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Irvine Program Officer Robia Lee honors International Women’s Day

The Irvine Foundation is fortunate to have talented staff with diverse backgrounds and life experiences, and we want to introduce some of our colleagues to you. We spoke with Robia Lee, Irvine’s Program Officer, about what International Women’s Day mean to her, why her mom’s story continues to inspire her, and Irvine’s role in advancing gender equity. Responses have been edited for length and clarity. 

Tell us about yourself.  

I currently live in San Francisco, but I was born and raised in Los Angeles, specifically the San Gabriel Valley. My parents are both immigrants from Southern China, so I grew up speaking Cantonese at home. During college, I spent six months studying in Hong Kong and seriously considered moving there after college. Luckily for my mom, who did not want me moving halfway across the world, I took a chance on the Bay Area and fell in love with San Francisco. During my free time, I enjoy being in nature, cycling, and cooking. One thing I’ll admit is that I’m somewhat of a picky eater, which is why I enjoy making my own food. One day, I’d love to have my own garden to grow different herbs, vegetables, and fruits.

How did you get into philanthropy? 

Before coming to Irvine, I worked at a nonprofit that provided low-income families with training and resources to support their children’s kindergarten readiness skills. I also spent some time at the South San Francisco Unified School District, where I supported various analytical projects. I’ve always been drawn towards mission-driven work focused on advancing equity, so when I saw the Program Associate role posted online, I knew I had to apply.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you? 

International Women’s Day is a day to celebrate and honor the contributions of women. It is also a day to reflect on the struggles that women have faced throughout history, and how women and girls around the world are still fighting to overcome deep-seated systemic barriers.  

For me, this global day is about resilience and determination. I think specifically about my mom, who worked in the restaurant industry for more than two decades before starting her small business. Like many women-of-color entrepreneurs, she had little to no mentorship opportunities, faced impostor syndrome, and struggled at times to balance her role as a single mother and business owner. Despite these challenges, she managed to build a successful business and achieve a level of financial security she never thought she could. 

My mom’s story continues to be a source of inspiration to me, and I feel lucky to have grown up with other strong female figures in my life who have shaped who I am. I think it is critical that young women everywhere have powerful women role models, whether in their own lives or through media, so that they are empowered to realize their own goals.

What is Irvine’s role in advancing gender equity? 

For me, equity starts with identifying and dismantling barriers. It is about putting in place structures that enable women to participate in all aspects of society – whether it be in business or politics. I recognize that this is no easy task. However, philanthropy can play a critical role in advancing gender equity by deepening its understanding of issues that affect women, learning and partnering with those with lived experiences, and making investments that uplift the voices, perspectives, and contributions of women – such as investing in the care infrastructure. 

I am incredibly proud of the work that the Foundation has done in advancing inclusive systems so that all low-wage Californians, a group predominantly made of women of color, can advance economically, as well as its commitment to racial equity – which I believe goes hand in hand with gender equity. It will be important for us to continue thinking big, and remain committed to continuous learning and adaptation.