, and as a Vietnamese female, I began the path down the road so few had traveled before, lighting the way for others to follow.

By the time I entered SMU, I already had a dream of how I could make my mark, how I wanted to change the world – through film and philanthropy.  Coming to SMU and being involved in student activities gave me an even deeper understanding of people and how to be a better leader. On campus, I was the President of the East Asian Student Association and Chair of Program Council Films. I served on the Board of Asian Council and was an active member of many other organizations like VSA, Student Filmmakers Association, even wrote for the Daily Campus.   I got a chance to flex my vision, learn about what I stood for, tested my beliefs. I learned how to plan and program events, how to deal with people and how not to, how to listen. I had a great time and made wonderful memories. I made lasting relationships with those I still work with today. Having these experiences and skills were critical to my work today as a producer and in my charity work.  The more I was involved, the more I found out just what my unique skills were, what my voice was, and how I could continue to help others.  My experience as a leader on campus became a springboard for what I would do later in life.

After graduation, I became actively involved with the Vietnamese Community of Greater Dallas. It was there, while directing a play, that I heard about Operation Babylift, a topic that would later come back to redefine my life. I was accepted to study at the prestigious UCLA Producers Program, and it was upon graduation that I was given a grant to start developing my documentary. Nearly five years later, it was done, but it wasn’t without a lot of blood, sweat and tears. I’ll tell you this, I used every skill I learned as a student leader.  Out of Operation Babylift was born another dream – the creation of our non-profit, Against The Grain Productions. 

With our non-profit, I have found a way to combine all the things I love and dreamed about – creating media that will enlighten, engage, inspire and educate others.  In addition, we raise money to help needy orphanages in Vietnam – those who have no one looking out for them, so that they can have a future, like I was given.  On top of that, we have committed three scholarships this year –we are giving two $1,000 Artistic Scholarships for exemplary Asian American students pursuing a degree in the arts, to help those who dreamed like me. One of the last year’s winners is a SMU student! The other is the Sunna Lee Leadership Scholarship, a $5,000 scholarship for an Asian American student who has exhibited outstanding leadership ability. I’m so proud of this organization, because not only does it allow me to give back, it is a place where we are growing more leaders, many of whom I am honored to say, I have served with while at SMU. 

My husband, who is a West Point graduate, former Army captan and Ranger, says that ‘great leadership comes from hardship.’ I tend to agree. What are some of the qualities of a great leader? Here are a few things I’ve learned:

  • #1 Persistence of Vision and Innovation – You have to have a vision and follow it fearlessly. Being bold, thinking not just out of the box, but strategically to know where is your goal and how you will get there. What are your priorities? What’s your game plan? Seeing how things have been done and where things need to change for the better. I think this has probably always been my #1 strength, next to…
  • #2 Passion – Having a fire in your belly that drives you forward in the face of adversity. It will power your drive, dedication, perseverance and commitment.
  • #3 Be a good and compassionate listener – For me, being of strong mind and strong vision, one of the hardest things was learning to be open to the opinions of others when they differ from my own (just ask my husband!) You may just learn something that can make you a better leader. Being a dictator is one way to get results, but it won’t make you a great leader. It’s a surefire way to alienate yourself and get you on the road to zero productivity and a coup!
  • #4 Have confidence in your vision – But prepare yourself to have a thick skin for any criticism that may come. Have no fear of what people will say, of being involved in controversy, of hearing negativity and the discomfort that comes with it. Leadership isn’t always about popularity.
  • #5 Resourcefulness – Who is your team?  Who do you know that can help you? Who is in your network? Who shares your vision? What partners are going to help you achieve your goals? Not taking no for an answer. If you hear no, what’s the back-up plan? How can you turn it into a ‘yes?’
  • #6 Have great communication – whether written or verbal, use your voice in a way that others will hear you and be influenced by your message.
  • #7 Building a strong team – you can’t do it alone. What’s a leader without those who follow? Nurture and strengthen these relationships. Grow their skills. Learn how to let others lead and shine, too.
  • #8 Being effective and getting results – Your track record is your credibility that allows people to trust you.
  • #9 Honesty and integrity Again – no one wants a leader they can’t trust.
  • #10 Doing the dirty work ­– Being a leader isn’t always a glamorous job. You have to take the initiative to do the job, get it done, get it done right, even when no one else wants to. You can’t just delegate – you have to set the example.

As a producer, as the founder of a charity now, and as a leader, these are values that I hold dear. Thinking about some of these fundamental questions and what the answers are will help you, no matter what field you plan to enter.

Being a leader is not about a title – it’s about a commitment to serve. It’s not just something you stick on your resume, it’s for your life and the lives of others. And remember, you don’t need a title to be a leader.

What you are doing now is getting to learn about yourself and what’s important to your life —  whether that’s your values, your career or your sense of identity. You’re learning also about other people’s cultures, to develop your own career interests and to help other people. Because how you can you truly serve your community if you do not understand yourself and them? 

As leaders, you are given an extra responsibility. Dare to believe…but be prepared to work your butt off.  There will be physical challenges. There will be mental and emotional challenges. Serve honestly, fairly, with innovation and integrity. It’s a hard journey not for the faint of heart, and you have to love it.

I’m a female and a minority in an industry that has had very little fair representation of either. My dream was to be able to make an impact on the world with the stories I had to tell, stories that I felt would better help people understand the human condition. Whether I consciously set out to at the time or not, I became a leader.

Now, I’m a mother…with another child soon on the way. I think about all the things I have done as a community leader, and what are the values and lessons that I will teach my children. I don’t think they are that different than what I’m telling you now. In every way, in every day, I think of how can I pay it forward to my best ability. That is the way I can lead. I tell you this story about my life because this was my path to leadership. Each of you will have a different path.

As leaders, you are coming to figure out who you are, your style, your goals and in the next few years, you will be put to the test. People will ask you, “what are you all about, what do you want to do?”  What are you going to tell them?

The question is not “is leadership in you?” It’s “how is leadership in you?” …Don’t be afraid of the obstacles that will come your way. Like many leaders who have gone before you, face them bravely, because in the end, that’s the only way you will achieve your dreams. I hope you continue to work towards your dreams, and I look forward to seeing what you will do!



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