I was born and raised by a single mother in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. She taught me to be a good human, and though we didn't have much, I'm proud of where I came from. That's also where my journey as an entrepreneur began -- I always looked for ways to support financially us as I grew.
I remember going from trash can to trash can, collecting plastic bottles to recycle for change, because buying a bowl or two of noodles was something tangible I could do to help. I learned a lot from those experiences, and they helped shape the rest of my life. I brought that resourceful attitude with me when I immigrated to America at age 13, and I've since started several businesses -- including Retention Science, which is now part of Constant Contact.
Unfortunately, being an Asian American entrepreneur also means overcoming some stereotypes during your journey.
There's an expectation in America that if you emigrate from an Asian country, you're predestined to follow a limited set of career paths. When most people think of Asian business owners, only a few types come to mind: restaurants, nail salons, spas, and dry cleaners. Yes, those businesses are often started by Asian Americans, but it's not because that's all they can do. There are Asian Americans running great companies in every category of business.
In honor of Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month, here are some things I've learned during my journey as an Asian-American entrepreneur.
It's OK to Promote Yourself
There's a prevailing stereotype against Asians that we're too deferential. Unfortunately, it gets weaponized against us far too often. In my experience, the biggest challenge I've faced as an AAPI entrepreneur has been overcoming my hesitation to talk about myself.
You may not realize this, but the art of storytelling in terms of one's self is a distinctly American trait. There truly is a pervasive culture of humbleness and respect among many Asian cultures, and that holds true particularly within the business world. To this day, it feels awkward or uncomfortable to talk about myself, and throughout my entrepreneurial journey, I found myself overshadowed by others with larger (or louder) personalities.
These days, successful startups often have a cult of personality surrounding the founder(s). If boasting makes you uncomfortable, it can be difficult to build that culture yourself. I recall at one point, one of my advisers recommended that I use a few curse words here and there during an investor meeting, because they felt I would otherwise come off as "too nice" and not confident enough. This really drove home how difficult it can be to walk the line of authenticity and appeasement, particularly as an immigrant.
Lean Into Who You Are
If I could give one piece of advice to a member of the AAPI community looking to start their own business, it would be the following: "Don't be afraid of your authentic self." For me, it was my accent. I worked hard to get rid of my accent, and to "sound American." I even named myself Jerry after watching Jerry Maguire -- yes, true story -- because like many other immigrants, I wanted a name that people can pronounce easily.
Many immigrants end up in America looking for opportunity, and it's often the case that they feel like they have to change who they are to fit in and ultimately succeed. Shake off those misgivings--this is America! Embrace what makes you unique and different, because that's your greatest strength.
As an immigrant, there can be discomfort in trying to assimilate and become someone you're not, but that will end up hurting you in the long run. It's 2022, and the people and companies that stand out are the ones that have authenticity at their core.
Continue to Fight Against Asian Hate
Asian hate has been happening for hundreds of years, and the pandemic certainly didn't help. I've been lucky in my life to have not encountered any violence in response to my Asian heritage, but there are plenty of others who unfortunately cannot say the same. I do, however, still encounter prejudice.
About a decade ago--I still remember it so vividly--I was a working professional in San Diego in a nice area. I was walking down the street on a Saturday night and someone bumped into me. Despite not being at fault, I apologized, and the man replied, "Shouldn't you be in the library?"
This experience is a microcosm of what countless members of the Asian-American community experience on a daily basis, and it's indicative of a larger stereotype we can work together to push past. It can be easy--some may say it's even part of our culture--to take unfair or unkind treatment in stride and keep pushing forward, but by standing together and bringing injustice to light, we'll only end up stronger.
I'm proud of my Asian American heritage, and I'm proud to be an entrepreneur. But, that doesn't mean it's been an easy journey. In fact, sometimes cultural stereotypes have made it very difficult. However, like small-business owners and entrepreneurs, Asian Americans are resilient. Seeing 90-year-old grandmas in Taipei hustling on the street, selling food on a stand, for a small payout taught me that I too could be successful if I put in the work.
Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month is a reminder to look beyond stereotypes to see people like me for who we really are. It is my hope that by sharing our stories, educating each other and lifting up the amazing Asian American business owners and entrepreneurs in this country, we can build a more inclusive world for everyone. Because we are worth celebrating.