AAPI Leaders Roundtable: Entrepreneurship and Diversity

OnePiece Work
May 14, 2021
OnePiece Work

To honor this year’s Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Month, we asked some of our OnePiece Work community members and partners to share their unique experiences with us. 

Here’s what they had to say about their journey as AAPI in business and their advice for future leaders:

What unique challenges have you experienced as an AAPI in business?

Joyce Zhang Gray, CEO of Alariss Global

The term “bamboo ceiling” refers to the lack of AAPI representation in executive positions. According to this NY Times article, Asian Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. workforce, yet only 1.5 percent identify as Fortune 500 corporate officers. Ascend, a New York-based Asian American professional organization, found that only 1 in 285 Asian-American women in tech serve an executive role. 

There have been instances in which I felt that others underestimated me or were less likely to perceive that I was “leadership potential,” but I like to prove naysayers wrong. I find it galvanizing to break barriers and to overturn expectations. My lessons learned were that it is much more effective to focus on those who give me energy and who support me, rather than to be disillusioned by those who do not believe in me. And even if there are few people who look like me in executive positions, I find that it has been all the more effective to find a tribe of other AAPI leaders or those who support diverse leaders, and to be a trailblazer in my own right. 

Justin Wang, CEO and Co-Founder of LARQ

My first job out of college, I was laid off on the first day. During my exit interview, I somehow convinced the boss that I had the language skills needed to help the bank grow their APAC business. I ended up creating a job for myself, but my Mandarin skills were not exactly business ready. I was terrified going to every meeting; I was expected to be the cultural liaison! I spent every evening learning Chinese. I ended up doing well, and it helped get me ready for the hustle of entrepreneurship. 

Mayly Tao, Owner of DK's Donuts & Bakery and Donut Princess LA

Being an AAPI in business is sometimes an uphill battle based on the way I look. Some unique challenges that I have experienced include some elements of racism and the fetishization of being an Asian female. This occurs when I am at the shop and I encounter someone who will judge myself or my staff based on the way they look or their ability to speak English. My lesson around this is to have patience and to educate others. I have learned to speak up and voice my opinion, even though culturally it is considered disrespectful, both in Asian culture and food & hospitality. Using respect and grace, it is still possible to express yourself and to inform others, while exercising compassion for others who might not understand.

Being a young female when I took over the business, it was difficult to command respect amongst a male dominated industry. My lesson around this is to persevere and to focus more on action and to “prove myself” rather to let these things get to me. Dealing with these challenges as an AAPI leader are difficult, but having the right self-care and environment to open your perspective and to continue to persevere are essential.

Jessica Cheng, Director of Global Marketing at OnePiece Work

I started my marketing career at a cross-cultural advertising firm that received a small-scale campaign budget from big brands. While our campaign efforts were successful, I learned that only 5.2% of marketing spend was allocated to multicultural efforts, even though multicultural consumers make 40% of the U.S. population. Through the experience, I gained a deep understanding of running marketing campaigns that specifically cater to minority groups rather than to the general market.

What are your unique advantages as an AAPI leader?

Joyce Zhang Gray, CEO of Alariss Global

Asian Americans have a natural cultural competency that arises from growing up as a minority in the US and oftentimes navigating different world views. Asian Americans are often more aware of diversity as a result and more likely to develop positive attitudes towards cultural differences. In a business and entrepreneurial context, it has allowed me to see opportunities that others miss, for instance the phenomenon of reverse outsourcing, which is enabled by the economic rise of the emerging market economies, in particular Asia. I take pride in the fact that my diverse background has both enabled me to do more innovative work and to forge connections with stakeholders across different countries, cultures, and backgrounds. 

Justin Wang, CEO and Co-Founder of LARQ

Coming from an immigrant family, the values of entrepreneurship and hard work were instilled in me at a very early age. While I don’t think that drive is unique only to Asians, I am thankful to have had that as an influence in my life.

Mayly Tao
, Owner of DK's Donuts & Bakery and Donut Princess LA

My unique advantages as an AAPI leader is the basis of my company is built on the concept of family and loyalty. An obvious advantage is an extremely strong work ethic. My mom is the greatest example of the hardest worker I know. She came to this country as a refugee and built her business and identity here. As an AAPI leader, I have the advantage to share the stories of my ancestors and to demonstrate how it works in my business today. I also practice an immense amount of gratitude as a leader. I always think about what my parents sacrificed in order to give me the opportunities I have now, which continue to be the source of strength that I carry every day.

Jessica Cheng
, Director of Global Marketing at OnePiece Work

Looking back, my experience at the cross-cultural advertising firm laid a solid foundation for me to navigate the needs of the minority population and gain a broader view of the U.S. media landscape. We’re moving away from a uniform culture to become more multicultural. Now I use this knowledge to build a more authentic dialogue internally and to guide our team’s work.

What's your #OnePieceofAdvice for future AAPI entrepreneurs? 

Joyce Zhang Gray, CEO of Alariss Global

It is an honor and a privilege to be AAPI. Diverse, equitable, and inclusive organizations perform better and foster a culture of psychological trust amongst their teams. AAPI entrepreneurs can focus on the advantages of our differences, rather than being frustrated by aspects of our identity that might impede us. In my case, I am proud to serve as a bridge between two of the fastest-growing and most influential economic regions in the world — Asia and the United States. AAPI can effectively leverage our cultural competency and diverse backgrounds to facilitate business deals and other relationships that are mutually beneficial.

Justin Wang
, CEO and Co-Founder of LARQ

Be a sponge for help, knowledge, and experiences. You’d be surprised how many people are willing to help if you open yourself up to it.

Mayly Tao
, Owner of DK's Donuts & Bakery and Donut Princess LA

Seek mentorship so you don’t have to learn the hard lessons yourself. Every successful person has a mentor or a role model — donut be afraid to ask for help. Community is your backbone and your lifeline. 

Jessica Cheng
, Director of Global Marketing at OnePiece Work

Embrace your unique multicultural stories and experiences — be proud! Utilize your diverse connections as well. Once you step out of your comfort zone and ask for help, you’ll find that there are extensive resources out there to get you started. My personal favorite is the Asian Hustle Network.

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