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"What does it mean to be you with us?" – Michelle Ongaro

Project/Program Management Consultant

I was born in South Korea and spent my childhood there. I felt empowered early on with my mother as a role model for women who were strong and accomplished. She didn’t go to college, but she worked hard enough to put her two brothers and one sister through school. She was business savvy. Her passion was to own a store for women's fashion. It wasn’t that my mom was so good at fashion, but she wanted to make people look and feel beautiful.

Michelle Ongaro headshot

I grew up in my mom’s store and I especially remember the love and respect her customers had for her and trusted her opinion. But my mother knew that even if I were the daughter of a big CEO, I would still struggle to find equality. It’s hard for women in America to find equality in the workplace, but it’s even harder in Korea. Women who do choose jobs often don’t have children.

My dad was a scholar in engineering. But unlike the traditional patriarchal leader in an Asian family, he quit his job to help my mom pursue her goal. My father was the oldest of eight, so he was seen as the head of the family. When he stepped aside to help my mom, he fought against a lot of pressure from the family to stay in the traditional patriarchal male role.

When I was born, my parents embarked on their plans for that business to fund a future in the U.S. for both my brother and me. It was a hard time to take such a risk. There was a financial crisis in Korea and the neighbors to our north were always threatening a nuclear attack. The economy was not stable, but the two of them found a way to make it all work.

Immigrating to the U.S.

My parents sent my brother and me to the U.S. for schooling when I was in kindergarten. But it wasn’t just for the education that my parents wanted us to leave. There were safety concerns too. We still had nuclear bomb alerts from North Korea and political schisms made each day unpredictable.

Michelle Ongaro headshot

During our immigration to the U.S., my family faced many trials and sacrifices. We optimistically searched for our happily ever after and fought for our rights to belong here.

After picking a school in the U.S., my parents found a sponsor family who also had kids, and arranged for us to be placed with them. But my brother and I weren’t always with the same family or in the same school.

During this time, I talked to my mother only about once a year. Overseas phone calls were too expensive. There was no Facebook or cell phones, and writing letters took so long. One door opened and another closed and I moved to the next sponsor family or school or country.

In grade four, my father decided that he was going to join us in the states so that we would have at least one parent there. But the government canceled our Visa. We were all so disappointed, especially my father. I remember he showed them our report cards to prove we were good students who deserved the chance. I had never seen my father beg, but he begged the officials. When our passports were voided with holes, he looked at my brother and me and tearfully said that he was sorry that he couldn’t keep his word. After seeing that, I felt like I had to be perfect for my parents who sacrificed so much. And I dreamed of a future where I will be so powerful to help people – who like my parents — also dreamed of a better future here in the U.S.

I dreamed of a future where I will be so powerful to help people – who like my parents — also dreamed of a better future here in the U.S.

Together again as a family

When I was 13 and in sixth grade, I persuaded my family that it was time for us to be together in the states. We settled in Virginia. Once we were all back together it was nice to let my guard down and not feel as if I was walking on eggshells. This was my family, not strangers, and I learned it was OK not to be so formal. We were able to develop a level of trust.

It took 17 years for all of us to get citizenship. From sixth grade through high school, I finally got the childhood I wanted. I was finally able to make friends, walk to school and be friends with neighbors. It was wonderful! And we still have the same house we did when we first moved here.

When I graduated college and started my career at a top consulting firm, I was diagnosed with series of medical ailments, from a benign breast tumor to a series of additional disabilities. In the past eight years, I had 11 doctors across three states offer different remedies since my diagnosis, and I felt the sparkle of who I am — and my future — wane.

Moving to Minnesota & working at Securian

My husband has been my strongest advocate. It was a matter of developing trust with someone when you were the most vulnerable. When I was sick, he fulfilled our wedding vows to show immense strength, diligence, and care even before we were married. It’s liberating to depend on him and be able to share with him. My mother-in-law and father-in-law have been so accepting of me. In October of 2019 we moved to Minnesota.

Financial services and government has been a predominantly male industry for so long that it’s hard to change it. When you’re Asian and female with a disability it’s even harder. But I know change is coming. It’s already happening.

Michelle Ongaro headshot

At Securian Financial, I find that people genuinely care about each other. My leader started a mental health Associate Resource Group (ARG) here. Securian does a really good job in the area of mental wellness and health programs. A lot was formalized during COVID because of the mental health issues associated with that, but I think it’s always been inherent in the company. And this new generation is so accepting of people who are different, whether it’s a disability or gender or race.

Women in the workplace

What I would say to a woman who was struggling to find their place is: acceptance starts with letting people in and asking for support. If you don’t clearly communicate what you need, how can anyone support you? You are your strongest advocate. Coach others on how they can treat you to be your best, most powerful self. As for the importance of women in the workplace, it's not enough to have “x-number” of women in the company. It's about giving women the same opportunities as men and jobs that lead to advancement. Also, it's OK for women to lean on each other. When I was starting my career, I didn’t have that, and I was intimidated by some women leaders who appeared to have a "toughen up" attitude.

I’m also proud to work at Securian Financial and to be part of the necessary conversations. I’m proud to work here where I can help those in need, and advocate for people like me.

One of my mentors, who I aspired to be like, said this: “Remember, to be or not to be is not the question. The vital question is how to be and how not to be.”

A letter of promise

This was the letter of a promise that my parents desperately sought to secure from the White House. It took my parents 17 years to secure this letter and promise with these words:

“Americans are united across the generations by grand and enduring ideals. The grandest of the ideals is the unfolding promise that everyone belongs, that everyone deserves a chance, and that no insignificant person was ever born. Welcome to the joy, responsibility, and freedom of American citizenship.”

I’ll always remember how my dad beamed with joy (with the same smile I inherited from him) saying that we finally belong here. I’ll never forget that day.

So, I want to help keep those words. I’m grateful I found a community here in Minnesota where I belong too.

Be you. With us.

At Securian Financial, we want all our associates – current and future – to bring us their ideas, their passion and their most authentic selves.

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Meet our colleagues

As our organization works to create a culture of inclusivity and belonging we’ve launched a series of stories sharing what it means to be you with us at Securian.

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Michelle Ongaro is a Securian Financial employee and therefore has a financial connection to Securian Financial. Her statement was given freely.

DOFU 3-2023