Often Employees, Rarely CEOs: Challenges Asian-Americans Face In Tech A new study shows that Asians and Asian-Americans are underrepresented at executive levels in five large tech companies. Four tech professionals weigh in with their experiences and perspectives.
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Often Employees, Rarely CEOs: Challenges Asian-Americans Face In Tech

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Asians and Asian-Americans are having a tough time moving up in Silicon Valley. A new report by an Asian-American professional group call Ascend took a look at the diversity numbers at five big-name tech companies in the Valley. Over a quarter of the professional workforce at those companies are Asian or Asian-American, but less than 19 percent are managers, and just under 14 percent are executives. Yesterday, we met a couple of Asian-Americans in tech and heard about their experiences. Yul Kwon is deputy chief privacy officer at Facebook.

YUL KWON: I think one of the challenges for a lot of Asian-Americans, including me - like, you know, you can't help but feel a little sheepish, like, talking about these issues because you don't want it to be seeming as though you're self-serving.

RATH: Is the experience different for the thousands of Asians born overseas currently working in the tech industry? Six years ago, Huong Tran left her home in Vietnam to enroll in Stanford Business School. It was an adjustment.

HUONG TRAN: We believe that hard work and not necessarily self-promotion will get you ahead. I think that doesn't hold the same here, in that, you know, working hard is still important, but it doesn't mean that it's automatically going to get you rewarded.

RATH: When she lived in Vietnam, Tran had started her own business, taking advantage of the explosion of retailers there after the country's admittance to the World Trade Organization. She left that behind to come to Stanford and start a new business here in the States.

TRAN: But, you know, the hurdles of getting an H-1B sponsorship and visa and whatnot really changed how I think about my employment opportunities.

RATH: So instead of starting her business straight out of school, Tran took an offer from Yahoo. She worked there until about six months ago - long enough to get her green card. Now she runs a home-swapping app called Magpie.

Karan Chaudhry was born in India. He's also a Stanford grad and hasn't been as lucky. He's still on an H-1B visa. If you have a start-up, as Chaudhry does, it's even trickier. To get that visa, you have to prove you're a legitimate business with some real cash on hand. Chaudhry has already raised $5 or $6 million, he says, but he's been rattled by these meetings with venture capitalists.

KARAN CHAUDHRY: It is really scary. Like, you're literally toying with your career, which is, like, hey, if that doesn't get approved, the funding is off. Or even though the funding is in, you will not be the person who will be the CEO.

RATH: So why take that risk? Well, for one, Chaudhry says he is passionate about his idea. His company, DropThought, is a way for businesses to get real-time feedback from their customers. But he also says he and a lot of Asians strike out on their own because of a Catch-22 situation he describes. Without more established Asian role models or executives, it's tougher for younger ones to move up.

CHAUDHRY: So it's almost like a vicious cycle. And I think with Satya Nadella becoming the CEO of Microsoft and immigrant companies becoming super successful, I think that balance will change, but it will not happen overnight.

RATH: Chaudhry says he thinks Americans have an advantage, thanks to the way they're brought up - an emphasis on all-around development, including sports and socializing, rather than just academics. In a venture capital world where people who are fit and charismatic get more funding, that is huge. He wishes more companies would work to help Asian-born employees rather than just passing them over for promotions.

CHAUDHRY: If people have the smarts and they're the right people for the job, let's not throw the baby out with the bathtub. And let's work on some of the areas which can actually be improved with coaching.

RATH: Areas like communication skills, body language - that kind of thing.

CHAUDHRY: Like, you see a lot of diversity training, and you see a lot of other workshops. What you don't see is an active thing of saying, we want to develop leaders out of certain people, and therefore, we'll have active coaching sessions. We'll identify people, and, you know, we'll do that.

RATH: Huong Tran agrees that there's a problem. There are lots of Asians in the funnel, but they're just not making it to the top. But it's not just a problem for Asians.

TRAN: I think the message is broader than that, in that, you know, if you replace that equation with other variables, the equation still doesn't change, in that we need more diversity.

RATH: You can listen to the story of two Asian-Americans in the tech industry. Go to our website, npr.org.

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