Delora (Lee) Aichholzer

Follow the Leader

Thanks to the influence of her immigrant parents, Delora (Lee) Aichholzer is changing the way we define leadership.

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Bruce Taub
5 Minutes


The daughter of two Chinese immigrants, Delora (Lee) Aichholzer has built a successful career as an executive in e-commerce, buying and merchandising at leading brands BCBG, Macy's and Neiman Marcus.  Most recently, she is a Co-Chair of WomenExecs on Boards, and works with Leadership California, where she is helping to pave the way for future female leaders in business, social issues and public policy.

Tell us about your family and their experience coming to the United States.

My parents emigrated from China.  My father arrived off of a boat in northern California, soaking wet without a dime in his pocket.  He always had a love of the US, because of what it represented --freedom and opportunity.  He loves John Wayne, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra.  He loves those quintessential, classical pieces of American history.  As part of my mother's escape to a better life, she had to hide between the planks of a boat going from Macau to Hong Kong.  She always remembers how nervous she was about getting caught.  Both my parents have always been fearless and are grateful having come to the US to live their American dream. 

From the very beginning, my parents wanted their children to have the most incredible lives possible.  The stories of what my family endured are painful and endless.  We were not told many of those stories growing up because they included unimaginable things like rape and torture by soldiers.  But it’s because of these experiences that my parents wanted more for us.  We were raised to be dreamers.  That meant thinking about the impossible and then doing whatever we needed to do to attain it.

How did your parents earn a living?

My parents worked blue collar jobs after arriving in the States.  First at a local meat distribution plant in Oakland, California, where my father and a few partners were able to buy out the business over time.  Later, they worked in the noodle business.  Living in Northern California there was a large immigrant population so Asian noodles were in demand.  They distributed to restaurants, grocery stores, and over time, ended up taking over that business, too.  My father ran the meat distribution plant and my mom ran the noodle factory.  My mom was a business owner -- a female entrepreneur running her own company.  For me, this was completely normal.  My father was the ultimate dreamer, go-getter and profit maker.  He was fearless.  He didn't see himself as a minority.  He saw himself as a father of five children who needed to be fed.

What influence did your family have on you becoming a leader?

Growing up, I didn't perceive my parents as being leaders in the workplace or the community.  I just perceived them as my parents.  When they became the owners and leaders of their own companies, I saw how they treated their people, and the community around them.  They instilled values in us that translated into having ethics in the workforce -- treating people equally, regardless of background and upbringing.  Throughout my career, I've always done my best to treat everyone the same, because that's just how it was role modeled to me. My mom is one of six sisters.  Coming from a big matriarchal family shaped me.  It was okay for a large group of women to disagree, work through their differences, and still love one another at the end of the day.  That created a strong foundation for me.  It gave me the courage to bring my authentic self into the workplace. Sometimes it’s not immediately apparent how leadership and values are instilled in you.  But when I became a leader, things felt familiar, like I had seen this before.  And I had, through my parents.

What are you up to today?

I believe in purposeful leadership because this is what was role modeled to me.  When my parents hit success in the traditional sense, they were always giving back to their communities in order to help others succeed -- back home and here in the US.  I’ve been working with Leadership California.  It’s a network of diverse executive women, dedicated to advancing the leadership role women play in impacting business, social issues and public policy.  It’s a way for women to give back and learn.  Making a commitment to Leadership California allowed me to put purpose and a voice to the things that matter to me.  I also serve as co-chair to WomenExecs on Boards, a global network of executive-level board-ready women who are all alumni of the Harvard Business School Executive Education program.  It’s been an incredible way to give and receive.

Personally, this past year was very challenging for me.  Our history is ebbing and flowing.  I recently read that there's been a 150% rise in AAPI (Asian American & Pacific Islander) hate crimes nationally and a 1900% rise in New York.  We're going forward, but in a lot of ways we're going backwards.  As leaders, we have to work together to really bring deeper purpose for the next generation and do it with care so that we're not just saying, "Okay, this thing is broken, but instead of trying to fix it, I’m just going to buy a new one.”

How do you like to lead?

By being authentic and not trying to fit into a particular mold.  Risk taking is important.  Remembering to be grateful for every opportunity that you are given to work as a servant leader in different organizations or the community as a whole.  To be a voice for women, for minorities, for those who are underserved.  That’s what matters most to me.  I see myself as a combination of both of my parents.  I am a fearless leader and I embrace the feminine side of me.  I don't necessarily want to take on the dominant male attributes that people often expect in a leader.  That’s not authentically how I'm created as a person or a leader.

What would you like to role model for future generations?

I’d like younger generations to challenge what leadership looks like.  It might not be through Harvard or Stanford.  It might not be in the traditional ways by which we have defined success.  I want the next generation of leaders to know that you don't have to always fit into a certain mold.  We're not going to eradicate all the societal problems in our generation, but if we commit our life's work towards the issues that are most important to us, then we can move in a positive direction.  It's about leadership as humans -- the responsibility and the opportunity that comes with that -- to help pave the way for future generations.  It could look something like taking a risk that helps normalize certain behavior, like advocating to eliminate discrimination in the workplace.  I think a lot about normalizing familial responsibilities in the workplace so that they aren’t used as a means of discrimination.  I once told a group of colleagues that I was planning to become pregnant soon and I was given the stink eye -- from other women, no less!  How are we paving a path for our children to have an easier time?  We need to normalize those types of leadership moments in the workplace.

What advice do you have for young aspiring leaders?

I believe you can practice and continue to grow your leadership wherever you are -- whether it's in your community or whether it's in the workplace, even if you're a young leader, you still are able to exercise different skills.  

Not all companies will welcome the challenge, but I think if you are a leader, sometimes you have to take those risks.  What else can you do?  Maybe there's someone who is not of a certain stature in the workplace, but this person doesn't have any friends or any coworkers that can shoot the breeze with.  I think just looking someone in the eye and saying, "Good morning, and how are you doing?"  Have the conversation.  I think that makes a difference in people's lives.

We often think we have to accomplish all these wonderful, incredible, amazing accolades or awards or recognition, but at the end of the day, I think leadership can be integrated and embedded into your everyday life.  It lies in the choices you make and how you encourage others.  It's within your community, your workplace, your families, and your friends.

Paving the Way

Being a leader isn’t a moment in time. It’s your life’s work.

In promoting peace, diversity and belonging in America, leadership across all organizations needs to play a part in protecting our shared values of democracy, freedom and equality, by recognizing how immigrants and minorities have come to this country, how they've helped build it and the pivotal roles they have had in the fabric of our history.