FLOURISH AND THRIVE
A conversation with the co-founders of The Cosmos, a community for Asian American women.
by Kylie Adair
Cassandra Lam and Karen Mok have tapped into something—a pressing, growing and profound need for spaces where Asian women can connect with one another. They’re the founders of The Cosmos, a digital and physical meeting space for Asian women to explore and unpack what it means move through the world with all the facets of their identities.
The Cosmos began as a retreat with 20 women, expanded into chapters in four American cities and now, in 2019, is expanding into seven more cities, developing plans for a permanent physical meeting space in New York, and hosting a summit where hundreds of Asian women will gather to celebrate, connect and contemplate the big question: What does it mean for Asian women to flourish and thrive?
I am a Vietnamese American, originally from Covina, California but I live in Brooklyn now. I consider myself a community builder, an activist and I’m also a yoga teacher. I come from a consulting background—I was doing data consulting but as of October last year, I’m happy to say that I’m working on The Cosmos full time as the CEO.
Tell me a bit about your background and life before The Cosmos.
Karen Mok I am originally from Charleston, South Carolina—so an Asian from the South. I currently live in San Francisco and have been working in the tech industry for the past, gosh, way too long… six years. Prior to that, when I was 16 I was part of a program called the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, which is a nonprofit focused on promoting entrepreneurship to young people in low income cities. I was part of that program and started my first company. It was a greeting card company and I wrote a bunch of email poetry in the cards and forced my sister to help me—but it really changed my perspective on the agency that young people, women, people from disadvantaged backgrounds can have. I also consider myself a mental health advocate—my hashtag is #hustlehealthy. We’re really trying to show that we can hustle and be empowered as women but also make time for ourselves and for our wellbeing. A lot of that has been learned the hard way, through burning out and through a lot of stress and anxiety that I personally struggle with, so it’s become really important in the way we’re building The Cosmos to actually make that lifestyle a reality.
KA How did the idea for The Cosmos come to be?CL Karen and I were introduced by a mutual friend who thought we had similar interests because at the time she and I were both working on different storytelling projects in the post-Trump era. Karen was working on Disorient, which was all about shining a different and more positive light on immigrant stories. And I was working on a digital storytelling platform called Akin, which focused on how anonymity and the removal of identity politics allows us to cultivate more empathy and vulnerability with one another. So when we first met, it was at a coffee shop in the Lower East Side and there was no specific intention behind it. I think we were just trying to connect with one another as human beings who cared deeply about stories that we felt were missing from our lives growing up. And very naturally, we started talking about our own identities as Asian and American women who kind of straddle an intersection of two sometimes seemingly diametrically opposed cultures, and what felt like a true lack of space to unpack and discuss what that experience is like. In the past couple years, seeing things like the Women’s March and a lot more feminist movements rise up, we consistently felt frustrated and invisiblized because Asian women were not part of the conversation, were not invited to contribute. And one of us, in the middle of this conversation, just threw out in a sort of frustrated tone, “What does it look like for Asian women to flourish and thrive?” At what point can we shift from survival to living joyfully, living for ourselves? So that transition to thriving, we felt, encapsulated where we were in our journey.
KM I think those coffee meetings—we’ve all had them, three hours, you’ve made this awesome connection—I think what made ours different was we were both like, “Let’s do this.”
KM And we held ourselves accountable. We showed up at those meetings. We started developing a story, we wrote a Medium post and we asked that question: “What does it look like for Asian women to flourish and thrive?” We got hundreds of responses back, and that, to us, was like—oh, we’re not the only ones asking this question. Our immediate next step was to bring people together, which continues to be the ethos of The Cosmos. We had 20 women show up that January, two months later, strangers, for a weekend retreat and those women have become our early community members, our first adopters, our biggest cheerleaders and amplifiers and they’re all Asian women doing amazing things as creatives and entrepreneurs. During that retreat, we asked, “If we were to create something, what would you want?” And we’ve always had that focus on hearing the community and trying to create what we’re hearing is missing. We are two perspectives from the Asian community, but there are so many more. There are so many different narratives.CL One thing that Karen kind of glossed over is that we met November 2017, we created this custom curriculum and sold out a retreat without a website, without a name, and two months later they showed up at the door of an Airbnb we rented in Seattle. The women came from all over—Denver, SF, LA and New York, which is why we launched those four hubs—and I think it really speaks to how hungry Asian women are to not only be together and connect but to navigate the question and ultimately figure out an answer that works for them. By bringing people together in these in person spaces, what we’re creating is a container for them to be inspired, to believe that flourishing and thriving can actually happen.
KA So have you found an answer to the question, “What does it take for Asian Women to flourish and thrive?”KM I think we see that question as more of an ethos. It’s a feeling of—what is involved in asking that question? It’s a feeling of agency to push for what you deserve and that’s not assumed for every woman. And it’s different for everyone. What’s been so hard about identity politics is it’s like, “This is Asian. This is a woman,” and if you don’t fit that type that you see, somehow you’re left out or somehow you don’t belong. That is a really debilitating message, and a lot of women struggle with that being in between. We’re not really Asian, we’re not really American, somewhere in between. That should be something that we live with and can thrive in, that in between, that questioning. That’s a state of your truth. We’re just really trying to create spaces, physical and online that help women connect with one another to explore that question, to live really comfortably in the ambiguity and journey that it is to ask that question at different stages of your life. We have women in our community in their 60s and the way they’re asking that question is very different from someone in their 20s who just graduated from college. And when they come together, it’s such a beautiful experience.
KA May is our Identity month, so I would love to know—and this is a huge question and also a very individual question—what does it mean to each of you to be an Asian American woman?CL I feel like this answer changes every so often, because I find that identity is a spectrum rather than a state of being. What I’m really inspired by lately is that my identity is defined by multiplicity and defined by having layers and dimensions. Identity also shape-shifts for me, and what has been really empowering is knowing that I can show up as an Asian woman on my terms and it’s going to look different when I show up in a POC space, when I show up in a white-dominated space, when I show up in a more artistic space versus an entrepreneurial space. I think it’s honouring the multiple dimensions within me and feeling like I can embody all of them without compromise and knowing that by living authentically in my identities, I’m also showing the world and my community that they can do the same.
KM For me, it’s about thriving in the in-between. Asian and American, in many ways, are very different cultures. They’re cultural forces that can be opposing and contradictory, but actually finding beauty in it. And it means being a person of colour and having privileges that Black and Brown communities don’t have, but also having to deal with racial biases, discrimination, stereotypes that the White majority doesn’t have to deal with. It’s understanding where we fit into the broader context of the American fabric. Historically, it’s important to note that Asians have been wedged between White, Black and Brown conflict and we see that with some of the recent news stories about affirmative action. So, being Asian American in 2019 means understanding the type of racial politics that I have historically been a part of and how I would like to actively drive change, not just for my community but for other marginalized communities. And I’m from the South, and so it’s also about shining a light on Asian American communities that are missing from the narrative and speaking about what it’s like to grow up in the South.
KA May is also Asian Pacific American Heritage Month—what does this month mean to both of you?CL I think this is the first APAHM that I’ve been genuinely excited about, for a few reasons—some of it is personal, feeling like I have been able to grow in my identity and in turn being able to see thousands of women grow in their grasps of their personal identity through The Cosmos, so on a personal level I’m excited because I’ve been able to witness a lot of women coming home to themselves. The second aspect that makes me excited is that culturally and in media, it appears that we’re shifting towards an opening of sorts for more Asian American narratives to come to the surface.
KM You know, it’s interesting because if you’d asked me ten years ago, I don’t think I’d be able to tell you what APAHM was—that’s how disconnected to Asian American culture. I was going through this journey of accepting my identity and at the same time, just like you don’t choose to be Asian American, you don’t choose May to be the month for my heritage, so it’s kind of this interesting construct that’s given to you and you’re like, “What do I do with this? How do I live this more authentically? And, more importantly, how do I make sure this conversation doesn’t end in May?” May is a spark, right? We are aware that there will be a lot of energy in May but we also want to use it as a chance to plan initiatives that continue, verus limiting our influence to the month of May. I think it’s also that last year, there were a lot less people celebrating publicly, and now in a year, so much energy has evolved in the community—we have Asian August, we have Crazy Rich Asians—and so being able to see that stuff change every year, it’s kind of like a litmus test of “Are we growing stronger as a community? Are creators being more empowered to do dope shit during this month?”
KA I know The Cosmos is intended specifically for creative women—is that something you identity with, and what does it mean to you to be a creative?CL For a long time, I didn’t consider myself a creative and it’s only been in the last three years that I began to embrace the ways in which my creativity comes up. I’m friends with so many Asian women who at a young age, because they weren’t creative or artistic in ways that were expected, that they actually shut down that part of themselves and to this day they feel like they can’t do anything beyond their job or that they’re not good enough or not worthy of pursuing some of their interests, and so I do consider myself a creative now. I’ve come to embrace that it looks different to what you might see on Instagram or traditional art forms and I feel like I’ve been able to unlock such a big part of my identity that was repressed for a long time.
KM We actually spend a lot of time asking ourselves this question, because it’s a high barrier label. It’s kind of identity politics—what’s in a name?—and there’s exclusivity and inclusivity the moment you label, so we really try to lead with the ethos of a creator, so that’s someone who believes they have agency, believes they can make something new, and you could be doing that in your workplace, you could be doing that by changing the way your team works on projects together, and I do think there isn’t enough of an emphasis on that in the traditional workplace. We do attract women who are, by the standard Instagram definition creatives, but they have creative energy and we relate that very closely to agency and empowerment. I believe this can be unlocked in anyone but because of privilege, not everyone has the same opportunity to do that. Every woman who comes through our door, we see your creative energy and we will nourish it and we will empower it and we will amplify it. So yeah, I do identify as creative and my first love was writing. I thought the way words would spill out of my pen was pure magic. I started writing at a really young age, but as you get older you’re like, “Oh, writing isn’t a career, I can’t make money off of this,” and this is kind of the millennial question of, “How can I tap into this childlike wonder and play that I do identify with but it doesn’t fit on my LinkedIn bio?" So it’s conflict between these identities that you want to have and what you think is socially, professionally acceptable. So for us, it doesn’t matter what’s on your LinkedIn bio. What matters is how you choose to identify and you get to make that choice every single fucking day when you wake up.
KA What’s next for The Cosmos?CL So, everything we’ve done so far is going towards finally creating a space, a physical space where everything we’re doing—the conversations we’re facilitating, the programming we’re putting together—it’s all culminating in meeting what we see as an unmet need. Women want to meet each other. They’re what makes The Cosmos what it is. What we feel compelled to do is make a space where you can decide not to make compromises on your life.
KM And your health and wellbeing. Your health and wellbeing and your career and ambition and creativity—being a woman in 2019 and wanting to be thriving, but realistically, your health and wellbeing are probably the first to go. We believe there is such a strong ethos of Eastern medicine around holistic care as a lifestyle. You know, it’s been appropriated in a number of different ways now, and no hard feelings, but I think it’s interesting to think about: What does it mean for our community to be developing a space that really brings those practices together in modern ways that speaks to millennials and gen z, and then have that cultural capital come back into our community?
Kylie Adair is the editorial director at kaur. space. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and human rights and a miniature schnauzer named Dot.