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January 13, 2015

Badass Ladies You Should Know: Ellen Oh

Kate Hart

Let's face it, you probably already know Ellen Oh -- she's that big a badass. After a career in corporate and entertainment law, Ellen wrote the Dragon King Chronicles (and if you haven't devoured them yet, get on it, because the series concludes with King this March). Ellen's also founder of the We Need Diverse Books campaign, which led Publisher's Weekly to name her one of their "Notable Publishing People of 2014."

Of course all this is in addition to parenting three kids, not to mention signal boosting and support the heck out of her colleagues. I'm honored to feature Ellen on this second edition of Badass Ladies You Should Know.


Kate: When and how did you decide to commit to a creative career?

Ellen: I started writing because I couldn’t find any Korean American heroes in any books for my girls. Diversity in children’s literature was never more important to me than the moment I walked into a Barnes and Nobles and stared at a huge wall display of YA books that was row upon row of pretty white girls. I remembered thinking, dear lord what do all the minority kids think when they see this? How do they feel? That awful feeling of not belonging has never left me and drives me to continue to write and speak out.

Kate: Do you have any other other creative outlets? How do they influence/affect your main work (if at all)?

Ellen: I eat. Love to eat. I love recipes but hate cooking. I mean I’m good at cooking but it always feels like so much work. I much prefer someone cooking for me. I also have a weakness for watching Korean dramas. But only the ones that have already been completed and loaded up online. I have no patience for “staying tune” for the next installment.  And K-dramas are the worst at ending with cliffhangers on every episode. So I have been known to marathon dramas all night long.

Kate: What's your biggest challenge?

Ellen: Balancing all the work I need to do and being there for my family.

Kate: How do you stay inspired? Productive? How do you deal with negativity?

Ellen: Negativity makes me mad. It just makes me more outraged and furious and determined to prove everyone wrong.

Ellen takes a celebratory pie to the face in honor
of the WNDB campaign's success

Kate: Tell us about a time that you bounced back from failure.

Ellen: I think people are so afraid of that term. Like failure is a dirty word or something. To me failing means you get to try again. Usually with something completely new and different. And also, failing is not necessarily the same for anyone. I had someone ask me if I was depressed that my book wasn’t a success. His definition of success was to be a NY Times bestselling author. And I told him, but that’s not my definition of success. My book is a success to me because I get fan mail from kids all over the country who tell me how much they love Prophecy and Kira. To me, my book is a success when a little boy comes running up to me at the bus stop yelling “Thank you, Thank you, Thank you! I love Warrior!” To me, my book is a success when a recent college grad wrote to tell me that I was both her inspiration and her role model for following in her own dreams to go into the arts, something that Asian parents aren’t necessarily as supportive of. And I have so many more of these stories. And they are all my successes. So the idea of failing is different for all people.

Kate: Did you have any defining moments that galvanized your understanding of and/or commitment to feminism? How does it inform/inspire your work?

Ellen: When I was VP of Business and Legal Affairs at my old job, I would take meetings where I would have junior counsel with me, who happened to be a white male. Without fail, these men and women that I would be meeting with would inevitably look to my male colleague to lead the conversation. It would drive me crazy and it would confuse my colleague who, of course, didn’t have the answers to their questions. Even the women would do this. I would sit patiently waiting for them to realize that they had been directing their questions to the wrong person and only then would I answer them. This is only one incident of so many that I have endured over the years. I have in many professional settings had men talk over me, bully me, scream at me, and try to intimidate me, during contractual negotiations. It has always surprised me that men think women are too emotional to handle business dealings. But look at what our media does to women? How they are always belittling women in every way. What does Hilary Clinton being a grandmother have anything to do with her running for office? Why is slut shaming an allowable legal tactic in rape cases? Why do women continue to make far less money than their men counterparts? How can we erase the inherent bias that society has taught us since childhood? I have always been a feminist. And I will always be a feminist.

Kate: What are the best ways to support other women?

Ellen: Stop thinking of other women as your competition. Just stop it. It drives me insane. Do what you have to do to make yourself stand out in your field of work and then mentor those that come to you for advice. I believe in karma. I believe that the good that you do for others will return tenfold to yourself. And that the bad you do to others will come back at you far worse. Stop looking for reasons to tear other women apart. Misogyny is hard enough to fight without us fighting each other.

Kate: What is your advice to aspiring badasses?

Ellen: Don’t let others tear down your dreams and don’t you ever step on someone else’s dreams either! Believe in yourself, take pride in yourself, and follow through everything you need to do to make that dream a reality, no matter how hard it is. But most of all, being a badass means looking out for other people. Looking out for those who need mentoring, who need protecting, who just need a friend. Being a badass isn’t just about how tough you are, the best badasses take care of other people.


Ellen Oh is a Korean American writer who grew up in New York City. A mother of three daughters, she graduated from NYU and Georgetown Law Center, practiced corporate and entertainment law, and taught college courses before authoring the Dragon King Chronicles. She also contributed to the Diverse Energies anthology, and founded the We Need Diverse Books campaign, which recently incorporated as a nonprofit organization.

You can learn more about Ellen at her website, or follow her all over the internet:


Want even more?
Watch the Badass Ladies You Should Know website for a second 
"Short Answers" interview and bonus material later this week!


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