7 Ways to Support AAPI Leaders This Month and Beyond

I grew up in Detroit, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. I was the only person of color in my entire school. From a very young age, I learned how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and being different standing out. 

And I always remembered it.

When I decided to pursue business in the late ’80s, my father asked me: “Why would you want to do this? Name one Asian woman who is successful in business.”

I couldn’t—not a single one. 

My response to my dad? “I’m going to be fine.” 

I was comfortable standing out. I was used to having few—if any—role models who looked like me. I never questioned the fact that I was a short Asian woman trying to break into an industry dominated by tall, white men. 

To this day, there’s not a room I walk into where I don’t feel like I have a right to be there. 

It’s Asian American and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month, and celebrating the AAPI community as a leader and an organization is crucial to fostering inclusive environments necessary to create innovative change.

The Concrete Ceiling

Still, it’s not easy being an Asian American woman striving to succeed in business: We account for just one percent of C-suite promotions.

See, women are forced to contend with the glass ceiling. Asians are made to encounter the “bamboo ceiling.” But, for Asian women? Let’s call it out for what it is: a concrete ceiling. It’s also the case for our Black and Latina sisters. 

What’s worse? I’ll bet that if you asked your company for statistics on their rates of advancement, they could show splits based on gender and based on ethnicity, but never both combined. That intersectionality isn’t captured because it’s so bad they would likely get sued. 

That’s why supporting women of color early on in their careers is so important. That’s because, at the very first promotion from individual contributor to manager, women of color are promoted far less often than their white women and men of color colleagues. 

People usually don’t receive leadership training until they’re director-level or above. We need to catch high-potential people when they’re at the very first rungs of the ladder as individual contributors by putting in place scholarship programs, mentorship opportunities, or coaching sessions geared expressly toward them. 

If you don’t fill the pipeline with women of color from the outset and measure your efforts, there’s no way you’ll be able to put a single crack into that concrete ceiling. 

7 Ways to Support AAPI Leaders at Your Organization

How else can you show up for your Asian colleagues? Read on for a few of my suggestions for supporting AAPI leaders.

1. Be honest about your DEI initiatives

Be transparent about the steps you’ve taken within your organization—and the steps your organization has taken as a whole—to support the AAPI community. But don’t stop there: Acknowledge the steps you will take, and be specific with your action plans.

2. Use inclusive language

Yes, the term Asian refers to people of many different nationalities, but it historically centers on East Asian people. When hosting AAPI events or sharing resources, reference and include Southeast Asians, South Asians, and Pacific Islanders. There’s a broad spectrum in the AAPI community! 

3. Sponsor donations to worthy organizations

If you have the budget, encourage colleagues to donate—either with a stipend or a company match—to an AAPI organization of their choice. Some companies afford employees a paid day to visit a local AAPI museum.

4. Start an AAPI employee resource group

Many organizations with ERGs don’t always have a dedicated one for the AAPI community. Reach out to employees and gauge their interest in creating one.

5. Host an internal roundtable discussion 

An open conversation with AAPI speakers from throughout your organization will increase the historical and cultural understanding of a diverse audience and shine a spotlight on the contributions made by AAPI leaders throughout the business. 

6. Host AAPI speakers

One of the most important things you can do when driving conversation is to center AAPI voices. What better way than by bringing in outside experts from that community? As you would all professional speakers, compensate them for their time and effort!

7. Show up for AAPI leaders year-round

Organizing events and supporting underrepresented colleagues during respective heritage months is one thing. Still, doing this work all the other weeks of the year is far more impactful. 

When fellow leaders and organizations show up for their AAPI colleagues, more inclusive working environments form, and more innovative change naturally occurs. 

Your turn: How do you show up for the AAPI community? 

— Charlene

What I Can’t Stop Talking About: 

  • My younger self. This issue of The Big Gulp newsletter has me in a reflective state of mind. It makes me wonder if my younger self (peep a picture of her here!) would have believed this is what the world would be like today.

  • The two ways to say hard truths. When you want to be heard and understood, you have just two options—particularly if you’re challenging the status quo and are not the most powerful person in the room, which is often the case for women and BIPOC leaders.

  • Choose your own adventure. I asked leaders responsible for driving innovation where they would begin developing a competitive AI strategy if given the choice. Train yourself first or assemble a team? Create a testing space or hire an expert? Find out what got the most votes!

My Latest: 

  • Catch my most recent webinar! This past week, I hosted a webinar, “Developing a Winning Generative AI Strategy for Competitive Advantage,” and it’s now available for all! In it, I walk through the steps needed to create a cohesive AI strategy. Get the recording and slides here. 

  • Catch the webinar you missed. My webinar, “Unlocking The Power of Generative AI,” is also available as a recording. I walk through how to set up a generative AI “playground,” three ways to elevate your leadership with step-by-step instructions, and the broad outlines of creating a strategy. Get the recording and slides here.

  • My upcoming book. If you’re reading this, you are the target audience for my new book, Winning with Generative AI. Sign up to get updates and early access.

  • How to start your six-quarter walk. Put your plan down in writing—but write it down in pencil. Translation: You’re better off having a strategy you must change than having no strategy. When it comes to generative AI, change is the only constant. In Leading Disruption, I help you think differently about traditional step-by-step strategy development by spending 90 days creating an 18-month rolling plan that is continually updated quarterly.

  • Get your tech questions answered. “What technology do we need to be able to use generative AI well?” “How do we build our tech stack as an organization?” “Can we maintain what we’ve created when everything changes on a dime?” If you’ve been confused about your tech stack, tune in to my livestream tomorrow, May 14, at 9 a.m. PT / 12 p.m. ET on LinkedIn and Facebook Live for clarity

My Upcoming Appearances:

If you want me to speak at an upcoming event or conduct a workshop with your executive team, please drop me a note at [email protected]

Thank you for subscribing to The Big Gulp Newsletter, which goes out to thousands of disruptors every other week to help you on your disruption journey—plus a curated recommendation list of the things I can’t stop talking about. 

Want more? Check out my weekly publication, Leading Disruption, on LinkedIn.

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Charlene Li

If you found this note helpful, please forward and share it with someone who needs the inspiration today. If you were forwarded this, please consider subscribing.