Morgan Stanley
  • Innovation LAb
  • May 31, 2022

Being Seen: Overcoming Bias as an AAPI Founder

Three alums of our in-house accelerator for diverse entrepreneurs discuss systemic barriers to success and what inclusion and belonging really looks like.

A few months ago, a major business publication ran a cover story on seven self-made billionaires under the age of 30. Though three of the seven were Asian-American, the cover photo featured only the four white moguls. The publication later issued an apology, but for Jotham Ty, who is of Filipino descent and a founder and CEO, the misstep was just another reminder of what Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) entrepreneurs like him constantly face in the business world. “We’re invisible. It’s almost expected that we just fly under the radar,” says Ty, whose company Gappify offers a cloud-based platform that provides corporate accountants with the solutions needed to automate repetitive, time-consuming and error-prone tasks.

Indeed, research indicates that while the number of newly vested Asian-American startup founders—a term that in itself renders distinctions between myriad ethnic demographics virtually invisible—has risen in recent years, it still represents only about one-third of the number representing white founders.1

Ty is an alum of our Multicultural Innovation Lab, an in-house startup accelerator that promotes financial inclusion and provides access to capital for early-stage technology and technology enabled companies led by women and diverse entrepreneurs.  

He says he knows all too well the stereotype that he’s diligent but subservient and doesn’t necessarily have what it takes to run a company. “I often wonder when I meet with investors whether there is greater scrutiny of my leadership skills because of my ethnic background.” He goes on to say that some AAPI founders in his professional network fear they will be pressured out of their CEO roles as their businesses grow because of perceived-but-inaccurate flaws associated with typical AAPI stereotypes. Says Ty, “I have a proven and solid track record of making tough decisions and rallying teams around a shared vision. However, because the standard perception and expectation is that AAPI executives are non-confrontational and not as vocal as leaders, I’m keenly aware that I may need to do more to prove to current and potential investors that those common AAPI stereotypes don’t apply to me. It’s not fair, but from a practical standpoint, I unfortunately must adapt.”

Helping others find their voice

Growing up in Rhode Island, the daughter of Chinese immigrants and one of few Asian-Americans in her community, Heather Shen saw the impact of structural inequities first-hand through her family. “My mom was the only woman, the only immigrant, the only person of color, in her workplace. Despite doing the same work and delivering high value for her organization, she had to fight for equitable access to promotion and career advancement, seeing her colleagues promoted as she was consistently passed over." 

It’s not an uncommon experience, as research shows that Asian-American white-collar professionals are the least likely group to be promoted from individual contributor roles into management.2  “That was one of my very first signs that, ‘Okay, the system is not set up for all of us to succeed,'" Shen says. It was also the first of many instances she encountered in feeling the  impact of stereotyping. “Asian-Americans deal with the ‘model minority’ myth very often, this idea that they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. We’re the American ‘success’ story. It's such a pervasive and harmful myth in many ways because it ignores the systemic and structural barriers to equity and the long history of racism that Asian folks experience in America.”

Shen, a MCIL alum, went on to co-found a company intended to address some of those very same systemic biases. Called Praxis Labs, it is a software-as-a-service company that  delivers immersive learning and actionable insights to improve workplace diversity and inclusion. She hopes it can help change the way all marginalized groups, including AAPI, are treated in business.

Leading by example

Isabel Khoo, another alum of the MCIL, is the founder and CEO of NOODIE, which provides convenience-seeking consumers with a more authentic, healthier, and more flavorful take on instant ramen. She leads a team comprising entirely of people of color and women, and believes diversity is NOODIE’s secret power. “Our supply chain is complicated and spans multiple regions. It requires us to have people who can transact and work across different parts of the world. Often people believe Asian cultures are monolithic and similar. But operating in Japan is very different than operating in China which is very different than operating in Vietnam. It’s important to understand these cultural differences and have team members that can bridge this cultural divide.”

Yet even as she works to change perceptions, she’s found that biases run deep and old stereotypes are pervasive, including the assumption that Asian foods should command a lower price point than other packaged entrees, something that Khoo’s offerings, with their superfood ingredients and cutting-edge technology that improves the nutritional content, did not allow for. “Why should a pasta dish be more expensive than a noodle dish?” she asserts. There were other stereotypes she encountered as well. “A number of branding agencies we worked would present options that had a dragon on the front of the packaging and some lanterns,” Khoo says. In the end, she designed her logo and packaging herself.

Jotham Ty is also using his voice. He admits that he once feared that by challenging the stereotypes, he would be viewed as too aggressive. But he says when he asked a white mentor: How do you go about managing other people’s perceptions of you? “His advice to me was just, ‘Be yourself.’ As simple as it is, coming from him, that went a long way for me.”

For Shen, it’s about continuing to keep pushing for change through her work.  “What this idea of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion really means is for all of us to feel liberated, and for all of us to feel that we are included and belong.

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