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Asian-Americans Face Challenges In Reaching Tech Leadership Roles


Why would anyone go on a reality game show?


JEFFREY PROBST: You must send one person to Exile Island immediately and take the rest of their money for yourself.

RATH: Well, in the 13th season of "Survivor," a competitor named Yul Kwon had a compelling personal reason for being on the show.

YUL KWON: I grew up with a lot of self-confidence issues, and they ultimately came out as a lot of social anxiety disorders.

RATH: Growing up in a mainly white neighborhood, the Korean-American got bullied as a kid. And Kwon says he felt like he had no role models.

KWON: I very rarely saw Asian-Americans on television. And to the extent that I did, they were typically portrayed according to these negative stereotypes, Asian cooks who couldn't really speak English or kung fu masters who could, you know, do these really elaborate martial arts stuff but, again, couldn't speak without an accent.


PROBST: The winner of "Survivor: Cook Islands"...


RATH: When he won "Survivor" in 2006, Yul Kwon was a well-credentialed business consultant, graduate of Stanford and Yale Law School with stints on the Hill and at Google on his resume. But it was important to him that other Asians see a fellow Asian who is smart, physically fit, with perfect English and leading. These days, Kwon is the deputy chief privacy officer at Facebook.

KWON: I think over the course of my life and over my career, I've learned to act almost contrary to what my natural instincts are. So I still am very much of an introvert. I still find it difficult to speak up in meetings. I still get really nervous speaking in public.

RATH: Kwon hasn't just distinguished himself by winning survivor. He's managed to break into a leadership position in Silicon Valley, something that's proven tough for Asians to do. Just a couple of weeks ago, an Asian-American professional organization called Ascend published a report looking at diversity numbers in five large established tech companies. It wasn't pretty. Though 27 percent of the professional workforce of those companies are Asian or Asian-American, less than 19 percent are managers, just under 14 percent in the executive suite. Asian women are especially underrepresented.

CHENNY ZHANG: Being a Chinese and being a woman, you kind of are expected to be more timid and shy. You're just expected to work hard and do your job.

RATH: Chenny Zhang is 26. She grew up in San Jose, an all-American girl so into sports, she interned for the New England Patriots. She quit her job at Cisco last year, and she's just moved Beijing to focus on her English-language learning startup called Merch. Zhang and her cofounders close their first round of funding next week. It's just Zhang meeting with American investors. A Chinese colleague accompanies her to meetings with Chinese investors. It's been tough.

ZHANG: You get one yes for every, like, 40 to 50 noes that you get. And, like, majority of VCs are white males. So I'm not saying, like, all white males are saying no to me. Our company is also a Chinese market-facing company, so a lot of - maybe just, like, American VCs just aren't interested in those markets.

RATH: She says it's actually been easier with the Chinese investors and the handful of American VCs who are specifically interested in women entrepreneurs.

ZHANG: If they're, like, I love that you're a woman and you're, like, doing this, the conversation goes a lot easier (laughter). I've found that. But otherwise, it's kind of a lot of questions and hard to get a yes. But I think that's - that could be true for, like, any startup.

RATH: Chenny Zhang says that right now, only about 1 out of 5 VCs are openly interested in women entrepreneurs. But that number is growing. Yul Kwon agrees. Things are improving for Asians in Silicon Valley. Now that he's in a position of influence at Facebook, it's something he thinks about a lot.

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. But, you know, for me, I feel like I've been very fortunate. I feel like this is something I need to do to give back to the community.

RATH: Both Kwon and Chenny Zhang were born here in the states. But is it any different for Asians in tech who were born overseas? Tune in tomorrow to find out. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.