For the first of our Super Camper series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paulina Dao. An avid adventurer, she’s in the midst of navigating her way out of an engineering job to pursue a creative role in the Outdoor Industry full-time. Paulina is the magic behind Little Grunts, an adventure photography blog, and a rising voice of influence in the outdoors scene. In 2016, Paulina wrote an influential article, “Why Don’t They Look Like Me? The Diversity Dilemma in Outdoor Media,” that sheds light on the lack of diversity in the outdoor industry and pushes others towards actionable change.
Similar to Paulina, I’m a first generation Asian American woman. I’ve dealt with the struggle of feeling like I’m wasting my immigrant parents’ hard work by pursuing a career that isn’t as lucrative as the sacred three — medicine, law, or engineering. These stereotypical paths of success persist in part because of the lack of diverse representation of Asian Americans in the media and the value of stability instilled in first generation Asian Americans.
I’m inspired by other Asian Americans that don’t follow the stereotypical career route, who are deeply involved in the entertainment, outdoor, or creative industry. Read on for Paulina’s journey of breaking Asian American stereotypes.
Alright, let’s dive in. How would your friends introduce you at a dinner party?
Oh gosh, this is a terrifying question! She’s a climber goofball who wears ridiculously hideous and tattered orange pants. And she loves cats. Can’t forget that.
How has your family background and values influenced your career decisions?
In my culture, working in the outdoors isn’t something that you do. My parents both came to the United States in search of a better life and the idea that if you work really hard, you can make something of yourself. Growing up, the only acceptable careers were as a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. I majored in marine biology and eventually found myself working inadvertently in tech as an engineer, after going about it in a roundabout way.
I’m also very lucky in the sense that my parents worked really hard to give me the life that I was able to grow up in. With that, they instilled the values of persistence and hard work. That drive really helped me get me a position in engineering.
As I explore different career options, this is something that is always on my mind. I feel like I’m “failing” my family and the choices that they made to provide me with the opportunities I now have. I’ve accomplished the engineer dream and I’m something resembling an adult.
What sparked your desire to leave an engineering job behind to pursue working in the outdoor industry full-time?
At first, I didn’t want the outdoors to be my job. I enjoyed what I did, working as a software engineer. I wanted it to stay separate and fun. But the more I’m outside, I realized that my job isn’t as fulfilling as I would like it to be. I feel like I have reached a point in my career where I’m looking for what is next. What I’m working on right now isn’t what drives me to wake up every single day, so I don’t know if I want to stay in tech. If I do, it would be to work for a company like Hipcamp, which is a really cool intersection of the outdoors and tech. At the same time, I am also starting to make money from freelance work in photography and creating content, and receiving a good amount of job inquiries.
What would the younger Paulina Dao say to you today?
My 18 year old self would be like, “you made it! You make a lot of money.” I think my 20 year old self would say the same thing, but also, “oh you’re switching jobs again?!” This change has been unexpected for me.
What advice would you give to someone at a crossroads of choosing a between a career of stability vs. passion?
A couple months ago I read a book called So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. It basically talks about how you should not pursue your passions. For example, say you really loved picking cherries. You can’t just go quit your job to pick cherries. Instead, you have to be strategic about it — build the skills or somehow build a business around picking cherries. Pursuing your passions isn't enough. You have to or be able to prove that you are the best. Show people that you are valuable. I think that really translates into anything — stable traditional careers and less traditional careers.
Another thing is that things change. People change and being able to accept that is totally ok. I have met a lot of friends who have been in similar situations as me where they were working as therapists, psychologists, etc. and then quit their jobs to become a yoga teacher, photography, or anything like that. That’s ok. It’s ok if you don’t go to school for that and it’s totally ok if you want to switch things up. Even in tech, science, and engineering people still do crazy things all the time like quit their jobs to start a startup, so I view that as the same thing and being very similar. They are still taking risks. Things change and passions definitely change. Hopefully you have a good support network so when things don’t go as planned, you have something in place to help you get back on your feet.
Paulina embodies our core value of adventure by trading stability for the unknown. Having grown up grown up feeling like my own path was predetermined to be a doctor, lawyer, and engineer, it’s refreshing to see people like Paulina pursuing a career in the outdoor industry. From trips in the backcountry to redefining expectations as an Asian American woman, we are inspired by the way she pushes the boundary of her comfort zone, and grateful for sharing her time with us.
Know someone who embodies qualities of a Super Camper? Send an email nomination to firstname.lastname@example.org
-Rebecca Chen, Customer Experience Intern