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Charlotte Lee always admired Steve Jobs’ well-known philosophy that objects and technology should be (in her words) “friendly to humans and delightful to interact with.” As Founder and CEO of Monday Design Company, a service design consultancy, Lee uses that inspiration to design websites, digital tools, and processes that help her clients achieve success.
Lee established Monday Design Consultancy to complement her other venture, Kastling Group, a technology development consultancy. Monday Design Company helps government and industry clients map out complex business processes, plot customer- or client-facing touchpoints, and helps leaders strategize a user-friendly way to improve service delivery.
In celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, we’re asking AAPI founders in the business community about their path to entrepreneurship and the challenges facing AAPI business leaders and today. Read on to hear Lee’s take on what is needed to further equity and inclusion in the business community. What follows has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q. What kind of impact do you want to make as an entrepreneur?
I want to ensure that I leave a path for younger AAPI generations to follow. I want to cut the branches, move the rocks, and paint the markers so that the terrain in this industry that was difficult for me is simply a trail that can be followed by others. At first, I just wanted to break stereotypes about women, women in tech, and Asian women's roles in technology. This turned into a calling as I struggled to find a strong network of AAPI leaders who were empowered or interested in mentoring me.
I understand what it means to be the overlooked voice in the room. To prepare and differentiate myself, I take no shortcuts on quality, uphold integrity, and strengthen the ethical use of technology. It's a longer, harder road, but I love to imagine that I can help the AAPI community, especially young women, believe the "game" of success can be defined in different ways in a wide variety of occupations.
Q. What are the unique challenges of being an AAPI business owner or leader?
The challenge is the sense of belonging—that pertains to the physical presence of being AAPI, and the psychological discomfort we have to coach ourselves to overcome. It is often difficult to be a "token." (Note: One is a token, two is a minority, and three changes the conversation.)
We've learned the language, we've received the proper training, gained the experience, and finally made a seat at the table for ourselves with sheer grit. But there is often a sense when I walk into meetings or formal settings that seems unwelcoming. I'm constantly having to adjust expectations and try to be conscientious of how I present myself, or am representing my community, with every interaction. It's an extra layer of emotional labor that non-AAPI business owners might not worry about.
Q. What can people do to show support for AAPI-owned businesses?
For one, people can try harder to understand and appreciate something about the AAPI community: we are a vastly complex mosaic of cultures, upraising, and heritage. The number of times I have to point to a map and explain the different number of geographical regions and ancestry that "AAPI" covers is boundless.
Support for AAPI businesses and people at large will come when we feel that our non-AAPI colleagues have taken the time to understand and appreciate all the unique perspectives, food, and cultural abundance we contribute. On a lighter note, we'd love if people could understand that we might shop at the same grocery store, but between China, Korea, and Japan, for example, we don't even use each other's soy sauces for our cuisines!
Q. What needs to be done to further build a more diverse and fair business community?
A community by definition is a group of people with shared and common attributes. AAPI business owners certainly share the spirit of enterprise, innovation, and advancement of this country as non-AAPI business owners do. It would be of immediate benefit for people to proactively find ways to make sure we are accounted for and visible in the various industries we are a part of. This means a conscious effort toward the inclusion of AAPI business owners in major boardrooms or public discussions and making room for our ideas in the decision-making processes. Diversity is being invited to the prom, and inclusion is being asked to dance. Equity will come as a result of conscientious inclusion.
Q. What can business leaders do to better to support their AAPI employees?
I’ll refer again to the idea of inclusion. It is not enough that they are there. You don't win medals for hiring a good candidate. You do, however, demonstrate leadership and vision when you are able to weave all of your employees' unique perspectives toward the vision you have as a business leader.
I often consciously or subconsciously note the dynamics of non-AAPI business leader's interactions with their AAPI employees to judge if they are someone I'd like to be in a business partnership with. If their associates don't look comfortable or their relationship looks superficial, I can't detach the feeling that that's what the business partnership with me might look like too. I now have the confidence to know the value of my expertise and have turned down several potential partnerships due to their lack of inclusion of minorities (in general) in the conversation. As the AAPI community gets stronger, AAPI candidates should take the same discretion when considering their prospective employers as well.
Q. What does business mean to you as an entrepreneur? Please start your response with "Business is…”
Business is hope for change for those with big ideas.