​​From Hong Kong Heritage to Programmatic Leadership: Vanessa Eng’s Ad Tech Journey

Vanessa Eng, Head of Programmatic at Qortex, weaves a compelling narrative of her family heritage and professional ascent in advertising technology. 

From an early age, Vanessa was inspired by her mother’s determination and perseverance. Her mother’s journey from Hong Kong to a successful career in the United States and her father’s hard work deeply influenced her values and work ethic. Growing up in New Jersey, Vanessa learned the importance of diligence and resilience, which have propelled her through her career.

Moving to the US at 13, her mother learned a new language and established a successful career as an accountant at Mount Sinai Hospital. This example of hard work and dedication set a strong foundation for Vanessa, who saw firsthand the importance of balancing professional ambitions with family responsibilities.

Vanessa’s journey is a testament to continuous learning and maintaining a hands-on approach, even as one climbs the corporate ladder. Unsurprisingly, Vanessa is also a 2024 Top Women in Media & Ad Tech honoree in the Programmatic Storytellers category. 

Despite facing hurdles as a young Asian-American woman in a male-dominated industry, Vanessa has carved out a successful career. Her deep understanding of her field has earned her respect and recognition. She emphasizes the importance of representation and the need for more Asian women in executive roles, advocating for diversity and inclusion within her team and the wider industry.

Learn more about Vanessa’s journey by reading our discussion below. 

Yakira Young: Tell me more about yourself. Where is your family from, and what was it like growing up?

Vanessa Eng: My mom grew up in Hong Kong and moved to the United States when she was 13. My dad was born here in the US. He grew up in West New York, New Jersey, and I grew up in North Bergen.  On my dad’s side, my grandparents came on a boat from China. My grandma was pregnant with my dad at the time from what I remember. 

I remember my grandpa fondly because he lived to be around 83 when I was about 30. He used to share stories about our family’s journey to the States, and their decision to migrate to the US to provide a better life for my dad, which ultimately impacted my own life and my children.

My mom worked hard, commuting to New York to work from the burbs in NJ, and making dinner for us. Although it was a dual household income, I remember my mom struggling with it a little. She would never say anything about it and always had a very tough exterior. 

One aspect of Asian culture is the ability to identify one’s needs versus one’s wants. There were instances when I wanted to buy something when I was younger, and my mom would say “no, it’s too expensive.” That also shaped how I raised my kids, and not wanting to tell them no because of something we couldn’t afford financially but the ability to say “no” to prevent them from being spoiled and entitled. 

I don’t hold my mom in any mean regard with that whatsoever; in fact, I deeply respect her for it because I knew financially we weren’t as well off as some other people. That also inspired me to strive to be very career-driven and offer a better life for my family.

YY: How has your heritage influenced your upbringing and values?

VE: My upbringing helped me understand foundational principles. As I mentioned, my mom worked hard, and my dad also worked hard and would stay late in the office. Watching them work hard taught me to work hard as well. 

At some point, as you climb the corporate ladder, you start to have a team under you and begin to delegate, and with that, people start to forget the nitty-gritty of how things work. I like to give 110% no matter how small the task is, which has instilled in me the ability to always work hard at everything I do. 

As I climb the corporate ladder, I want to ensure that I still know how things work intimately to be knowledgeable in my role. It’s important to know what’s happening in the industry, so I’m always making sure I stay on my toes, which is part of my “perfectionist” demeanor.

YY: Any key moments or milestones in your 14-year career that have been particularly significant to you?

VE: At a point in my career, I preemptively discovered my manager was trying to fire me. I took that to heart because I became very complacent in my role, lacking passion and genuine enjoyment for my work. While I don’t have any ill will towards that manager, this experience deeply affected me and served as a wake-up call.

Conversely, I’ve also been fortunate to have excellent managers. Some have stayed with me late at night in the office to whiteboard and help me comprehend the entire ecosystem. These experiences provided me with a solid foundation in terms of knowledge. 

Sometimes, you need a great teacher and mentor to guide you to where you are. It’s great to read industry-related articles and converse with other folks in the space, but nothing compares to someone who takes the time and patience to help you understand all the nuances and various acronyms.

YY: What challenges did you face as an Asian-American woman climbing the corporate ladder, and how did you overcome them? 

VE: Some of the challenges I face are definitely related to my appearance. I’m often told I look young, and as a woman in tech, I face additional hurdles. This means I have to work even harder to earn the respect of others and to be taken seriously. 

Adtech can very much feel like a boys’ club, and as an Asian woman, I sometimes face the stigma of not knowing what I’m talking about. 

This motivates me to read a lot of documentation within our industry and research various topics because the best way to challenge misconceptions is to be exceptionally knowledgeable. When you know your stuff inside and out, no one can outmaneuver you.

I’ve dedicated significant time to learning every aspect of the ad tech life cycle to ensure no one can undermine me due to a perceived lack of knowledge, and I will continue to do so. I understand that I have to work harder to earn respect. 

YY: What does representation of Asian Americans in the industry mean to you? How have you seen it evolve throughout your career? 

VE: There’s a better presence now regarding where Asians are in the industry, some holding leadership positions, myself included. But I think there’s more work to be done. There are still very few and finite women, Asian women, who hold executive level and c-suite positions. It’s gotten better, and it will continue to improve over time.

It also comes down to companies genuinely supporting and embracing diversity. We can all talk about it, but company cultures must actively change to reflect these values. There have been instances where I’m on a company’s profile, and if you look at their investor relations page, board members, etc., they’re primarily white males. 

YY: Did you have any mentors or role models from your cultural community who impacted your career path?

VE: I have had the privilege of working with many women leaders. My first boss, my most memorable from when I was an intern at Viacom, is someone I still keep in touch with. She’s held numerous executive roles and has always been so supportive and an incredible role model. She’s been my number-one cheerleader to this day. 

If I ever show any uncertainty, she immediately counters with, “Vanessa, what are you talking about? You absolutely can do this.” Sometimes, you need that person who’s in your court—your coach—who always encourages you that you can do this as long as you apply yourself. 

YY: Do you have any advice for young Asian-Americans aspiring to enter the advertising industry?

VE: I think there is a stereotype about Asian individuals suggesting that we are inherently analytical, number-focused, and diligent worker bees. My advice is to always assert your opinion. Don’t just do what you’re told and follow instructions blindly. Speak up if your instincts tell you there’s a better way or a different approach.

It’s crucial to transition from a “doer” and become a leader. Express your opinions and ensure your voice is heard. Don’t settle for being the quiet one in the room. I find this is a confidence issue. When you’re confident in your knowledge, this will naturally lead to a domino effect.