Diana's story is the latest in our Changemakeher Career Stories, where we interview incredible women creating powerful change in their respective fields about their stories and share their advice on how you can do the same. One of the biggest factors as to why exactly girls tend to shy away from fields such as STEM, tech, entrepreneurship and leadership roles is quite simply that there is often not enough representation. After all, it’s a lot harder to become something you can’t see. So, here at Changemakeher, one of the ways we’re working to change that by interviewing amazing women out there, and showing that you’re just as capable of doing things like them!
So, without further ado, let us introduce to you: Diana Chao!
Tell us about your story and what you do day-to-day!
I am an artist-scientist-activist-entrepreneur, which I realize is a mouthful and a bit pretentious, so I usually just go by “storyteller.” I tell stories through conceptual photography; investigate the story of the universe; amplify the stories of youth for mental health awareness; help curate a better life story for individuals through a beverage company.
I was born in Guizhou, a generally rural province in southwestern China famous for its tea and ethnic minorities. I am buyi, an ethnic minority group that makes up 0.2% of the Chinese population. When I was named the sole female U.S. Presidential Academic Scholar from California (I immigrated to the U.S. when I was 9), the headlines across Chinese media all blasted variations of the same thing: ethnic minority girl honored by American President - the underlying implication, of course, being that it was shocking an ethnic minority could be successful.
I bring that up, because my story has been interesting in terms of the various labels it has plastered onto me. In part as a woman, I’ve learned that labels are only useful to illustrate what boundaries remain unbroken - so that I know exactly what to erase next.
I helped found a beverage company when I was 13 and currently direct its marketing and partnerships. Representing a seven-figure company at 18 has its ups and downs. Usually I avoid face-to-face conversations because people tend to take me less seriously if they know my real age. As a young female entrepreneur, many also have called me “cute” or “adorable” when I’m trying to give a business presentation. But on a day-to-day basis, I’ve learned that if you keep your eyesight on the work and why you’re doing it, you can generally overcome the insecurities of others (but if harassment becomes manipulative or dangerous, do yourself a favor and take action!).
That’s my entrepreneurship story, so before you get bored, here’s a
quick overview of my other stories:
I wrote a 67000-word fantasy novel at 12 and won the Annual Baker’s Dozen Auction hosted by one of Writer’s Digest’s Top 100 websites for writers. HarperCollins named my novel its “featured fiction project” and I was offered a book deal. I’m currently one of Los Angeles’s Youth Poet Ambassadors. I began shooting fine art portraits when I was 14 and soon was featured by Vogue Italia, Redbubble, Adobe, and exhibited at venues with over 75,000 attendees. Currently, I work at Adobe’s Project 1324 - a new initiative that connects, supports, and amplifies emerging artists who use art to create impact - supporting the community’s experience. I am also a ten-instrument musician and have performed in all sorts of random situations, from Celtic bands with my bagpipes to Lunar New Year festivals with my erhu. That’s my artist story.
I began my science career researching dengue virus and helping create a more accurate and efficient device to detect it with the U.S. Navy’s support at the age of 16, and then formally began researching for a NASA project at 17. I helped detect asteroids, and our findings were featured at the American Astronomical Association’s annual conference this past January.
Lastly, my activist story - my personal life floods with turbulence in a way that is both invigorating and unforgiving. When I was younger I suffered from both depression and bipolar disorder and am a suicide attempt survivor. Of course, as a Chinese-American girl, my family and peers thought I just had horrific period side-effects and was immature to no end. The pain of isolation as my teachers watched me slowly wither in front of their eyes and did nothing but tolerate continual harassment by my peers (especially guys) eventually empowered me to create Letters to Strangers, a global youth-run organization fighting to destigmatize mental illness and increase access to affordable, quality treatments, in 10th grade. We have since impacted over 25,000 people on three continents and are continuously seeking new chapter leaders and team members. I was named a Three Dot Dash Global Teen Leader for this effort, but to be quite honest, to this day I struggle with mentioning it in my public life. It certainly can feel like an admission of vulnerability that I fear revealing. But as I grow, I’ve learned that the only way to cultivate empathy is to be honest - and honesty comes both in the form of words and emotions. As females, we are often seen as overly emotional and obsessive. I believe that it is time to embrace whatever negatively connotated language people may use to generalize an entire half of the global population and turn it into strengths.
How did you get to where you are today?
Without some key mentors in my life, I would have certainly surrendered to my demons. My mom has been a continual light. My father and I have a very difficult relationship - I ran away from home for the first time when I was five - but my mother’s kindness, patience, thoughtfulness, and self-effacing nature reminded me that good doesn’t have to be the obvious, forceful winner in this world. A good soul, and the people it inspires, leaves behind far greater trails than any aggression can. My maternal grandparents, too, taught me the value of empathy. Storytelling. Resilience. From them, I learned to believe in the long-term investment of patience and forgiveness. Without those two qualities, I don’t think I could ever have “succeeded.” Still today, I learn more and more about their truths.
My younger brother, too, motivates me. He’s a little punk, going through puberty and it’s showing in his poop emoji texts to me. Sometimes, when I want to give up, I remember that I do what I do in part to pave him a better road. That is worth it to me.
Last but not least, I’ve had some incredible teachers who provided me with intellectual curiosity and emotional support when I needed both the most. From my physics teacher Mr. Pettibone to my history teacher Dr. Arboleda, I learned that hard work does pay off, and that to believe in yourself is not naive - it is a prerequisite to success.
What advice would you give to young girls looking to get into your field of work?
Because I’m sort of all over the place, it’s hard for me to define a specific field of work. However, in general, I think young girls should know that no one can tell you what you are capable of. If I listened to every voice that told me I was not worthy, I would still be back in China, maybe even farming on my paternal grandparents’ land. You have to fight for yourself, but that doesn’t mean you have to fight alone. When you dedicate so much of yourself to long-term goals, it can sometimes be hard to maintain friendships. For the sake of your own mental health, please do not sacrifice friendships for miniscule gains in your career. I learned this the hard way. I’ve lost too many people close to me because they could not understand my intensity, and I did not bother explaining my intensity to them. It’s not worth it. Nowadays, I’d much rather hang out with a friend than analyze social media data - not just because it’s more fun, but because it is necessary for my health and growth as a human being who aspires to kindness and empathy.
Why do you think women are under-represented in your field and the broader workplace?
I think it’s a fear of being too something. Too loud. Too aggressive. Too pushy. Too ambitious. Too thoughtful. Too emotional. But I’d rather be fiesty, a firecracker on the edge of masculinity’s lips, than a bland thought slipped out from brains stuck in centuries where ghost towns were still gold mines and women bore children faster than they bore theorems. I guess what I’m trying to say is that someone somewhere will always find a reason to fault you for something, and that process is just easier when it targets a woman because of so many years of erasure. But that doesn’t mean you are faulty. It just means you have an idea powerful enough to be threatening. That’s rich. Use it.
Have you experienced any push-back for being a woman in your field? If so, how do you deal with that?
Sure! I’ve been catcalled, had men make explicit gestures at me, use suggestive language and noises when I’m the only female in the room when all I’m trying to do is concentrate on getting my work done. Back in high school, I was an internationally ranked debater in a male-dominated form of debate and was once violently treated by my opponent at State championships when a judge praised me in front of him, who went onto say that he could not believe he could lose to such a b****. All of this undermined any progress I was trying to make and pushed forth the idea that what I was doing was irrelevant. Overtime, I’ve developed a thick shell, but of course being cold gets you a whole other set of adjectives. I just remember that at the end of the day, I’m not doing any of this for them. I’m doing it for myself.
Who are your biggest inspirational GirlBosses?
Oh, so so many! I love scientist Marie Curie, civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama, Dr, Mai Khanh, Senator Kamala Harris, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, latina feminist mental health activist Dior Vargas, North Korean defector and activist Yeonmi Park, Singaporean singer-songwriter Tanya Chua, J.K. Rowling, photographer Zhang Jingna, Melinda Gates, author Jeri Smith-Ready… let me stop before I fangirl forever. :)
Where can girls find you (social media pages, businesses, website):
Letters to Strangers: