Living in a predominantly caucasian state like Minnesota, it’s easy to forget that Asian Americans are a significant and fast growing part of the US population.
The word “Asian” is a very broad term that encapsulates dozens of countries with dramatically different cultures. In order to survive, early Asian immigrants created siloed communities with the same language and culture as their home country. But as a new generation of Asian Americans grew up in the US, it began to find its own unique voice. That voice stemmed from Asians struggling to fit into American culture while understanding and appreciating the culture from which they came.
In many ways, we are witnessing the awakening of the Asian American population. A group that has not been historically represented in politics, the C-Suite or entertainment is now becoming a dominant force in every industry. From Andrew Yang running for President to Crazy Rich Asians taking home box office gold, this is a golden age for Asian Americans and we wanted to see with our own eyes what the future of Asian American professionals looks like.
My executive team member Steve and I were selected by our chapter to represent the National Association of Asian American Professionals (NAAAP) of Minnesota at the National Leadership Academy (NLA) hosted at the United States Tennis Association (USTA) National Campus in Orlando. To be honest, we went in with relatively low expectations. Partly because we didn’t know what to expect. But mostly because Asian leadership conference conjures up an image of overly professional Asian people wearing ill-fitting suits and playing the game of “who can get the most business cards.”
What really surprised us about the weekend was the diversity of Asian cultures represented and the caliber of people who we met at the events. Nearly every East, South and South Eastern Asian country was represented, and attendees ranged from the Heads of Diversity and Inclusion at the largest corporations in the world to young entrepreneurs shaping their local ecosystems.
We could write a novel about all the incredible programming, but here are 3 important lessons we learned:
Don’t hide behind your diversity metrics. During the board panel, Michael Gonzalez former Head of D&I at Hallmark discussed how it’s easy to say that your company has hired X% of this group, or Y% of that group. What you should really be talking about is the positive disruption that is actually happening in your workplace. You need to drive home the fact that diversity and inclusion is the right business thing to do. You also need to boldly approach the top hundred people in senior leadership and have them be the drivers of change. Most importantly, you need to ask if your hiring managers just talking about D&I and then passing the responsibility off to HR, or if they are actually taking the time to understand systemic workplace issues?
Don’t focus on climbing the corporate ladder. Donald Fan, Senior Director in the Global Office of Culture, Diversity & Inclusion at Walmart, talked about how you should focus on building ladders for others. Instead of focusing on how you can build yourself up within an organization, figure out how you can add value to others and make the people around you better. That in turn will make you better and create a support network that will help you learn and grow. He even gave us a matrix on mentors/sponsors, inclusion, cultural and inclusion indices.
Build real relationships with real people. Steve and I were charged with hosting a team building activity and we decided that we wanted to make it more personal than your typical networking event. We had everyone break into teams, answer a worksheet about themselves, and then spend 15 minutes learning as much as possible about their group members. Teams were then put into a Quiz Bowl competition where members were randomly selected to answer questions about each other in front of everyone. There was a palpable energy in the room and it got everyone engaged to learn more about each other. To our surprise, numerous chapters contacted us to let us know they were bringing this team building activity back to their respective states/chapters.
We want to say a special thank you to David Tran and Jane Nguyen, a couple from NAAAP Orlando (originally from Oklahoma) who took it upon themselves to make sure we experienced everything the city had to offer. They drove us to and from the hotel, took us to their favorite Vietnamese restaurants, and invited us to stay at their home anytime we visit again. For anyone who knows anything about Minnesota Nice, you’d appreciate how something like this rarely happens.
We feel incredibly blessed to have been part of the NLA conference. We couldn’t be more excited to watch as this movement transcends state (and country s/o NAAAP Toronto) lines and becomes part of culture.
Originally published April 8, 2019