What It’s Like to Work for People Who Look Like Me
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Munchery.
Bringing My Full Self to Work
There is a day in the Munchery office that I will always hold dear in my heart: it was the moment when Conrad Chu, one of our cofounders, invited his parents to tour our office here in SF. I suddenly heard an exchange of Cantonese flying around as his parents marveled at the office shindigs and the efforts of what their son built. As I introduced myself to his parents in Cantonese, my eyes met Conrad’s gaze, and it was as if his smile was saying “this could be you one day, too”. Not many experiences are as warm as witnessing your cofounder conversing in Cantonese with his parents, and bringing them to fully experience his startup life.
My own parents mean a great deal to me, but I have always struggled with explaining what it is I actually do in this field to them. I have always wanted so badly to bring them fully into my journey of being in Silicon Valley, not only because I want them to be proud of me, but that I want them to know the sacrifices they made to come to America were worth it.
My barriers in doing so though have mostly been linguistics and apathy – for example, I am not sure what the translations for data structures and cloud computing are in Vietnamese or Chinese, nor do I think explaining these concepts to my parents would garner a deeper understanding of why I love what I do.
As much as startups like to boast about how scrappy they are, there is nothing as scrappy as an immigrant or refugee family trying to thrive in America. I fully acknowledge that they were the ones who started this journey – by fleeing Vietnam, hustling for my siblings and me to get a great education in Oakland – but I am frustrated that they are only partially able to bask in the fruits of their labor. It is so inspiring how immigrant parents initiate this journey for their kids while knowing full well that they will not be able to fully participate in the spaces that they thrust their kids in at some point.
That is why this moment with Conrad was so special to me – in that moment of connecting with him and his parents, I felt like my cofounder understood my whole journey to the Valley without me ever having to explain context to him. In giving space for his parents to fully participate in his own startup, even for just a glimpse, he gave me the space to feel like I could continue to forge my path in Silicon Valley and bring my full self along with it. I felt like I belonged here in startup world, and I did not need to bifurcate my identity between where I come from and what I love to work on in order to do so.
Smashing Feelings of Not Belonging
I was recruited to join Munchery by sheer happenstance through the mother of Tri Tran, our cofounder and former CEO. Back in 2015, my own mom and I put together a small dinner for family and friends to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon. My mom worked on preparing dinner and inviting friends from our Buddhist temple over, while I was tasked with planning activities for my family to reflect on the history of this war and what it continues to mean to us.
One of the friends my mom invited was Tri’s mom, who recounted the story of the harrowing journey of how her two sons escaped Vietnam by boat to come to America. (http://www.businessinsider.com/how-tri-tran-came-to-america-and-founded-munchery-2016-1) It was like hearing our community’s version of the Mayflower, albeit with wallet-sized photos of her sons and article clippings of their accomplishments included. Despite me feeling the pain in her eyes recounting the sacrifices she made 40 years ago, Tri’s mom was so proud of her sons. Curious, I asked her what her sons did now: her older son Trac became an EECS professor at John Hopkins University, and her younger son Tri co-founded this food company called Munchery. I smiled and knew exactly where I wanted to take my career next.
Before we continue, it needs to be noted that there is an incorrect perception in tech that Asian Americans dominate in the tech scene. The statistics are quite more nuanced than that: despite making up over a quarter of the workforce in the tech industry, less than 12% of startups that get funding have Asian American cofounders (https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/ceos-making-youngest-asian-americans-tech-n516691), and though I could not find more disaggregated data, I would guarantee that that percentage is even lower for Asian American women. This reality we find ourselves in as tech workers of color compounds feelings that I already had about not feeling like I belong or was good enough to start a company in the Valley.
Knowing that the opportunities were bleak to really work and get mentored from Asian American entrepreneurs, I pounced at this opportunity to work with Tri and Conrad as soon as I saw a position open for a software engineer on their team. It was one of the best decisions of my life: working for people who look like me has been an exercise in establishing confidence both in myself and in my community that folks from where we come from can build transformative ventures.
More importantly, the easiest way I dispelled the effects of imposter syndrome was for me to just look across our open office floor at Tri and Conrad working at their desks. That immediately stripped away any notion that we did not belong here. If our Silicon Valley community really wants to solve tech inclusion, we should elect to build pipelines for more founders of color and not just more tech workers of color.
This is my story of what I want to see tech inclusion look like (shout out to #techinclusion and #techdiversity). While the zeitgeist of the conversation surrounding tech diversity appropriately focuses on the inclusion of women and underrepresented communities of color, I want to share what I see needs to be part of the solution as well – more founders from our communities.