Diem Ly is the Director of Community Investment for Comcast NBCUniversal, focusing on corporate philanthropy, diversity, and inclusion, and public relations across Washington State. Ly has 10 years of experience working in community relations, journalism and media, and social justice issues. She serves on the board of directors for the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS), the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle (ULMS), and Seattle Goodwill.
Prior to her current role, she worked as first an Assistant Editor then Editor in Chief of the International Examiner from 2007 to 2012; as a Morning News Writer for Northwest Cable News; and a PTSD researcher for the Veterans Affairs of Puget Sound. Ly graduated from the University of Washington with a Bachelors of Science degree, studying neuroscience and psychology.
The International Examiner caught up with Ly to discuss leadership and her involvement in the community.
International Examiner: As a former editor of the IE, what do you think is most important for ethnic newspapers like the IE in their efforts to cover their communities today?
Diem Ly: In a word, collaboration! Community newspapers are built on being a unique voice for an underrepresented group and while there are collaborations within a group, there are far-reaching benefits to partnering broadly and experimentally.
I’m not talking about a one-off opportunity for a grant-funded project, but seeing collaboration as a thread woven into an organization’s way of thinking and acting.
Imagine the resource-and-knowledge-rich benefits of a public-private partnership. Or the policy impact of a civic partnership to engage a community and political leaders. Or from a nuts and bolts perspective—imagine the cost-savings on sharing office space with other organizations [where] you can share resources, talent, and industry best practices with.
Building on our collective talents, expertise, and resources, community media can stretch past the shores of a “survivor” or insular model towards being the critical voice and beacon of knowledge we need today.
The belief that there are barriers to collaborate due to time, capacity, funding or trust, will result in the worst possible thing to become in community media today—irrelevant.
IE: You graduated from UW with degrees in psychology and neuroscience: what drew you to a career in journalism and community relations?
Ly: People and storytelling fascinate me. So, once I was introduced to the International Examiner as a wannabe radical student at the University of Washington, a trajectory toward journalism was inevitable. Growing up, I loved storytelling and writing. [When I was eight years old], I wrote a full length novel. In 8-year-old terms, that’s like, 10 pages. In middle school, I worked with my best friend, Stephanie, on an overcomplicated storyline with the aim to submit the draft to a popular writer for teens at the time, R.L. Stine. The author wrote back, essentially saying, “Thanks. And nice try, girls.” At the UW, I co-wrote a script with my Vietnamese best friend, Tammy, reinterpreting the popular play, The Vagina Monologues, from an API woman’s perspective. Following college, I had a stint as a PTSD researcher at the Veteran’s Administration. But while the science of people and behavior fascinated me, ultimately a life of data and analysis didn’t. So, I dusted off the old notebooks and started writing again. I contacted the International Examiner Editor in Chief at the time who was—astonishingly to me—a Vietnamese woman just a few years older than myself. As a girl growing up in the ‘burbs of Snohomish County, wishing to be blond and blue-eyed, and who experienced a delayed sense of pride and understanding in my API identify, this was … cool. She mentored me until the torch was eventually passed to lead the IE. Community relations and philanthropy wasn’t a far cry from my responsibilities as an executive director of a nonprofit media organization.
After years of pitching the merits of the Examiner and opportunities for sponsorship and partnership—I wanted to be on the other side of the table. I believed there needed to be not only more APIs visible in corporate philanthropic roles in a region bustling with API communities, but ones who understood our local history and the people who shaped it. Someone who knew current issues at stake and how they can help shape funding priorities and redefine public-private partnerships to make an impact. And, one who knew what it was like to work at a nonprofit. I’ll admit, the transition from a nonprofit, community worker in the Chinatown ID to a corporate employee wasn’t easy—but it redefined to me what an advocate can be and from where they can lead change from. You can also be an advocate and ally in the corporate halls of a Fortune 50 company. And indeed, having launched or supported six employee resource groups at Comcast NBCUniversal for Women, Black, APAs, LGBTQ, Veterans, and Hispanic employees, funding over $3.5M to over 50 nonprofits across the State in 2017 alone, building collaboration spaces in Seattle for people to use for free, and now serving as a co-chair of our Diversity & Inclusion Council to encourage conversation that leads to action—I’m finding another way to be an advocate. I hope that’s an example for others.
IE: You’re quite involved as a board member for ACRS, Goodwill, and ULMS: why are these organizations important to you and how do you support these organizations as a board member?
Ly: In my role in community relations and philanthropy, I’ve never been one to just sign a check once a year. I like to be involved in organizations and help identify and pave the way for their success and those they serve.
That said, to serve on three boards is pretty daunting. Participating in board meetings, committee meetings, board retreats, and fundraising events are just the tip of the iceberg.
I’ve been an informal ambassador for ACRS, Seattle Goodwill, and the Urban League for years before I joined the boards. I believe in the mission and the people pounding the pavement each day in service to others.
Most striking to me is the impact and efficiency in all three organizations. They hold themselves to a high standard, define their success metrics and plan accordingly to reach it, evaluate and re-evaluate to ensure maximum impact, and hold themselves accountable if it is not.
In fact, they’ve gifted me more than what I could gift them. I’ve learned to work with intention and values, and be dedicated to improvement and impact because of them. Plus, they’re fun people!
IE: What does “leadership” mean to you? How would you describe a successful leader?
Ly: Leadership has been a journey for me, honestly. I’ve been thrust into multiple leadership roles without the experience or training I would’ve preferred and have always learned the hard way.
Through example and having had the privilege to work with legacy-building leaders—I’m talking about the leaders that make the most hardened professional cry at their departure—this is what I’ve learned.
Leaders ask lots of questions. Because the best leaders know what they don’t know. Leaders know how to empower and engage each individual on a team regardless of where the employee is in the pecking order. In fact, sincere leaders are known to ask for everyone’s opinion and raise the voice of the quietest. That said, a leader doesn’t care about your current title either—rather they care about where you want to go. And they care—really care—about helping get you there.