Making a pivot in your career can be a terrifying prospect. Sometimes, the fear of leaving behind the comfort and stability of a job — even if it’s making you kind of miserable — can make it seem better to just stay put. But is putting off long-term happiness worth it?
It's a dilemma Cynthia Pong is all too familiar with. Pong is the founder of Embrace Change, which specializes in helping women of colour to transition in their careers and to realize their true ambitions. But just a few years ago, her own life looked very different. Pong initially started her career working as a public defender, but soon realized that it wasn’t the path for her. So she decided to make a switch.
Today, Pong coaches women who are feeling stuck, helping them to set and reach professional goals and resist the temptation to settle. Working from her own experience, she helps her clients realize there is always a way out of an unfulfilling job or career — as long as you’re ready to put in the effort.
We sat down with Pong to chat about her journey, how she came to be a career coach, the toughest lessons she’s helped her clients learn, and how you can get empowered to make changes in your own life and career.
Tell us about your background — what did you study in school, and what initially made you want to pursue that path?
“I started undergrad thinking I was going to go into astrophysics, but ended up focusing on ethnic studies. From the beginning, working for social change and participating in activism on campus was a steady thing. But after spending a summer doing a labor-organizing internship in Los Angeles, I decided it would be better to try to make social change from inside the system, so I decided to go to law school.
“I initially thought I wanted to do juvenile defence work, which was representing kids who are accused of ‘delinquency’ and basically trying to keep them out of jail. But I didn’t have the stomach for it. Even though I was trying to keep kids out of jail, I knew I couldn’t have a 100% success rate, and I couldn’t deal with that. So I started working in adult criminal court as a public defender.”
What first made you think about becoming a career coach?
“I started burning out after year three as a public defender and ended up taking an unpaid sabbatical. After a few months of recovering, I started to get an itch for something else.
“I first started my coaching business, Embrace Change, in 2015 as a consultancy to work with nonprofits and social-justice organizations and help them improve employee engagement and satisfaction. But it was hard to get buy-in, despite my own experiences in working in the nonprofit world. In the spring of 2016, I did a training for lawyers, and it blew up online. Hundreds and eventually thousands of people watched it. That brought with it my first big pivot.
“I started doing mindfulness, stress management, and wellness training for both for- and nonprofits. I was getting way more traction doing this than the nonprofit consultancy, but I missed working with people and helping them with deeper change. I loved sitting down with clients and talking to them about their life plans and goal-setting. So I ended up posting on my Facebook page and offering a few free one-on-one coaching sessions, and that’s how it happened.”
Your coaching work focuses on women of colour. How did you land on this niche, and how does it set you apart from other career coaches?
“I have always been motivated to get more women and women of colour in positions of power. And because of who I know and who is comfortable coming to me for advice, my first dozen clients were women, and a large number were women of colour. As I was learning where there was the most synergy, I realized it was with women of colour. So I started to more explicitly say I worked with women, then it turned into women only, and then women of colour. Now pretty much all my work is pretty specific to women of colour. Sometimes, though, I’ll make exceptions.
“I’m certainly not the only one who specializes in this clientele, but I do hear from a lot of people that I was the only one they found. There is a huge need; one of my clients recently told me she’d had prior coaching experience with a white man and didn’t feel psychologically safe with him.
“I realized it can add a burden to have to explain to somebody how a certain experience you had was racist or sexist, or about a lived experience of being from an immigrant family. My clients have told me how much they appreciated that I understood their lived experiences in the workplace.
“You shouldn’t have to explain to your coach why you feel a certain way — that’s a lot of work. Ideally, there should be a baseline of understanding. In hindsight, my focus on women of color wasn’t something I strategically set out to do. I just kept listening to myself and my clients, looking at who came to me and where their needs were.”
What’s the most common struggle you see among women you coach? And what are some solutions?
“It sounds so corny, but not believing in themselves. Sometimes it’s imposter syndrome, but sometimes it’s much deeper than that: It’s really feeling like they don’t deserve things, whether it’s a salary, or a title, or attention, or the ability to build their own career. We’re so socialized to be a certain way, and not step out of a box, that we don’t even know there’s a box.
“There’s so much doubt that we have about ourselves, and that’s also tied up with fear of failure. I’ll suggest things to people sometimes, and they’ll just say, ‘I can’t do that,’ and I have to show them that it is actually possible. Often people don’t believe it until they see it.
“Recently, someone responded to one of my Instagram stories and shared how they went in and negotiated for a raise, even though they were terrified. And they ended up getting something like 184% of their previous salary. I asked to share this story, because people don’t believe that kind of thing is possible. But if we don’t believe, nobody’s going to believe.”
What’s the most common mistake you see women committing in their professional lives?
“It might take different forms, but essentially not standing up for themselves. One of my clients is super accomplished, and yet in certain professional contexts, especially when she’s with higher-ups, she has a pattern of deflecting or making herself smaller.
“A couple of my clients are in toxic workplaces where they are mistreated — whether it’s being terribly underpaid or erased in meetings. When I hear about things like this, I mostly tell clients: ‘They don’t deserve you, and you need to get out.’ But obviously, not everyone can just do that.
“I do think it’s about realizing that sometimes you may not be able to change a workplace and may need to leave. As a rule of thumb, I say give it a few tries and do some experimentation. Give it three to five trials, try different variables each time, and see if you get any different results. If you don’t, the message is clear.”
In addition to private coaching, you have a workshop called “Stop Settling in Your Career.” What does “settling” mean to you, and what are some of the things you incorporate into this workshop to help women stop doing it?
“I define settling as having to accept less than what you want. But there is an asterisk: Sometimes it’s okay to have less than what you want if there is a good tradeoff and you have done a cost-benefit analysis. Or if it’s a temporary means to an end and you’re diligent about not getting stuck in that situation.
"For instance, if you’re switching from one career to another and don't have a lot of experience yet, you might have to take a pay cut or drop to a lower level and work your way up. In some industries, there’s no way around that. So you may have to settle in that sense, but you should have a plan and keep making moves to get to where you want to go.
“Settling might also mean being stuck in the wrong job for you, whether it’s because it’s something you used to like and no longer find meaning or fulfillment from, or because something turned out to be not what you thought, or was an expectation that other people, like your parents or society, had placed on you.
“I encourage people to think about how they want to be remembered and what they want their legacy to be. I just listened to a podcast that asked: ‘What do you want people to say about you when you’re not there?’ It’s asking yourself, within the work context, what do you want the point of your life to be? And also reflecting on your goals — is what you’re doing now going to help get you there? If not, you could be settling in some way."
What is the proudest moment in your career-coach journey so far?
“My proudest moment so far was getting fully booked, which just happened! In terms of client successes, it was coaching a client to negotiate her first five-figure contract.”
You’re based in NYC — do you have any offerings for people elsewhere in the country or world?
“I recently turned the Stop Settling in Your Career workshop into an online workshop, which is available on my website. One is explicitly for women who are salaried professionals working at some sort of a company or organization. The other is for freelancers or small-business owners who have to negotiate with clients and client boundaries. There are workshops for both groups, as they are very different.
“In terms of my one-on-one coaching, I use video conferencing so my clients can be anywhere in the world. I’ve had clients in Australia, California, India — thanks to technology, geography is not an issue.
“I also run a monthly newsletter, called "The Trajectory," which includes resources related to women, career, and negotiation. I also run an Instagram account where I do things like a weekly video that addresses a question someone has asked me or something that has popped up in my coaching so more people can benefit. Most of my social media posts have to do with some piece of career-negotiation advice or empowering women in the work context.”
You made a pretty significant career pivot, and it’s worked out great. But a lot of people who feel stuck in careers are too afraid to change — especially if they’ve got student loans or expensive rent. What is your advice to them?
“I just encountered a client in her mid-30s who thought it was ‘too late’ for a career change. I told her: Everything aside from death is a course-correctable situation. Like I say in my workshop, you’ve survived so much, you can make it through this, too. But the first part is to convince yourself that you deserve to do it. The first negotiation is always with yourself.
“For people who are miserable in their jobs and want to get out, make a plan and prepare. The money is a huge, huge thing. So first, you have to get on top of your finances; otherwise, it’s always going to be your number one excuse for why you didn’t do something. Get help, whether from a certified financial planner or one of the many resources out there. But figure out what’s going on with your money and try to save as much as possible while you’re in your [current] situation.
“I’m not a financial planner, but shooting for a four- to six-month cushion means you can more responsibly take on a risk to move on to something else. If you’re going from one job to another, you may not need that big of a cushion. It’s a good idea for everyone to start building savings, no matter what.
“Next is to set a hard date for yourself. While I’m not a big fan of the whole ‘it’s too late’ narrative, the longer you wait, the later it does get — that’s just the passage of time. So once you have an emergency fund, it’s important to set a hard deadline. Otherwise, it’s so easy to kick the can, and soon it’s another year later and you’re still there.
“If you’re making a total change, you will also need to find some way to build a network and get some credibility in the new area. If you don’t know what you want to do, then if you can save up and take a break, that’s best — though most people can’t.
“If you are working and living paycheck to paycheck, change can be challenging. That’s why squirreling away as much money as you can is the first step. But it can be done — even for people who don’t have as much financial stability.”
Where do you hope Embrace Change will be in the next five years?
“Hopefully, it’s more of the same — I’m pretty happy with the configuration of things. I’ve been working on my book for a while, and I would love to get that published. I’d also love to run a retreat and bring all the women I’ve worked with together. I think it would be so amazing to have everyone physically present in the same place. So many cool connections and collaborations could happen.”