Colorful crayon drawings form a less than corporate back drop to her desk. But it is obvious that Jeannie Diefenderfer, Group President at Verizon, knows the ins and outs of climbing the corporate ladder while hoisting her race and gender on her small shoulders.
Then again, perhaps ''hoist'' is less than accurate.
''I never think of being Asian-American as a hindrance; my uniqueness is like an additional tool in my tool kit,'' she says.
Diefenderfer's family immigrated to the United States from South Korea when she was thirteen-years-old. In five years, she found herself at Tufts University. Graduating with a degree in chemical engineering, she applied for jobs in various fields including communications.
She didn't necessarily set out to make waves. Her start was typical - she started out as a college hire with New England Telephone, which underwent numerous mergers and acquisitions to become what is Verizon today. But today, as one of a handful of Asian-American women executives in the industry, she is anything but typical.
A study by the Asian Pacific American Women Leadership Institute found that less than .5 percent of corporate boards and executive positions are filled by Asian/Pacific Islander women.
''Being an Asian-American woman has been positive and negative for me. You stand out, you're guaranteed high exposure ?so if you succeed, people remember. But similarly, if you fail, people remember. Its high risk, high reward,'' she says.
Still, she claims that her cultural upbringing has contributed to her success in many ways.
''Humility is valued in the Asian culture and I was raised to be humble. It puts people at ease; they don't view me as a threat. Also, Asian cultures value the wisdom of elders. My grandmother used to say that you should always respect those who have eaten more bowls of rice than you.''
But certainly there is more to her success.
''In this kind of industry, you have to constantly work at expanding your knowledge base, keep abreast of the technical developments. To be an effective leader requires an understanding of the competitive marketplace and a keen sense of how to add value to that,'' she says.
Further, for an executive, Diefenderfer lists the ability to communicate clearly and execute on plan as essential.
''I think Asians are perceived to be better task workers than leaders. We value those who are willing to hunker down and do the work. Traditionally, Asians are critical of those who make noise; your work should speak for itself, you should not have to sell it. But to be a leader, it takes hard work, expertise in your field and more.''
Diefenderfer points out that often, Asian-Americans in the corporate world have to make a distinction between values they bring out at work and values they leave at home. Luckily for her, she has had to do little navigating between these channels.
''I am a typical in the sense of traditional Asians. Often in Asian homes, you''ll find that there are high expectations but they are rarely stated explicitly. I'm not like that; I am extremely direct. I always articulate my point of view and I make certain that I'm clearly understood.''
While she credits her drive and demand for clear communication for much of her success, she is careful to note the importance that numerous mentors have had in her life.
''Because you don't know what you don't know,'' Diefenderfer says.
''It's been invaluable for me to have colleagues who are minorities - and not even necessarily Asian - whom I could pick up a phone and say I have this and this scenario going on in my life. They would give me perspectives that helped me make my own decisions.''
Acting as a mentor for others is high on her list of priorities.
''Part of my giving back is to not only answer those same questions I had along the way, but to provide an environment that's easier for minorities to ask those questions,'' she says.
But, of course, the full integration of minorities into the workforce and further still, their promotion into executive circles is not an issue that can be tackled by mentorships alone. Diefenderfer stresses that it has to come from all angles.
''From a formal business standpoint, I think companies must always ask themselves, How can we continue to develop women, a diverse workforce, and ultimately our company?''
She notes that diversity programs and initiatives force organizations to look inside and ask essential questions. ''It's also just good business to understand your diverse market,'' she adds. As a representative for these kinds of groups, she gained a lot of exposure and access to people with whom she would not normally have been in contact.
Then there is the informal, social networking and support systems among colleagues. On these latter points, Diefenderfer again, is careful to balance the responsibility.
''For a variety of reasons, Asian-Americans are not assimilated in the American corporate culture. They are in it but often not active.'' By engaging in their business professionally and socially, Diefenderfer contends that Asians can help propel themselves into the mainstream, the part of the system that moves you up.
She cautions that this may not be everyone's desire. ''When I say Asian-Americans can be more active, I am referring to those who want to be part of that system,'' she says.
Diefenderfer is sensitive to those Asians or other minorities who may not want to identify themselves with others in their race. ''It's important not to force people to feel they are different. Another Asian-American does not have to feel Asian.''
But one point on which Diefenderfer will not compromise is the ability to communicate in English. ''You have to be able to articulate your ideas; this is critical to one's success and survival on all levels in corporate America.''
However, it is not without recognition of the difficulty of this undertaking that she puts forth these recommendations.
''It's the execution of a philosophy across a wide spectrum. It's easy to just implement a program or quota system that shifts around the numbers,'' she acknowledges. ''The real work lies in the actual institutionalization of diversity.''
On the same line, the success of the execution of this philosophy cannot be measured with numbers alone. Certainly, with affirmative action policies and more recently, as businesses recognize the value a diverse workforce adds to an increasingly diverse and global marketplace, the numbers have improved.
''I'm a product of Affirmative Action,'' says Diefenderfer, ''and I know I would not be sitting here had it not been for that policy.'' But again, her assertion is not without an understanding of the other side. ''It's a particularly difficult issue for Asians because our culture is based on being recognized for the work you do, we react badly to handouts.''
Because of this kind of cultural upbringing, many Asian-Americans, even those who are second or third generation American, feel that affirmative action is a disservice to those who have worked hard to achieve what they have achieved.
''I just try to focus on what matters,'' says Diefenderfer. ''I want to make certain to use my success to open doors for those who come behind me, make sure I inspire and lead people to help them accomplish all that they want to accomplish is important to me.''