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Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month Profiles: Kevin Phang

April 25, 2022

As a young boy, Kevin Phang emigrated from Burma to the United States with his family. After attending Lowell High School in San Francisco, he was accepted into the University of California at Irvine and later graduated magna cum laude with a degree in Criminology, Law and Society, as well as a minor in Management. Soon after, he went to work at Quinstreet, the online performance marketing company, before moving to HotChalk, a leading provider of education technology and services based in Silicon Valley. He served as that company’s Senior Director, SEO, until it was acquired by Noodle in 2020.

Meet Kevin Phang, Managing Director, SEO and Analytics

I believe one of the most important aspects of good leadership is humility, the understanding – and acceptance – that you could be wrong.

What does it mean for you to identify as Asian American?

My self-identification as an Asian American has evolved quite a bit since I emigrated from Burma to the United States some years ago with my family. When I was younger, I understood I was Asian; but growing up in a city as heterogeneous and diverse as San Francisco, never felt limited or different based on the color of my skin. As I’ve gotten older, I recognize that I had been living in a bubble. Although the struggles and successes my family experienced are shared among many others in the Asian community, there are many other experiences that are very uncommon. And the realization that these experiences are so varied across county and state borders – and societal and economic status – has forced me to think more deeply about what it means to be Asian in America. More importantly, what I can do in partnership with all populations to impact change.  

Would you like to share your reaction to the recent spike in anti-Asian crime?

I have mixed reactions to the recent rise in crimes against Asian Americans. I’m finding it difficult to tease apart what’s really happening from how the media positions it. My Criminology studies have forced me to look more intently – and critically – at these stories to find out what’s behind the sensational headlines. You can’t refute the horrific pictures and videos of these senseless acts; however, I believe it’s important for individuals to be open-minded about news sources and not formulate opinions based on headlines and social media echo chambers.

Why did you choose to work in education? How have your educational experiences shaped your career?

As an immigrant, you come to America looking for better education as a way to lead to a better life. Among Asian communities, education is seen as the great equalizer. I was fortunate to be accepted into Lowell High School in San Francisco, and, after graduation, I enrolled at the University of California at Irvine, where I pursued a liberal arts education. I’m very glad I did because I found that, by developing my critical thinking and analytical skills, a liberal arts curriculum gave me a broader understanding of the world. Following that, my first job was with a performance marketing company, Quinstreet, and I worked in the education department when I first joined. From there I went to HotChalk, a leading provider of education technology and services. Working in the education space, my approach to a lot of my projects drew from my liberal arts education. Search Engine Optimization, for example, doesn’t arrive at a single answer. As in liberal arts, there can be multiple pathways to a solution.

What makes a leader great?

I believe one of the most important aspects of good leadership is humility, the understanding – and acceptance – that you could be wrong. Another critical trait is simply saying what you mean and meaning what you say. In other words, following through and leading by example. When I say leading by example, I mean understanding the people you’re working with and working alongside. I ask myself each day, “Are you being a leader today?”

When you think of great leadership, who comes to mind? Why?

Bill Belichick, the head coach of the New England Patriots football team. I love the principles he instills in the team. My favorite quote from him is simply “Do your job.” What he means is that if even one person doesn’t do their job, it undercuts the whole team’s effort. And one of the things that he stresses in practice every day is preparation. I try to apply that dedication to practice to some of our challenges here at Noodle. Instead of optimizing to any one particular factor in a vast sea of factors, you should instead consider changing part of your process. He also stresses that teamwork involves a deep level of trust. Good team leaders build a team out of trust.

Who are some Asian or AAPI leaders you admire or look up to?

Personally, I really admire Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, for her courage, her dedication to democracy, and for all the things she tried to do for Burma. Her leadership of the country is not without controversy, but I believe leaders must make tough decisions and they have to believe that the decisions they make are the right ones.

How has your personal leadership style evolved?

I believe that developing a personal leadership style is a continuous learning process. At Quinstreet, for example, I was suddenly put in the position of team leader, and I had to learn the job immediately, pretty much on my own. I started by looking up and comparing the word “leader” with the word “boss.” What I’ve learned is that when you become a leader, you must choose to help others do their job better each day, rather than just doing the job yourself. The work is actually helping people rather than doing the individual button pushing.

What is it about your background or career experiences that successfully positioned you for your role at Noodle?

I’ve been working in digital marketing my entire working life, at both Quinstreet and HotChalk. I saw the business from both the student’s point of view and the institution’s point of view. When you have experience on both sides of the table, you can combine the best of both.

How do you support the success of your team?

Two things I concentrate on is listening, and training. When I say the word “training,” I don’t mean teaching people what to do, but rather encouraging people to consider how they’re doing what they’re doing. For example, something I’d like to reconsider is how we can approach SEO. The term “Search Engine Optimization” is outdated because the processes have gotten so complex that a large part of the work is guiding the user through the process. I think a better term for what we do now would be Search Experience Optimization.

Please tell us something about yourself that people would be surprised to learn.

One of my proudest accomplishments in high school was being the captain of the football team and winning the JV Cardinal Player of the Year award. The reason it remains so valuable to me is because it was voted on by both the players and the coaches. It’s still something I hold very dear.

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