Creating space to talk about the hard things: AAPI women in tech discuss mental health
At Samsung NEXT, we understand that each individual’s various identities largely shape their experiences as builders and founders. In an environment where women of color receive only about 1 percent of total funding in the United States, we recognize that being in the workforce can feel isolating and impact issues related to cultural identity and mental health.
As fellow Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) women in tech, Mia and I wanted to create a space for others to discuss the intersection of racial and cultural identity with mental health. As part of our What’s NEXT Founder Dinner series, we convened founders, operators, and investors from NEA, Amazon Web Services, Google, Numina, 2U, Flexport, and Splunk.
We co-hosted this dinner with Cassandra Lam, founder and CEO of The Cosmos. The Cosmos is a community for Asian women that creates online and offline cultural spaces to help them flourish and thrive. Its mission is to empower Asian women to cultivate wellness and confidence through culturally relevant care and community.
We were inspired by the organization’s founding story, so we invited Cassandra to lead our discussion about wellness, mental health, and career. The dinner covered the following themes:
- Self-love vs sacrifice: The conflicting definition factoring cultural nuances
- Impostor syndrome: You can’t be what you can’t see
- The Asian identity: Inclusive definitions of AAPI, including underrepresented groups like Southeast Asians & Pacific Islanders
- Wishes for the next generation
How do you define self-love and wellness?
Amy Chen from AWS spoke about the challenges of defining wellness in a culture that fosters sacrifice as a form of love and filial piety. Wellness seems like a selfish and foreign endeavor when you’re raised to prioritize putting others ahead of yourself. Cassandra pointed out how the concept of “boundaries” does not exist in Asian families and culture, which makes it challenging to put yourself first.
Chrystal Zou from Splunk chimed in that she struggled with embracing wellness because, “Growing up my first encounter with the concept of mental health really came in glossy magazines where a lot of the women were wealthy and privileged, and wearing fancy yoga pants.”
The commodification of wellness made it challenging for Chrystal to identify with the mainstream wellness space. As the wellness space makes strides, we hope that it introduces a more diversified and inclusive suite of services and products for all underrepresented groups, while taking into consideration cultural nuances.
Eunice Kim-Skenderian, the founder of Inky Zen, shared her dad’s story of sacrifice as a “goose father.” Goose fathers are fathers who stay behind in Korea and send money to their wives and children living in the states. Often fathers suffer from loneliness and depression silently.
Within the context of deep family sacrifice, it’s no wonder that it’s difficult for Asian American women to define wellness for themselves. Understanding the psychology of sacrifice is important for Asian American women to come up with their own definitions of wellness in the context of two cultures.
Overcoming impostor syndrome
The topic of impostor syndrome resonated with everyone in the room. In light of a recent promotion to engineering director, Nafisa Chowdhury from 2U felt impostor syndrome based on her childhood upbringing. As a Bengali immigrant growing up in Canada under extreme poverty, she never identified with the model minority stereotype that befalls Asians.
As a manager, she is now reflective of how different her socioeconomic background is compared to her parents. She realizes her perception of self is informed by her immigrant upbringing and the poverty she experienced.
Overcoming impostor syndrome is not as easy as getting an injection of external validation. It often necessitates integrating how we perceive ourselves with how others perceive us, all the while discerning what can be left behind.
Mia Manantan from Samsung NEXT shared her own struggle in identifying with other Filipino women at a company given the scarcity. She said, “you can’t be what you can’t see.”
Knowing what’s possible comes from seeing role models, examples, and mentors who look like you. I deeply resonated with her statement because an HBR study found that Asian American women are the least likely minority class to get promoted to executive roles. An Ascend Study on “The Illusion of Asian Success” analyzing executive composition in Silicon Valley companies from 2007 – 2015 found that Asian American women are the least likely to be represented as executives by 66% underrepresentation.
Contrary to the saying “it’s lonely at the top”, it’s lonely period when you can’t find others who look like you in an organization. This is one of many reasons why representation matters so much. Like Mia, I’ve been looking for the “future me” in the tech companies I’ve worked at only to be disappointed by how sparse Asian American women leadership is at the top.
Inclusive Asian American Identity
When it came to identity, many women talked about their conflicting senses of self growing up. Growing up the token Asian in the 93 percent white city of Portland, Oregon, I felt a lonely sense of otherness and “onlyness.” I wrote about my persistent feeling of not belonging in America growing up and the cognitive dissonance of reconciling to opposite cultures.
One point Nafisa stressed is the need for an inclusive definition of Asian Americans. Often, Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders are left out of the Asian Americana identity. Inclusive descriptors include AAPI and AANHPI (Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander). Nafisa shared the importance of seeing Asian Americans as a textured and diverse tapestry of many ethnicities, countries of origin, and cultures.
Intentions for the Next Generation
We closed the night with our intentions for the next generation. Laura Gonzales from 2U shared that our parents came to the United States with the hope of the American dream but it’s also important for us, the children of immigrants and refugees, to figure out our own version of the American dream.
With builders and founders coming from diverse backgrounds, NEXT is committed to creating space for individuals to share stories that can enable and empower others to keep moving forward in an industry that is still working to become more diverse and inclusive. We hope that hearing stories, particularly from those who are underrepresented in the industry, will make us an even stronger ecosystem of builders, thinkers, and founders.
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