#AAPIHeritageMonth: 12 Asian & Pacific Islander Folks in Tech
Produced by Lea Coligado & Edited by Clarissa Bukhan
May is Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month and in celebration, the Women of Silicon Valley team collected the stories of 12 AAPI folks in tech. In these narratives you’ll find themes of resilience, ambition, and reconciling multi-cultural and intergenerational identity. We hope you come away as inspired as we are!
Zarmina is an Account Strategist at Google, working with companies all across the U.S. in different industries to develop and execute their marketing efforts. She is originally from Omaha, Nebraska and spends her free time on frequent road trips around the Bay Area and eating her weight in hot pot with friends.
“When I was younger, I read fiction books for hours and hours, until my mom had to physically take them away from me at bedtime. I dreamed of a day when I’d become the protagonist — living in a big city, meeting interesting people, experiencing magical things. But in my family, that isn’t the typical life path.
My parents were born in Afghanistan, ethnically from Turkmenistan. My mom escaped to the U.S. as a teenager, from the Helmand Province to Omaha, Nebraska. Many people in my family don’t typically move away from home, especially the women. So for most of my life, I thought my dreams would stay just that — dreams. I didn’t realize until after college that just because my mom’s life circumstances didn’t allow her the opportunity to explore her dreams, it didn’t mean she wouldn’t support me exploring mine. Still, I was afraid to leave her and the comforts of home behind. But, I did it. I moved to San Francisco two years ago. I’ve met all kinds of interesting people, and I’ve had magical things happen to me. The most magical thing is how proud my younger self would be of who I am today. I’m living out her dreams. And while I still love to escape in books, my adventures now take place in real life.”
A creative producer, native technologist, voyager, and storyteller, Tania hails from the Maori tribes of Aotearoa New Zealand and the beautiful island of Vava’u, of the Kingdom of Tonga. Following ancestral footsteps, she creates cultural taonga (treasures) in multiple media from stone and bronze to augmented and virtual reality. With her Global Reach Initiative and Development (GRID) Pacific Team, she captures incredible high-resolution imagery of Pacific peoples, places, cultures, and languages that (with their permission) is shared with the world.
“In 2000, upon reading that our local government planned to put a culturally inappropriate sculpture in our harbor, my husband (a Māori / Hawaiian Master Carver) and I were outraged and decided we must create a pou. [Pou are carved wooden posts used by Māori to mark territorial boundaries or places of significance]. During the creation of this Pou Kapua I contracted meningococcal septicaemia, a disease with one agenda: to take over and kill every possible cell in the body. While medical intervention and penicillin played an important role, they only went so far. It was my whanau (family) who kept me alive, when my mauri ora (life force) was weak and my wairua (spirit) on the verge of departure.
The true aroha (love) that I received during that period was such a powerful force that my wairua decided it must stay. While physically scarring, it was a time for me to reflect on what I valued most in life. Hands down, it was all about my whanau — my tamariki (children), my parents and siblings, my younger sister Rachel, and my hoa rangatira (husband) Wikuki.”
Mo is a champion for the underserved who believes that everyone has the right to education and information. She currently works on scaling Google Assistant and Search technologies and has been the Director for K-12 Education focused on diversity and inclusion. Mo has also been a high school math and chemistry teacher, as well as an assistant principal. She has begun giving mid-career conversations talks and workshops in LA and Palo Alto through the Stanford Asian Pacific American Alumni Club (SAPAAC) and the Harvard Asian American Alumni Alliance (H4A) groups.
“One of my proudest moments is when President Obama quoted our Computer Science Education research when he declared CS for All. What made me even prouder was when the students who participated in our programs made it to Google as full-time women in tech.
One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced was when both my parents had strokes in the same year. My Dad is now in hospice care. As we all age, we find ourselves in these situations — making tradeoffs between work and family. Yet we rarely talk about women working as caregivers for both their parents and children. For me, having a supportive spouse and manager has made all the difference. I’ve had to say “no” to a lot more opportunities knowing that they will present themselves again later when the time is right.”
Dubbed by some friends as a walking paradox, Ada is a Hong Kong native who ended up growing up amongst cows and corn in Indiana. While she lives in San Francisco, she prefers Red Lobster Cheddar Bay biscuits and Krispy Kreme over kale and açaí bowls. She is an alumnus of both Harvard and Yale (resulting in all sorts of confusion during Harvard-Yale football games) and a three-time Googler whose dream jobs have also included marine biologist, social worker, professional clown, voice actress and the next Nicholas Kristof.
“When I was two, my father passed away suddenly. One of his last wishes was for me to get an American education and go to Harvard. In 1992, when I was 7, my mom and I packed our bags and moved to Indiana, where support for immigrants was scant due to the low immigrant population. Neither my mom nor I spoke English, and my mom struggled to learn the language, so we had no income and very little community.
Since I picked up English faster, I did everything I could to take care of the two of us. At home, I served as my mom’s cultural and linguistic broker, for example translating when she was on the phone with the bank. At the same time, I threw everything I had into school, in the hope it would eventually translate into a good job that would allow me to support my mom.
After school, if I wasn’t glued to my desk at home, I was in extracurriculars I thought would make me more competitive as a college applicant — tennis, student government and newspaper, to name a few. Ultimately, I graduated first in a class more than 840 students. I still remember checking my AOL inbox in the school newspaper room when I got the acceptance email from Harvard University. I nearly fell off my chair and cried. Years later, I have degrees from Harvard and Yale University as well as meaningful work at Google, and I’d like to think I would have made my dad proud.”
Jia is a Product Cost Manager by day, gym frequenter by night and outdoorer on weekend.
“During my first job, I asked my manager to help kick off my green card process since the H-1B visa is only good for six years. Instead of kicking off the process like most managers at the company, he told me to marry an American man to get my Green Card. It was the most disrespectful conversation I’d ever had. I made up my mind that I was going to find a new job since I couldn’t continue working under him, then I got a great offer from Apple.
I’m the first to graduate college in both my mother’s and my father’s families. I’m the first to study overseas and graduate with a Masters degree. I was the one who made the down payment on the place where my parents live. From worrying how to pay my college tuition, to getting my green card, to becoming a Supply Chain Management professional at Google, I’m so proud of what I’ve achieved.”
Tiffany is an interaction designer at Google working on business messaging for the next billion users. She is also apart of the Asian Google Network, where she hosts events and volunteer opportunities to support the Asian community in the Bay Area. In her spare time, you can find her writing on Medium (@tiffanyeaton) and numerous design publications, such as Invision and Marvel.
“My team at work is mostly men. In meetings, I’m often one of the only women and it’s hard to speak up because someone else will talk over me, interrupt me, or simply ignore me. “Be more confident” and “speak up” only go so far. No matter how hard I’ve tried to do those things, it doesn’t change the fact that what I say vs. what a man says are taken differently. One day, I sought out my mentor and female co-workers to let them know how I was feeling, and I was surprised to learn everyone was experiencing, or had experienced, the same thing. It felt better knowing I wasn’t the only one.”
Chi Nguyen is a Real Estate Compliance Program Manager at Google and Founder of BeCause For Hope, a grassroot non-profit organization that focuses on promoting intellectual empowerment for low-income and minority students in Vietnam.
“I was born and raised in Vietnam and always wanted to give back to my motherland. The idea of volunteer mission came in 2009, when my sister and I decided to bring back donated clothes for orphans in Vietnam. The trip really opened our eyes and made us realize we could do a lot more to help less fortunate people in our homeland. $1 could go really far in Vietnam.
Fast forward 10 years later, my non-profit has completed nearly 100 projects ranging from providing libraries, playgrounds, and back-to-school supplies, to loaning bicycles and setting up computer labs. These projects have directly benefited over 25,000 students throughout different, remote regions of Vietnam.”
Erica is passionate about creating positive and impactful experiences for people. She’s a program manager who loves understanding issues affecting Asian and Asian American communities. She aims to live life true to herself, which means with a lot of humor!
“The first time that I talked to a therapist, I was vulnerable about what I was struggling with and when I got off the phone, my mind and soul felt so different. I left the call with renewed hope and Post-its full of tips on how to comfort and heal myself during the lows. I was really proud of myself for reaching out, especially considering the mental health stigma in the Asian community, where a lot of pressure is put on an individual to just “don’t be sad.” It was an experience that helped me improve my mental health and it also allowed me to serve as an example to others that you don’t have to pick yourself up alone.”
Brenna is a content strategist at Google Play and a traveler / adventurer the rest of the time. She loves scuba diving, backpacking and the outdoors and absolutely loves her two dogs, Mojo and Nacho.
“Coming from the Philippines, Google was sort of a legend I never thought I’d get into. I had a running joke with my boss back then that I was going to move to California and join Google, but I never thought it would actually happen. After months of looking for a job, and working for a company that didn’t treat me right, I got a call for a position as a contractor at Google. Then after 7 months at that position and 9 months in another, I got converted to a full-time employee. I was so proud of myself and couldn’t believe I’d actually done it!”
Alice is an Operations Program Manager on the Google Cloud for Startups team. Born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Alice moved to the Bay Area 14 years ago to study Human Biology at Stanford University. She then opted for startup life at Peek and Shop It To Me before joining Google 6.5 years ago.
“My dad was diagnosed with Stage 4 Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2015. While he was suffering through 6 months of intense chemotherapy at home in Ohio, I felt helpless in California. So I dedicated my 29th birthday to raising money for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society by hiking the Grand Canyon.
I had never done anything this strenuous before and trained for it for weeks, hiking all around the Bay Area and Yosemite’s Half Dome. With the support of my friends, I was able to raise over $12,000 in less than 2 weeks and became a Top Fundraiser that year. It was by far the best birthday present I’ve ever received.”
Mona leads a global business development & partnerships program at Waze/Google. She is an avid traveler, singer & the official Mandarin Chinese navigation voice for Waze.
“I grew up isolated and bullied as the only Asian kid in very conservative, all-white communities across the Midwest and East Coast. As an only child, I struggled with being the odd one out and did everything I could to fit in and hide my “Asianness”.
When I moved to Cupertino, California in 6th grade, I experienced reverse culture shock and suddenly felt too white. As a reaction, I immersed myself into Asian culture and went the other extreme. I eventually reached a point where I didn’t feel a sense of belonging with either culture; I was too “white” for Asia and too Asian for the US. Over time, I was able to overcome that feeling and learned to embrace my identity. I came to realize that I didn’t need to fit neatly into any one box or label, and that my bicultural identity was an feature, not a bug.”
Ethelia has an affinity for naps and tuna wraps. A designer primarily focused on the digital space, she’s a humble and conscientious learner aiming to imbue empathy and perspective through crafting helpful and meaningful experiences.
“Growing up, I was pretty introverted, and found solace in learning to code. I had a personal website running for the longest time, and it was my pride and joy because I was the only girl (in a class of five) who was taking computer science at a higher level in secondary school. Though it didn’t feel like it at the time, I was crushing stereotypes about the course in my culture. When it came time to apply to university, however, I had a change of heart. I wasn’t confident that computer science at a college level was what I wanted to do. I began to do some research and put together a last minute portfolio to apply for interactive design programmes instead.
Though my parents were supportive, they had their concerns. Design wasn’t seen to be a “good career” in the society that I grew up in, so they were worried about whether this path would be best for me. With that said, I was proud to be fighting for what I wanted, but I was also incredibly scared. What if they were right, and I was setting myself up for failure and disappointment? After I had been at university for about a year, one parent even said to me, “You’re so lucky that your parents let you study what you want, I was responsible and made my child go into econ.”
I worked my butt off in school, and fast forward to today, I’m proud of the opportunities that I’ve gotten, and the path that I’ve paved for myself. I’ve gained more confidence and self-esteem than I’ve ever had. While initially I was aiming to gain respect by “proving them all wrong”, I now try to do so by perfecting my craft and doing what I want to do really well.”