He came to America from Hong Kong when he was only 9, facing an entirely new culture of which he knew nearly nothing. He’s battled through barriers of language and shyness to emerge as a leader among his peers. He now owns two successful businesses and speaks four languages. And yet, among such monumental accomplishments and events, it was a note — a simple, brief note from a relative stranger — that had a resonating impact on the life of 26-year-old Ho Yin Au.
Closing the gap of isolation
In 1987, Au, along with his parents and younger sister, arrived in Boston from Hong Kong. Within a week, Au had seen his first snowfall, a harbinger perhaps of the dynamic changes that awaited him in this strange new land. “I did not speak a word of English when I came here,” Au remembers. “My mom would take a dictionary and have me start at the letter ‘A’ and memorize 10 words at a time to try to build up my vocabulary and learn common phrases so I could get by.”
School was a lonely place. “I had about two or three friends that knew me, and the rest of the kids were like, ‘Oh, that’s the kid who can’t speak English.’”
Ironically, it was this barren social landscape that eventually fertilized the seeds of Au’s current career path.
“I drew a lot, played the piano; that helped take my mind off things,” he says, “and then I started to develop an interest in computers. My parents bought me one and I kind of excelled in that.”
Au began to learn BASIC programming, as well as graphic design and 3-D animation. “Back then they used to print programming code in computer magazines,” he says. “I went through them and tried to figure out what they were doing.”
While Au’s technical skills grew by leaps and bounds, his self-confidence and social skills were lagging behind. But during his freshman year at Northeast Metropolitan Vocational Technical High School in Wakefield, Mass., that gap would finally start to close.
“I went by my computer technology shop,” Au recalls, “and the advisor and some of the upperclassmen were telling me about SkillsUSA and these competitions they were involved in and what a great experience it was.
“And then I saw people walking around in those red jackets. That just piqued my interest. I was in a public school then, and I was wondering, ‘Why are people in uniform here?’”
Au remembers “people were talking about leadership training and leadership conferences, and they were all jazzed and pumped. I saw that and wanted to join.”
During Au’s first year in SkillsUSA, he was part of a computer programming team that swept the Massachusetts district competition and took the bronze medal at the state event. It was during that time that Au began to realize that SkillsUSA stood for more than technical skills alone.
“I got to see the state officers on the stage, and I was really impressed,” he says. “I remember seeing students around my age, and they’re up there in front of a thousand people.”
In what he laughingly describes as “a moment of insanity,” Au decided to run for team officer at the next fall leadership conference, a decision that would prove to be a turning point in his life.
Initially, however, he just wanted to turn and run. “They had us go up there and give public speeches, and I was a nervous wreck, naturally,” he says.
Au performed to the best of his ability, but, still self-conscious about his English-speaking abilities and his shyness in general, he left the stage doubting that he had what it took to ascend the same heights as the state officers who’d inspired him a few months earlier.
That’s when he got the note — a simple, brief note from Massachusetts state director Karen Ward. A note that, in just a couple of sentences, turned Au’s self-doubt into focused self-determination.
“The note said I had done well,” Au remembers, the pride still obvious in his voice. “It meant a lot to me. It was a real confidence booster. I decided to run for state office.”
After a hectic campaign, Au eventually found himself in a large audience of his peers, waiting to hear who’d won the election. It was his name that was announced. “I got wet eyes a little,” he says. “I was just overwhelmed with joy.”
Au admits that joy soon morphed into worry when he learned what would be expected of him as the new state secretary. But, like every other fear he’d faced, Au jumped right into the challenge. “I pushed myself for the rest of year,” he says, “seeing how far I could push my limits.”
After dealing with the initial struggles of his new responsibilities, however, Au began to realize that he didn’t have to push quite as hard anymore. He’d changed.
“I was not as shy. That was a major thing,” he says. “I was making new friends, meeting new people, speaking to people. I also wasn’t humorous before. They taught me to joke around. I’m good with that now. And I learned how to smile.”
Au’s parents were smiling, too. “They were encouraging. I think they were proud of me that I was involved in this organization that was making such a big change in my life. They were very happy.”
After graduating from high school, Au spent a year at Massachusetts Institute of Technology studying computer science. He started his own business, designing websites for corporate clients.
He’s turned a personal hobby, computer gaming, into another source of income as part owner and chief technology officer of “HeavenGames.com,” which caters to fans of computer strategy games. “I’m in charge of evaluating software, securing the server, preventing it from being hacked,” Au says. “I also write some software, maintain the message boards, etc.”
And if all that isn’t enough, Au also has what he calls his “real” job, working as a grant administrator for Partners Health-care System in Brookline, Mass.
Shock and Au: triumph over tragedy
Au’s entrepreneurial spirit and penchant for hard work are ingrained in his personality. But necessity, born out of family tragedy, has also influenced his path. In 1998, his father passed away. In Chinese culture, it’s traditional for the oldest surviving son to assume responsibility for his family when a father dies, and Au found himself thrust suddenly into the role of the family’s main breadwinner.
“It was very tough for everybody for the first year. Things didn’t go that well,” he says, then adding in typical understated fashion, “My mom and I managed to do well after that. She worked, I worked.”
Today, Au plans to return to college and receive his bachelor’s degree in computer science. He looks on his past accomplishments with pride but realizes how vital SkillsUSA has been to the equation.
“It definitely opened a lot of doors for me. I know if I didn’t pick up those skills, it would’ve been tougher for me to make the transition from high school to college and college to work. I would’ve been just another lazy teen-ager,” he laughs.
“Given the current economy, it’s tough to find jobs these days, but the person with the better skills, the better attitude and the better presentation is going to be the one to get the job. You might be smart, but if you don’t have those other skills, you’re at a disadvantage.”
When it comes to understanding the place SkillsUSA holds in Au’s heart, all it takes is a look at the amount of personal time he devotes to it, from video production for state conferences to animation to website development. He’s even in charge of Massachusetts’ advisor’s hand-book, which he puts together each year.
“They gave so much to me, and I want to give back somehow,” he explains.
And the circle continues. One shy student is inspired to exceed his own expectations, and he in turn inspires another to do the same, who in turn inspires another, and so on. And to think that, in Ho Yin Au’s case, it all started with something as seemingly inconsequential as a few words of encouragement scribbled on a small note.
“I hear a lot of stories about how great our advisors are,” Au says. “How they encourage kids and tell them they can do it, just like Karen did for me. Kids nowadays need a lot of that.”