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From Refugee to Tech Exec: A Perspective on Freedom and Innovation

In 1979, we escaped in a crowded boat from my war-torn home country of Vietnam to the refugee camps of Malaysia. My first taste of freedom was when I set foot on American soil with my mother and brother. We were considered lucky to be given a second chance at life and come to the land of opportunity.

Growing up in Virginia as a first generation immigrant from Vietnam, we lived in the low-income projects. I would watch my mother run between multiple jobs to raise our family. My drive to succeed was fueled by my upbringing and I was the first in my family to attend college. Who knew that two decades later, I would have a rewarding career in technology and be a part of one of the world’s most respected software companies?

/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/box_678488.jpgAlthough I am now far from my refugee past, the experience has instilled in me a hunger for freedom and innovation in every aspect of life, whether it’s personal or professional. I owe much of my success in life, especially in my career, to making space for freedom and innovation in the workplace. With experience in both large and small companies, I can tell you that cultivating creativity and having a relentless attitude is not just a mentality for start-ups. Whether you’re a lone entrepreneur or an organization as large as SAP, here’s how you can incorporate freedom and innovation into your office today:

  • Take initiative to innovate. My mother never failed to find creative ways to make ends meet. Although she only had an 8th grade education, she taught me that innovation is necessary for survival – at home and in the workplace. A few years ago, we identified a need to bring expertise from developed countries into emerging markets. SAP had no formal program in place so we got executive buy-in and built a rotation program from the ground up. In two years, we gave over 15 employees the opportunity to grow professionally and share their knowledge in the fast growth markets. The program was so successful that is has been formally adopted by HR as a global initiative. If you believe in your idea, nurture it, gain executive sponsorship and run with it!
  • Empower your employees and peers to redefine ordinary. I’m always encouraging our team to think about how we can do things differently. Especially in the fast moving world of software, being open to feedback and adaptable to change is key. This year, we had a decline in employee engagement on our team. To combat this, we decided to implement two employee driven programs: a committee to encourage engagement and a team ambassador program. These programs are led by employees, not leadership, which empowers them to drive innovation. When people feel real ownership for their work and are empowered to solve problems, we can build something great together. Not everything has to be driven top down – it’s always refreshing to have a new perspective.

  • Less is always more. Find ways to be effective with less. In a study with Wharton Business School, Business Simplification 2015: The Unmet Strategic Imperative, 74% of respondents say business processes and decision-making complexity have inhibited their ability to meet goals. Imagine how much more we could achieve if employees were given the freedom to simplify processes. In the past year, we worked with our team to simplify our sales and marketing content by two-thirds. It’s tough to simplify and consolidate – but well worth it as it allows us to be more effective!

So, what are you waiting for – exercise your freedom to innovate today!

Let me know how it goes! Share your thoughts with me in the comments below or follow me on Twitter @dvubroady.

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      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      Very inspiring story Denise, thank you for sharing. I love the personal experiences that you divulge and how your upbringing has motivated you throughout your life. Regarding the projects, I've read of so many feel good success stories (like yours) and in contrast, many filled with tragedy and regret.

      My step father grew up in the Brooklyn Projects and as he looks back, he shares many fascinating stories, on both ends of the spectrum. A challenge like that truly forces individuals to heavily rely on morals, virtues, and their inner drive. I suppose one learns quite a bit about life, early on, by growing up in such a melting pot. Your story would be perfect in the Blog It Forward section of SCN...

      You can read mine story and more, here:

      Blog It Forward - A Wild Ride With Ryan Somers