01/14/2014 04:36 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

NFTE Philadelphia's Advocate, Cynthia Gouw: Actress, Journalist, Model and Community Activist

Cynthia Gouw's career is built on reinvention -- she went from model, to actress, to journalist, from an aspiring lawyer, to fearless advocate for Asian American culture, to compassionate community activist (


The first in her family born in the States, Cynthia recalls the legacy of her maternal great grandfather proudly. He started as a penniless "coolie," a Chinese immigrant working in Indonesia, who divided his three-penny daily earnings: one to live on, one to his mother and one in savings. Like so many men at that time, he hoped for an heir to his empire and fathered 22 children, out of which he had three sons.

Cynthia remembers that fact proudly -- for she has managed to outgrow and outdo such a legacy. In fact, because of it, she wanted to make a difference, to make a change.


After train delays and a slow cab, I was embarrassed to arrive at NFTE Philadelphia's gala after the program had started. As I listened to our MC, Cynthia, describe NFTE Philly's founding, I was struck by her Hollywood-like presence.


After all, Cynthia is one of our greatest advocates, along with her husband Doug Alexander, who is co-chairman of NFTE Philadelphia, and actually helped to get our program off the ground. He is also President of ICG, a fast growing, publicly traded cloud software company (his bio can be found here). Doug outlined aggressive plans along with his co-chairman, Steve Zarrilli, on how to continue to grow NFTE Philadelphia out of its start-up stage: Last year NFTE Philadelphia educated 1,500 students up from 700 the year before. Their goal is to get to 7,000 students per year by training 60 more teachers, and entering 10 new schools over the next two years.


The NFTE Philadelphia Executive Director, Sylvia McKinney.

"NFTE is a program with a lot of leverage," says Doug.

For $1,000 we can train a teacher. For $500, we can educate a student. Imagine that, for $500 we can teach a kid how to take educated risks to realize their dreams, versus the risk-taking they witness in their neighborhoods that can destroy their lives.

Steve Mariotti: Tell us about your experience in high school.

Cynthia Gouw: No matter how far you go in life, I think who you were in high school is often what shapes you the most -- a frightening prospect for those who know us! I went to El Cerrito High, just north of UC Berkeley.

I was pretty nerdy, very eager and always felt I had something to prove and for good or bad -- that hasn't changed much. The school was very socio-economically and racially diverse: a third black, a third white and a third Asian and Latino. There were many lessons about getting along with different people and cultures. I actually think some of my confidence as a journalist comes from that -- whether I am meeting Oprah, to the head of Hong Kong, to a murderer on death row -- they remind me of someone I knew back in high school!


SM: How did you become a journalist?

CG: Well, I had a good background: I minored in Asian American studies and majored in Political Science and International Relations. My parents were always very gracious by giving back to the community; and, they taught me that I had a responsibility as well. I thought I could use my pen as my sword by going to Law School -- but it wasn't what I expected, and the lure of Hollywood was too great. Before I became a journalist, I worked as a model and an actress.

SM: As an actress, how did you get started?

CG: I had been modeling since I was 16 -- and back then, there weren't many Asian Americans in the industry -- so in many ways, I got lucky. I started landing many commercials and won the Spokesmodel competition on the show Star Search. I was a huge Star Trek fan, and when Bill Shatner cast me as the Romulan Ambassador, Caithlin Dar in the movie Star Trek 5: The Final Frontier -- I thought I had died and gone to heaven -- or to Romulus! It was all great fun, so I had to really force myself to go back and finish Law School. But I am glad and proud I did.

SM: So, after modeling, acting and Law School, how did you begin your journalism career?

CG: I really wanted to marry my love of storytelling with being on camera. I started my TV news career at the very bottom -- as the farm reporter in Bakersfield, California -- and within three months, my agent landed me a job in Dallas -- a jump of 120 media markets! But I was way too green, and it really showed. Because of that, I learned a lot and I was determined not to make the same mistakes again. When I moved to Sacramento as an Anchor/Reporter, I dug into my reporting, and covered international news like the handover of Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China, and later I followed immigrants across the border from Mexico to the United States. I also reported on a brutal initiation ceremony into a girl gang -- a shocking glimpse into their world. I won three Emmy Awards for these stories. Then I went on to work as a reporter in TV news in San Francisco, and then later for the NPR station there, where I covered Asian American affairs and the politics and culture of the Pacific Rim.


SM: Why did you leave TV News journalism?

CG: I had covered about 100 murders in my career -- with not much time to cover the roots of the problem. One week, I had a homicide on Monday, then two kids in Richmond, California were killed on Wednesday; then on Friday a man killed himself, his wife and his three kids. That's when I decided it was time to move on. I switched to a job at San Francisco's NPR station, and really enjoyed the longer format reporting offered there.

SM: What did you do when you moved to Philly?

CG: Well it took me 6 years to land a job in San Francisco -- so I wasn't planning on leaving! But then a mutual friend set me up on a blind date with my husband, Doug and I moved to Philadelphia to be with him. I think many Philadelphians feel they play second fiddle to New York and D.C., so I wanted to do a show that celebrated my newfound city. I developed SnapGlowTV -- a web based show focusing strictly on Philly beauty, fashion and lifestyle. I was named one of the region's up and coming women entrepreneurs and a top blogger. Currently, I am the national TV spokesperson for L'Oreal products -- focusing on Clarisonic Skin Care Systems.



The former Miss Chinatown USA, Cynthia had three pieces of advice to share with young entrepreneurs:
  1. Follow your talent, not your passion, and your talent will become your passion.
  2. Embrace failure; it's your best teacher.
  3. Network aggressively. Success almost always comes through the help of others, and by you helping others to succeed.

Special thanks to Lauren Bailey for assistance on this article.