Asian American and Pacific Islander Experiences in Tech and Beyond

Happy Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month! It’s more important than ever to raise awareness around and celebrate AAPI perspectives in the tech field and beyond.

To properly mark AAPI Heritage, Automox’s Amanda Lee and Liz Ozust are here to chat about what it's like for them to work at a company advocating for diversity and inclusion in a distributed work environment.

Amanda Lee: Amanda is a Staff Technical Program Manager here at Automox. She spends her days helping product engineering teams get stuff done. She most enjoys bridging gaps and building frameworks that enable teams to do their best work.

Liz Ozust: Liz manages the People Business Partner team at Automox. Her team works closely with different parts of the business to build and support People solutions that engage employees to do their best work and empowers a collaborative and fun distributed culture.

Now, without further ado, let's dig in.

Our AAPI experiences in the workforce

What’s your backstory? What brought you to Automox?

Amanda: My first taste of the corporate world was in HR – I started my career in shoes similar to Liz’s. My team supported the tech department and I realized I had the skill set and interest to be a project manager, so I pursued that. I learned that project/program management looks quite different at different companies. But when I was presented with the opportunity to forge my own path and make an impact at Automox, I jumped on it.

Liz: When I was a kid, everything I ‘wanted to be when I grew up’ was related to science. But I wasn’t encouraged to pursue a scientific career. Instead, I ended up studying business in college.

It’s funny to see Amanda’s story because my first taste of corporate life was an internship in International Finance. I quickly learned that wasn’t for me, and I grew interested in how an HR team could help companies engage, motivate, and support people in accomplishing their business goals. That’s when I changed majors. I came to Automox because I believe this place is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, where I could directly impact the way we approach all things people-related while we build our success story as a company.

What does Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) Heritage Month mean to you?

Amanda: AAPI Heritage Month is important to me because it brings awareness to the cultures, customs, and heritages that shape the AAPI experience and our identities. It is especially important today, in the wake of blatant violence toward AAPI individuals. According to NBC News, “Anti-Asian hate crime increased by 339% last year compared to 2020, the height of the pandemic.”

So this month matters. It reminds me to speak to others about my background and experiences which are a core part of who I am.

Liz: Ditto. The fact that there is an AAPI Heritage Month means so much to me. Representation of all people and cultures is important because diversity is inherent to this country’s foundational principles. So many people come to the United States from Asian cultures and have played significant roles in our nation’s history.

What does it mean to see representation for AAPI professionals in the workplace?

Amanda: AAPI representation – especially in leadership – proves that something is possible. Frankly, having representation at the workplace shows people that we are real people, and more than stereotypes.

Liz: I can’t believe I’m about to share this, but recently I broke down in happy tears seeing my kids role-playing as Asian characters from movies with reverence – not as jokes. They played Raya and the Last Dragon, Shang Chi, and Over the Moon. I can tell you as a kid, I never said to myself, “I want to play [insert Asian character here]," especially when playing with my White friends. And if I had, my friends would likely have asked, ‘Who is that?!”

While it’s getting better, we’re so far from diverse characters as regular heroes in our stories. That kind of representation makes AAPI families feel truly included, even at school or in the workplace.

Amanda: I couldn’t agree more.

Liz: Diversity, especially in leadership, leads to stronger and more successful decision-making, innovation, employee engagement, and financial outcomes. Diversity and inclusion across all roles and levels has shown increased productivity, engagement, and retention. If these are the outcomes, why wouldn’t we do it? And why wouldn’t this be every business’s imperative?

Can you share some of your personal experiences as AAPI women that have shaped your perspectives today?

Amanda: Having grown up around New York City, I didn’t really think too much about diversity and representation in the workplace or otherwise. But I moved to Denver about 5 years ago. The difference in demographics was jarring. At my first job in Colorado, I was one of maybe five Asian people – in a rather large office.

Socially, it wasn’t much different; I was often the only minority sitting in a restaurant or brewery in Denver. The sudden awareness that I was the “other” was something I had to overcome. I couldn’t help but ask myself questions like, “Do I belong here?” or “Why don’t I see anyone who looks like me here?”

The experience of feeling like an outcast has deepened my connection to my AAPI heritage. As a result, I feel even more rooted. Now, I make it a point to support AAPI-owned businesses. And I understand the importance of supporting others in my community, who probably have experiences and feelings similar to my own. Eventually, I even discovered (through food, how else?) that there is an AAPI community here with a strong bond and connection to culture. #urbanburma anyone?

Samosa Soup (Nom, nom, nom)
credit @urbanburma

Liz: I grew up in Minnesota, in a city where I’ve always been ‘one of a few’ at school, even in college. The same goes for most of the places I’ve worked, too.

Most of my life, I’ve felt like an ‘other.’ I’ve always worked hard and kept my head down. I can clearly recount numerous experiences, through all the stages of my life, in which I’ve experienced bias as an Asian female. In the last year, I’ve heard more stories from friends and family that have experienced similar prejudice. Even with each other, we haven’t talked about it much.

However, the last year has galvanized me to embrace my full self and confront AAPI racism. Many of us were taught to cope by brushing it off. We learned to not draw any attention to ourselves. Those coping mechanisms have profoundly affected who I am, how I see the world, and even limited who I thought I could be. Now, though, I see the importance of sharing my experiences so others can better understand our collective experience. I hope my kids will never feel like they don’t belong because of their ethnicity and heritage.

Can you share stories to exemplify AAPI representation in tech or general workforce?

Amanda: According to a 2020 NBC study, East Asian women “were 42 percent more likely than white women to report being demeaned and disrespected, stereotyped, left out of the loop and treated like they were invisible” in the workplace. Remember, that number includes only the women who reported this behavior. While I’m overwhelmingly disappointed this is the case – based on my experience, I can’t say I’m surprised.

Liz: It’s tough. When you look across the tech industry, there’s a clear lack of diversity – at every level. According to U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) data, 63% of the tech workforce is comprised of non-minority employees and a 83% of tech executives are non-minority too. This stat indicates a lack of opportunity for minority team members. The EEOC report also notes a study of diversity across a group of Silicon Valley tech companies, where Asians represented about 50% of professional jobs but only 36% of management positions. Conversely, White employees represented 41% of professional jobs and 57% of management positions.

Stereotypes about Asians in the workplace contribute to the gap in support for Asians to experience career growth and recognition in the same way that their peers receive. It’s widely not talked about. Many AAPI workers are made to feel like they’re complaining when they ‘have it so good,’ even when they don’t.

Amanda: Yes! I’ve often felt like I shouldn’t complain because I “have it so good.” I have a stable job that pays well, and I’m doing better in life than my parents and other family members were able to do at this point in their careers. So what’s there to complain about? But so much work needs to be done to address the stereotypes, racism, and opportunity gaps we experience as Asian Americans.

Have you noticed specific biases towards AAPI individuals in the workplace? What do you want non-AAPI individuals to understand about your experience?

Amanda: There are certainly stereotypes about what AAPI individuals and what AAPI women must be like. Those biases can show up in the workplace, even in subtle ways, such as leaving us out of conversations.I genuinely don’t know how much of my personal work experience is based on my cultural background (not rocking the boat, acting maturely, putting my head down, and getting my work done). But as a younger professional, I felt like I lived up to that stereotype. I just wasn’t comfortable speaking my mind at work.

Finally now, I’m at a place where I feel comfortable (even empowered) to let others know what’s on my mind. Automox’s inclusive company culture is definitely a factor in that respect.

Liz: I’ve approached things in the same way, Amanda. I believe much of our behavior at work was taught or learned. Sometimes it feels like it’s just easier to get by if you go unnoticed. Work hard, don’t complain, don’t talk about the challenges (even within your cultural community).

Invisibility is effectively acceptance in society. As an Asian female, the stereotype is that we’re demure, seen and not heard. Growing up, and in parts of my career, I have been frequently dismissed or second-guessed, or worse made to feel shame for speaking up. As I write this, I still feel that old twinge of shame for seemingly ‘complaining’ and drawing unnecessary attention to myself.

Without an environment that creates psychological safety, it’s impossible to be vulnerable and have confidence that sharing vulnerability is acceptable. I am grateful to have it at Automox.

Who is your AAPI hero and why?

Amanda: My dad, for sure. My dad came to the United States from Myanmar as an adult. To leave his home country and start over, all for just the promise of a better life, is incredibly brave. His heroic decision is the reason I was provided so much opportunity in my life.

Liz: My parents were also refugees, who were separated and arrived in the US four years apart with nothing but what was on their backs. They sacrificed everything for us to have a chance to be free and live a good life. I can’t – and haven’t – wasted that opportunity.

What work do we still have to uplift AAPI voices?

Amanda: Education and representation. In a world where people are expected to advocate for themselves in order to be rewarded, it can be difficult for many AAPI individuals who were raised with different cultural norms. Many of us grew up believing that hard work will always be recognized, even if you aren’t loudly taking credit for it, and experience has taught me that just isn’t the case.

Raising awareness of these differences and coaching leaders to be more proactive and supportive with their AAPI employees would go a long way. And having AAPI representation in leadership would bring that understanding and perspective to the table, so to speak, to help change things from top-down.

Also, it’s important to note there are differences within the AAPI community; East Asians have different experiences from South Asians who have different experiences from Southeast Asians. And there’s the whole “PI” (Pacific Islander) community too, who also have different experiences and needs.

Liz: Great callout, Amanda. We still have a lot of work to do to understand the different challenges and experiences across different groups within AAPI people. In addition to what you said about leadership representation, there generally needs to be more openness to consider and discuss why and how even ‘positive’ stereotypes are hurtful along with the history of underlying racism towards this community will support our voices.

Resources for AAPI Youth and Professionals

Amanda: Building the support system as early as possible is key to developing AAPI talent. Asian Girls Ignite is a great Colorado-based program focused on building a strong community of AAPI girls and women by celebrating their individual and collective power through shared stories.

In addition, here’s a list of great resources put out by Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science. Some of our faves off this list include:

What would you say to younger AAPI individuals entering the workforce? What advice do you wish you heard as you started out?

Amanda: Try to find your voice as soon as you can! Be brave and willing to speak up and advocate for yourself and what you believe in. Take credit for your accomplishments. Until the game changes, that’s how to play by the rules and win. Be your true self, but amplify your voice!

Liz: I would echo that sentiment. Be confident and true to you, and advocate for yourself. You are your best cheerleader!

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