How a martial arts gym trained me to build an inclusive culture

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Ken Kao Contributor Share on Twitter Ken is an engineering manager at Airbnb building products that enable entrepreneurs to provide hospitality on the platform. Outside of work he enjoys Muay Thai, Pekiti Tirsia Kali (Filipino sticks & knives fighting), cooking, and writing.

A wave of unease immediately swept through my body. Constant puffing and growling echoed around me as heavily-tattooed fighters threw forceful punches into the heavy bags. This was the scene I encountered when I stepped into Five Points Academy, a martial arts fighting gym in New York, for the first time a few years ago. Having grown up in a sheltered environment — the last time I had gotten into a fight was in kindergarten — I wasn’t sure I would fit in.

Emily, one of the instructors, immediately introduced herself and showed me some basic Muay Thai movements. The class focused on pad work, so students paired up and held Thai pads for each other to practice their moves. Emily rotated me through different partners during the class, offering me a taste of what it was like to hit pads, and I was hooked.

A year

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