From October 31 to November 2, 100 women and men gathered in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, to share their passions and inspire each other.
It’s been a long time coming, ever since last year’s AWE ’13 in Kuala Lumpur. As a non-professional event organizer, I was about to give up after the first conference. It was just too hard. But after seeing the energy inside the small room, I thought to myself ‘I can’t give up now’. It was the right decision.
Once again, the ones who are seeking something better and different in their lives walked into the auditorium in Kota Kinabalu. The weather was better than ever, almost like the universe knew what was going on this weekend. We had beautiful blue skies without any clouds. In Kota Kinabalu in November, it’s pretty rare. That was, the power of positive energy.
The Marketplace in the lobby was full of local and international vendors, two floors were filled with life-loving participants, and we kicked off AWE ’14 with my opening speech. It’s always a joy to see old and new friends looking at me all at once with their sparkling eyes. There were 100 people of 13 different nationalities in the room, and they traveled from more than 9 countries, from as far as the US. There were 13 returning AWE ’13 attendees. We had honorary AWE members who contributed funds but couldn’t be there with us, from the USA, UK, Korea, Australia, Italy, and Malaysia’s Sabah. Past participants who were deeply empowered from last year’s AWE conference and already empowered people including Marina Mahathir sent 8 videos from around the world containing encouraging messages along with their life stories.
Thank you everyone who believed in the importance of AWE’s existence, and its mission from the beginning. The videos and personal messages made it feel like you were there with me.
Here are parts of my opening speech at AWE ’14:
What’s ‘empowerment’ to you?
I asked a lot people the same question. Is it money? Is it love? Is it career, or travel? Empowerment is one of those words that has been starting to branch out with a lot of hidden meanings these days. What’s yours? For me, it means ‘the freedom of life choices’.
My life has transformed a lot during the last few years. It was a long time coming. I studied mechanical engineering for 6 years in college and graduate school and then embarked on what I thought was an adulthood life by working as a professional mechanical engineer at a big firm. But I became a real adult when I decided to leave my high-paying job 3.5 years ago, because I wanted to live a more fulfilled life. It was a big move. As you all can imagine, it was a great shock for my conservative Korean family. I made probably one of the biggest decisions in my life, without anyone telling me what to do. I was always a vocal, unusual, and stubborn kid, but didn’t realize that I was thinking of someone else’s opinion this much until I really looked at myself from a 3rd person’s perspective. The leap. That was my very first, and powerful moment of freedom of choice.
What struck me hard was how people were afraid to be empowered. They are afraid to make their own choices. People accept the social norm, and fit right into a pre-decided category. My friends, family, and co-workers were mad because they couldn’t handle that I was bursting their bubble. I was telling them that we didn’t have to fit in that pre-decided category. There are Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin in the Hogwarts, but we can create another house as time goes by.
Some people are afraid to be empowered, and they see it as a threat.
If you ever felt that way, I suggest you look back at your own life first. If you feel so jealous that you want to destroy what another person has, then you’re not content with your own life. Something has to change. You need a priority list. Think hard how you can make a better life. Don’t be afraid to get empowered because you are afraid of change. Don’t limit yourself without trying. When you have a freedom of life choices, you are empowered.
I also talked about sharing. The era of competition is moving away. Now it’s all about collaboration.
Empowered people know how to share knowledge and how to collaborate. Truly empowered people don’t fear sharing. I want to talk about my inspirations growing up: Carl Sagan, Julia Child, and Richard P. Feynman. Astronomer, chef, and physicist respectively.
For some reason, these 3 have been the biggest inspirations for me over the years. One day, a couple years ago, it suddenly hit me. These three people, in totally different fields, have one thing in common. Do you know what it is? They were successful in transferring their knowledge to the general public. That is the very behavior of empowered people. They did everything they could do educate common people about their professional field. Why? Because they thought it was their duty as the expert in the field. Knowledge is more powerful when it’s shared.
Empowerment also means collaboration. That is why hosting the AWE conference feels so right for me. Just like my three inspirations.
This year’s theme is overcoming challenges. We prepared different subjects with the same concept. We have freelancers, super-moms, nature enthusiasts, travelers, scientists, and lecturers. We brought all of them together to showcase how we all have different challenges, why challenges are not our identities, and how it’s possible to overcome them. Especially when we talk about making changes, I hear so many excuses why it cannot happen. Don’t focus on the challenges, figure out how to solve the situation. You have the power to do so. Change doesn’t mean that you have to be a different person. Finding the right harmony of desires and reality is what I want to achieve here.
After 3 days of 3 keynote addresses, 2 activities, 5 panel discussions, 1 performance, 2 sharing sessions, 1 party, and some tears… we hugged and said goodbye. The emotions were high. If the aura could be physically seen, it must have been glowing bright pink to florescent yellow. I was proud of myself and my team to create something so unforgettable. I already have improvements in mind to make next year (including good Wi-Fi!), but if AWE events can transform even one person’s perspective, we can say we’ve done our job. As our AWEsome keynote speaker Caroline said, “we do what we can to change the world, little by little”.
Now personal thank you notes…
Preparing AWE ’14 in Kota Kinabalu was certainly challenging. I almost felt like people weren’t ready for AWE here. But as with any successful people or events, I had a great group of supporters along with me. AWE ’14 wouldn’t have happened without my KK community. They are a group of people from all different backgrounds, interests, passions, obligations, and occupations. Local friends I made here have accepted me as a whole, and gave me no frustration when I called 10 times a day to ask odd questions. As I mentioned about ’sharing’, these people certainly weren’t afraid of sharing what they had. You know who you are!
Thank you for our sponsors and partners for jumping on this project. It must have been hard for you to understand what we were trying to do. But it’s been a great ride, hasn’t it? AWE ’14 wouldn’t look the same without all of your participation. Sabah Tea, Sabah Tourism Board, Tourism Malaysia, Santola Coffee, Christianne Goonting and Lavinia Private Gallery, Imperial Boutec Hotel, Hotel Sixty3, Acer Malaysia, Crushbie, Catalyst Foundation, El Centro, and Rainbow of Hope, we thank you. Thanks for empowering Asian women, and everyone who’s seeking for something better.
Speakers, panelists, volunteers, and team. It’s been a pleasure to collaborate with you all, and thanks for your honest feedback until the end. You all brought unique perspective and stories to AWE ’14 which is what makes us different than other conferences. Thanks for trusting me, Skyping with me several times, and putting your time and effort into this project.
AWE ’14 participants. I sincerely hope that you enjoyed your time at AWE ’14. We tried our best to meet your expectations. Hope you got useful contacts, inspirations, new ways of living, and most of all, good friends.
I hope to see you and your friends at Yogyakarta, Indonesia, next year. My team and I are already preparing to make an even better conference next year: more sessions, more activities, and more food!
One year of work finally bloomed into this beautiful gathering. It was my pleasure meeting you all, and hope to see you soon again somewhere in the world (before AWE ’15!). Remember, we are here to listen, share, and inspire.
Oh, and thank you for the surprise birthday cake!
#Photo credit: Sheng Haw Lim, Danielle Soong, Joey Seandovan