We are living in truly uncertain times. The world has been turned upside down by a pandemic from COVID-19. College seniors are missing their graduations and entering a challenging job market where companies are downsizing to survive the economic standstill unlike the world has ever seen before. The real unemployment rate of the U.S. is likely over 20%, a level not seen since the Great Depression. One could look at the news with hopelessness or they can embrace the opportunity. During the Great Recession (2008–2010), people took lemons and turned them into Uber, WhatsApp, Slack, Pinterest, Square and Venmo. Instead of being the obedient and filial pious son or daughter who honors your Asian parents with your safe career choices, you now have the rare excuse to take big risks.
Never before has there been a better time to do your own thing. Want to build a technology startup? It’s cheaper and easier than it ever has been to get started with no code software and platforms like Zapier and Unbounce. Want to start a retail business? You can create an online e-commerce store in minutes with Shopify and SquareSpace. Want to be a movie director or singer? You have an iPhone in your pocket and can upload your creative talents to YouTube or TikTok. Want to become a writer? Start building a following on Medium or Substack or self-publish an ebook on Amazon. There is no good excuse for not giving yourself a shot right now.
The Road to Security
Get straight A’s. Score over 1500 on your SATs. Gain admission to an Ivy League school (or Stanford, CalTech or MIT). Earn a graduate degree. Land a safe high-paying job. Sound familiar? It’s the same story that was written for me and millions of other Asian-American children of immigrants for the past several decades. We were programmed to believe that happiness and fulfillment were just on the other side of every hoop we jumped through only to find disappointment waiting. Fool us once, shame on our parents for pushing too hard. Fool us twice, blame filial piety and trying to honor our parents. Fool us three times, we have no one to blame but ourselves for our unhappiness.
When your only role models growing up are your hard-working Asian immigrant parents who sacrificed everything for their children even if meant toiling away in the same job for decades, it’s difficult to stray from the path they’ve set for you out of obligation. That might mean you end up a lawyer, engineer or doctor because it’s what your parents expected of you, not because it’s what you were passionate about. In Crazy Rich Asians, the Singaporean matriarch Eleanor Young tells young Asian-American Rachel Chu that “all Americans think about is their own happiness” while the Chinese “know how to build things that last.” This is the guilt and burden that we bear as children of immigrants who gave up their lives for our security and comfort which outweighed our personal fulfillment or pursuit of impractical dreams. Their generation’s template of Asian success was a respected physician at a hospital or an engineer for Bell Labs or IBM. This template is being shattered today by more examples of Asian-American success that aren’t so cookie cutter anymore.
Recently I watched the must-see docuseries Asian-Americans on PBS. Very little of what I saw was in my history textbooks. I had no idea that Filipinos were the first Asian-Americans brought against their will and used as an exhibit in a human zoo. I was disgusted to find that Indian-Americans were stripped of their property and land when the Supreme Court declared that they were no longer “white” which drove some to suicide. I was horrified to find that Japanese families were separated during internment. I was unfamiliar with the struggles of Anna May Wong, who was forced to play roles as the villain and was passed over for an Academy Award winning role in The Good Earth that should have rightfully been hers.
Growing up in the 80’s, I didn’t have any mainstream role models to emulate that looked like me. The only Asians I saw on television or movie screens were in kung-fu movies like Jackie Chan or stereotypical nerds like Long Duk Dong. Either way, most were racist caricatures with no more than 3 lines of heavily accented dialogue (even if the actors were capable of speaking perfect English). I found out as an adult that Martin Yan went to UC Davis and had to fake his thick accent to appeal to the American audience. Wok n’ roll indeed.
Fast forward thirty years and things finally starting to change. The world watched in awe as Jeremy Lin dropped 38 points on Kobe Bryant as a New York Knick. Foodies are eating at David Chang’s Momofuku restaurants around the world from New York to Toronto to Los Angeles to Sydney after watching Ugly Delicious on Netflix. People of all colors, shapes and sizes are lining up in droves to see Ali Wong do her raunchy standup show and buy her book. These professional athletes, chefs and comedians who have reshaped the perception of what Asian-American success looks like for a new generation. And now we’ve seeing an Asian-American candidate for the President of the United States of America for the first time in Andrew Yang (#yanggang).
Throughout my life, I’ve jumped through hoop after hoop assuming I would find happiness waiting for me on the other side. When I got into an Ivy League school, I thought I was set. Only to find that I had to get the right job after graduation. When I got a management consulting job in San Francisco, I thought I was set. Only to find that I had to get into the right business school. When I got into Stanford, I thought I was set. Only to find that I had to get the big corporate job. It was a never-ending hamster wheel that I finally got sick of and decided to jump off when I started my first company, Fanpop, at the age of 29. I just wish I had gotten off a lot sooner.
If I could have told my younger self that I was doing all of this to become a salary man and a cog in Corporate America, I would have started something right out of college when there was nothing to lose. I was telling myself that I needed to become a seasoned and experienced executive before I could really create value as an entrepreneur. In reality, I fell into the trap that I had to have enough money in the bank as a safety net before taking any real risks. As you get older and have a mortgage and a family, it becomes much harder and more costly to roll the dice on yourself because you have others to worry about. I’m now five years into my second startup and even though it’s an emotional rollercoaster, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. I love building things and knowing that the upside for all the work I put in is mine. I’ve seen too many friends busting their ass for someone else at a startup or a hedge fund and getting a fraction of the upside in return. They have since started their own hedge funds and startups.
Trapped Under the Bamboo Ceiling
Buck Gee and Denise Peck, two accomplished Asian-American tech executives, who started Ascend Foundation Research have done some critical research into the bamboo ceiling and shared some of their important findings in the Harvard Business Review. The bottom line is that Asian American white-collar professionals are the least likely group to be promoted from individual contributor roles into management — less likely than any other race, including blacks and Hispanics. While white professionals are about twice as likely to be promoted into management as their Asian American counterparts.
Their study revealed that although Asians are overrepresented in Silicon Valley tech companies by hiring, they were the least likely among all races to become managers and executives. This by no means makes it acceptable that African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans are so underrepresented in Silicon Valley. Both of these huge discrepancies need to be addressed. The progress of Asian success in Silicon Valley is an illusion because despite making up close to 47% of professionals, only 25.2% of executives were Asians.
This disparity isn’t limited to the tech industry. Goodwin Liu, associate justice of the California Supreme Court, coauthored a report published by the Yale Law School and National Asian Pacific Bar Association that found that 10% of the graduates of the top 30 law schools were Asian-American, yet they have the highest attrition rates and lowest ratio of partners to associates among all racial groups. In the finance world, Bloomberg Businessweek covered the disparity on Wall Street in a 2017 article. Goldman Sachs reported that 27% of its US professional workforce was Asian-American, but only 11% of its executives and senior managers, and not a single executive officer was Asian-American.
Ascend recently completed a study of EEO-1 data by race and gender that revealed that Asian men are less likely to be promoted to executive levels than all other men (35% below parity) and that Asian women are less likely to be promoted to executive levels than all other women (67% below parity). The only companies where there was parity or close to were Pinterest and Nvidia. Both companies have Asian-American CEOs in Ben Silbermann and Jensen Huang.
The tired argument is that maybe Asians are just too passive and don’t have what it takes to be managers and executives. They don’t know how to play the game of office politics to be promoted into the higher ranks. The suggestion that Asians are culturally not capable of succeeding because they don’t have the killer instinct to win is laughable at best and pathetic at worst. Tell that to Joe Tsai, co-founder of Alibaba who bought the Brooklyn Nets, or to the Indian-American CEOs of Microsoft, Google, Adobe and many other American Fortune 500 companies. It’s a false narrative created to keep the bamboo ceiling in place and it has real consequences for the workforce who are trapped under it.
I was fortunate enough to work for one of the original Asian-American business icons, Jerry Yang, at Yahoo! just one year out of college. Seeing his living example inspired me to want to start my own company someday. It should have been enough for me to take the leap, but years of being reminded to play it safe held me back. In my mind, there was only one path to success. In reality, it was the path of least resistance to security. The bamboo ceiling keeps us from rising but we are also guilty of holding ourselves back.
The Next Generation
I can’t wait to see the next generation of founders shake things up and inspire even more entrepreneurs and makers. When I see friends like Tracy Chou building a company to fight online harassment with Block Party or Tammy Sun who is enabling companies to offer fertility treatments as a benefit with Carrot Fertility, I can’t help but be excited thinking about how many more young Asian-American men and women will follow their lead. In the past few years alone, organizations such as Gold House, podcasts like Rock the Boat, and communities like Asian Hustle Network (AHN) have formed to highlight the achievements and stories of Asian-Americans in media and business. Nine years ago, I felt there was no network in the Silicon Valley for Asian-American founders so I started the Asian-American Founders Circle. Meeting and learning from others who have gone off the beaten path and found success and fulfillment in the journey is a powerful impetus. I write this in the hopes that I can inspire even one person who was heading down the same heavily worn down path I did, to change their mind and explore the unpaved trails along the way.
When you lack passion or joy in what you’re studying or working on, it’s unlikely that will change. Be honest with yourself and don’t equate making your parents happy with your happiness. I’ve known too many people who took the MCATs and LSATs because that was the plan for them since high school. They hated medical school and law school. They would go on to become miserable lawyers or doctors. By then it was too late for them to get off the train because they had families and mortgages to pay. If they had been honest with themselves when they were applying to graduate school, they could have changed the course of their lives and avoided becoming trapped. I know many of you may feel the same way, but it’s never too late to start something new.
Today, I am constantly inspired by my friends who have started successful companies like Zoom, Twitch, DoorDash, Peloton, YouTube and Rotten Tomatoes. All of them were started by Asian-Americans. They are successful examples that shatter the idea that Asians don’t have what it takes to rise up the ranks and be successful executives in American companies. But they didn’t wait for someone else to give them permission or grant them access to the board room, they built the board rooms and the buildings that house them.
You can make excuses and blame bamboo ceilings all you want for your circumstances, but at the end of the day, no one is making you do anything you don’t want to do. If you aren’t willing to bet on yourself, why should anyone else should bet on you? I know it seems scary, but you can do this. Start off with side hustles if you can’t afford to quit your job. Find other like-minded people who can encourage you and help you along the way. Once you build enough confidence in your talent and ideas, don’t hesitate and go all in. We look forward to welcoming you when you do.
If my article resonated with you and you’ve decided to take the leap, congratulations and I’d love to chat! You can e-mail me at: firstname.lastname@example.org