Kathy Khang still remembers the moment she was invited to join The Daniel Project (TDP), InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s (IVCF) first leadership development program for Asian American staff. “I was floored that IVCF wanted to invest in me as a leader—an Asian American, a woman, a mother of three young kids, a wife. Then I cried because I thought, I cannot make this happen—the travel, the logistics of childcare. It didn’t seem possible.”
Khang discussed her concerns with her then-supervisor Greg Jao. He asked Khang’s teammates, “How can we help support Kathy to accept this opportunity?” Her colleagues volunteered to cover every logistical challenge, from childcare to providing meals to transportation for Khang’s three kids to school and activities. “For the organization and my staff team to . . . invest in the longevity and development of an Asian American colleague—I realized, This is my place. These are my people,” Khang says. More than a decade later, Khang is still on staff, serving as IVCF’s regional multiethnic ministries director.
It’s this kind of intentional, personalized effort that IVCF has used to encourage Asian American employees, most notably with its TDP program. In the early 2000s, IVCF’s then-national director of Asian American Ministries, Paul Tokunaga, had been reading Jim Collins’s best-selling Good to Great, which describes the “Level 5 Leader” as an ideal archetype in “great” companies. “Those same qualities are often found in Asian American leaders—that blend of personal humility and professional will. But our Asian American staff weren’t getting the choice assignments,” Tokunaga says. “Our leadership style is different, and we don’t often promote ourselves.”
To combat the discrepancy between the rising numbers of Asian American students involved in IVCF and the limited number of Asian Americans in midlevel and senior leadership, in 2003 Tokunaga and a team of long-standing Asian American staff developed TDP. The 18-month program for a select group of 14 individuals included training, mentorship, and interactions with high-level leaders in IVCF. Tokunaga hoped both the participants and the organization would see dividends from the investment. No one could have predicted the results. “I thought that would be the only one we could do,” he says. “We never dreamed the program would take off from there. It had a life of its own.”
Of the initial cohort, 12 (including Khang) were promoted within two years of completing TDP. As participants benefited from the focused training, so InterVarsity gained new perspective on what effective leadership could look like. Nikki Toyama-Szeto is the senior director of the International Justice Mission Institute and previously directed IVCF’s Urbana missions conferences. “Leadership in a Western context is thought of as raising your hand and contributing, or volunteering for high-profile tasks. Asian Americans don’t always naturally lead in these ways,” says Toyama-Szeto, who was part of the first TDP cohort and directed its third iteration in 2011. “Many supervisors were surprised that their own staff were selected for this premier program. The project had a huge impact on changing the perception of what leadership qualities look like.”
In 2003, IVCF had only a handful of Asian Americans in mid- and senior-level leadership. Today, it has two Asian American vice presidents (including Tokunaga), three national directors (including Jao), and three regional directors. IVCF also has built up the channel of midlevel Asian American area directors. InterVarsity president Alec Hill says TDP has helped the organization recast how to develop its leadership pipeline. “Leadership development has to be intentional; it doesn’t happen well accidentally. If you want to be more inclusive of a particular group, you have to be specific.”
Daniel Projects are funded through IVCF’s capital campaign, and a percentage of the total overhead helps to support all ethnic-minority staff throughout the organization. Further, Tokunaga has helped launch Daniel Projects for black, Hispanic, and female employees, to name a few, for a total of ten projects since its inception. And as some TDP graduates are called away from campus ministry, their influence has broader implications in the church. Jennifer Ikoma-Motzko, from TDP’s first cohort, now leads as the senior pastor of Japanese Baptist Church in Seattle.
“Today, I serve as the first female senior minister of a 115-year-old Japanese and Baptist church—words that people do not normally associate with someone who looks like me in the pulpit,” says Ikoma-Motzko. “TDP gave me access to dynamic female and male senior ministry leaders, especially Asian American leaders, who encouraged me to lead.”
Joe Ho, another member of the first TDP cohort, now directs Asian American Ministries in IVCF. He says, “The Daniel Project was a watershed experience in my InterVarsity career. It has also been critical to my ability to lead effectively in church contexts. I draw on the skills and confidence I gained virtually every day.”
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