Maya Gilliss-Chapman is changing the world. After working for startups in Silicon Valley, where she recognized that refugee communities were largely invisible, she decided to found a nonprofit, Cambodians in Tech, merging her life in California with her Cambodian roots. Her career advice? "The only person you can count on is yourself. Make your own luck."
Fairygodboss of the Week: Maya Gilliss-Chapman
Founder & CEO, Cambodians in Tech
San Francisco Bay Area
FGB: Tell us about your career. How did you get to where you are now?
MGC: After graduating from UC Berkeley, I didn't know what my dream job was... but I knew I wanted to change the world. I wasn't going to settle for anything less.
I started my career in Silicon Valley where I worked for startups as well as tech giants like Trulia. However, it's no secret that the tech industry lacks diversity. While I was happy to see diversity and outreach efforts formulating, it hurt that the refugee communities were so invisible that they weren't even considered for these programs.
That's why I founded Cambodians in Tech, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that aims to increase the number of Cambodians in the tech industry through community, education, and inspiration.
Cambodians in Tech started as a passion project. It was a way for me to combine my current life in Silicon Valley to my roots in Cambodia. I soon realized that the Cambodian community needed this organization, and more organizations like CiT, to break the cycle of poverty and better our future. Today, we have members across the U.S. and in four countries around the world.
Some people laughed when I said that I wanted to change the world. People questioned why I would leave a cushy job at an established company to work on a nonprofit that focused on a population that was invisible to everyone else in the tech industry. I got to where I am now because I didn't listen to the critics, I knew I wanted to make a difference and I knew that I was capable of making that difference.
FGB: What is an accomplishment that you are proud of?
MGC: I'm excited that we have members of Cambodians in Tech all over the world. I have no doubt that Cambodians can contribute to the innovation that comes out of the tech industry, but since many Cambodians live below the poverty line, they aren't aware that tech is an option or the steps necessary to get a career in tech.
Members of Cambodians in Tech are role models that lead by example. They are showing the next generation of Cambodians that this career path is an option and that we're there to help them down that path.
I'm also excited that CiT is the first organization to build a bridge between Silicon Valley and Cambodia. Hackathon SVtoPP is a game changer for aspiring tech entrepreneurs in Cambodia because the winners are given a direct line of communication to experienced entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. This is also one of the first times Silicon Valley is acknowledging the Cambodian tech scene, which is something I've been fighting for over the past few years.
FGB: What is a challenge that you've faced and overcome?
MGC: The biggest challenge is the lack of understanding the tech industry has about Cambodia. Cambodia has a tragic history due to the genocide. The genocide set our community back in many ways, which is why we are so invisible in mainstream culture.
When I advocate for the Cambodian community to be included in diversity initiatives, sometimes it's hard for people to understand that we are minorities because we are lumped in with the other Asian groups. I used to get frustrated by this, but now I just take the time to educate people on why our community is a refugee community and why so many Cambodians live in poverty.
Further, I didn't wait for Silicon Valley to reach out to Cambodians. I decided to lead that effort instead.
FGB: Who is your Fairygodboss?
MGC: My Fairygodboss is Sophaline Mao. She is an extremely accomplished, strong, and selfless Khmer woman. She's the original Cambodian in tech and has been at Salesforce for five years. She just moved to Singapore to work manage Salesforce's partner programs for the APAC region. She also takes the time to give back to the Cambodian community. She is on the Board of Directors for Cambodians in Tech on top of her other volunteer efforts. I was so ecstatic when she agreed to be on our Board because she is my idol and has paved the way for young Cambodian women like myself to make an impact in the business world and tech world.
FGB: What do you do when you’re not working?
MGC: When I'm not working, you can find me at a Warriors game or a Cal football game. I also enjoy traveling the world alone and doing the occasional pageant. I'm currently the Miss Cambodian American 2nd Runner Up!
FGB: If you could have dinner with one famous person - dead or alive - who would it be?
MGC: Barack Obama -- I think this is self-explanatory.
FGB: What is your karaoke song?
MGC: Candy by Mandy Moore.
FGB: What is your favorite movie?
MGC: Beauty and the Beast.
FGB: What book would you bring with you on a desert island?
MGC: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
FGB: What is the #1 career tip you'd like to share with other women who want to have successful careers like you?
MGC: Do something you're passionate about. Sometimes, the job you want doesn't exist yet, so you'll have to make it. Sometimes the job exists, but you'll be told you're unqualified. Just go for it.
You miss 100% of the shots you don't take.
There will be people that doubt you or bully you along the way. Let that motivate you to outperform them and accomplish the things that they said were impossible.
In sum: The only person you can count on is yourself. Make your own luck.
FGB: Why do you love where you work?
MGC: I love where I work because I successfully created my dream job. I wanted to spend my days giving back to my community and I get to do that. I receive letters of support from the Cambodian community and the greater tech community which is how I know that I'm definitely doing something worthwhile. As a first time entrepreneur, I learn something new everyday, so I'm never bored. I couldn't be happier.
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