Engaging Women of Color

Entrepreneur's latest startup aims to address why minority women don't vote.

Mable Yee gets things done. A tiny woman with a froth of black hair, designer clothes, and bright lipstick, she fixes you with her gaze and tells you in no uncertain terms what needs to be done to get minority women engaged in the democratic process. Her face is as expressive as a stage actor’s, and she moves her hands to illustrate her words like a Balinese dancer.

“Everybody I talked to says it can’t be done,” she said. “I say, you’re dead wrong. You’re not a doer. It is not hard,” Yee said as she sat on a white couch in the light-filled living room of the Berkeley hills home she shares with her husband and twin five-year-old sons.

She was talking about EngageHer.org, the web site she launched on September 10 as a follow-up to the documentary of the same name that premiered in April. The movie Engage Her examines the reasons for the startlingly low voter turnout among minority women: Roughly 26 million minority women who were eligible to vote in the 2004 elections did not cast a vote. Seventy percent of registered Asian women failed to vote, along with 69 percent of Latinas and 40 percent of African-American women.

The web site aims to change that.

Yee spent her career working with white male managers, working her way up at Xerox from sales rep to product manager overseeing multimillion dollar product launches. She started three high-tech companies, selling the last one, a marketing company focused on women, for enough to let her retire at age 48.

When she went looking for new challenges, she found Moms Rising, a national online organization representing issues for mothers and parents. They were a team of mostly white liberals trying desperately to recruit minority women, and they asked Yee for help. When she began to research why there was a dearth of minority women leaders, she found out that they don’t vote, either.

“If we can understand why they don’t vote, we can make a big difference,” she decided. She thought about doing a book, but her good friend Joan Blades, cofounder of MoveOn.org and Moms Rising, told her it should be a film.

Yee said, “Joan, I know zilch about making a film.”

Blades replied, “You’re a smart woman, you’ll figure this one out.” And she did.

In November 2007, Yee approached Maria Victoria Ponce as she videotaped a toxics protest. Soon, Ponce had signed on as director and co-producer, donating her time and equipment to the cause. Despite expert advice that they needed a year and $200,000 for the project, they held the first screening in August — in time to help get out the vote for this election.

Before she started, Yee knew why minority women are underrepresented in the pool of voters from her own experience as the child of Chinese immigrants.

“My mother went to night school and learned all about the electoral process,” she said. “She was very excited about voting. My dad said, ‘What do you know about voting?’ So she never voted in her entire life” Sexism is just one of the reasons, however. Immigrants from countries with corrupt leadership often have an innate distrust of government. And in some countries, “You don’t vote because, if you vote the wrong way, in the middle of the night you disappear,” Yee said. In addition, many women work very hard, taking care of the extended family while working one or two jobs.

Engage Her premiered during Women’s Equality Day in San Diego, and continues to screen around the Bay Area. Yee was overwhelmed at the response; she’d clearly touched a nerve. Women and men would rush up to her after a screening telling her they wanted to get involved in her project. But how? The documentary was done.

“They want to join a movement,” Yee said. “I knew what they wanted me to do.”

In April 2008, she and Mina Wilson, an IT professional, decided to create a web-based organization, which she envisions as a MoveOn.org for minorities. The speed and reach of the Internet will ideally allow the site to connect grassroots groups with each other and to the better-funded white liberal groups. The goal is to give minorities a more powerful voice. For example, in a few days, Engage Her will be able to gather millions of signatures for an e-mail petition. With such a strong showing, Yee hopes her organization can get politicians to pay attention to the top issues for minorities. The site also features blogs, podcasts, and video to engage younger people.

Yee draws on her business experience to run Engage Her as a sustainable, progressive startup, with her as CEO. Instead of looking for grants and corporate donations, she plans to consult with nonprofits and companies that are trying to reach minority communities. “But we’re not going to sell out our people,” she tells them. “I’m not a spokesperson for you; I’m a spokesperson for our people.”

Engage Her has given Yee a place to use her tech experience and business connections to be a voice for women. “My motto,” she said, “is invisible no more.”

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