Closing The Gap

'I wish I spoke up sooner': 12 Asian American leaders talk career, identity and representation in the U.S.

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Ellen Pao, former Reddit CEO; Debby Soo, OpenTable CEO; Eric Yuan, Zoom founder and CEO; Chieh Huang, Boxed CEO; Vicky Tsai, Tatcha founder and CEO
Photo credit: Ellen Pao, OpenTable, Zoom, Boxed, Tatcha; Photo Illustration: Elham Ataeiazar for CNBC Make It

As the fastest growing racial group in the United States, Asian Americans have had a significant impact on shaping America's culture. Despite their influence, they've lagged in receiving equal access for growth and opportunities in corporate America.

When looking at the overall workforce, Asian Americans make up 13% of working professionals in the U.S., but, as they move up the corporate ladder, they occupy just 6% of leadership roles.

This disconnect between the number of Asian Americans in the workforce and those promoted into management positions can largely be linked to the model minority myth, in which Asian Americans are assumed to be hardworking individuals who have easily made it to the highest levels of success. And while stats show that Asian Americans overall do have some of the highest levels of educational attainment and income in the U.S., not all Asian American ethnic groups fit into this category.

In fact, Asians are the most economically divided group in the U.S., with the gap between the bottom and the top nearly doubling between 1970 and 2016, according to Pew Research Center. But because of this model minority myth, Asian Americans are often left out of diversity and inclusion conversations and they are often dismissed from receiving the support that's needed when faced with discrimination and bias.

To celebrate and shed light on Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, CNBC Make It spoke to 12 AAPI leaders about how the model minority myth impacts them, the advice they have for the next generation of AAPI professionals and how the rising number of anti-Asian attacks over the past year has influenced them as leaders and parents.

You can scroll down or jump directly to the following sections by clicking on their names:

Marvin Chow: VP of Global Marketing, Google

Chieh Huang: Founder and CEO, Boxed

Bobby Kim: Co-founder, The Hundreds

Jenny Ming: Co-founder, Old Navy

Ellen Pao: Former CEO, Reddit

Debby Soo: CEO, OpenTable

Cynthia Sugiyama: SVP, HR Communications, Wells Fargo

Neeracha Taychakhoonavudh: EVP, Global Customer Success & Strategy, ‎Salesforce

Eric Toda: Global Head of Social Marketing, Facebook

Nick Tran: Head of Global Marketing, TikTok

Vicky Tsai: Founder and CEO, Tatcha

Eric Yuan: Founder and CEO, Zoom

Marvin Chow

VP of Global Marketing, Google

Marvin Chow, VP of Global Marketing, Google
Photo credit: Google; Photo Illustration: Elham Ataeiazar for CNBC Make It

How I'm raising my kids

As Asian American parents to two young daughters, my wife and I are fostering an environment of open conversation. No topic is off limits, but lately, we've had a lot of dialogue about equality and drawing parallels to fairness — a concept that kids inherently understand.

Whether it's teaching them about activists like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., or events like the Holocaust, connecting the dots to what's going on today is helpful for both processing current events and for inspiring a commitment to keep doing our part in building a kinder, more just world.

Challenging the status quo

It wasn't until much later in life that I thought deeply about my identity. That's when I started to notice and experience more profoundly the injustices around me.

It really pushed me to get off the sidelines and play a bigger role in driving equity and inclusion for all communities. Now I'm writing marketing briefs that are more insightful and inclusive. I'm having enlightening and honest conversations with friends and colleagues.

Chieh Huang

CEO and co-founder, Boxed

Chieh Huang, CEO and co-founder, Boxed
Photo credit: Boxed; Photo Illustration: Elham Ataeiazar for CNBC Make It

What it's like being an Asian American leader

Yes, it can be very stressful. Throughout my career, I've had people either insinuate or tell me directly that I don't look "professional" or like "a real CEO."

But those moments feed my drive, so being an Asian American leader has mostly been a liberating experience for me. I get to show the world every day that we are more than capable and that we do belong in the C-suite.

The exercise everyone should do

Make a Venn diagram between what you're good at, what you love to do — and what careers they can lead to. Like actually sit down and do this. If you're one of the lucky few who finds a job they look forward to every day, then work won't feel like work.

You'll also have more confidence. Confidence is often not the No. 1 lesson that first generation AAPI parents teach their kids, but it should be.

Bobby Kim

Co-founder, The Hundreds

Bobby Kim, Co-founder, The Hundreds
Photo credit: The Hundreds; Photo Illustration: Elham Ataeiazar for CNBC Make It

Your work is a statement of who you are

I'm sure my race has held me back and kept me out of certain conversations. But as co-founder of a streetwear brand, I've also been empowered by having a uniquely Asian American point of view on design.

Every day that I get to work in this space, I believe it's a political act, a statement, an assertion. It says that people who look like me belong here, just like anybody else. That we can excel and find happiness and success in pursuing our dreams.

Advice to young people

Stay in line. Stay in the fight. We need your face. We need to hear your voice. Think of the next generation. I would love to see more AAPI people in leadership positions.

Why are there so few today? The answer is complex — systemic discrimination, lack of representation, media depictions, power structures. But, for now, I think we can do a better job of using social media to highlight that Asian Americans do exist in leadership positions, wherever or in whatever form that may be.

Jenny Ming

Co-founder, Old Navy

Jenny Ming, Co-founder, Old Navy
Photo credit: Levi Strauss & Co.; Photo Illustration: Elham Ataeiazar for CNBC Make It

Don't be complacent

When I was younger, I constantly questioned my abilities and never felt like I was enough. So when I was asked to be president at Old Navy, I initially turned it down. I was content where I was. Why rock the boat?

But then I kept thinking about something that Mickey Drexler, my former boss, mentor and friend, told me when we first launched Old Navy: "Don't be afraid to do something uncomfortable — to be innovative and different. You might fail, but that's when you learn the most."

A year later, when I told him I was finally ready, he laughed and said, "What took you so long?" I think if I wasn't an Asian American woman, I wouldn't have questioned myself as much as I did, and it wouldn't have taken me so long to accept the position.

I learned so much from that role. You have to believe in and challenge yourself.

Ellen Pao

Former CEO, Reddit

Ellen Pao, Former CEO, Reddit
Photo credit: Ellen Pao; Photo Illustration: Elham Ataeiazar for CNBC Make It

What children need to learn today

We must invest more time into teaching children about our nation's history, our history as Asians in America and the biases and racism that have prevented our and others' progress. We need to put effort into teaching them about values and ethics.

My best money advice

Invest in experiences and interactions over possessions. You'll regret wasting money on inanimate objects or ego purchases, but you won't regret your friendships or family.

Also, remember who you are and help others who haven't been given the same opportunities. Understand the structure of power and how power works — especially racism and other biases — and try to rebalance inequities as much as you can.

Debby Soo

CEO, OpenTable

Debby Soo, CEO, OpenTable
Photo credit: OpenTable; Photo Illustration: Elham Ataeiazar for CNBC Make It

The challenges of being Asian in America

Where I struggle are those everyday, mundane moments in life — the unclenching of my stomach when my white husband walks into that New England restaurant with me, as if his presence justifies mine; the stares I get in the grocery store when I'm speaking Mandarin to my son; the "konichiwas" (a Japanese greeting) I hear walking down the street (my parents are from Taiwan).

In those moments, it doesn't matter where I went to school, or that I'm a CEO, or that I'm a productive citizen. In those moments, I feel like "the other," the nonmajority.  

Principles to help you get ahead

  • Adopt a learning mindset. Every experience, good or bad, is an opportunity to be better. Approach each task, no matter how big or small, with relish.
  • There are no wrong turns, especially early on in your career. I remember agonizing over decisions like which job to take, which product to support, or which business school to go to. Looking back, I realize that picking any of the options available to me at the time would have been the "right" choice.
  • Speak up. Ask for that promotion or project, even if you don't think you're the perfect candidate. It's OK to get a "no."  What matters is what you do after the "no," and how you transform it to a "yes." 

How I'm raising my 2½-year-old son

My husband and I are modeling the behavior we want to see in our son Stephan. Just as I push myself out of my comfort zone and advocate for myself, because that was what I saw my parents do, I want to provide him with enough structure and discipline to teach him that ethos.

I also want to give him the space and agency to figure out what his passions and what kind of person he is. The pressure that I grew up with served me well professionally, but it also took a toll on me. Figuring out the right balance is a challenge. I'm trying to take the best parts of my own upbringing — my cultural heritage, my native Chinese fluency, my work ethic, my thick skin — and pass that onto my son.

Cynthia Sugiyama 

SVP, Head of HR Communications, Wells Fargo

Cynthia Sugiyama, SVP, Head of HR Communications, Wells Fargo
Photo credit: Wells Fargo; Photo Illustration: Elham Ataeiazar for CNBC Make It

Creating a diverse leadership team

Asian Americans are often stereotyped as the "model minority," which unfortunately put us in a box where we are generally viewed as hardworking, dedicated and intelligent, but not necessarily assertive, bold or leadership material.

In order to foster more AAPI leadership talent, there must be visible, committed support from management. Tone at the top matters, but actions matter even more. Wells Fargo, for example, is conducting diversity-focused talent reviews and implementing sponsorship programs to help promote underrepresented groups, and we're placing accountability on leaders to intentionally focus on improving diverse representation at more senior levels of the company.

Neeracha Taychakhoonavudh

EVP, Global Customer Success & Strategy, ‎Salesforce

Neeracha Taychakhoonavudh, EVP, Global Customer Success & Strategy, ‎Salesforce
Photo credit: Salesforce; Photo Illustration: Elham Ataeiazar for CNBC Make It

What I wish I knew when I was younger

One of my first managers told me, "Do what you say you're going to do, and if you need help, ask for it." I always thought that was such an obvious piece of advice, but as I've gained more experience, I've come to understand that not being too proud to ask for help is incredibly important — and an often underrated quality for success.

I would also tell my younger self that not every decision is irrevocable, that there will be many more opportunities to come. When I was pregnant with my younger daughter, I made a choice to not take on a new role, and fretted about that decision for the next six months. But after I came back from leave, I got another chance and took it.

My best parenting advice

It's a delicate balance as a parent, between shielding your children and preparing them for the real world. It's not a single long conversation — it's hundreds of micro-conversations in the right moments, reflecting what's going on in the world.

This was the case with my two daughters for a myriad of sensitive topics. Usually we would talk in the car while driving, both of us looking forward, making no eye contact. Suddenly a question would come out of the blue. And after some nodding and silence, another follow-up question. It was almost like they were processing in the background. So I'd encourage parents to be patient and ready for when their kids are ready to talk.

Eric Toda

Global Head of Social Marketing, Facebook

Eric Toda, Global Head of Social Marketing, Facebook
Photo credit: Nate Fong; Photo Illustration: Elham Ataeiazar for CNBC Make It

What I want younger generations to know

I wish I had spoken up sooner for those who look like me and who are in my community. It never should have taken me a decade to do what's right.

Learn as much as you can during this cultural awakening. A window is opening up for you to see so many people who look like you ascend to levels of influence, power and success. That will show you anything is possible, that there is no set route, no set profession, no set career. Find what makes you the happiest, and fight like hell for it.

Parents: It's OK if you're kids are bad at science and math

Encourage them to follow what they're good at, and not what will meet your standards of success. You never know what the world will look like in five, 10 or 20 years.

When I was growing up, the internet didn't exist, yet my entire career has been at some of the most iconic internet companies and brands. Had I tried to meet some of the expectations my parents set for me while growing up, I may not have had such an exciting, fulfilling and impactful career.

Nick Tran

Head of Global Marketing, TikTok

Nick Tran, Head of Global Marketing, TikTok
Photo credit: TikTok; Photo Illustration: Elham Ataeiazar for CNBC Make It

My first marketing role

I was an intern working in social media at Taco Bell, and the head of brand marketing told me that my job was to "make us cool ... and don't get us sued."

I ran with that mission and never looked back. Nine years later, I'm leading global marketing at TikTok, which is arguably the hottest brand in the world.

Find your tribe and cultivate those relationships

I was always under the impression that there weren't many AAPI people in my field — and I was wrong. I was lucky to meet Bobby Kim of The Hundreds, Jen Rubio, who founded Away, and Musa Tariq from GoFundMe. We were all young and just starting out in our careers.

I also stayed close with my cohort at Taco Bell. We have a text chain that has lasted to this day, and each of us have gone on to become executives at big companies like Uber, Chipotle, Amazon and Carter's.

Vicky Tsai

Founder and CEO, Tatcha

Vicky Tsai, Founder and CEO, Tatcha
Photo credit: Tatcha; Photo Illustration: Elham Ataeiazar for CNBC Make It

'Perception is reality'

I love this quote. Carla Harris, one of the first African American women to break into the executive leadership ranks on Wall Street, shared it with my intern class in 1999.

Her point was that over-delivering and outperforming your peers is not enough when you come from an underrepresented community. Your results alone are not enough because implicit bias shapes perceptions, and those perceptions shape your professional reality.

You have to be aware of misperceptions and take an active role in changing them in order to have your success match your talents and work.

Mistakenly playing into the model minority myth

I dutifully played the role of the model minority professional from ages 21 to 41. Every part of my body was touched when I was a trader on Wall Street. I never complained. I received reviews that were not commensurate with my performance. I never complained.

When I resigned to start my own company, I led my company to breakthrough performance but was still told I wasn't a real leader, so stepped aside for a new leadership team.

I continued to smile and stay quiet until the day that I couldn't anymore, because I saw my employees suffering. I spoke up, and within weeks, I saw that the rules of engagement had never been clearer.

On the lack of Asian American leaders

It's a confluence of factors — including historical racism, discrimination, stereotypes and cultural misconceptions faced daily by AAPI people, which have only been exacerbated with Covid-19.

Asian Americans are often left out of DEI initiatives or statistics. Discriminatory microaggressions that we face in our day-to-day working interactions aren't registered as "racist" because they're not overt, consciously done, or because we don't call attention to them.

And while there are many ways to address it from the individual company level (e.g., unconscious bias training, educational resources, reframing what leadership looks and acts like), the only way to change this is for the entire community to start speaking up and having our stories be heard.

Eric Yuan

Founder and CEO, Zoom

Photo credit: Zoom; Photo Illustration: Elham Ataeiazar for CNBC Make It

The best kind of happiness

The advice I give everyone is that you should figure out what you're passionate about, then ask yourself: "How can I use that to do something for other people?" The most sustainable happiness comes from making others happy. If you love what you do and focus on delivering joy to other people, you will never feel miserable in your job.

If I could go back 15 years ...

I would have started Zoom earlier. I spent too long compromising my vision. If you see a way to do something better, if you see a need that is not being met, do it sooner rather than later.

*These interviews have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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How the model minority myth keeps Asian Americans out of management