Where are the Asian CEOs?

Left to Right: Ajay Anand, Buck Gee and Bill Harper

Last night (January 13), the Asia Society hosted a sold-out audience for a frank, spirited discussion about Asian American corporate leadership in San Francisco. Specifically, why, in a city that is one-third Asian, are there so few Asian-Pacific Islander American (API) CEOs, board members, and executive leaders? 

Overall, API presence in the largest San Francisco firms is also roughly one-third, which has suggested to observers (including many HR departments) that this is a non-issue. It’s only when we disaggregate the data that the severe shortage of Asian Americans in the top ranks becomes clear. Even more striking, the data that Buck Gee, a former Vice President of Cisco, has compiled show that the numbers are virtually unchanged from a decade ago.

What is the root of the problem? Is it, as one audience member put it, that “Asians are thinkers, not talkers?” Our panelists disagreed, and the rest of the audience didn’t seem to be buying it either. 

Is the problem discrimination? Many agreed that that is an issue, but that it’s becoming less of one for younger APIs.

More than anything, panelists stressed that becoming a leader is hard, whatever one’s background. The challenge is building the skill set necessary to be a leader. But with planning and effort, these skills can be learned, and corporations themselves can provide crucial help as well.

Wade Loo, a former Partner at KPMG, observed that in their focus on achievement, Asians (and countless others) can be overly focused on getting good marks and expecting rewards to follow in turn. This works fine in school, but not necessarily in the business world. 

Of course aspiring leaders need to work hard and keep their noses to the grindstone, but they need other skills as well: focusing on relationship-building, being willing to take risks and step out of their comfort zones, and having – and showing – passion and commitment to success. 

Helen Loh, a Vice President at Charles Schwab, said that at the senior levels, “it’s all about people” – “influencing others, including those we have no power over.” 

Moderator Ajay Anand, a Partner at Ernst & Young, summed up these qualities as “street smarts,” or “swagger.” 

It is also important, others added, to gain broad experience in climbing the corporate ladder – to work in sales, for instance, in addition to a technical area like engineering or accounting. Corporations themselves can help by providing tools, resources, and support.

In terms of senior API corporate leaders, one of the biggest San Francisco success stories is PG&E. Bill Harper, Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer at PG&E, singled out the corporation’s active support of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) for APIs as well as other minority groups. The Filipino Resource group alone has been active for 40 years, he pointed out. ERGs can provide invaluable support in the form of leadership training, mentors, and coaches for up and coming leaders.

Join the conversation: Why aren’t there more Asian corporate leaders? What is your recipe for success?

The program was co-sponsored by APAPA, ASCEND, TiE, CAAEN, and the Bay Area Council.