May is Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and we’re taking a moment to celebrate the achievements of API Product Leaders, and to recognise the struggles that the community faces.
Anti-Asian hatred has become a focus this year, and if you work in the tech/product worlds, you have a vested interest in making sure it stops.
Why? Because products built for everyone need to be built by everyone. Mainstream products thrive when diverse teams build them. It’s good for the customer, it’s good for the product, and it’s good for the company. It’s also good for making the world a better place for more people. For Product School, that is what advancing product management is fundamentally about.
Why Celebrate Asian and Pacific Islander Product Leaders?
May was chosen as the month to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islanders, to commemorate the arrival of the first Japanese immigrant in the USA, on May 7th 1843. It also marks the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10th 1869, as the majority of workers who built the tracks were Chinese.
You may have seen both API (Asian and Pacific Islander) and AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) used by a few different outlets. We’ve specifically chosen API, as our community is global, and stretches far beyond the borders of the USA. The global product management community has been impacted in countless ways by members of the API community who don’t identify as American, and they deserve to be included.
If you see us use AAPI, it’s because we’re specifically talking about the situation in the USA.
We covered this more extensively in Diversity and Inclusion in Product: Why It Matters, but the main point is that the tech industry still has a lot of work to do in terms of hiring and retaining diverse talent. Tech companies may look diverse from the outside, and it’s true that the needle is moving in the right direction. But we’re not quite there yet. While entry-level jobs may appear to be ‘sufficiently’ diverse, the career ladder gets whiter the closer you get to the top.
What we didn’t cover, was how racism uniquely affects the API community.
The Model Minority Myth
There is a stereotype (predominantly in the USA, but which also extends to other parts of the world) that raises up the Asian community as The Model Minority. It’s a harmful myth that makes it seem as though Asians in America are all well-educated, hard-working, and successful. This is then thrown back in the faces of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people. “If they can do it, why can’t you? There is no racism here!” It’s a tool that’s used to stir up resentment between minorities, whilst also excusing white people from needing to take any anti-racist action. It also makes sure that lower-income white families feel resentment towards API groups, as they perceive them as taking away their resources and job opportunities. This keeps the blame for the wealth gap far from where it belongs.
It’s a myth that’s, sadly, not missing from the tech sector. Because there are “plenty” of Asians working in big tech, nobody seems to notice that they’re often passed over for leadership positions in favor of their white colleagues.
Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the Model Minority Myth, is how it treats all API’s as a monolith. But when you look at the hiring practices of the tech industry, that couldn’t be further from reality, according to Tech Equity Collaborative. The majority of AAPIs working in the US tech industry who have higher-level jobs are Chinese or Indian, with a significantly smaller percentage being Filipino or Vietnamese. This trend swings the other way around when you look into who has entry-level roles, such as warehouse staff for Amazon, according to CNBC’s analysis of FAANG’s annual diversity reports in 2020.
So tech companies are happy to hire their fair share of API staff…but only those from certain places deserve leadership roles, in part thanks to the Model Minority Myth. The Washington Post reported that India’s caste system is also reflected in hiring practices in the tech industry.
How The Product Industry Can Become Anti-Racist
An anti-racist approach should be multi-layered, because racism is multi-layered.
For the tech industry, the focus goes almost entirely on hiring practices, mostly because it’s an initiative that has tangible results that you can publish at the end of the year. It feels better to have quantifiable proof that your efforts are fruitful.
But what product and tech leaders are seeing now is that hiring isn’t enough. In order to retain, nurture, and grow API talent in our businesses, we need to build the right culture. Understanding and addressing the ways in which discrimination impacts each group in different ways is the first step.
So while you might be thinking “there’s plenty of Chinese people at my company, we’re doing fine” look at how those colleagues are distributed up and down the ladder. How long do those individuals tend to stay at your company, compared to their white counterparts? Maybe they got asked “where are you really from?” too many times.
Stereotypes may have certain groups within the API community pegged as “suited for” particular roles (eg. it’s assumed by some that Chinese people are better at maths, and therefore aren’t as suited for leadership/design roles as they are engineering/data roles.)
Actions, not more words, will be how we as an industry can move forward towards racial diversity and equity.
2021’s API Product Leaders
With that all being said, it’s time to celebrate some of the most brilliant API Product Leaders!
Let’s hear from a few of these great leaders on what it means to be an API leader in product…
“As an API leader in tech, I am proud to be part of an industry and company that recognizes the importance of diverse backgrounds in the workforce. Representation matters and, as a leader in this space, I feel a sense of responsibility to mentor and help pave the way for others in the future.”Solme Kim, Head of Product at TikTok
“I’m astounded by how many game-changing tech companies were started by Asian Americans, from YouTube to Zoom, LinkedIn, Twitch, Door Dash, Peloton and countless others, not to mention the impact Asian Americans have writ large in the fields of media, entertainment and sports. Asian Americans not only helped build the foundation of this country and fought to protect it, but are defining the future of it for all Americans.”Jay Lee, VP of Product at NBA
“At the beginning of my leadership career, I was often the first and only Asian woman in the room, dominated by people who didn’t look like me. I often felt the need to assimilate into something that wasn’t 100% me. Over time, I’ve seen API representation grow in tech which gives me hope — but there is still much work to be done, and each of us plays an important role. I personally feel a deep sense of responsibility to women, to the API community, and to all underrepresented groups. Every day I commit to putting my energy and focus into identifying and developing our next generation of leaders and game changers, to help them recognize that being who you are, is always your greatest Superpower.”Kimberlee Chang Mendes, VP of Product at Nike
I’m delighted to be a part of the API Community, and especially listed alongside other strong product leaders. Looking back in my career to date, it hasn’t been easy partly because of my asian cultural background and me as an immigrant. I’m proud to see the diversity we collectively accomplished today in the product management workforce across all tech companies, and we’re all responsible for encouraging and enabling more of it in the future.Johnny Chang, Product Lead at Lyft
“I am proud every day to represent and champion continued diversity in tech. We need to be courageous, drive awareness, unite, and support each other to overcome stereotypes.”Diana Chen, Head of Product at Amazon
Product School Stands With Our API Community
Product School absolutely stands with our API community members, especially in the wake of recent violence. The product world is a wonderful place to be, and we fully believe it’s a place for everyone.
No community is perfect, but we’re proud of ours for being a safe space for any and all. We have a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination of any kind, and we count ourselves incredibly lucky that we very, very rarely have to enforce this policy.
The team at Product School are multinational and multilingual, and we’ve partnered with companies, instructors, and product leaders across the world. There’s no space for hate here.
While all the issues we’ve raised here are serious, and deserve to be talked about, we have so much hope for the future and so much faith in the product management community. What we see every day is a welcoming space that’s inclusive of everyone no matter where they’re from or how they identify.
There has never been a better time to build digital products. And if we dedicate more of our attention and energies to making all tech spaces more inclusive and diverse, that’ll be ever more true next year. And the next. All the way into a brighter future for all.
Further Reading and Resources
End Anti-Asian Racism in Tech by Tech Equity Collaborative
Silicon Valley’s Forgotten Minority by The New Republic