By Tom Maye
Hilary Corna, author of “One White Face,” said the extravagantly wealthy Singapore of “Crazy Rich Asians” – playground of the rich and famous, where million-dollar weddings and billion-dollar mansions are a given – isn’t an exaggeration during her talk in the Forum March 12.
She said the movie is so accurate, Singaporeans go back and point out parts it left out.
The daughter of a single mom in Ohio, Corna took three flights totaling 36 hours to Singapore shortly after her college graduation, having sold her only asset, a 1995 Jeep Wrangler. “That part was easy,” she said, as she’s used to daunting flights after studying international business in Japan.
Six weeks later, she received five job offers. She was soon hired as senior executive officer at Toyota, serving the largest market segment for the company in the world.
“Even me, I’m like, ‘Why did Toyota hire me?’” she said. Though partly in jest, she still expressed deep gratitude for her good fortune, and to the people who “championed” her to where she is today.
The only native English speaker, youngest employee, and “the one white face” in the entire department, Corna said she stood at the crossroads between opportunity and obstacle, power and setback. Despite her career success, Corna said that after experiencing sexual harassment, sexist remarks, and little gender diversity back at home, she made it her mission to go around the country empowering women to reach their greatest potential.
At Toyota, Corna specialized in Kaizen, an Eastern work philosophy focusing on improving performance and the ease of the buying and selling process. She said she managed accounts worth “hundreds of thousands of dollars” for 14 different countries, traveled extensively, and after her stint, even spoke at the 2018 United Nations Global Leadership summit about her experiences.
She added her memoir is in the process of being turned into a screenplay for a streaming service, though she said details about the project are still in development.
Corna said in Eastern cultures, people emphasize an attitude of “show me, don’t tell me.” Rather than instructing her how to succeed, she said her coworkers led by example, encouraging her to forge similar success for herself.
At home, faced with opposition and sexism in the male-dominated public speaking industry, Corna said she continued this philosophy of leading by example – even if that could make her unpopular at the time.
Corna said she was disappointed by the lack of gender parity in her field. “At Elon University, in the four years I was there, not once did I have a female speaker,” she said.
“We need more women talking about leadership,” she said.
“The benchmark should be higher,” she said, disappointed by men who would make sexist remarks instead of focusing on her career accomplishments.
Despite her passion, Corna said she’s “still discovering her voice” as an activist. “In the past three years, I’ve been a closet feminist,” she said. In part, this desire to give voice to workplace sexism motivated her decision to continue speaking about her experiences around the country, encouraging women to fight back against opposition.
Long past the intended time frame of the event, Corna sat with students discussing ways they could empower themselves against setbacks – though few checked the clock.
Freshman Analisa Marzeotti shared her experiences with professors she believed lacked compassion toward her struggles with dyslexia.
Sophomore Nicole Arsenault talked about getting involved in the male-dominated computer science industry, and sophomore Julia Catalano shared her frustrations with what she considered gender-biased hiring practices at the supermarket she worked at.
Corna talked extensively with each, encouraging them to fight for what they believed in.
Regardless of her negative experiences, Corna has hope for the future. She said now, students are increasingly involved in activism, further emboldening them to take a stand against discrimination.
“To really carve paths, you’re going to be an outsider,” she said – but encouraged students to push past opposition anyways.
She added, “The fact that you care about it is enough importance to do something about it.”