Mae Tuck, VP of Communications at the United Way and Harvard Business School Alum
To all those who think that in the business world, the next step after obtaining two prestigious degrees is to choose a career in the high-powered Fortune 500 nexus, meet Mae Tuck, the VP of Marketing and Communications at the United Way in Los Angeles. A graduate of Columbia and the Harvard Business School, she is very satisfyingly combining busy workdays with a sense of mission and purpose.
Born in Hong Kong, she was raised in Brooklyn by parents of the classic we-toil-so-our-children-can-do-better ilk: her mother literally worked “in a sweatshop” as a seamstress in Chinatown, and her father in a restaurant. Fast-forward many decades later, and Tuck finds herself working in (possibly) America’s most glamorous city, with both a husband and son whom she clearly adores.
Her path has been interesting: she started out as a chemical engineer designing cryogenic air separation facilities (!), then went for her graduate degree from Harvard. She subsequently switched to brand management, working for the nationally-known companies of Clorox and POM Wonderful, and then for the L.A. Times, helping them to re-brand their newspaper. Most importantly, perhaps, she had a socially conscious awakening about the plight of disadvantaged youth, with the latter leading to her current role at the United Way.
See below for more on this very American story of someone who loves “hip-hop yoga,” Starbucks for breakfast, wearing high heels for important meetings — and offers a very smart book recommendation for anyone in the business world.
Can you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?
I am a mom to an adorable four-year old son, wife to an education leader and advocate, and passionate marketer who finds inspiration in brands that improve lives. Every day, I work on being more present in all aspects of my life. People like to ask if I live to work or work to live, and my new mantra is “I live to live.” When I’m not juggling time between work and family, you can find me making hand-made pasta or working on my “hip-hop yoga” moves.
What does a day in your shoes typically look like?
Every day is different, which makes work interesting, but mostly it consists of lots and lots of meetings…and trying to stay on top of emails. I try to text and instant-message my team as often as possible, as email conversations can really get out of control.
What 2-3 things do you do to prepare yourself before work, and is there anything you try to accomplish everyday?
Every morning, I make a daily to-do list based on my weekly deliverables and the amount of non-meeting time I have. I try to be as realistic as possible when I set my daily goals, but that’s always a challenge because I want to accomplish so much.
One new trick I’ve learned is to attack the hardest tasks in the morning when my mind is better at critical thinking, during those high-energy morning hours. Then, by scheduling meetings in the afternoons, I am able to feed off the collective energy and stay on my toes during the “lower energy” hours. So far it’s been working great.
What is your breakfast of choice?
Starbucks reduced-fat turkey breakfast sandwich, plus a dark roast drip, always. Once a week, I treat myself to bacon.
What are your rituals or tips for staying energized and motivated?
I try to hold 1:1 meetings outside, walking around the building. Getting fresh air really encourages creativity.
What is your favorite part about your job?
Our mission work. United Way is a nonprofit focused on fighting the root causes of poverty to ensure everyone has a safe place to call home, access to good jobs and the chance to get a quality education.. When we are successful in terms of marketing or fundraising campaigns, we are able to raise more funds that go back to helping those in need. Many different kinds of nonprofits play critical roles in helping individuals, but United Way focuses on giving people the tools they need so they can help themselves. We talk about giving people a “hand-up” rather than a “hand-out.”
What and who inspires you at work?
Family, for different reasons. Growing up with immigrant parents, they had physically demanding jobs – as mentioned, my mom worked in a sweatshop, and my dad in a restaurant. From an early age, I knew they made many sacrifices so that their children could have opportunities they never had. They inspire me to be grateful that I am able to work with my brain rather than my brawn.
My husband Marshall Tuck also inspires me with his insatiable desire to help as many people as possible, and is the most optimistic and hard-working person I’ve ever known. He dreams big and works hard to reach his goals. Last year, he ran for a statewide political office and nearly unseated an incumbent. The word “impossible” isn’t in his dictionary.
Do you have a ‘Power Outfit’ that you wear for a big meeting or important work event?
Right now, I’m really into my black and white patterned jumpsuit, that I pair with a blazer and bright shoes. Always high heels for big meetings!
What is your favorite leisure activity after a stressful work week?
Shopping or wine, or both.
How many times have you changed your career direction?
Let’s see…there have been three phases of my career: as a chemical engineer, then in brand management, and now in non-profit marketing.
What was your very first job?
As a teenager, I helped my mom who worked as a seamstress in a sweatshop in Chinatown. I don’t think it was intentional of my parents, but working under such harsh conditions pretty much guaranteed that I would work hard to graduate from college and not have to follow in her footsteps. My first job after college was as a Chemical Engineer – I designed and launched cryogenic air separation facilities. (Yes, that’s quite a mouthful.)
What are the most important qualities of a good leader?
To “walk the walk” and be a real role model for the type of culture you are trying to build. Words are powerful — but consistent action is the true test of leadership.
What are the unforgettable traits of role models who have inspired you most?
Adaptability, tenacity, and never giving up on your dreams.
What are three questions you like to ask during an interview to know if the candidate (or job) is the right fit?
If the candidate is technically qualified, then I like to ask these questions to gauge fit with our work culture:
- “Describe the type of work environment in which you thrive — and don’t thrive.”
- “What is the biggest misperception your co-workers have about you?”
- “What is your professional brand (i.e. how do you want your co-workers to perceive you)?”
What advice would you give to women starting their careers?
- Walk in the door with no sense of entitlement.
- Think about every project as an opportunity to learn and build your toolkit.
- Prove yourself by being a team player and working hard; if you have a good boss, he or she will take notice and give you more opportunities to grow professionally.
What book would you recommend for women just starting their careers?
The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels, by Michael Watkins.
What is your favorite quote you try and live by?
“Don’t live to work, or work to live — live to live.” Enjoy every moment that life has to offer.