For Women’s History Month, EnVi shows extra love to women across the Asian diaspora and beyond, with special features in Fashion, Beauty, Music, Film, and Culture.

Kyla Zhao knows a thing or two about major career leaps. 

Formerly a fashion writer at Vogue Singapore, she uprooted her life in Singapore in 2022 to move to Silicon Valley where she is currently working at a tech start-up. She is also the author of The Fraud Squad, which was Good Morning America’s book buzz pick in 2023, and her latest novel, Valley Verified, just hit the shelves in January. 

Pitched as The Devil Wears Prada meets Legally Blonde but if Elle Woods tackles the tech industry instead, Valley Verified centers around Zoe Zeng, a fashion writer residing in New York City. When she receives an offer to work for a tech start-up in San Francisco, Zoe trades her Prada for Patagonia and sets off to Silicon Valley. But soon, she finds herself confronting the systemic biases of the tech industry as well as the doubts from her peers – and herself. 

Since its publication, Valley Verified has been featured on CBS News and Live! In the Bay. Critics and authors hailed it as “an anthem for young women who aren’t afraid to push themselves out of their comfort zone.”

EnVi had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Kyla Zhao about Valley Verified, representation, embracing change, and navigating men-dominated spaces as a woman of color.

Cover of Valley Verified, a novel by Kyla Zhao.
Image courtesy of Kyla Zhao.

Championing Asian Leads

Before the release of her debut, The Fraud Squad, in January 2023, Zhao exclusively wrote articles and essays for Vogue Singapore. “I never imagined myself writing books,” she admitted. “Being such a big bookworm gave me a lot of appreciation and respect for what authors are able to do. So I just never felt like I would ever be able to measure up to that.”

However, during the COVID-19 lockdown, Zhao joined BookTwitter and made online friends who were writers. “I learned about words like querying and agents and editors. That’s when I realized I could also try getting published.”

The Fraud Squad was her first attempt at drafting a novel. Previously, she used to write 500-word stories inspired by the middle-grade series The Clique. “In those [short stories], the main characters were always beautiful blondes with blue eyes which in hindsight is kind of crazy because I didn’t grow up with any blondes,” Zhao said. “But somehow because of what the media fed me, that’s what I always thought main characters were supposed to be like.”

Zhao also revealed that Brenda Song, who played London Tipton in The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, inspired the last name of the heroine in The Fraud Squad, Samantha Song. “She was one of the few Asian actresses I ever saw on Disney Channel when I was young, and she really [stood out] in my mind.” However, her passion for championing diversity didn’t just start in publishing. Since her career at Vogue Singapore, she has interviewed women fashion designers like Jocelyn Ng to spotlighting Asian female athletes.

Realistic Portrayals of Being a Woman

EnVi’s interview took place just days after Kyla Zhao revealed the cover for her first middle-grade book, May the Best Player Wins. It follows chess prodigy May Li as she navigates sexist teammates and her own love for the game.

May the Best Player Wins will be Zhao’s third published novel. Even with the transition to a younger age group, her themes of women in men-dominated spheres that are prevalent in her adult books are still prevalent. 

“I think I will always like writing about situations where the girl or the woman feels like the underdog because […] that’s reality,” Zhao said when asked if this is a theme she wants to continue to explore. “And it’s not that I’m deliberately trying to write about these [themes]. It’s just that by trying to write a realistic portrayal of what’s happening, inevitably, this is [something] that would come up.”

Haute Couture to HTML

Valley Verified pulls from Kyla Zhao’s own personal experience with a career transition from fashion to tech that required her to book a one-way ticket to Silicon Valley. 

Originally, Zhao was hired for a non-technical role. But a few weeks before she joined the company, they had a huge internal reorganization. “And this was after I had already quit my job at Vogue and I bought a ticket to California,” she said. “I was put on a new team and the team was very technical, like coding, programming, all the fun stuff that I [didn’t] know. I learned everything on the job, and I think that’s where the impostor syndrome came from.”

However, looking back, Zhao’s interest in technology isn’t new. Being a Stanford graduate, she has first-hand experience with Silicon Valley. During her time at Vogue Singapore, she also often wrote about the intersection of fashion and technology, exploring how designers incorporate recent technological advancements with CGI and 3D printing into their fashion.

Navigating Men-Dominated Industries

While Zhao was lucky enough to not experience any explicit gender discrimination or sexism, she knows a lot of those who do. “One thing I’ve come to realize is that even though I’ve never faced explicit sexism, it can truly manifest itself in various small ways [and] microaggressions,” she said.

Zhao explained that even though there are men with the same role as women in the workplace, it becomes the “women’s responsibility” to organize happy hours, order office snacks, and take meeting notes. “And it’s never something that’s so overly bad enough that you call people out on it because then it makes you look difficult, which again is another perception that’s often prescribed to women that men don’t really suffer [from],” she said.

Zhao studied psychology in university. In one of her first lessons, she recalled learning that people are more often drawn or attracted to those who are similar to them. This is a cognitive bias known as the similar-to-me effect. “If most [in leadership positions] are white men, they’re going to want to hire people who are just like them,” she said. “And that […] creates this implicit gatekeeping in place.” 

She also recalled that when the #MeToo movement was taking off during her time in the fashion industry, there were people actively calling for men who have committed crimes to be held accountable. “But I think it’s […] died down with time,” she said. “Because as long as those men keep making their companies money, the companies are willing to overlook so much. […] There are a lot more instances of people getting away with their crimes.”

Zhao admitted that it’s disheartening to realize that institutions and authorities don’t have people’s best interests in mind. However, she believes that we must continue speaking about the systemic problems that put women of color in vulnerable positions. “The more people talk about it, the more likely it is that these things will change,” she said. “We have to keep talking about it. We can’t let [the conversations] fade away or die out.”

Finding Your Support Systems & Embracing Change

In a time where success and happiness are often conflated with individualism, Kyla Zhao offers advice that goes against that. “This is the age where you are going to experience so many things for the first time,” she said. “With changes, it’ll inevitably be scary and uncomfortable. […] What really helps is having a support system. But we can only get a support system if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and to open up about how we are feeling to the people around us.” 

She recalled trying to maintain an impression of success and, in turn, wasn’t transparent about her struggles of changing jobs and uprooting her life in Singapore to move to Silicon Valley. She realized it’s better to get help than try to bear everything alone.

The main takeaway Zhao wants readers to learn from Valley Verified is to embrace change. “Be okay with life just completely diverging from what you thought it would be like,” she said with a tentative smile. “I think the important thing is to not close any doors for yourself, but to remain open to new experiences or ideas, new possibilities and even new people in your life.”

“I wrote [Valley Verified] when I was experiencing a lot of new things and I wish I could go back in time and tell myself that it’s okay that everything is so new and confusing.”

And so, Zhao will continue to remain open to new experiences and doors that may open up for her. As for writing, she said, “I’m going to keep writing books where Asians like myself, like you, are the stars of the show.”

Valley Verified is available to purchase at your nearest bookstores and online retailers. Follow Kyla Zhao on Instagram, X, and TikTok, as well as subscribe to her Substack for more updates on her latest projects.

Want to read more of EnVi’s author spotlights? Check out our interview with Vanessa Le here!