OneHaas Undergrad Series Episode #2: In this episode, we chat with Michelle Christina Hong about her identity as a Cambodian American figure skater and how her background prompted her to create the very first platform (coachmichellehong.com) dedicated to making skating accessible to everyone. She also talks about not following the ABCs of Haas, sticking with her true passion and making a career out of it as a savvy entrepreneur.
On pursuing something you’re not passionate about – “I can’t continue doing something that I don’t love. I can’t continue doing something that somebody else is telling me to do.”
On the fear of going after what you truly want – “I think as human beings, we have a sense of fear for going after what we truly want because if you fail, then you literally are gonna fail yourself.”"I am someone who is here to make an impact on this earth and try to touch as many people as I can." Click To Tweet
Ellen: Welcome to the OneHaas podcast, undergrad series. I’m your host Ellen. And today we’re joined by our co-host Sean Li and our guest Michelle Christina Hong. Michelle, also known as Coach Michelle Hong, has disrupted the figure skating world by creating the very first platform dedicated to making skating accessible to everyone.
[00:00:31] Michelle, how are you doing?
[00:00:33] Michelle: I’m doing great. Thank you, Sean. Thank you, Ellen, for inviting me.
[00:00:36] Sean: Welcome to the podcast. So right off the bat, let’s give our listeners a sense of your background, your origin story.
[00:00:44] Michelle: Awesome. So, I’m from Fremont, California. I was born in San Francisco and I’m a Bay area gal. I’ve been living in the Bay area all my life. And of course, I went to UC Berkeley and I went to HAAS and I met proud Haas alum. And it’s just been amazing for me to see how, when I was younger, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, what I wanted to become.
[00:01:07] But at the forefront of my mind, I knew I was passionate about figure skating. And I actually did not think that I was going to be who I am today, which is a figure skating coach. But beyond that, I am someone who is here to make an impact on this earth and try to touch as many people as I can.
[00:01:30] It was not an easy road to get to where I am. I actually got into Cal as an integrated bio and in my younger days, ever since I was twelve, I wanted to become a doctor as many Asian-Americans definitely feel that pressure. One thing that I do want to preface is that my experience is very different from that of my peers.
[00:01:49] And I knew that early on when I was in grade school when I was in middle school, and in high school, because I was one of always maybe two or three other Cambodian Americans and being a Cambodian American has really shaped who I am. I had to learn a lot about the tragic history of my parents. They were refugees. So, America is the one that allowed them to be in this space. But it was really interesting to see how my parents didn’t have any of the things that I did growing up, and even for my dad, he was an orphan.
[00:02:26] He didn’t get a chance to have parents but still they were able to provide me everything that I could ever imagine to be a figure skater, be a Cambodian-American figure skater is something that I’m so proud of. And it really shows how powerful my parents were when I was growing up. I started when I was about seven years old. I first stepped foot on the ice around four and it was because of a birthday party. And I didn’t like it at first.
[00:03:03] Sean: So, I mean, how did your parents get you into figure skating? Typically it’s piano, violin, you know, how did they decide to put Michelle in figure skating?
[00:03:14] Michelle: It wasn’t them. They didn’t want this for themselves. It’s so funny. My dad would say he’s from Cambodia. So, how would he ever think that his daughter would be on the ice when he’s coming from a country of humidity, sweat, the sun, but my sister actually was the one that begged and begged and begged my parents.
[00:03:33] I was the kid on the sidelines asking for snacks. So, it was my sister who started it all. And then they knew that my age was the perfect time to put me in lessons.
[00:03:45] So they just put me along with it. Just so that I could feel as though we have companionship and just took off from there. And it was more so my passion for following my sister’s footsteps.
[00:03:58] Sean: So, what led you to want to get a business degree?
[00:04:02] Sean: How do you go from integrative biology to Haas business school?
[00:04:05] Michelle: So, for me, it was a difficult transition because I developed this passion for premed at 12. And when I say passion, it’s something that you tell yourself over and over again.
[00:04:22] Like, this is what you’re supposed to do. This is what’s gonna make you happy. This is what’s going to make you successful. And so, in a way, it’s like tricking your mind into thinking that you want it because you want to make somebody else proud. You want to make your family happy and you want to make them feel as though that their time here in America was worth it. I hung on to that so much. Like even when I was coming into Cal, I was making sure that I did chem ‘cause I didn’t want to like fail my chemistry classes so I needed to prepare.
[00:04:50] And it was difficult for me to accept that this was not the path. I was like, I am not good at this like high school chemistry is not the same as chemistry at UC Berkeley, then it just hit me that I can’t continue doing something that I don’t love. I can’t continue doing something that somebody else is telling me to do.
[00:05:14] And so that’s what college did for me is I had to distance myself from a lot of things. I distance myself from my family in that way and step towards trying to discover what does Michelle want?
[00:05:25] And I started researching and I started talking to a lot of Haas alums, with people who are already in the program. And also, the administrators. They were hosting a lot of intro to Haas seminars and I would attend them. And I think I would attend them by myself because nobody else of my friend group was interested in Haas because of course, I associated myself with all of the premed kids.
[00:05:47] And so it’s quite intimidating. But when I would hear what they were talking about leadership, using your words to create an impact, and my constant desire to use visualization or creativity or the arts, to make a message and transform people’s mindsets on things, I definitely saw that that was more of my calling. I didn’t know exactly what it was, but I just knew that my leadership skill was something that I definitely don’t want to push aside. I want to use it for career development, professional development, and all that.
[00:06:25] Ellen: Got it. A lot of our listeners probably resonate with you in terms of wanting that validation from either family or friends. So, good to see you transition from that to what are you really passionate about. How has the transition from college pursuing a business degree to what you’re currently doing now as a female entrepreneur?
[00:06:46] Michelle: It was interesting because even though I was stepping away from what somebody else wanted me to do, once again when I was in the highs, I found myself confining myself into yet another box. And what I mean by that is the ABCs that Haas continues to promote.
[00:07:08] For those out there who maybe are not familiar with Haas, the ABCs are accounting, banking, and consulting. I’m like, what about marketing? And what about, videography?
[00:07:18] I wish that I more into that ‘cause I knew there was a marketing club, I knew I could have gotten involved with CALTV. But I feel like I had to still make my parents happy. It was so interesting to me because if I were to do business and I did switch to business, my mom started talking to me about finance.
[00:07:41] And so I think that was the hardest part for me because even though I was stepping away from a realm that was carved out for me, I still went to another space that was again carved out for me or what I thought was going to be acceptable. And it was a difficult transition. But I found a middle ground to make sure that my parents spelled as though I was secure and stable.
[00:08:01] And so I wanted to try to find a balance between making sure that I am able to use my creative side and also still maintain that rapport of being a successful business person.
[00:08:12] So I dabbled in startups and entrepreneurship. I worked in biotech startups for three years. I had an internship with a company called Chatr Health and then afterward I worked for a biotech company that was dedicated towards creating the first vegan egg white substitute.
[00:08:31] And it was interesting to me because when I was working at Clara Foods, I was cool. Like, I was one of the first seven and employees and they were getting great funding. And it was an exciting time to be part of a startup. And when people hear like you’re the first like seven, or you’re the first 10, you’re like, yes, we have some traction here.
[00:08:52] Like, you know, we can gain some equity here, but it, again, it had nothing to do with what I was interested in. So, I had to make the hard decision to quit and it was hard because it was something that I knew could take me somewhere else that I wanted to go. But I was like, I’m gonna find something that I align more closely with.
[00:09:13] So the next best thing was actually trying to look for influencer marketing spaces because I was always so infatuated with YouTube. My biggest inspirations were Michelle Phan and Cassey Ho and they’re phenomenal YouTube influencers and icons, especially for me as an Asian American. It was beautiful to see that these two women were able to make something of themselves out of their genuine passion.
[00:09:42] And, you know, I heard about their stories about how they had conflict within their family as well or it was tough for them at first because nobody believed in them. And so then I was always like, in the back of my head, I wanted to do something like that. But I think I was too fearful. I think my confidence wasn’t there.
[00:09:57] I just was trying to find these influencer marketing spaces to have a little taste of what that feels like. And it was so interesting because I was looking for these positions and I made it to the final round.
[00:10:09] And then on one of the interviews, I bombed it on purpose or something. It was kind of interesting to me because I’m so good at presentations. I can easily just talk about anything. Like if somebody wants me to sell grass, I’ll sell grass, but it was so weird. I was looking at my note cards and was reading it and I was in this little room and I feel like I purposely bombed it.
[00:10:33] I obviously did not get the position. And I was so upset with myself but then the next day I was like, this is a sign because you probably don’t want to be creating a campaign for another influencer or for somebody else as opposed to doing something that you truly care about.
[00:10:51] So then I worked on my website and I launched it on April 13th of 2016, coachmichellehong.com.
[00:10:58] Ellen: Yeah, that’s a great transition. What is coachmichellehong.com and how did you come up with that idea? Did your upbringing have any influence on that?
[00:11:08] Michelle: Yeah, I feel like I had it in me all along and I just was so scared. I was trying to do 10 million other things except for the one thing that I knew I could do. And I think it’s because as human beings, we have a sense of fear for going after what you truly want because if you fail, then you literally are gonna fail yourself.
[00:11:28] So you kind of dabble in all these other things because if you fail, that’s not really who you are or what you really want. So, it’s okay. But this is something that I always wanted because when I was growing up in the figure skating world, I didn’t have the necessary support that I provide for my skaters right now, which is a lot of mental support, a lot of sports psychology, a lot of positive reinforcement, and a whole entire training structure that it relies on thinking about skating in a holistic approach, as opposed to just thinking about jumps and spins and going home and then doing it all over again.
[00:12:05] When I’m teaching my skater, I want to make sure that they have enough sleep, their nutrition is fueling their body for when they get on the ice, time management skills, all these characteristics are developed all the way from perseverance to having good character and making sure that all these life lessons that they learn on the ice are translating to what they’re doing in school.
[00:12:26] In the skating world, a lot of it is expense-based. So, if you have more funds, then you’re able to succeed because you’re able to spend more money on coaching. You’re able to spend more money on skating boots. You’re able to spend more money on fancy outfits that most likely will give you more points because you’ll stand out from the crowd. It was difficult for me when I was growing up to not have all those resources. And of course, I’m so, so thankful for everything that my parents were able to provide but we had to make sure that we made it work. So that meant hand me down clothes, that meant hand me down boots, that meant making sure that we limited our lesson times, we rented out DVDs or rented out VHSs at the library. And I did ballet, yoga, pilates videos. And so the resourcefulness that I had growing up was definitely something that I wanted to bring to this next generation, especially those who do not have access to ice rinks, do not have access to coaches, do not have access to all these fancy equipment that all figure skaters who are on the top need, which is the sad part, right? Because then that creates this divide. And so, for me, I was like, if Cassey Ho can create her own Pilates videos and make sure that everybody in this world can work out and feel good about themselves without paying a gym membership, I could do the same for skating because one of the major things about skating that has been lacking is the sense of being a strong athlete on the ground is the utmost priority before just learning how to do something on the ice. Back in, yeah, the day it’s reversed.
[00:14:08] Like you learn everything on the ice but then you might hurt your ankle just from doing jump roping cause you didn’t prepare your body. So yeah, my upbringing guided my passion and my mission to make sure that skating is accessible to everyone.
[00:14:23] Sean: I think that’s so powerful and so authentic that you shared that story because you’re absolutely right. I mean, so many people don’t have the resources for many sports right now, not just skating but for almost any sport. And to be resourceful like that is a trademark of entrepreneurship, which makes sense how you are such a successful entrepreneur.
[00:14:50] I’m inspired hearing your story because it reminded me that I get my scrappiness from how my parents were resourceful. And, I never thought about that, the sacrifice that our parents make for us.
[00:15:03] That’s really important message for people to hear – that with tenacity and resourcefulness that you can make it, so congrats.
[00:15:12] Michelle: Thank you so much. When I put videos out there, I made sure that this is not to draw in the people who are already in the sport
[00:15:21] I wanted to make sure that the people that didn’t have it felt so good about being able to find somebody or some type of resource that made them feel like they could do it. So, in a way you have to form the person that you wish you had for other people. That’s why I wanted to put it all in one place. Basically, creating an online mentor for everyone.
[00:15:52] Ellen: I’m sure you’ve had moments when you maybe wanted to give up and you’re not so sure about yourself. What did you look to, to keep going, and make sure that people who might’ve been in your position look to you as guidance?
[00:16:12] Michelle: It’s a loaded question but it’s so simple because I think there’ve been so many times in my life where I felt like giving up and there were times where I did. So, one of the big times that hit me the hardest, and I share this on my website but I don’t share it enough out loud because I think when people see me now, they’re like, oh my gosh, Michelle loves skating.
[00:16:35] All she does is skate. She can skate until she’s 98. But when I was heading into UC Berkeley, that was the time period where I had to make huge decisions for myself because before my parents were helping a lot with decision making. When you head into college, it’s a whole another realm. Like you can’t be falling asleep in your classes, freshman year. And what I was doing was I was commuting via Bart in the morning to do practice.
[00:17:03] And then I would come back to a 9:00 AM class. And I literally was dozing off scribbles on my paper and I would look, and I’m like, this is ridiculous. I’m exhausting myself to the bone for what? Why I said that for what is because I was not going to make it to the Olympics.
[00:17:20] You have to be honest with yourself. That’s the crazy part. I made it to junior nationals when I was younger, but I was not going to be in a performance level that was going to take me to nationals at this point because I’m falling asleep and I can’t even take care of my mental health.
[00:17:36] So I had to quit. I made that difficult decision to quit cause I needed to focus my energy on academics and my future. And I knew that figure skating was not going to get me to where I wanted to go. Even though I didn’t know where I wanted to go.
[00:17:49] I definitely had to refocus my energies solely on academics but what ended up happening is I fell into a deep depression because skating was my identity. And so, I actually gained 30 pounds within a couple of months.
[00:18:02] That was because of not being an athlete any longer, having a normal lifestyle, and also going through puberty at a later stage. I didn’t get my period till later on. And so what ends up happening is that I have a low body fat percentage. And then when you’re actually able to regulate then your body changes and that’s normal. And it’s crazy that I’m talking about it on a podcast, people don’t really know what athletes go through. It’s really, really a topic that has not been discussed in sports too often. I think a lot of women feel shame, a lot of even men too. Athletes feel shame for not having done what they wanted to do. I’ve had shared experiences with people who have so many accolades.
[00:18:48] I’m like, wow, you went through the same thing as me but at that point, I was so shameful of who I was and I couldn’t even step foot in the rink. But it’s kind of funny because Ellen still remembered me as the bubbly president who wanted to like recruit her for the ice skating team. And so, when you talk about how I got out of that, honestly, I had a fake it till I made it. And not in a sense that like I’m being inauthentic with like, wanting to meet Ellen. I wanted to meet everybody that was on the team. In those moments I had to charge up and make sure that I was Michelle, but then I was a different Michelle later on because that was all the energy that I could provide.
[00:19:34] And so I had to really navigate mental health because mental health was a huge challenge that I never had to really confront. I probably had a lot of things that I didn’t work through when I was younger, but when you’re faced with yourself, then you go internal, and then you’re like, Oh my gosh, what do I do with all these feelings? Who am I and all these identity crises and making sure that I, also at the same time was the president of the figure skating club, was recruiting people, was trying to transition from integrative bio to business.
[00:20:08] So many things that I had to put on in order to keep pushing but I think the best thing in terms of getting out of that low was having at least one mentor. The one mentor that I had was my sister, Melissa, who skated, went through the same experience as me, but she went through that in high school. And so, when we talk about mental health, when we talk about dealing with body, like, how would you say body image? Like, that’s something that I never had to speak about because I never dealt with something like that in such an intense way.
[00:20:43] So in a way, my way of being able to come out of that was through having her voice. And if it wasn’t for her, I don’t think I could have gone any further.
[00:20:54] Sean: You really embody one of our Haas principles, which is going beyond yourself. It’s just so beyond yourself for you to make sure that you show up for others.
[00:21:07] I’m curious, were there any other things that shaped your desire to help other people? And also, to tack onto that, what else are you doing right now to help other people?
[00:21:23] Michelle: I think for me, the most difficult part about growing up and not having the resources. And when I say not having the resources again, I want to preface that I had so much already, I am very privileged to be in this sport, but to literally take it to the next level, my competitors had lessons every single day.
[00:21:48] My competitors had the highest-level brand of boots, blade, skating, dresses. So, the one thing that I had to rely on was my work ethic. That’s the only thing that I can control. And that is one of the main reasons why I’m pushing so hard to make space for everyone to have access. One of the big things that I’m doing right now is making sure that people of all colors and everyone that has ever wanted to set foot in the ice arena is not blocked by the lack of accessibility or the lack of affordability.
[00:22:26] So I’m so proud because more recently, in response to the black lives matter movement, I’ve been reaching out to a lot of people within the figure skating community. The majority of them are black and brown skaters. And many of them are just really passionate about pushing diversity and inclusion in figure skating because it’s a highly white-dominated sport. And so more recently in the past three to four weeks, we’ve created the figure skating diversity and inclusion alliance. And our main goal is to ensure sure that people of all colors are able to have access to skating rinks, to have access to coaches, to have that they deserve. Not just raising funds, cause raising funds is one area, but also working with federations to make sure that we push for policy changes, creating diversity and inclusion workshops for the coaches to make sure that they are very aware of words that they say. And so, I find it very powerful, especially during this time that we make space for people that have been pushed out. And it’s crazy because when people see me, they’re like an Asian American, we have the model minority myth where many people think that you’re affluent or you’re well-off and you can handle anything and you’re going to be successful in whatever you do. But people don’t know my story if they don’t talk to me. They don’t know my upbringing of my parents being from Cambodia. They don’t know that my parents went through genocide and were able to survive and they watched mass murderings of their whole entire country being diminished. And so the reason why I fight so hard to make sure that other people have a space in this sport is because I see if I wasn’t able to have just a glimpse of these reasons or a glimpse of what speeding was like, I wouldn’t be the person that I am today. And so, if I could give the opportunity for other people to have just a taste of what skating is like and they fall in love with it, then they can feel as though they could do anything. Because skating is a sport, like nothing in and of itself. Skating is something that like you literally, as soon as you glide, you seem like you’re flying. And I think everybody can attest once you get the hang of it, though, right?
[00:24:43] You don’t wanna crash into the boards but that feeling is something that no one can take away from you unless you don’t have skates.
[00:24:51] Ellen: That’s beautiful. Beautiful and well said. Glad to hear that you’re working on incorporating diversity initiatives within your space and definitely would love to see more people doing that as well.
[00:25:04] Sean: What are some ways our listeners can reach out or help out?
[00:25:09] Michelle: Definitely. The figure skating diversity inclusion alliance is working on a GoFundMe page and we’re making sure that we list every resource that you are going to be able to contribute to change a skater’s life. And so, one of the big things that we’re working on right now is doing a collaboration with the LA Kings and the Toyota sports center.
[00:25:31] We want to create a space for a hundred kids who are socioeconomically diverse. And, we want to ensure that those who would never have the opportunity to skate, can skate. This fundraiser would help support these types of initiatives. This is an international alliance that we’re developing.
[00:25:55] Sean: And, is there anything else you’d like to share before we go into the lightning round of questions?
[00:26:00] Michelle: Oh, the lightning round. I’m scared. I am so honored to be part of this series. I feel like this is the necessary conversation that I wish that I heard.
[00:26:13] One of the things that I spoke about was having a hard time going beyond the bounds of ABCs. I was the only one that was vocal about social media influencer marketing.
[00:26:23] I knew that it was such a lucrative market. I knew how powerful it could be at that moment but I didn’t feel the necessary support so I was more discouraged to go down that path. But what kept me going is doing the research of watching Michelle fan and watching how Cassey Ho did it and really looking up to these individuals.
[00:26:44] In a way you’re being like the Cathy Ho for me, you’re being the Michelle fan for me, because I know that a lot of business students would really appreciate this. So, I appreciate your efforts to do this.
[00:26:56] Sean: Well, you’re being the Michelle Hong for someone else right now. Alright, this is Ellen’s lightning round of questions. So, I’ll let her start.
[00:27:09] Ellen: Yeah. So, the first one is a seasonal question. What are you doing to keep yourself sane during the quarantine?
[00:27:15] Michelle: I am skating. I’m back at the rink again.
[00:27:20] Ellen: I guess it’s not really quarantine anymore but I also saw you were posting a lot of videos on social media which I really appreciated and brought back some good memories of skating days.
[00:27:31] Sean: I imagine skating’s like a very socially distance sport.
[00:27:35] Michelle: Oh yeah. We have to make sure that our students have space. It is very socially distant but sometimes the kids run into each other.
[00:27:42] Sean: And the next question is, what are some books or shows that you’re consuming lately?
[00:27:47] Michelle: Let’s go for the shows. I love Love, Victor, and funnily enough, The Babysitter’s Club. I’m so in love with young movies these days. And what I mean by that is these kids in The Babysitter’s Club are 11 or 12 years old but they’re speaking about such profound topics that I’m just literally blown away.
[00:28:08] They’re addressing topics like race, gender, sexuality, equality, the Asian-American experience, the adoption experience. And it’s so cool how reality is being brought to television because that’s something that I didn’t personally grow up with. And I think it’s really important to highlight all these different issues that are happening and not fake reality but really reflect reality.
[00:28:35] Sean: Awesome.
[00:28:36] Ellen: What does a productive day look like for you and what is your best productivity hack?
[00:28:43] Michelle: I wake up at 5:00 AM and then I go to the rink and I’m on the ice by six o’clock and then I teach for two hours during quarantine and then I come back and I work for US Figure Skating as a membership growth consultant.
[00:28:55] So I’m promoting a new program called the Aspire Program, which is in line with what my values are. We’re pushing a bridge program that bridges the learn to skate program with competitive figure skating and we’re grading affordable classes in group structures.
[00:29:11] And then I also do all the work with FSU and it’s been amazing to collaborate with all these diverse figure skaters. And that takes up practically another half of my day. And then I have zoom, off-ice workouts with my skaters.
[00:29:27] And at the end of the day, I try my best to relax and watch the Babysitter’s Club.
[00:29:37] Sean: That’s amazing. You’re so inspiring.
[00:29:39] Ellen: We really enjoyed having you on the podcast today.
[00:29:44] Michelle: Thank you. Appreciate it.
[00:29:44] Ellen: Thank you for listening to this episode of the OneHaas podcast, the undergrad series. If you’d like our content, please like and subscribe to our channel and give us a review, you can also check out more episodes and hear from past and current Haas students on Spotify, Apple podcasts, and on onehaas.org. Until next time. Go bears.