Advancing Leaders by Celebrating AANHPI Heritage Month-Diana Mao Kelly, Co-Founder & Pres. of Nomi Network

May 30, 2024


In honor of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we are doing a series of interviews with our Senior Leaders. Hear how their cultural experiences have informed their leadership and how they are innovating across our global programs.

Diana Mao Kelly, Co-Founder and President of Nomi Network

As Co-Founder and President of Nomi Network, Diana raises awareness about human trafficking and creates economic opportunities for survivors and women at risk of breaking generational cycles of slavery. In recognition of her visionary skills and championing a change mindset, Diana is a Presidential Leadership Scholar and New York Academy of Medicine Fellow. She has received the 2021 New York University Alumni Changemaker Award, the 2021 Texas Women’s Foundation Young Leader Award, and the 2019 Pioneer Award from Asian Americans for Equality.  

How has your heritage shaped you as a leader?

As a child, I was captivated by the tales my grandmother would share, transporting me to a world vastly different from mine. Born in the 1900s in China, she entered a world where the archaic Chinese custom of footbinding still cast its oppressive shadow over women. With vivid detail, she recounted how she and my grandfather endured the invasion of China during World War II, weathered the tumultuous upheaval of the Chinese Civil War, and ultimately escaped the brutal ascent of Communism in their homeland. Despite being born into a life of privilege, my grandmother arrived in this country with nothing but the unwavering determination to build a better future for her family. Through her indomitable spirit and selfless dedication, she sponsored the immigration of her entire family to the United States, a testament to the power of perseverance and the unbreakable bonds of love. These stories of resilience, faith, and service above self are woven into my Chinese heritage.

As an Asian American female leader, the values instilled in me by my grandmother’s experiences have become the bedrock upon which I stand. Discipline, unwavering commitment, perseverance through adversity, humility, and the relentless pursuit of knowledge are not mere virtues but a way of life ingrained in my DNA. The prioritization of the collective good has shaped my leadership philosophy, guiding me to make decisions that uplift and empower those around me.

My grandmother’s legacy weaves its threads intricately into the tapestry of my life, serving as a constant reminder of the strength and courage that reside within me. Her stories have become the compass that guides my journey, inspiring me to navigate the challenges of leadership with the same unwavering spirit that carried her through the most turbulent of times.

Who are the AANYPI leaders who’ve inspired you?

I first met Thear Suzuki after a speaking engagement at the Bush Presidential Leadership Forum, and we became fast friends. Over the years, she has become a close confidant and advisor. Her family overcame the Cambodian genocide and entered this country as refugees. Thear is known for her ability to have honest conversations to promote understanding and drive positive change, and I admire her courage to speak truth to power. She inspires courageous actions in others to lead impactful lives and take bold steps in making a positive difference. Her unwavering commitment to empowering others, promoting inclusivity, driving innovation, and shaping impactful leaders inspires me greatly.

How are you innovating in your leadership?

As a leader, I stand in the tension of reflecting on the past and envisioning the future. History is a profound teacher, allowing me to learn from its missteps and avoid repeating the darker chapters of our collective narrative. In this spirit, I have immersed myself in the rich tapestry of the leadership of Chinese emperors, spanning over 3,500 years.

One tradition that resonates deeply with me is the sacred practice of fasting. In Chinese culture, virtuous emperors who embodied a profound love and sacrifice for their people would abstain from indulgences such as wine, meat, entertainment, and business activities. This period of reflection allowed them to reconnect with their bodies, souls, thoughts, and deeds, ultimately shaping them into better leaders. For the past decade, I have embraced a similar practice through retreats of silence and fasting. These moments of introspection ground me, reminding me to center my decisions on the deep love I hold for our clients and staff, overcoming the challenges that demand my attention as a leader. 

I’ve been inspired by Dan Pallotta’s book, “Uncharitable”, which highlights how nonprofits are frequently starved of the resources necessary to tackle complex societal problems effectively. In response to this reality, I am committed as a leader to ensure Nomi Network prioritizes innovation at the executive level. By prioritizing innovation as a strategic imperative and allocating dedicated resources to this endeavor, I believe Nomi Network will enhance its position as a leading non-profit, providing economic opportunities for survivors and women at risk of human trafficking on an even greater scale.

Through this dual embrace of tradition and foresight, I aim to cultivate a leadership style that honors the wisdom of my heritage and the past while charting new paths forward.

How are you helping others to innovate or advance in their leadership?

I’m passionate about fostering an environment that encourages learning, creativity, and innovation in leaders. While failure is often seen as something to avoid, one of our core values at Nomi Network is continuous learning. Rather than seeing failure as a setback, I actively motivate my team to reflect on failure so that we can learn, grow, and iterate on solutions constructively. My top priority is creating a culture where it is safe for people to take risks and learn from failures.

Additionally, we are learning from the corporate sector how to structure our organization to allow for more flexibility, collaboration, and innovation. Learning from Amazon and other corporations, my co-founder and VP of Innovation Supei Liu and I are integrating a hybrid team structure approach into the traditionally hierarchical model in nonprofits. This approach brings together specialists from various departments based on the specific skills and competencies required for each project, allowing for greater flexibility and adaptability to frequent changes in the external marketplace. 

I’m conducting a listening tour with key front-line staff to ensure we continuously improve and address our clients’ evolving needs. I want to learn firsthand about the new barriers our clients face, the problems our staff are solving, and how we can foster an environment where all colleagues can thrive and reach their full potential. By actively listening and engaging with those closest to our mission, we can identify opportunities for growth and innovation.

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