Asian American Entrepreneurs: Overcoming Hate – “Identity is not destiny.” An interview with Justin Zhu.

This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Justin Zhu, ex-CEO and co-founder of Iterable, a cross-chanel marketing platform that works with leading brands such as Zillow, DoorDash, Calm, and Box. After the article was released, Justin was terminated from his position at Iterable. What unique challenges have you experienced as an Asian American in […]

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This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Justin Zhu, ex-CEO and co-founder of Iterable, a cross-chanel marketing platform that works with leading brands such as Zillow, DoorDash, Calm, and Box. After the article was released, Justin was terminated from his position at Iterable.

What unique challenges have you experienced as an Asian American in business?

I used to be afraid I would be looked down upon by non-Asian American leaders. Even though I was a CEO, there were times where I second guessed myself. Often, I wonder if my thoughts are going to be accepted just because of who I am versus what value I am actually offering in my meetings. I have also found that if my hesitations are visible, they can be perceived as a weakness by others and that is not the leadership style I should be portraying. I have worked towards overcoming that fear by realizing that I do have a seat at the table and my voice matters just as much as everyone else’s.

Have you experienced a noticeable difference in discrimination since the COVID-19 pandemic?

Since our former president referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” and the “Kung flu,” there has been a significant increase in discrimination against the AAPI population. In fact, anti-Asian American hate crimes rose by 149% from 2019 to 2020. My friends and family have been spat on in public—just for being Asian—and they feel like they can do nothing about it. We’re tired of feeling unsafe in our communities and coming under attack just for being who we are.

How do you cope with discrimination, and what might you suggest to other Asian-American professionals who might be facing the same discrimination?

Racism and prejudice are symptoms of a fixed mindset. Racial prejudice is based upon assumptions about the “fixed” traits of members of racial groups. But racial identity is not destiny. Nor are racists destined to be racist. One way to break the stranglehold of prejudice is to remind ourselves that our identities and attitudes are not permanently fixed. I remind myself of one of our core values at Iterable: Growth Mindset, the antithesis of a fixed mindset. I use this as an opportunity to see where others’ prejudice is coming from and dissect the experience. This way, I can start working to educate, and to provide resources that help to dispel the myths and preconceptions that feed racist attitudes.

Sure, there are limitations to growth. Racism is not the simple result of a bad mindset. Racism is also the result of struggle over scarce resources, demographic pressures, corrupt institutions, media stereotypes and so on. It is important to recognize the depth of racism. But that shouldn’t stop us from working to make progress. Rather, realism about racism sets the agenda for the work we must do to build the world we want.

Racism won’t go away overnight. But it is important to see that we have made progress. Outrage about racism is a hopeful sign. We are slowly growing a better future. That’s a growth mindset, and that’s the bigger picture that I try to focus on.

For other Asian Americans facing the same discrimination, I encourage a few things—stay strong and confident, and seek out support. I know firsthand how difficult it is to stay strong and confident in situations where your intellect and humanity are challenged. When your sense of duty is debased.

Make sure you find support. Racism doesn’t happen in a silo—you are not alone. Here at Iterable, we’ve launched an affinity group, which creates community for employees that self-identify as Asian American and Pacific Islander. The group is there to elevate and develop folks at Iterable by promoting an inclusive environment through mentorship, community and events that promote cultural awareness. Even more than that, it’s a place where you can go to seek support and share your story. You are not alone.

What are some of the key factors in overcoming acts of discrimination (i.e., a supportive social circle, strong community)?

By creating Stand with Asian Americans with thousands of other AAPI business leaders and allies, I now have a platform to share my voice. When Iterable was founded, there were very few Asian American founders or CEOs of public companies. Now we have people like Eric Yuan, founder and CEO of Zoom; Katrina Lake, co-founder and CEO of Stitch Fix; and Tony Xu, co-founder and CEO of DoorDash to inspire the next generation of AAPI business leaders. Additionally, this coalition has given me the opportunity to support and encourage others to speak up. This will help kickstart change through open dialog so generations to come don’t have to go through the same challenges that I and many others who identify as AAPI have experienced.

I encourage others to participate in groups, such as Stand with Asian Americans, and also create their own supportive circles to have those open, difficult discussions and lean on one another to fight these issues together.

What can non-Asian Americans do to support their Asian American friends and colleagues who are facing discrimination in the workplace or on the street?

The biggest thing—get involved in the larger movement.

Volunteer: Awareness is really just the first step. Now it’s about volunteering, it’s about contacting community organizers who are working in communities like the Bay Area and New York City, where so many of these attacks are happening, and donating to these causes. And it’s about speaking up—it’s about not being silent.

Immediately report all incidents: Whether you’re a witness or a victim, report these incidents because we know there’s a tendency in the Asian American community not to report. These figures that we’re citing now are not accurate. They’re actually very underreported. So we need to know the scope and the breadth of the problem, so reporting is part of it.

It’s important to report all incidents of anti-Asian sentiment, no matter how great or small, to Stop AAPI Hate—a joint project the Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council (A3PCON), Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA), and the Asian American Studies Department of San Francisco State University launched last spring. Since the language barrier is thought to be a hurdle, the site allows for incidents to be reported in English, as well as Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Tagalog, among others.

Enroll in bystander intervention training Also essential is training on how to stop harassment as a bystander, as Hollaback! and Asian Americans Advancing Justice have teamed up to do in hour-long Bystander Intervention to Stop Anti-Asian American Harassment and Xenophobia workshops.

Check in on your friends: Checking in with your Asian friends during this harrowing time is another major way to show support. Let them know you are fired up and are taking steps to help.

(and only your friends): reaching out to an AAPI person with whom you don’t have a current relationship can do more harm than good. If you’re white, reaching out to a randomly marginalized person can be seen as an effort to lessen your white guilt. Your reach-out should come from a genuine and authentic place. It should be congruent with your relationship.

Speak up on social: If you have a Twitter account or any social media platforms, get the message out. Contact your legislators and your district attorneys and ask what they’re doing to stop discrimination and violence for all marginalized groups.

To get in touch with Justin, connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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