Two recent studies by the Asian Society and Ascend indicate that entrepreneurship is the sole bright spot in a somewhat depressed outcome for Asian Americans in business over the past ten years. While 23 percent of Bay Area residents are Asian, they comprise just 5 percent of board members in the top 100 Bay Area firms and 13 percent of CEOs in the top 100 Bay Area firms. Six of those CEOs, however, were also founders of their companies.
That entrepreneurs are well represented among top Asian American executives comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with companies such as Yahoo! and Sun Microsystems. But those successes, say Buck Gee and Wesley Hom, co-authors of the study, obscure many persistent obstacles. "When you look at Asians, by and large you see success stories," Gee says. "But the Asian population in Silicon Valley is 30 percent. There could be a lot more in those ranks."
Previous studies have supported the notion that many minority and immigrant entrepreneurs start their companies because they perceive a lack of opportunity elsewhere. Building their own businesses may be a more effective means of attaining executive positions than attempting to ascend the ranks through technical positions.
"Many Asian Americans have jobs in science and engineering professions," says C.N. Le, director of the Asian American studies certificate program at University of Massachusetts-Amherst. "That's nice, but if there's nothing really beyond that's open, they can take that training and expertise to create their own business in the same field."
While the Ascend-Asia Society study lends additional credence to that observation, it also raises questions about the personal traits required to advance within a large corporation versus those that work best in building a thriving company. Gee and Hom believe that not having a sales background may contribute to the limited advancement among Asian Americans in large firms. The value of that experience, they say, applies even more to starting one's own company. "It is important to be able to articulate the value of your company in a business set of terms, versus purely a technical set of terms," Hom says.
On the other hand, says Suresh Kumar, CEO of NexAge Technologies in Iselin, New Jersey, entrepreneurial culture may be more compatible with the skill sets fostered by traditional Asian cultures. "It's a totally different dynamic starting your own company," he says. "In U.S. corporations, my experience has been that a lot of people do well by being solo players. Culturally, many Asian Americans are more attuned to working as part of a team, which is a very important skill for building a business."