KESTAN Community is a series where our co-founder and designer, Stephanie, interviews inspiring women in our community.
Megan Yoo Schneider has mastered the art of authentically building community in every aspect of her career. When looking at her extensive resume, you can't help but be both impressed and bewildered at how she truly does it all.
Megan is a registered Professional Engineer and the president of Seven Management and Consulting. She’s also an elected official who serves as a director for the Municipal Water District of Orange County. Additionally, Megan works as an adjunct professor at Chapman University. On top of these achievements, she also participates in, and runs, several community organizations.
Throughout it all, she consistently commits to leading with authenticity and passion.
We sat down to talk about why community building is so important, how we can all be better communicators, and the importance of self-care.
You’re the president of Seven Management and Consulting. Can you tell me a little bit about what your firm does?
I work on management and business strategy consulting, and transforming how businesses look at business. It boils down to helping each individual be the best they can be. The fields I consult in are all human powered industries. It’s human excellence that drives what they produce. With people driven organizations, you have to create other factors that acknowledge their value and what gives them their passion, motivation, and inspiration.
It definitely sounds like people are at the heart of what you do.
When you invest in your people, you start getting more efficiency, innovation, and productivity. It’s really the “fluffy” things like acknowledging people and recognizing culture and morale that enhances the technical side of your business. That’s what I help organizations do. I’m really excited that more organizations are seeing the value of investing in their people.
Why is it so important to invest in people?
You see so many corporations where the CEO retires or resigns and they don’t have anyone to fill the gaps. They struggle to find someone who can either grow into the role or can take over the role as is. You realize that there was a fundamental failure in that leader to invest in the next generation.
What I want to do is to appeal to the leaders and help them see that this is also part of their legacy. How this helps them become well-rounded leaders in identifying and encouraging the next generation of leaders.
You’re also a Director for the Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC). How did that happen?
Unfortunately, water is an issue that is very political, but it shouldn’t be. Regardless of what your political beliefs are, we all need water to survive. We all need water for our communities and businesses. Some of the decisions that we make have long term impacts with a lot of unintended consequences.
I was working for an engineering firm when one of the seats of MWDOC became available. I thought that we really needed people who understood water to be on water boards. I talked to my husband about it, and we decided to go for it. I ended up winning with 42% of the vote. Which is a big margin for four people! The next guy had 20% of the vote!
Has water always been a big part of your life?
I actually wrote my college essay about MWDOC's education mascot, Ricky the Rambunctious Raindrop. He used to go to all the school districts in Orange County and do all these experiments and share about how water could be a liquid, gas, or solid. I was just super fascinated.
I’m really passionate about advocating for school age outreach and education because if we want people to care about water and understand the value of water, it really has to start with childhood.
How do you personally reach out to the next generation, and why is it so important to talk to them?
One of my big things is that anytime someone asks me to do a school presentation or talk to students about career, water, or being a woman in STEM, I always say yes. I think it's really important for us to show all the different things that kids can do when they graduate.
What was really interesting is that I recently went to a career day where I shared that I was a female business owner, a female engineer, and that I was the first woman of color on my board. That was the thing these kids were most excited about.
It really struck me that it’s probably not often that they get to talk to an elected official that’s younger, that is female, and a person of color. It’s become something very near and dear to my heart to show people that there are all sorts of people doing all sorts of things.
When I was in college, they encouraged me to switch from chemical engineering to chemistry because it was “easier for girls”. You would think that in today’s day and age that stuff doesn't happen, but it does. I think it’s really important for people to see that you can have all sorts of personalities and all sorts of backgrounds do anything.
Engineering and STEM in general is often seen as a male dominated field. How has this impacted you personally?
A lot. It took a while to find myself, be confident, and just own who I am. I’ve had everything from “you have too much personality” to “you laugh too loud”. All the way to one of my earlier bosses telling me, “You have three strikes. You’re female. You’re young. You’re Asian.” And he goes, “I have three natural advantages. I’m white. I’m middle-aged. And I’m male.”
I thought, “What does that have to do with anything?”
I think it’s important to recognize that when we have equity for all women and all people, regardless of background, age, or demographic, it actually improves all of society as a whole. I really want to shift that focus from “what do I lose in other people gaining” to “what do we all gain from other people having equal opportunity?”.
Do you have any advice for women who are facing these kinds of biases in their life?
Building resilience is so important. I have unfortunately faced a lot of setbacks in my life, but I’ve also realized that each and every setback has given me an opportunity to become more resilient and to become more grateful.
My advice to women is to find someone you can trust and rely on. Find someone you can talk to. Do not keep it bottled up in yourself. We’re not meant to go through difficulties alone. We’re all designed to be in community and we’re all designed to be better together.
Don’t ever feel like you’re the only person on the planet going through something because I guarantee you will find someone else who has gone through the same thing or something similar.
How else can women take care of themselves?
There is a component of self-love that we have to invest in to be the better version of ourselves. To just love ourselves and be confident in ourselves.
How do you practice self-care and self-love?
I started a sleep routine recently, and it’s actually kind of amazing. I went through this whole journey of figuring out why I’m so tired. I got blood work. I got allergy tests and found out I’m allergic to everything, so then I got allergy shots. But I was still tired!
I actually talked to a sleep coach about this. She said, “Set a bedtime and set a sleep routine an hour before that. Rely on your five senses: sight, small, taste, touch, and sound.” I thought, “That’s an hour of productivity you’re asking me to give up!” But I was willing to try anything.
So I started doing that, and it’s been a month and a half. I wake up before my alarm now. I wake up rested, and I’ve read a dozen books. In a way, I’ve increased my productivity by taking time to rest. I’m less tired and I have time to do things that I love to do but never had time to do.
That's my homework to everyone!
When people think of “community”, it’s often in a personal context. But you also find great importance in connecting with people in your professional life.
One day someone asked me, “How do you network at conferences? Do you just ask for business cards?”
My answer was, “No!”
That led to conversations with my mentors on sharing with younger professionals the importance of building relationships, as opposed to just networking.
Do you have any tips for other women who want to network authentically and build these relationships?
Find people you relate to. I always say start with a coffee or a lunch. Find something that you share in common and build from that. It’s really important to trust your gut when you find someone you can be comfortable with. That's when you can really dive deep into having strong relationships. I don’t believe in keeping things at the surface level. I think that’s where you find the true value of relationships.
I host an ad hoc group of women in water, and one of our most powerful meetings was when a fellow woman shared very raw emotions about how she felt like she always put work before her kids. Coincidentally, she had invited one of her daughters to listen to her speak. She shared how she felt like she was a bad mom because she put work before her kids a lot. The daughter was crying and said, “No! You were a great mom.”
Just watching that interchange had everyone bawling. As career women, we can relate to putting our work first, and maybe everyone else secondary sometimes— like going home later or choosing to stay up late and work instead of hanging out with your partner or your family.
She was so real about that guilt, and it connected the room in a way that hadn’t happened before. I think that if people are really looking for mentorship, it’s not just about asking people what their career steps were, how to network, or how to position yourself for a promotion. It’s really about “how do I be a good person and stay true to my values in all the pressures happening in the workplace” and “how can I focus on my journey and be the best I can be rather than comparing myself with others”.
You’re a woman who wears many hats. You’re a licensed Professional Engineer, president of Seven Management and Consulting, an adjunct professor at Chapman University, and you hold numerous elected roles. How do you choose your commitments?
I was a planner in high school. I had my whole life planned out. But life happened, and my family went through a pretty pivotal moment where everything just turned upside down. I learned very early on in my life to just roll with the punches. I’ve learned to say “yes” to things that fulfill my core passion of helping people. I tell people to be really flexible about how you fulfill your core passion, as long as you stay true to whatever that core passion is.
I know our culture says so much about saying “no” and how powerful that is. I get that boundaries are important. But I also believe in saying “yes” when it feels right. That’s led me to go to Denmark to work on UN sustainable development goals. It’s led me to start my own company. It’s led me to become an elected official. It’s led me to take part in so many incredible community things. It’s led me here!
All sorts of things may not ever be in my plan or in my comfort zone, but you just never know! There is a reason behind all the madness, but no master plan.
Do you have any tips for other women who are scared to say “yes”?
You have to know what your core purpose and passion in life is. I think it’s really important to spend some time self-reflecting and looking at what talents and skills I have and what areas do I want to grow in. Stay true to that. In Atomic Habits, he (James Clear) ends by saying “play the game that you’re good at.” Don’t try to be something you’re not. Don’t try to grow in an area that is just not true to who you are. Say “no” to those things, but say “yes” to the things that help you build on who you are. Help you become a better version of who you are. And help you grow in the areas that you need to grow in that are consistent with what your skills, talents, and passions are.
If you start reflecting on it, you’ll usually find the answer.
What is one community oriented project, personal or professional, that you feel the most proud of?
I’ve been doing a lot with at risk and underprivileged youth. This pandemic has definitely shown how vulnerable some of our populations are. I’ve really tried to help personalize the stories of our foster youth because of how stigmatized it can really be sometimes. They had no say in what happens to them, so I’m really passionate about sharing these stories with people and giving these kids a chance to really thrive and succeed.
With the pandemic and with some of the connections I have in the community, we were really able to be there and show them that we cared. I love to cook, so I make friends with a lot of chefs and restaurateurs. We were able to utilize where they had excess food and share that with the community.
Those are things that make me really happy, because I feel like we’re truly showing people that we care and that they matter. Just letting them know that someone out there is thinking of them can make the world of a difference to some of these kids.
How can people start getting involved in their own communities?
I just encourage others to think less about “I can’t do all of these things” and just think about one thing you can do. That’s how it builds. When I first got involved with foster kids, it was literally just starting to coordinate donations. Then it blossomed over the years into personal relationships, mentorships, different programs, and so much more.
Start finding where you add value and where you get fulfillment out of those interactions. Even if you just start with smiling at people or saying “hello”.
It’s a mentality shift. It starts with little things. Then you’ll find yourself seeing opportunities to do the bigger things.
As someone part of a lot of professional associations and community organizations, do you have any tips on how people can become better communicators?
If you want to be an effective communicator, start thinking about who your audience is and what background and cultural context they’re coming from. You may feel like you’re being 1000% clear in what you mean, but if you don't have a conversation or ask to clarify and confirm that what you said was how you intended it to be heard, then you’re not really being an effective communicator.
I also think it’s really important to ask people how their day is going, because that gives you a little bit of context on how they’re listening to what you’re saying. For example, the last thing you want is for someone to say “I’m having the worst day of my life” and then you give them criticism. It’s really important to ask questions. It shouldn’t be a one-way conversation.
Lastly, you’ve mentioned that your career and personal life has been far from linear and far from traditional. Were any of these pivots particularly eye-opening for you?
All of them! It goes back to “you can’t control every aspect of your life”. You could do all the “right things” and still not end up where people think you should end up. The thing that I had to learn to recognize was that my journey is my journey, and nobody else’s. And that’s okay.
I realized that we’re in this culture of comparisons. We have these set standards and this idea that we always have to compare with other people. It’s important to recognize that we’re all unique in the skill sets and attributes we bring to the table, and it’s not a threat. It’s actually a beautiful thing. We all have value to add.
That’s where when you see a setback, it’s not really a setback. It’s an opportunity for growth.
I didn’t know there was going to be a recession. I didn’t know that we’re going to have this pandemic. I didn’t know that I was going to work for a really toxic boss. And not just once, but multiple times. But all those things made me ultra-passionate about helping people really embrace the potential that they can add to an organization or to a community.
We're partnering with Megan to assist her providing holiday gifts to nearly 100 at-risk youth in Orange County. Use code "OCYOUTH" at checkout for free shipping, and we'll donate 10% of sales to this important cause. From now until 11/12/2020.