Fay Matsukage is Senior Counsel at Doida Law Group, LLC.
Full list of 2018 Colorado Women's Hall of Fame inductees
The following is a transcript of a conversation she had with a representative of the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame shortly after learning of her induction.
QUESTION: The law is more than a profession for you, it looks like a calling and your community, particularly as it relates to the Asian Pacific and women law professionals. How has your profession, ethnicity and gender blended together to create a fulfilling life, career and sense of community?
FAY: The mixing of career and community began as soon as I got out of law school. I remembered when my first-year law professor said that our degrees in the law profession are valuable tools. We should consider ourselves lucky recipients of this gift – understanding the law – and that we should use it responsibly and find ways to give back.
When I graduated, the Asian Pacific Development Center was just starting, with the admirable goal of helping SE Asian immigrants and refugees transition and acclimate to life in the United States. I liked their approach of providing services that allowed people to take care of themselves for the long term – the philosophy of teaching someone to fish versus giving them fish. As a fourth generation AsianAmerican, I’ve always felt lucky. My dad was the first one in our family to earn a college degree. I thought about how hard would it be to start life over in a new country and learn the law of the land, so I made small donation.
Over time, I became more intrigued by what they were doing and the significant role the Center could play, and started to get more involved. From my own experience at the time, I didn't see very many Asian faces in Colorado, there were only three of us in my undergraduate program at Colorado College, and again only three of us in law school. When I went to my first college football game, I didn’t see anyone else that looked like me. There was only one Chinese restaurant in all of Denver back then. Having been raised in Hawaii, I was accustomed to a much more diverse culture.
While in law school, a small group of us banded together in a study group, where we could talk openly about our experiences and share our feelings. Our tiny band included myself, two Hispanics, one Native American, one African American, and one dark-skinned Jewish woman. We graduated between 1979 and 1980, and we still get together to this day.
Once in my law practice, my good friend, Dolores, was active in the Hispanic bar association. I worked with her on a conference, and met two other Asian women attorneys. A year later, we decided to start our own Asian bar association. It’s been a pleasant surprise to watch the organization grow over the years. I started a 501(c)(3) to be the charitable and education arm of the association. One of my proudest achievements came in 2016, when we permanently endowed two scholarships for the University of Denver and CU Boulder law schools. (In 1996, the Colorado Asian Pacific American Bar Association hosted the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association convention in Denver.)
QUESTION: Your dad was an important mentor in your life. Describe your relationship and the most important things he taught you.
FAY: He always taught me to go for it and reach for the stars. He would say, “You are good enough to be the boss, don't let anyone tell you to settle for being the secretary.”
The biggest qualities I admire about my dad are that he was non-judgmental and believed in helping others. He believed in looking out for the little guy. He ran a small mortgage and industrial loan company, and he always sponsored local sports teams, and donated to police causes. Before he passed away in 1985, he spent the last three months of his life in intensive care. He had no qualms about religions, he openly took blessings from the Buddhist or Catholic priests, the rabbi. He said, “You never know what’s going to happen, so we might as well just cover our bases.”
He had an adventurous spirit and fervor for life. He loved to try everything and experience it all. We’d go out and try unique foods that we could make at home. My mother was lovely, quiet and reserved. She wanted to look out for me by asking what I would do when I got married. But, my dad always pushed me to be self-reliant and encouraged me to think that I didn’t need anyone to succeed other than myself. He was definitely the bigger influence on my life.
QUESTION: In reviewing your education history, one thing stands out. You always finished your degrees early. Why was that important to you?
FAY: I had things to do! It really came down to timing and the opportunities I had during high school and college. It helped that I earned college credit for some of my high school classes. Money was tight, so I took summer classes to save my parent’s tuition bill. At the University of Denver, I obtained a scholarship from the Dean's office, which required I work full-time as an assistant to the Dean. With a full tuition waiver, and a $300 per month stipend. I made it work and graduated without debt. I wasn’t sure how long the stipend would last, so I took as many classes as possible each term.
QUESTION: Tell us a bit about your family.
FAY: We have a very well-functioning blended family. My husband, Gordon, is 19 1/2 years older than I am, though I like to joke that his mental age is more like 29. We are young at heart, and until a knee replacement, we were always the old folks on the black diamond ski runs.
Like my dad, Gordon lives life with so much gusto and is always eager to volunteer and give to others – I’m sure they would have been the best of friends.
He’s a retired CPA, and we met while working on a the same corporate client.
Though, at first I thought he was the ultimate male chauvinist. Having been raised in a small town in Idaho, he isn’t politically correct. Though, he has come a long way, and now he's even comfortable being referred to as “Mr. Fay Matsukage” when we're at my networking events.
Gordon’s first marriage was to his high school sweetheart, Camille. We all have a great relationship. Camille is very sweet, and would easily win the best grandmother award. When we had our son, Daniel, she was his first babysitter. For Gordon’s older children, I knew I’d never be a mother figure - I'm closer to their age. We’re all good friends, and take family trips together. I wish all blended families could have a similar experience.
QUESTION: You moved from your birthplace of Honolulu straight to Colorado. It looks like you've lived here ever since. What has Colorado meant to you and what do you enjoy most about living and working here?
FAY: Hawaii and Colorado are actually a lot alike. There’s lots of sunshine, which keeps me positive and upbeat. I’m up with the sun, and definitely a morning person ready for each new day. I have a great love of the outdoors, and both states offer unique experiences in that regard. While, Colorado was tougher initially without a lot of diversity and cuisine, it's come a long way.
There’s been such wonderful progress here, and I appreciate how Colorado is able to progress while maintaining its western roots. My husband is typical man of the west, and I’ve learned how to saddle my own horse, shoot my own elk, ski, hunt, cook pheasant more ways than I can count. It’s important to embrace where you are.
When I first moved to Colorado Springs, there were times I felt lonely. In those moments, I would gaze toward the mountains, and it would help put my problems in perspective and they suddenly didn’t seem so large. I think living in Colorado and being surrounded by the Rocky Mountains, helps all of us recognize that the world doesn't revolve around any of us individually. When you are outside and in nature, you gain better perspective on your place in the bigger picture. It breeds more acceptance and tolerance in my opinion. We also have a well-educated population, that is more willing to admit what they don't know.
QUESTION: Working in a male dominated profession, where do you draw your strength and inspiration from? How do you persevere and answer "You'll see" when men doubted you could handle their legal needs?
FAY: At the beginning of my career in the early 1980s, it was a big oil and gas time in Colorado. My clients would say things like, “I’ve got kids older than you.”
Armed with my dad’s encouragement growing up and my own academic success, I had good self-confidence. It wasn’t hard for me to say, “Well that may be true, but just watch and I will give you a good outcome.” Of course, I made darn sure I did an excellent job. Nothing speaks like success. In those moments when my nerves would get the best of me, Gordon was a big help and always told me I could anything. We all need supporters in our corner.
To ensure success in big career moments, I would practice my conversations. That came from my childhood, because I stuttered as a kid. In second grade, I had special speech classes. Whenever I was nervous, I just couldn't get a conversation started. So, I scripted those moments and then practiced a lot. In eighth grade, my dog was my practice buddy. I wholeheartedly believe that practice makes perfect, and instilled that in my son.
QUESTION: Describe your passion about helping others and starting philanthropic organizations.
FAY: None of us are by accident, we have all been created for a reason and a purpose. If we don't make the most of the gifts we've been given, that's irresponsible and ungrateful. I feel like I've had a very blessed life, and if I don't give back, that's my problem.
Sometimes other people tell me they can’t contribute because they don't have same gifts I do, but I reject that idea. You don’t have to come from a certain background or have a formal education to be incredibly inspiring and make a meaningful impact. Gifts don't all equate to money, fame, or status. Success is multidimensional, and we all have ways to contribute to improve the lives of others in need.
In starting up philanthropic organizations, it’s critical to stay focused on your purpose. It’s easy to get distracted and stretch resources way too thin. You can only run as fast as your leaders can go, so stay on task. Delegating is key, and be sure to give new volunteers a singular focus so they feel good about their contribution.
For the Development Center, we started small in 1980. When a mandate came down to provide services and documentation all electronically, we knew we couldn’t do that solo. So, we merged to become part of Aurora Mental Health. It worked out well, because Aurora needed better Asian outreach, and they allowed us to maintain our autonomy. We were able to leverage more resources, and provide better employee benefits – which has allowed the Development Center to thrive. When we were independent, loyal employees would take furlough days when they were already under the market rate for salaries. Mental health is part of my passion, I see the difficult emotional transition that occurs when coming into the country.
QUESTION: Why do you think it's so important to focus on specific constituencies like Asian Pacific people and women?
FAY: I personally have endured all manner of snide remarks. From people chiding me about my heavy load of books and wondering what high school I was attending while I was in law school, to downtown retailers assuming I wasn’t authorized to use my own credit card when buying my first business suit. Even as I was more established, and hanging out at our neighborhood pool, a neighbor rudely pressed me for what country I was from, not easily accepting I could be a U.S. citizen. During a discussion about WWII, people would ask what side my dad fought for. That was hurtful as I remembered my dad had to go in his U.S. Army uniform to visit his family in Hiroshima.
There are times when you wonder, “Am I going crazy? Is this just happening to me?” You begin to realize you are not alone. So, I started a place to meet and share with colleagues working on cases. We were a sympathetic ear and a championing voice. It was a safe environment where you didn't have to explain yourself. There are so many wonderful people in the Asian Pacific Bar Association that are still very active. We have judges in the ranks now, which is a big accomplishment. Nina Wang is a magistrate. There are very respected well-known trial attorneys, like Kenzo Kawanabe, who joined when he first came to Denver.
QUESTION: Describe a challenge that defined your approach to life.
FAY: Even though my parents were U.S. citizens, they had to take an English proficiency exam to enter the local university, as it was presumed that Asian Americans did not know English well enough to get into a university. As an interesting reaction to that cultural reality, my dad encouraged me to learn Latin, as it would be easier to pick up French and Spanish later on. He didn't encourage me to learn Japanese. He taught me to go beyond the status quo. We don’t have to fit a particular mold. It’s taught me the importance of not judging a book by its cover, which is a guiding principle in my life.
QUESTION: What is the best and worst decision you've ever made?
FAY: My best decision was to follow my dad's advice to go to law school. My parents’ generation achieved so much. After he got back from the army, he went to Ohio, and then on to Chicago for law school and an MBA. My mom went to the art institute, and two of her brothers were doctors. The bar was set very high in my family, which was a good thing.
The worst decision I ever made is the silly and ridiculous comparison of myself to someone else. Someone’s house is always cleaner or better furnished, and another family always looks more pulled together. Too many women engage in that activity, when we should all just make what we've got the best it can be.
QUESTION: What’s the #1 piece of advice you would give to your younger self?
FAY: Keep the promises you make to yourself. If you think about all the times you vow to be better, but somehow forget and get romanced away from making it happen. It happens to all of us, but I would tell my younger self to build in the discipline to keep focused on the things that drive us forward.
The Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame was created to recognize, honor and preserve the contributions of trailblazing Colorado women. Both historical and contemporary women have shared foresight, vision and accomplishment, but lacked a forum for recognition. Since 1985, the Hall has inducted 152 extraordinary women who have been outstanding in their field, elevated the status of women, helped open new frontiers for women or inspired others by their example. Inductees include scientists, teachers, social activists, philanthropists, authors, business leaders, elected officials and more.