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Removing the invisibility cloak — leading while Asian in 2022

By My Tam (Mỹ Tâm) H. Nguyễn Founder & CEO at làmdi.co, supporting people behind impactful ideas to launch, transition, and scale

This May, Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is complicated. There is pain, nuance, and from my corner of the world — a gleeful reach for moments of joy. I just returned from two weeks in New York, where a group of friends and I launched a fundraiser for the area’s first Vietnamese-American bakery in Brooklyn. There was a line around the block. We walked the line carrying samples of durian ice cream (unheard of — it’s now a trending flavor!) and sticky rice treats from our childhood. We smiled at each other, acknowledging how far we’ve come, and for the first time in a long time, felt seen—a wondrous moment of peace in the suffering.

We were miles away from where Christina Yuna Le, 35, was stabbed and killed when she was followed home by a stranger. We were also blocks away from where a gunman open-fired onto the subway in Sunset Park the week prior, in a predominantly Asian neighborhood. In the same state that the Buffalo shooting happened last week. How do you work through your pain? What community do you reach to acknowledge your shared experience, witness your struggle, and support you as you rise?

Since the pandemic, I’ve been meeting tirelessly with Asian American executives to prep them for public speaking— and for some of them, the first time they’re sharing their personal stories. This is new for us. The Asian American voice and lived experience is often invisible in American history. I’ll save you the history lesson, PBS has an excellent series for that, and I’ve included additional resources at the bottom. Because we’ve been made invisible, many of us are starting from ground zero. How can our pain, lived-experience, this quietude we’ve been living our entire existence come roaring out? Is it safe? Will we be judged? Is it good enough? Does it matter? It does. If I were to be completely honest, sometimes we’ll fail, and it’s still worth trying anyway.

Telling Our Story

There are two stories we can tell, the one that’s packaged neatly for a pulled quote and marketing campaign and the one that’s vulnerable, human, filled with the hero’s journey — the inner journey that no one sees, the one we will not get professional accolades for, this is the time to tell that story. Whether you’re an Asian American leader telling your story for the first time, or an executive or young professional finding your voice, being who you are in a time when we are being sought out to be killed and harmed, matters. Our plurality, our data disaggregation, and the complex and diverse range of our humanity — need to be shared, seen, and acknowledged. This is the time to be more open and public about who we are and how we got here. I look forward to hearing your voice and story. 

“The function of any ideology in power is to represent the world positively unified.” — Trịnh Thị Minh Hà

Intersectionality: Leading While Learning

Today is Yuri Kochiyama and Malcolm X’s birthday. Friendship, allyship, and leadership look, feel, and act differently in our time. However, the themes of peace, solidarity, and humanity remain the same. Yuri held Malcolm X as he was dying right after he was assassinated. Their friendship in life and in the face of death is a pillar of strength and community — its pain and solidarity a heart-breaking model for us all of what allyship can look like. 

The violence against Asian and Black bodies in the past few weeks from Buffalo to Dallas and Orange County, at our grocery stores, nail salons, churches, and homes is evident that no place is safe for anyone if this normalization of violence continues. Our struggles and fears are inevitably and historically intertwined. We do not have the time or luxury to go at this alone. The well-being and livelihood of our Asian American communities are intricately linked to the survival and thriving of our Black neighbors.

Here’s Where We Begin

Research, show up, ask for help, and do the work. Intersectional leadership as Asian Americans is not a one-time training, or moment in time, it is a way to live our lives — in consideration, witness, and trust with our neighbors in thought, action, and community. It is commitment and practice in continuity. 

Find your voice and method in this work, mine is evolving every day. I went to the Whitney Biennial for the first time this month, a regular exhibition founded by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a solid example of solidarity of feminism and activism. The Biennial’s entire mission is to highlight emerging artists. This year’s exhibit led me to Trịnh Thị Minh Hà, someone whom I wish I knew about sooner and wish more people knew of. Her thinking is deep, global, and intersectional from Audre Lorde and Nigerian filmography to Vietnamese mythology. Seeing it for the first time made me wonder, what is pop culture — whose ideas are deemed worthy of consumption for the masses? Her work is a great place to start if you’re someone who’s heady like me and need some philosophical and academic grounding to root the journey.

What to do when you fail? 

Notice I didn’t say “if” here. You’ll inevitably stumble as we do in life and you’ll learn. If you do more harm than help — lean into hearing feedback. You’ll evolve, lick your wounds and continue. The Harvard Business Review also has an excellent special issue out this month on learning from failure. I love this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. whose friendship with the Vietnamese Buddhist priest Thich Nhat Hanh is at the essence of how I try to model my relationships in this work: 

“It would remind all nations that men of good will stand ready to lead warring elements out of an abyss of hatred and destruction. It would re-awaken men to the teaching of beauty and love found in peace. It would help to revive hopes for a new order of justice and harmony.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a letter nominating the Vietnamese Buddhist priest Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize January 25, 1967.

Intersectionality is an ongoing dedication to becoming better, and more aligned with the humans and community around us. I’m coming off of a three-day board retreat with Community Credit Lab whose mission is shifting our financial system to be more decentralized and community-focused through design thinking and systems change rooted in cultural histories and practices of trust-based finance. These themes, along with our global need to be more unified, move collectively, and in right action after two years of stillness are things I’m sitting with, hope for, and working toward. I hope you, too, will read and look for voices who are important, significant, relevant, and are often made invisible in the production of mass content and then take action. This is my wish for Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage month this May, all heritage months, and the calendar year. Here’s to expanding our collective understanding and knowledge of one another and leading as we learn.

How to Find Your/Our Community as Asian American Professionals

Newsletters, communities, media, and listservs to subscribe to

  • Ascend is the largest Pan-Asian business professional membership organization in North America. 
  • Gold House is the leading changemaker community, fighting together for socioeconomic equity.
  • Hyphen covers Asian American culture with substance, style, and sass. Re-envisioning and rewriting what it means to be Asian American since 2002.
  • NBC Asian America News — many of my friends have contributed to them through the years and they’ve been a trusted source rooted from community voice. 
  • Joy Sauce Official — New Asian American media platform that makes space for our vibrant, unforgettable stories founded by the awesome Jonathan Sposato of Geekwire and the owner of Seattle Magazine.
  • Angry Asian Man — a blog about Asian America.
  • Executive Development Institute — a non-profit organization committed to building a community of diverse global leaders.
  • Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) — for 40 years, AAJA has advocated on behalf of AAPIs in the newsroom on the front lines for stronger representation and more inclusion, and anyone can be a member!
  • National Association of Asian American Professionals (NAAAP) — a non-profit organization that cultivates and empowers leaders through leadership development, professional networking, and community service.
  • The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund — a national organization founded in 1974, protects and promotes the civil rights of Asian Americans.
  • Asian Pacific Islander Community Leadership Foundation — a community-based, nonprofit organization that trains and supports leadership with a commitment to social justice, community empowerment and public service.

What Allies Can Do

  • Follow the orgs above to stay informed
  • Increase budget for professional development 
  • Provide an executive coaching budget for your Asian American leaders
  • Encourage ERG participation
  • Send us food if we’re having a bad day, ask us what we’re craving 🙂 I did this today for a cousin in Arkansas. Believe me, it works. Our love language is “feed me”. 

What I’m Reading: 

  1. Ocean Vuong’s Time is A Mother (NYTimes Bestseller)
  2. Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings (NYTimes Bestseller)
  3. When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics by Trịnh Thị Minh Hà — I reference TTMH multiple times in this post and consider her a sage and phenomenal source to learn from. 
  4. Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha — Haunting, profound, important. Her story is 4 decades old and still relevant — killed by a stranger after Dictee was released in the 1980’s her talent and legacy is urgently needed today as it was then. Ranging from poetry to prose Cha’s genius is in her versatility — from her video installation at the current Whitney Biennial to her research and resurrection of historic feminine figures. The feminism and intersectionality she crafts is so ahead of her time.
  5. The Trees Witness Everything by Victoria Chang — This book destroyed me. It’s been a very long time since I’ve read a poetry book that’s punched me so squarely in the gut. The death of a parent, the grieving and celebration of the seasons, the melancholy of time passing. The simultaneous immediacy of the flow of text and its urgent call to action of loss of country and the departure of the phases of our lives speaks to our pandemic humanity, lived experience of global warfare, and possibility.
  6. When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut, Adrian Nathan West (Translator). A perfect book at the intersection of astrophysics and human understanding. Beautifully written and translated.
  7. Uncle Rico’s Encore: Mostly True Stories of Filipino Seattle by Peter Bacho. A wonderful compendium of stories and history of Seattle’s Filipino community as it migrates from Chinatown/ID to the Central District and beyond.