How do you ask for what you’re worth? How do you even figure out what you’re worth? Jamie Lee knows that the answers depend on how you frame the conversation. After navigating the corporate world for 10+ years, she now works full time teaching other women to speak up for what they deserve.
Do you remember your first week in New York?
I first came to America from South Korea in 1989. I moved to New York with my mom and my sisters on Christmas. I remember having grown up watching American movies and I thought it would be like that when we moved! Because we arrived on Christmas day, I thought there would be parades in the streets. [Laughs] It was quite a shock when we landed and it was grim, gray, and nothing like I imagined.
Why did your parents move to New York?
My father actually moved here a year ahead of us and set up a shop in Times Square. Once it started going well, he had all of us come and join him. I suppose the main reason was that there was a lack of opportunity in South Korea. The 1980s were very politically charged and tumultuous times. Later, my father also told me that he and my mom were having marital difficulties, so there was also that! [Laughs]
Did your parents stay together after the move?
Yes and no. They stayed together long enough to set up a bigger store in Queens, which they ran together for years. Then they eventually split up. They ran that store for six years, and worked so hard at it. The store was open 364 days a year.
I remember reading that you credit your work ethic to seeing how hard your mom worked.
Yes, I think that impacted me a lot. Once my parents split up, my mom raised us all and single-handedly put me and my two sisters through college.
That's incredible. What did you study in college?
Japanese! I didn't really know what I wanted to do when I grew up, but I knew I wanted to learn another language. I thought that Japanese had a beautiful sound, and I had a lot of curiosity about Japanese language and culture. I can't really explain why, but I was really compelled to study abroad in Japan, and so that's what I did in college for my junior year.
I lived in Tokyo with a homestay family, and I got to have dinner with them every single night and study Japanese every day. I loved the experience of immersive learning, but it also taught me that I wouldn’t enjoy working in Japan. It’s a very patriarchal society, similar to South Korea. It’s so ingrained.
In South Korea, if there is a man, and especially if he is older than you, then you must show him respect. It’s understood that he knows better, so you must follow what he says. He has position, power, authority, and somehow that's also associated with virtue. It's a different way of understanding the world.
I studied at Smith College, which is a women’s college with a long feminist history. It’s where Gloria Steinem went! So having lived that experience for two years before going to Japan meant that the feminist ideology was deeply ingrained in me. I knew I would have a difficult time working in a patriarchal society.
So what happened when you graduated from Smith?
I applied for the first job I saw on Craigslist! [Laughs] I was looking for any entry-level job I could do. My parents worked themselves to the bone to give me better opportunities, so the least I could do was work hard myself and start earning money.
My very first job was as a telemarketer, but that didn’t last very long. Then I got a job with an international organization that was going to build a nuclear power plant in North Korea.
How did that come about?!
Because I speak Korean, Japanese and English, a Japanese recruiting firm placed me with this organization where there were diplomats from America, South Korea, Japan, and India working towards a common goal, which was this deal brokered in 1994 by former president Jimmy Carter. Basically the deal was, “You stop building nuclear bombs and the international community will provide you with a renewable source of energy." Of course, we all know what happened… they flipped on that promise! Bush got elected and called North Korea an “axis of evil” and then everything stopped.
Did you enjoy that job?
I loved the premise of the organization, but when I started I was basically a temp receptionist. I got to meet really cool people, though, and it allowed me to get my next job working for a Korean energy company that built desalination plants. I came on board there as a buyer. I bought raw materials, like copper plates and steel.
So it became my job to negotiate with American vendors on behalf of this Korean company. I learned the importance of establishing rapport with people you do business with. But I also felt very constricted by the corporate culture. Because it was a Korean company, all the managers were men. I wasn’t treated properly, and after a while I left.
When did you start to think that helping other women negotiate could be a career?
About six years ago. I had worked at a few other companies as a buyer, and at that time I was working for a spa company. I negotiated a plan with my vendors that would save the company about $100,000. I thought, “This is it—I’m going to get a raise, be promoted, and my bosses will love me!” I basically thought they were just going to plant a tiara on my head. Negotiation experts have actually coined this “the tiara syndrome.” Often women will feel that if they just keep their head down and work well, somebody will notice and reward them.
Then you get mad when nobody does! [Laughs]
Exactly. Later, I was having cocktails with girlfriends at my place. One person was complaining about her job, and then another friend said, "If you feel undervalued, if you feel unsatisfied with what you get, you can always ask for more. There's always room in the budget for more but you have to know how to ask for it. Instead of making it all about you, you must propose it to your bosses as a business strategy.”
It’s really so obvious in hindsight, but back then it completely blew my mind! That's when I started thinking, we need to have more conversations like this one. What can I do to facilitate the conversation? I started hosting events where women came together to have conversations about negotiations. I’m always learning from the women I meet. There are so many skills and expertise that women don’t give themselves credit for. I continued to study in many areas, like mediation and coaching. I went to a teacher symposium at Harvard where they publish a lot of academic work about negotiations.
You have been negotiating since the first time you learned to say no. When you say no, you’re not only expressing your autonomy, you’re expressing your desire. But ever since you first said no, people have been trying to get you to say yes. We’re engaging in negotiation conversations all the time.
So when you’re negotiating with a company, it’s about how you show up, how you engage in conversations so that you get heard. It’s not always about the money. Negotiating is also about how you hear the other side of the conversation, because you’re not just talking at people, but with them. For me, as someone who learned English as a second language, and then Japanese as a third, I'm always fascinated by how people connect through language.
How would you explain what you do to someone you’d never met?
I work as a negotiation and leadership coach for women on the rise. I believe that negotiation skills are leadership skills. So, it's not just about bargaining, but how you show up as a leader and express your value as a benefit to other people. Who do you need to be and what do you need to do so that you can grow into the leader you want to see in the world? To do that, you need to engage in conversations that lead to agreement. That is negotiating.
My days are always different. I do one-on-one coaching, lead workshops, and do speaking engagements.
Are you mainly working with women looking to negotiate salary?
Often, yes. I work closely with my clients to come up with an overall strategy she can use. I will even build a script to help her practice, so that when she goes into the meeting she feels prepared. Basically, these conversations come down to a very basic premise: be compensated for the value you contribute to the company. It’s not personal. It’s simply, “This is how much value I've contributed, and this is what I expect to be compensated.”
For example, I worked with a client that was literally bringing in millions and millions of dollars for her company. She was routinely exceeding her targets, but her income was less than six figures, well under market value. She was not being financially compensated for the work she was doing. So, basically we broke this all down to a rational basis. She asked that she be brought up to market value. That would be a 50 percent increase in salary, but in the context of the value, it’s less than one percent of what she’s bringing in. When you frame it like that, it’s very fair and she makes a very good argument.
If she just fixated on asking that she be paid 50 percent more, it looks like a huge jump. But when she framed it within the context of her financial contributions to the company, it was a completely different conversation.
What is the best piece of advice you could give?
It's not greedy for you to shine or succeed. It's actually very generous. When you succeed and when you shine, the people in your home, your family, friends, and the people in your network also benefit. A lot of women that I talk to have this fear of being seen as greedy, aggressive, or even inappropriate for wanting more. Women are socialized to be givers. I want women to reframe that and see it as another way of being generous. Because if you're bigger, if you're bolder, and you're better paid, you can do so much more. And by you being more, other people benefit from seeing your example.
What does New York mean to you?
New York is a dream come true. It’s an amazing city for someone like me, who is shaping their own freelance career. I have access to such a wide variety of people, and so many major companies have bases here. The other day I gave a workshop at Chase Bank, and another at Columbia University. New York has allowed me to create the life that I want, and to share something I truly believe in with other people.
To learn more about Jamie, visit her website here.