Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month: reflections on Asian experiences in the tech space

Fastly is committed to being an inclusive workplace — and we realize that our inclusion and diversity mission is a shared responsibility amongst all employees. With this in mind, our inclusion and diversity team has built the foundation for company-wide inclusion efforts by developing learning events, an inclusion council, and employee resource groups, including Fastly Asians Coming Together (FACT).

As part of May’s Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, FACT hosted a career panel of Asian leaders from tech organizations that included:

  • Grace Dolan, Vice President, Marketing at Samsung

  • Jully Kim, Senior Director, Engineering Practices and Enablement at Zendesk

  • Saurabh Sharma, Senior Director at Google

  • Rajib Rashid, Vice President, Product Management at Fastly

  • Kimmie Nguyen, Vice President, Product Growth & Strategy at Fastly (Moderator)

This group reflected on ways that their varied Asian cultural backgrounds impacted their career journeys and ascent into leadership roles. As part of our efforts to build a more inclusive community, we wanted to share some key learnings and thoughts from that panel. 

The myth of the “model minority”

Asian Americans face barriers to professional advancement due to historical racism and pervasive stereotypes. The “model minority” myth — which suggests that AAPI employees are universally smart, hardworking, and passive — is problematic because it obfuscates the very real barriers to success that Asians face in their careers. 

The myth might seem superficially flattering, but these generalizations actually cause harm by perpetuating racial stereotypes, ignoring individual struggles, and reducing a wide range of Asian communities into a monolith. And at the same time, the model is weaponized against other races in the U.S., held up as an example for other minorities to aspire to.

Asians are not a monolith; AAPI heritage represents over 45 nationalities, many more ethnic groups, and billions of individuals that make up 60% of the world population, according to Diversity, Inc

Asians are underrepresented in corporate leadership, but are seeing slow improvement in tech

The metaphor “bamboo ceiling,” derivative of “glass ceiling,” encapsulates the individual, cultural, and corporate factors that can impede career progression for Asians. If you compare Asian representation at the individual contributor level versus the executive level, there’s a stark contrast. 

Studies show that Asian Americans:

For Asian women, c-suite representation is even less prevalent. A study focusing on the tech industry found that only 1 in 285 Asian female professionals are executives; in contrast, one in 87 white male professionals are executives.

Over the past 10 years, panelists said they’d observed a tech industry trend toward increased inclusiveness in the c-suite. More leaders are acknowledging the lack of leadership diversity and have changed their processes to address systemic exclusion. Still, AAPI underrepresentation is ever-present and requires sustained top-down support to combat. 

Cultural upbringing can work against career success for AAPI professionals 

In U.S. workplaces, values like assertiveness, and having a commanding presence and an extroverted personality are valued when it comes to leadership potential. However, Asian cultural expectations for workplace conduct are often at odds with what’s considered appropriate, or even expected, for Western career success. For example, the speakers shared expectations from their Asian American parents:

  • “Be quiet and don’t state your opinions.”

  • “Don’t pursue leadership positions; being in charge causes undue stress and makes you culpable for poor decisions.”

  • “It’s rude to ask for a promotion or raise.”

  • “There will be negative consequences for advocating for yourself, including being fired.”

  • “If you focus on doing your work, you’ll be recognized.” 

  • “Be happy and grateful with where you are in your career.” 

Your Asian colleagues may be devoting significant effort toward ignoring a hardwired cultural upbringing and combating preconceived notions. This can lead to Asian employees being seen as “doers not leaders,” Saurabh told us.

“Early in my career, I was so scared to talk because I had to make sure I sounded smart. I realized, if I’m thinking it, there’s probably someone else thinking it. So I just started talking and that was a really hard leap for me,” Grace explained. After taking that difficult leap, she discovered there’s value in validating other people’s talk tracks and perpetuating the circle of affirmation.

These types of cultural traits, like quietness and lack of self-promotion, can also be prohibitive in building a network, which is critical as you advance your career. Many leadership roles are filled through personal referrals rather than outside applicants. 

“When networking is so critically important to driving success in your career, but everything about how you were raised goes against that and there are workplace repercussions for behaving outside of those norms, that can work against you,” Grace explained. “There’s a natural overconfidence bias around people that are like you. ‘I think this person will be easy to work with because we are similar,’ and ‘I think this person will do a great job because they have the same pedigree as me.’” 

“You might be the most qualified person,” Rajib added, “but if you aren’t in the mindshare of the collective network, you may not be considered.”  

How Asian leaders can cultivate career success

Lack of AAPI representation in leadership has a cyclical impact. Without Asian leaders who have carved out a career path, Asian employees have less access to the role models, mentors, and sponsors that can be critical to upward trajectory. This means Asian employees must find ways to advocate for themselves. Our panel shared an outstanding playbook of tips:

  • Gain influence within your organization: “It's not just doing your job and hoping you’ll get recognized,” Saurabh said. “It’s actively volunteering to take on roles and stretch responsibilities, and voicing your opinions.” 

  • Build your professional brand: “I think there’s a lot of benefit in thinking about what your brand is, because if you don’t create it and you don’t say anything, other people — based on their own biases and assumptions — will create it for you,” Jully told us.  

  • Allow your voice to be heard: Grace explains, “as business leaders today, the expectations are just really different. It’s no longer about being a functional performer and hitting your numbers — those are table stakes. Companies now are looking for thought leaders, brave leaders, people leaders. Having your point of view out there will make a [promotion] decision[s] a lot easier.” 

  • Seek out mentors: "Look for someone you look up to and who has accomplished the things you would like to accomplish,” suggests Rajib. “Have a conversation and tell them you’re curious about their trajectory, then see if there’s natural synergy; it doesn’t have to be a formal relationship.”

Although these tips were geared toward AAPI tech workers, they’re also a good sampling of the experiences Asian Americans go through in the workplace and can serve as a reminder to foster an inclusive environment where diversity of opinions — and work and communication styles — are not only tolerated but are actively encouraged.

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