Monthly Archives: June 2014

Seven Things NOT to Say to Asian Americans

I am contributor to this article but I am removing the name of my company from it.

Written by Stacy Straczynski for DiversityInc

Confronting subconscious biases and stereotypes about race is a frequent occurrence for many professionals in the workplace—in particular, those from traditionally underrepresented groups. While many comments and questions are raised merely out of curiosity or ignorance, it doesn’t lessen the offense.

“Stereotypes make people feel like they don’t belong, like they’re an outsider looking in,” according to Linda Akutagawa, a Japanese-American and CEO and President of Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP). “It’s not necessarily the phrases or comments said, but the insinuations and how things were said.”
What can your organization do to improve cultural competence?

According to Pi’ilani, a Filipino-American and National Manager of Diversity and Inclusion for some company, everyone has a choice of how he or she addresses negative comments. “In a case where there is a personal relationship and a certain degree of trust, I encourage people to have a private conversation to explain the negative impact,” she says.

Educating employees and exposing them to diversity is “critical to addressing comments born of ignorance,” says Dr. Rohini Anand, Senior Vice President and Global Chief Diversity Officer of Sodexo, who is Indian-American. “These impact how Asians are represented in the workplace.”

7 Things NOT to Say to Asian-Americans
1. “You speak English well. Where did you learn it?”
Typically meant as a compliment, this is one comment that really “pushes my buttons,” says Anand. “Just because a person has an accent—and possible appearance—that’s different than the mainstream” results in the assumption that a person can’t communicate.

2. “You need to improve your communication skills.”
Akutagawa does note that with globalization, there are increasing numbers of professionals who speak English with accents. And this can become an issue during performance reviews: Many times, Asian employees are simply told they need to improve their communication skills but are not given any elaboration on what that means.

“No one wants to come straight out and address the accent,” Akutagawa says. “It’s a two-way street: The manager has to think about what they’re doing to listen fully and be present in conversations.”

3. “Asians are not discriminated against. All of my doctors are Asian, and the Asian kids in school are the ones getting top honors. It’s the white kids who are at a disadvantage.”
Even positive stereotypes are damaging: The myth that all Asians want a career in medicine, math and science is limiting. Additionally, you should never assume that an Asian employee is the IT person.

4. “Asians are good workers but seldom want to become leaders.”
There’s a strong stereotype that while Asians are good individual performers, they are not leadership material—and that’s OK with them, according to Akutagawa. As a result, she says, there is an unconscious bias that prevents Asians from being considered for more senior-level positions.

For example, Pi’ilani recalls an anecdote someone shared with her: “After voicing her opinion in a meeting, my colleague’s male manager said to her, ‘You’re not like my Asian wife. You speak up.’ It is hard to forget a story like that.”

Anand says the issue lies in a lack of cultural competence. Many Asian-Americans with strong non-Western cultural roots might have a quiet leadership style, more behind-the-scenes than what is considered mainstream. The solution? Draw attention to a variety of successful leaders and management styles.

5. “Can you recommend a good [Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, sushi, etc.] restaurant?” Or “Chinese food is cat meat.”
Don’t ask for dining recommendations out of context or assume an Asian has this information on hand.

6. “Where are you from?” “No, where are you really from?”

Aside from the fact that the question already implies that an Asian is an outsider, repeating it is even more offensive. Akutagawa says, “I get the question only every so often, but it’s frequent enough to remind me that stereotypes are there.”
“How often do you go home?” also should be avoided. Pi’ilani says her typical response is: “I am from the Monterey Bay Area. I can drive there in about five hours,” even though she knows this isn’t what the person meant.

7. “Asians are overrepresented at senior and C-suite levels.”
Despite a variety of data, including DiversityInc Top 50 data, that consistently prove otherwise, this is a comment Akutagawa heard a speaker say at a recent conference. “It was so blissfully thrown out. My thought was, ‘We have a few high-profile CEOs and all of a sudden we’re overrepresented?’ Maybe when people see the one, they feel like they’re being overrun.”

The actual numbers show that Asians, much like other underrepresented groups, are lacking representation in upper management: DiversityInc Top 50 CEOs are 8 percent Asian, and Fortune 500 CEOs are only 1.8 percent Asian.

5 Ways to Prevent Asian Stereotypes
Don’t perpetuate stereotypes—even positive ones.

Make opportunities available outside the stereotypical career track.

Assign cross-cultural mentors and offer stretch assignments.

Elevate the mission of resource groups beyond sharing cultural practices and celebrating Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month.

Draw attention to successful Asian leaders and role models.

More Things Not to Say
Any derogatory term

“You don’t act very Asian.”

“What’s your name again?

“You all look alike.”

“What kind of Asian are you?”

“Are you a bad driver?”

“Can you speak your language?”

“Were you a fan of Jeremy Lin?”

“Why do you only hang out with Asians?”

Leadership – Do our values change over time?

In 2003, I found myself invited to apply for a Fellowship Program with an organization called Asian Pacific American Women’s Leadership Institute (APAWLI).  The mission of APAWLI was to develop Asian American and Pacific Islander women for leadership roles in the United States. Founded in 1996, APAWLI’s signature Fellowship Program selected a group of outstanding women to take the three-week leadership training course which culminated in each individual developing a leadership impact project that would positively change the lives of at least 25 people.

The interview process consisted of written essays, collecting multiple letters of recommendation, and face-to-face interviews with APAWLI board members.  The experience helped me examine my hopes for the future and my career goals.  It also forced me to ask for help, something that I find to be a challenge, but I needed letters of recommendation from people outside of my work team.  When I read the letters that these well-respected leaders in business and the community wrote, I kept looking around and wondering if they were actually talking about ME.  It is very true that we do not see ourselves the way others do and being Asian, humility gets in the way of honest self-assessments.

Unfortunately, the APAWLI ran into budgetary challenges in 2003 and had to place the Fellowship Program on hold for a few years.  I found my application and decided it might be fun to read through it.  Before I started, I asked myself if our core values change through the years.  What I am about to share in this DiversityNerd posting was written over ten years ago:  before I earned my promotions at work, before I almost died from a ruptured hemorrhagic ovarian cyst, and before I developed my voice in Diversity and Inclusion.  How much have I grown since then?

APAWLI is a part of The Center for Asian Pacific American Women (The Center) is a national, non-profit, non-advocacy organization dedicated to enhancing and enriching leadership skills for Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Island (AANHPI) leaders.

Taken from their website:

“Our mission is to address the challenges facing us and to nurture trusteeship within our communities by expanding leadership capacity, fostering awareness of AANHPI issues, creating a supportive network of AANHPI leaders, and strengthening community.” 

2003  Asian Pacific American Women’s Leadership Institute
DiversityNerd’s Fellowship Application

Current Job Responsibilities

The goals of the Inclusion Strategy group are to:

  • Create lasting corporate cultural change that impacts our company’s future business success by attracting, retaining and developing associates and customers.
  • Ensure that Human Resource systems, processes and policies are inclusive of every individual and leverage the diversity that each associate brings to the workplace.
  • Build strategic partnerships across the organization so accountability and ownership is internal to each business unit.

    Major accomplishments:

  1. Developed a three-part process for creating lasting change, considered the benchmark diversity and inclusion strategy for my company.
  2. Established Business Partnering Groups (affinity groups).  My proposal and policy was also implemented at our manufacturing affiliate in the Midwest.
  3. Education of Officers on Diversity and Inclusion Strategy.

Career Goals

In five years, I would like to be managing a larger staff at my company and completing a post-graduate program.  The APAWLI Fellowship would provide me development and growth to achieve both of those goals.  First, I would obtain invaluable skills in becoming a stronger leader.  I would like to find my voice in the greater society, especially to aid the Pilipino community.  I have always felt like there were no Pilipina American role models for me in the private sector, I would like to be there for the younger Asian American and Pacific Islander generation.  Secondly, building my personal network with a group of high performing, community focused, Asian American and Pacific Islander will provide a challenge to raise the bar on my personal and professional goals.  There are so few Asian American or Pacific Islander people in executive positions in my company that I often feel alone.  Finally, although my skills are strong enough for me to thrive in my current position, a graduate or post-graduate degree will afford me a sense of accomplishment and confidence in my professional abilities.  If I am not selected for the APAWLI Fellowship, I will pursue other professional development opportunities.

Talents based on the Gallup Organization’s Strenths Finder:


This talent affords me the ability to see the larger picture.  In  addition, I always work to anticipate potential roadblocks and design strategies to address them.

My greatest joy is in taking the best and making it better.  If I am working with an average performing individual or organization,
making them good is not as rewarding as taking a strong achiever to the highest level of performance possible.

This strength allows me to inspire others.  I have been likened to a “Pied Piper” in my organization.

I am always looking to the future and stay excited about the possibilities.  Change is an exciting opportunity to make the world or the organization a better place for everyone.

This strength allows me to adjust my responsibilities and workload to achieve my objectives.  In addition, I have a talent for finding 
alternative ways of approaching challenges.

Areas for My Own Improvement
I have yet to establish myself as a force in the Pilipino American community.  Although my parents were very involved in the local Pilipino Community Centers, it was never clear to me how the organization was reaching out beyond the center and into the larger community.  Now that I am an adult and a single parent, I see that I have the power and responsibility to make an impact on my community, leaving it up to others does not equal commitment and progress.  However, I have to build my network of Pilipino colleagues in order to find opportunities to impact my community.
Another area of improvement is in my self-confidence.  It has been a struggle to work as an internal change agent in my workplace.  I liken my job to banging my head against the wall to create change.  If I achieve a little success, wall cracks, I rest and start banging away again.  As an individual contributor with no direct reports, sitting in front of high-level executives and insisting that they listen to my ideas and recommendations has never been an easy road.  Many individuals make it a point to equate competence with a job title.  Despite my success at work, there are times when I allow my lack of executive status hold me back.  Perhaps with more experience and maturity, this will dissipate.

Aspirations for the future
In the future, I would like to be working in a community-focused non-profit organization or as independent consultant where I can impact many different individuals or companies.  The best way to break stereotypes is to be out in the world, living the life one has always dreamed about.  I have always wanted to accomplish what others say is impossible.  My motivation comes from a bit of a rebellious streak, the challenge of achieving an elusive goal.  My power is felt by extending my knowledge and skills to other individuals and allowing them to grow to become their full and complete self.  To me, there is more reward in seeing others thrive than in receiving a larger paycheck.

 I cannot honestly say that organizational development/diversity and inclusion was ever in my career path plan.  Being able to earn a living by helping individuals and organizations build more inclusive work environments by leveraging their diversity cannot be labeled a “job” for me.  I feel so blessed to have this kind of impact on the world at a young age.

I am successful in my current role and I receive so much gratification from this work.  I would like to continue to impact organizations on all three levels:  systemic, group and individual.  The ultimate goal is higher performance, which only comes about when people are feeling valued, supported and respected for their individuality.

My role models for leadership are all in my family.  First of all, my paternal grandmother exemplified pride and strength in everything she did.  During World War II, as a young mother of four children, my grandmother found herself widowed.  A transplant from Manila, she lived in a province with my paternal grandfather.  Her training and education as a nurse afforded her great respect and her home was a haven for people and soldiers victimized by the war.  Despite having no medical supplies, Filipina did her best to comfort those who were suffering and cared for her four young children as best she could.

After the war ended, Filipina made the decision to leave her four children in the care of her sister and brother in law.  For many years, my grandmother corresponded with her children via hand-written letters as she sought out the “American Dream” in California.  She married a Pilipino immigrant, my dear grandfather who was willing to raise her four children, sight unseen, as his own, along with his son from another relationship AND have three more children together.  They saved enough money to bring her four children to the United States and created the Pilipino Brady Bunch.  Their family was filled with love and it was a hybrid of first and second generation immigrants under one roof.  Brothers, sisters, step-brothers and step-sisters, it never mattered, they were all family.  This extended to their children as well.  My cousins are like my own siblings, I could never fathom when my friends would say that they hated their cousins.

This relationship was the foundation for my core values – work hard, service, integrity, honesty and most of all, family first.  My grandmother showed incredible bravery while my grandfather exemplified unconditional love.  These clear messages shaped my perspective on the world.  I strive to find the win-win outcome.  I do not believe that anyone has to be a loser, when you extend the flame of your candle to another, there is always more light in the end.  Your candle loses nothing by sharing.  The light is actually doubled, not diminished in any way.  That is how I want to lead.  I believe very strongly in team first, if my team is successful, I am successful.  To me, a great leader follows her heart as strongly as her head.

Most significant learning experience
I can think of no other experience that has impacted me as strongly as becoming a mother, specifically, a single mother.  The father of my child was not ready for marriage or fatherhood and I knew that it would be my sole responsibility to raise my daughter.  My lifestyle changed the minute I discovered I was pregnant.  During my pregnancy, I became aware of how trivial my “stress” seemed.   I immediately lost 175 pounds by kicking him out of my house after our daughter was born.  Then, I grew up.
Becoming a mother taught me how to prioritize my life.  My daughter, her safety and happiness were the only things that mattered.  I made a conscious decision to leave the demanding field of advertising and find work closer to my home.  Being alone never scared me, I developed a sense of power and control by being forced into single motherhood.  I became keenly aware of my independence and my strength.  This reminded me of my grandmother, leaving her home and family in order to seek out a better life for her children.  If she could travel across the world, surely I could become a leader in a corporate environment to support my family of two.

Leadership – What kind of leader am I?
At this point in my career, I lead purely by instinct and heart.  Thus far, both have served me well.  My direct reports have told me that I made them feel empowered and protected to take risks, learn and grow.  I do my best to challenge them to take on stretch assignments and to never settle for less than their best performance.

When I think about the kind of leader I want to become, I have opportunities to develop new skills.  While I do believe that I have the talent to set a vision, I am very clear that my business insight is not as sophisticated as many high-level leaders in corporate America.  Because of this, I seek out partnerships with leaders who are very different from me in terms of work experience and education.  Actually, I do not have to look very far to find either.  Many leaders who I admire seem to have all the answers.  I would like to have a network of colleagues who can give me the answers that I need.

The APAWLI Fellowship and the organization as a whole will grant me empowerment as a professional Asian American woman.  Having the opportunity to apply for this Fellowship has already given me more self-confidence in my abilities as a leader.  The application process alone has taught me to ask when I need support and to lead when others have no direction.  I truly believe that the best way to improve is to surround oneself with greatness.  This can only raise the bar on expectations of one’s individual performance and achievements.  As I reviewed the list of past alumni and considered the incredible impact projects that each one developed, I felt my heart swell with pride.  I was proud of my Asian American and Pacific Islander sisters reaching out, proving our strength and exerting power.  In the end, I realized that I own and hold that same power, it just needs to be unleashed.  I would be so very humbled and honored to be associated with APAWLI, in any capacity.

The most difficult leadership challenge I have faced is being young in a hierarchical company like the one where I work. Young in age, work experience and tenure means that it takes four times longer for me to build credibility in the eyes of key decision makers in the company.  However, despite this obstacle, I have achieved my goals to date at work.  In fact, I have also developed new skills, which I find to be extremely important as a leader:  patience and perseverance.  As long as one keeps her eye on the long-term strategy, one can stay focused on the big picture and the goal.  Patience and perseverance have been critical to my success.

Five key values
My five key values exemplify a common theme, service – making the world a better place.  Based on a self-assessment tool used during a leadership development course I attended, my five key values are:  Authenticity, Tradition, Vision, Advocacy and Consistency.  They are defined as:

  • Authenticity:  Being true to oneself
  • Tradition:  Honoring customs and practices of historical significance
  • Vision:  Creating compelling pictures of the future
  • Advocacy:  Passionately supporting an issue
  • Consistency:  Remaining faithful to the same principles and practices

As I consider how these values developed, two things are clear.  One, my family upbringing has built this foundation for me.  And secondly, my values compliment and support one another in both my personal and professional life.

First of all, I recall the sacrifice that my grandparents made to provide new opportunities for my parents.  I have already discussed my paternal grandmother’s journey as a young widow across the ocean on her quest for the American Dream.  Leaving her children in the Philippines as she embarked to an unknown country, exemplifies a strategic and futuristic mindset, which I model in my life.  In addition, my maternal grandfather survived the “Bataan Death March” as a Philippine Scout during World War II.  He persevered and became an officer the U.S. Army, a part of the military pull of talent out of the Philippines in the 1950s.  Knowing this recent yet rich history is a part of my family.  I appreciate and respect the sacrifice.  There is no way I can ignore that tradition and it drives me to excel in service.

 As I apply these values to my career, it is clear that I have a purpose in this world.  I own my values with pride.  In my mind, I have been given the opportunity to refine my five key values and apply them on a daily basis.  Building a more inclusive work environment within a successful company such as mine, challenges me to raise the bar on performance, both my own and the company’s.  Respecting tradition is an integral part of creating culture change, particularly in a Japanese owned enterprise.  I must understand the heritage that built this company in order to be most effective in impacting change. I am driven by hope for the future, advocacy for the under-represented voice and remain true to my integrity and authenticity.

For example, one manager to whom I have been providing education, leadership and support gave me a small gift from Hawai’i as a token of appreciation.  She was on vacation and found a bookmark with a quote:  “Po’okela (Excellence) Ahuwale ka po’okela i kau hana ia ha’i…It is through the way you serve others that your greatness will be felt.”  The fact that one of my customers/colleagues sees me in this light re-affirmed my values.  She said that she immediate thought of me when she saw the bookmark.  I keep it nearby every day at work.  The monetary rewards and material recognition pale in comparison to receiving this kind of feedback from a fellow change agent in my company.  I am motivated to create change for the greater good.  I always strive to find the win-win alternative, utilizing my values of service to others.



Looking back, I see the core of who I am has not changed.  I have definitely matured and experienced a lot of living over the last 10 or so years.  Almost dying and raising a teenager will do that to you.  (Those two things are not directly related.)  My self-confidence has grown and I have an extremely strong sense of who I am and what I stand for in this world.  Reading this application has inspired me to think about my plan for the next ten years of my life and in my career.  More to come…