Opinion: The fight against Asian discrimination must extend to C-suites and boardrooms, too

Perspectives Mei Xu

But now, this national reckoning must extend to our businesses, where Asian exclusion from leadership represents a civil rights problem that damages the continued dynamism of American commerce. When companies prevent Asian Americans from ascending the corporate ladder, they deprive their organizations of Asian-American talents, experiences and contacts, which makes them less competitive. For our continued commercial strength and power, we must end this ostracization and leverage Asian-American talents in our C-suites and boardrooms.

It is of little surprise that over my 26 years as an Asian-American entrepreneur, I have often experienced exclusion and marginalization in our business communities. The first inkling was during my first job in 1993 in New York City — working for $19,000 a year at a medical device company. While I thought I would climb the corporate ranks of this firm, leveraging my experience and contacts at the World Bank and across Asia to power the company’s growth into new markets, my supervisor inundated me with secretarial work, leaving me exhausted, discouraged and unable to advance.

My only hope of shattering the “bamboo ceiling” was to become an entrepreneur. My husband and I quit our jobs, opened a company called Chesapeake Bay Candle, and began learning the complexities of national big-box retail, global supply chains and the consumer product and wellness industries. Our products struck a chord in the market, and after only a few years’ time, we ran a multi-million-dollar business and employed hundreds of people here in the United States and around the world.

But signs of my marginality still lingered. Venture capitalists refused to even hear my finance pitches, preferring male-led companies. I found that, in general, investors prefer tech companies, which are often started by men, vs. consumer-friendly product-driven companies that are founded by people who do not have a technology background. Trade booth attendants at large consumer fairs routinely asked to speak with my “dad” or “husband,” instead of conducting business with me. This comes as little surprise, given that many in business see Asian-American females as unserious and submissive, and businesses with non-white female CEOs have long been under-funded.
I'm done ignoring the racism I've faced as an Asian American
My experience is far from exceptional. Asian Americans often become entrepreneurs because, just like me, they lack opportunities to advance in US companies. Academics have long documented how the “model minority” faces an achievement paradox: While Asians are deferential, hardworking and extremely well-educated, they are underrepresented in leadership positions across the academic, nonprofit and corporate worlds. “Asian Americans are the least likely group in the U.S. to be promoted to management,” declared the Harvard Business Review, documenting the absence of Asian-American leadership across the legal, technology and finance sectors.
This represents not simply a civil rights injustice, but a human-capital loss for US businesses. With Asians subject to routine and undocumented abuse, skilled talent might choose to stay in Asia, helping China’s rise to global preeminence, which is on track to surpass US GDP by 2035 or 2040.

It is time we as a nation look beyond the color of one’s skin and demand our business leaders reflect the diversity of this country.

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