HEADQUARTERS, NAVAL AIR SYSTEMS COMMAND, PATUXENT RIVER, Md. — If there’s a “bamboo ceiling” impeding career progress for Asian-Americans at the Department of the Navy, Giao Phan has pushed through it.

Along the way, she’s learned to balance her Asian cultural traditions with Western norms and overcome challenges. Phan spoke as part of NAVAIR’s “Unite Our Voices by Speaking Together” event May 24 to commemorate Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

Phan, now a senior executive service member and executive director, Program Executive Office for Aircraft Carriers — the Naval Sea Systems Command’s senior civilian official — came from humble beginnings.

Giao Phan of the Program Executive Office for Aircraft Carriers, left, with NAVAIR’s Roy Harris, an executive champion of NAVAIR’s Asian-American Pacific Islander Advisory Team at an event held in Patuxent River, Md., May 24 to commemorate Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. (U.S. Navy photo)

Her father, an officer in the South Vietnamese army, sent Phan, her seven siblings and her mother —with only $300 in her pocket — to the U.S. on a C-130 to begin a better life. He joined them later.

“My family has been my wise counsel,” Phan said. “My family taught me the value of money, teamwork and work ethic.”

Phan began her civil service career with the Navy in 1984, because she said she wanted to give back to the government and serve the nation that had helped her family.

Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders make up 7.7 percent of the NAVAIR civilian workforce but often don’t rise to the top, as Phan has, because of what has been termed the “bamboo ceiling.” This is the theory that while Asians are well represented in entry-level positions, few advance to senior management ranks or corporate board positions because of individual, cultural and/or organizational factors that create barriers.

“We need to help each other break it,” she said. “I struggled between the Asian culture and the American culture.”

“I am a true believer in when one door closes, another door opens,” Giao Phan, executive director, Program Executive Office for Aircraft Carriers, tells employees at NAVAIR’s Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month event in Patuxent River, Md., May 24. Phan shared life lessons on her career and leadership style. (U.S. Navy photo)

Phan explained the Asian culture strives for modesty and humbleness, compared to the American workplace, which values individualism and being outspoken. To combat that, Phan said she had to get out of her comfort zone and urged NAVAIR employees to do the same.

“Do what’s uncomfortable. Keep yourself challenged,” she advised.

Throughout her career, Phan said she has benefitted from mentoring and encouraged employees to find a mentor and be a mentor.

“I have been lucky. I have had so many mentors that recognized some of the attributes I didn’t know that I had,” she said. “Without that pep talk, that confidence, I wouldn’t know all the things I am capable of doing.”

Part of her success has been taking on different jobs, such as serving as the Coast Guard deputy director of acquisition programs, where she managed more than 400 employees, 12 major, multibillion dollar acquisition projects and seven program offices.

“Every three to five years, you need to take on a new challenge,” she advised. “Pursue your passion.”

An Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month event was also held May 9 for NAVAIR employees in Lakehurst, New Jersey, featuring guest speaker U.S. Navy Capt. Muhammad Khan, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst deputy commander and Naval Support Activity Lakehurst commander.

Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, celebrated each May, recognizes the cultural traditions, ancestry, native languages and experiences represented by the more than 56 ethnic groups — speaking more than 100 languages — from Asia and the Pacific Islands who live in the U.S. The month of May honors two historical milestones: the first Japanese immigrants arriving to the U.S. in 1843, and the contributions of Chinese workers toward completing the transcontinental railroad in 1869.

This event was co-sponsored by NAVAIR’s Asian-American Pacific Islander Advisory Team and the Equal Employment Opportunity and Diversity Office.

“We have diversity within ourselves,” said Brig. Gen. Greg Masiello, one of the team’s champions. “Everyone has a place and is welcome within the larger NAVAIR community.”