Asian Americans and the Silicon Railroad

The Hidden Bamboo Ceiling within the Tech Industry

Tim Hwang
Tim Hwang
May 16, 2015 · 6 min read

Last year I was invited to attend a small, invitation-only get-together of technology investors and entrepreneurs to talk about our up and coming startup. At the time, we were growing pretty rapidly and were in the middle of raising our second round of institutional venture capital.

Raising capital is perhaps one of the most difficult things an entrepreneur can do and as most entrepreneurs can attest, getting this kind of invitation was an opportunity you simply could not pass up. After a couple minutes of nervously rehearsing my pitch, I decided to work my way through the crowd and strike a conversation with a venture partner at a firm we had been speaking with at the time. “Excuse me, are you X? I spoke to Y at your firm about FiscalNote and I wanted to introduce myself, I’m Tim.” He glanced over and said half-heartedly as he looked towards the open bar “Oh great. Let’s talk later.” and proceeded to walk away.

I wasn’t exactly sure what had happened, but having been in the industry long enough, I went back to a friend of mine who was at the event and asked him to approach X just to see how he would respond. I didn’t end up seeing him for a good hour as they’d apparently had a riveting conversation about the NBA Finals, the state of his business, and more importantly, next steps for how they could get together for drinks and discuss the opportunity. I think back to that experience a lot as I try to develop professionally and become a better CEO, but I can’t help but feel that a small portion of this interaction had something to do with the color of my skin.

It wasn’t the first time something like that had happened and certainly won’t be the last. Just a couple months before, at a pitch event speaking to group of investors, I was put on the hot seat as I had been many times before. Yet instead of the typical questions, they pursued a line of questioning in a tone that systematically attacked my ability to lead as a CEO, doubted our team’s ability to take risks, asked where we were “from”, and implied that I should be more “respectful” of their time. That experience to me was infuriating as it was the first time I had been systematically (and publicly) discriminated against.

When I first bring up the issue of Asian Americans in the tech industry, the first response that I usually get involves some form of the following: “What problems are you talking about? Asian Americans make up half the industry.”

At this point, having gone through the early stages of building a company, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the state of Asian Americans in the tech industry. On the surface, it seems like Asian Americans are “killing it” in the industry. They make up 34% of Google’s staff, 41% of Facebook’s, 57% at Yahoo, 60% at LinkedIn; they now make up more than half the workers in the Bay Area tech scene. In the broader economy, they are the highest-educated and fastest growing minority group in the United States with unemployment sitting at the lowest among all ethnic groups.

But recent reports have shown that under the hood, the picture is not so rosy. On average, Asian tech workers made $8,146 less than their white counterparts, $3,656 less than Black employees, and $6,907 less than those who identified as “other.” For comparison, the disparity between women and men, also known as the “gender gap”, came out to $6,358.

Despite making up half the technology industry, Asian Americans only made up 11% of startup senior executives (6% of CEOs), 10% of venture partners, and 8.3% of board members. Asian Americans are half as likely to rise to the top as their white male peers. The difference is much more stark in the East Coast where the broader AAPI community drops to single digits. The stunning reality is that for young Asian-Americans entering the tech industry, working here and gunning for the management track is often a dead-end job.

The recent debate around diversity in the tech industry has sparked a nationwide debate about the current state of the industry. Yet as Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and the Ellen Pao trial have caused a firestorm, young Asian American professionals both male and female have felt a strong association with the literature.

Feeling insecure professionally? Yes. Finding yourself reluctant to speak up in meetings, for fear of saying the wrong thing or being ignored? Yes. Watching self-assured colleagues — mostly men, mostly white — take charge of the workplace conversation, while wishing you could project their easy bonhomie? Thinking you should have played a team sport in high school? Fearing that no matter how hard you try, your intelligence and drive will never get you to the top. — The Atlantic

Having had the benefit of being born and growing up in the United States, I’ve never had to suffer a large portion of the language or cultural barriers associated with being Asian American. In high school, I consciously decided to push more and more into the political space, where thinking on your feet, being articulate, and putting yourself out there were valued.

Yet as I’ve delved deeper and deeper into the technology industry, the most surprising thing that I’ve felt is a slowly receding level of self-confidence as I attempt to break down larger and larger barriers. Despite having been elected to office, despite having gone to schools like Princeton and Harvard, despite having raised three rounds of venture capital and building a company, the concept of the model minority is a constant self-reinforcing frame of reference in my daily interactions with the industry.

The general stereotype that Silicon Valley holds is that Asian Americans are great technologists but lack the people skills to make good managers and leaders. In other words, “keep your head down and code”. It’s a subtle message that manifests itself in getting rebuffed at mixers over drinks, getting pushed down potential partner’s calendars, and generally dealing with condescension and doubt at every level. And the difference in expectations is stark.

Silicon Valley’s Stereotype of Asians in Tech

The tightly constricted pipeline of Asian American startup founders and executives is concerning for a host of reasons. Mainly, the vast visibility of the community masks what many AAPIs know: that it is incredibly difficult to move up in the industry despite the effort and qualifications you may have. The self-reinforcing mechanism of the lack of role models (both VCs and founders) and constant subtle reminders of stereotypes slowly hammers away at the fringes of your job as an entrepreneur. Just look through the portfolio companies of most of the storied venture capital firms and you’ll be hard-pressed to find many AAPI CEOs, despite being closest to the technical problems and having a wide swath of co-workers. It’s a disheartening task.

In turn, you become less likely to attend networking events. You become less likely to reach out to people and build stronger relationships. You start questioning the level of risk you take on. Ultimately, it’s a disservice to the tech community and the world to alienate an entire population from taking the leap and becoming entrepreneurs and founders in their own right, not because you don’t have the skills, leadership, or vision but because there is a constant reminder of what the industry’s expectations of you are.

As we head into the middle of Asian American Heritage Month, I believe that the greatest travesty among the larger conversation around diversity in the technology workplace is the lack of conversation around one of the largest and most glaring gaps there is in the industry. I’ve had the good fortune of being able to trade notes and commiserate with other AAPIs in the startup scene, and the challenges that we face are certainly not unique. There is still a lot of work to be done. And for my part, I’ll continue to push through and execute on building FiscalNote, while doing what I can to make sure these stereotypes do not limit the possibilities of those that hope to take risks and build something in the future.

Tim Hwang

Written by

Tim Hwang

Founder & CEO of @FiscalNote, bringing Moneyball to politics. Princeton and Harvard.