Michelle Pham (she/her) is a Growth Strategist at Google, focused on building successful marketing strategies for retail and e-commerce brands in partnership with agencies. Innovating for the future and retail are Michelle’s lifelong passions. She designs clothes after hours and enjoyed a thrilling adventure as a reporter covering London Fashion Week. You can read more about her personal approach to style and life on her blog: www.maisondemademoiselle.com.
Hailing from Vancouver, Canada, Michelle graduated from Bates College with a degree in Sociology. As a first-generation college student, she founded Bates’ first Asian-American Students’ Association and is deeply invested in diversifying perspectives and talent in the technology industry. Outside of work, Michelle dedicates her time to initiatives and organizations focused on social justice, poverty alleviation, and economic freedom through access to education and capital. You can often catch her on the squash court, traveling, spending time with loved ones, writing her blog, or reading a good book in a nook.
1/ When did you know that you wanted to work in tech?
The technology industry is one of the best playgrounds for people who live in a world of imaginative possibilities. I move and think at an incredibly fast pace, so I knew that I wanted to be in an environment that was ripe and overflowing with change and innovation.
When I entered high school, I was accepted into a unique academic program outside of my school district. The director of the program, Mr. Olson, was a visionary. Instead of home economics and cooking, I learned about blogging, quantum physics, giving back to communities, technology, and a whole gamut of ideas that few 14 year olds get to engage with.
A few weeks ago, I was reading Shonda Rhimes’ “Year of Yes.” She coined a term to define herself: “F.O.D.,” which stands for First, Only, Different. In my life, I’ve often been the first, only, and different in many rooms, roles, and environments. I was the first in my family to graduate from college. I have been the sole woman/minority on the team and the only one to speak up on behalf of communities that I come from. I have looked and thought differently from the people who comprised the majority in the spaces that I moved into.
Technology was a space that represented a parallel experience of having to navigate and iterate through ambiguity successfully. There are no rules or playbook to abide by because oftentimes, you’re in the pursuit of something that has never been done before. Google and Silicon Valley are often the first, the only, and the different to bring to life a new idea. I wanted to be a part of creating that magic.
2/ Who is a role model that you look up to?
My mother has the fortuitous gift of foresight. She was my earliest advocate and supporter. An incredible work ethic and an insatiable curiosity to know more about the world are a part of my DNA. My parents escaped Vietnam by boat after the Vietnam War, and my mom did it as a young, single woman, not much older than me. The first time she left, she was caught and imprisoned. On her second attempt, she allowed herself to be in the unknown — never knowing if her boat would be found, what lay ahead, and whether she would ever see the places and people she loved again.
I get my will and persistence for excellence from my Mom. When I started elementary school, my parents hadn’t taught me English yet and I ended up behind in classes. Over one summer, my Mom bought English grammar books and we went through the exercises together. She had previously been a teacher (hired by the UN) while at a refugee camp. We took dozens of trips to the public library. I came back that September and moved from the ESL section to the gifted readers class. This became a theme in my life. If I came home with a 99% on an exam, my Mom would ask me if I did my personal best. She never challenged me to be better than the average or to compare myself to others. She just wanted to know if I was being accountable to myself.
Unlike other traditional Asian families, I was never asked to do domestic chores. She always shooed me out of the kitchen and told me to spend my time reading. My Mom sacrificed a lot for my family by being a stay-at-home parent, but she laid the foundation so that I would have a world of choices full of lofty dreams and wild ideas.
3/ Where is your hometown?
I’m from Vancouver and I’m proudly Canadian!
4/ What is a struggle that you’ve faced and how did you handle it?
The best things in life are on the other side of fear. I can tell you many stories, but I want to leave this thought here.
5/ What is something that you are immensely proud of?
I look back at when I was younger and I laugh at my foolish spunk and relentless energy. When I decided to go to the U.S. for college, I didn’t have the slightest clue about how to begin. Unlike several of my close friends, who attended elite prep schools and SAT bootcamps, I was the definition of bootstrapped. I had my Dad drop me off at the ACT testing center at the last possible test date before applications were due so that I could be a standby test taker. It was sink or swim, and I had never cracked an ACT book open prior to that day.
Miraculously, by the grace of divine intervention, I excelled. I had wonderful and supportive teachers who wrote my letters of recommendation. In the end, despite receiving one of the 30 Major Entrance Scholarships to the University of British Columbia, I chose the path of adventure and growth and decided to attend Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. On Wikipedia, Lewiston was listed as the second biggest urban city in Maine, so I thought that life there would not be dissimilar to all the films I had watched about New York. I was in for quite the shock when I landed at the airport.
I always knew that education would be my passport to the world, and that journey will never end. I’m able to take my whole family on wonderful getaways and experiences. I’m able to give money to classrooms and causes in need. I’m able to care not only for myself, but for others. I do my best to leave a positive impact on people and the world. The moments that I am most proud of involve two words: “giving” and “people”.
6/ What’s something that’s been on your mind a lot lately?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this balance between abundance and scarcity. As someone who grew up with humble beginnings, I lived in an intellectual reality of abundance where I believed that there was always more for me out there in the world. There were infinite possibilities and a world of abundance to look forward to.
Now that I am settled in my career and life in San Francisco, I wonder why this idea of scarcity settles in for many of us who have. When we live in a world of scarcity, we always feel the need to have more, hoard more, and we never feel peace in knowing that we as individuals are enough and have enough to be happy and more importantly, to give to others. I recall a book that I read by a sociologist, Annette Lareau, “Unequal Childhoods” that spoke about how the wealthier we become, the more individualistic we can afford to be, because we do not need to depend upon the social ties of community and family for the essential day-to-day routines (i.e.: childcare, shared housing, or small loans). I think of a line from a Drake song: “I like it when money makes a difference, but it doesn’t make you different.”
7/ Favorite food?
Sushi or my Mom’s cooking.
8/ Favorite book?
I’ve been reading a lot lately. I keep on coming back to How to Love by Thich Nhat Hanh.
9/ If you could try another job for a day, what would it be?
I’d be quite content being a high school English teacher. English was my favorite class, and the teenage imagination is a fascinating world.
10/ If you could give your 18-year-old self a piece of advice, what would it be?
Relax! Enjoy being in the present moment.