In celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, our General Counsel Alex Labowitz sat down with four Cadre employees to gain insight into their culture, history and traditions. Meet Selina Guo, Clément Miao, Varnika Yertha and Will Yu, colleagues with varied backgrounds and views on what being Asian American / Pacific Islander means to them.
Alex Labowitz: Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (APAHM) encompasses a very diverse geographic area and population. Why is celebrating this month important to you?
Will Yu: I was born in Shanghai, China and came to the United States when I was about 6 years old. I’ve lived here ever since, and became a U.S. citizen in my late 20s. I’ve never officially celebrated Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, but I do think about my heritage a lot — it’s been a huge piece of who I am today.
To your point, being Asian American can encompass a variety of cultures, so my experience as an immigrant versus someone who was born here as an Asian American is very different. The same goes for someone who’s South Asian versus Chinese or Japanese or Korean.
Selina Guo: I was born in China as well. I grew up in Shanghai, came to the States for college, stayed here because of a job offer, and became a citizen two years ago.
The older I get, the more I miss home — especially when it’s the Lunar New Year or Chinese New Year. Each year becomes more difficult as I walk around New York and wish my culture was celebrated more in this city and in the workplace.
Varnika Yertha: I was born and raised in South India. In fact, I just moved to the States two years ago for graduate school. I’ve spent the majority of my life in India, so it’s been really interesting to experience professional life in America and compare it to my life back home [in India]. I’ve seen a lot of growth in myself.
I do feel that I fit in in New York and I’m surprised by how much diversity there is here. There’s a void in terms of the exact same cultural traditions here versus in India, but everyone has their own interpretation and it’s interesting to see this awareness. While some celebrations may be a bit more “pop culture” and less traditional, it’s still fun.
Clément Miao: My parents are from Shanghai, but I was born in France. I grew up in a very typical Parisian neighborhood and I was the only Asian kid in school. I moved to Singapore when I was 12 years old that’s when I became more in touch with my Chinese heritage.
After I moved to the U.S. for college, I began to understand that there’s American culture and Asian American culture — which is very different from just Chinese or Asian culture in general. In America, there’s this idea of being Asian American, but in France you don’t consider yourself Chinese French. In some ways, being in the U.S. makes me feel more Chinese than I was in France.
Will, you’ve started a family here in America, and Selina, you’re married. Have you thought about how you plan to pass down traditions to your families?
Will: My wife, Molly, and I discuss this a lot. She was born in Idaho and is of Irish and Italian descent. This makes our daughter, Vera, Chinese-Irish-Italian-whatever.
I’ve spent my entire life trying to find out what my identity is. I spent entire summers in China as a teenager and remember feeling very comfortable there. At the same time, everyone there made it abundantly clear that I was an American who was just visiting — even though I spoke perfect Chinese and knew how to get around by myself.
My identity today has become much more American. Molly and I want Vera to speak Chinese and we want her to celebrate our history, but it’s hard. Molly doesn’t speak Chinese, so we don’t speak to each other, and that makes it even more difficult to teach Vera. We intend to pass down traditions, but just as I’ve crafted my own identity, Vera will have draft her own unique life narrative.
Selina: My husband was born in Beijing, China and grew up in Canada. We’ve decided that when we have children, they’ll speak Chinese — or we’ll try our best to teach them! We’ll have to speak Chinese at home since it’s a language that’s really difficult to acquire if you don’t live in that environment. Part of wanting my children to speak Chinese is because of my mother, who’s Korean but grew up in China. She speaks Korean with her side of the family, but I never learned the language growing up because my dad doesn’t speak it. One of my biggest regrets is not trying harder to learn the language.
Korean is also part of my heritage because my mom did all of the cooking for our family and we celebrated Korean festivals. Hopefully, I can pass down a little bit of Korean culture to our future children. My husband wants to make sure that we also try our best to celebrate Chinese and Korean festivals. We’ve already decided that when we have kids, we’re going to take the day off from work and school to celebrate the Lunar New Year. We want to teach our children that it’s important.
How has being Asian American impacted you in the workplace?
Varnika: I don’t feel like I’m treated differently, but I do believe that my identity influences the way I behave — I’m more understated and hold back a bit. Luckily, at Cadre we have a pretty flat hierarchy in the way we communicate, which allows me to act more naturally. There’s no negative retribution for having a differing opinion, so I feel like I can communicate freely in a meeting room.
Clément: I’ve been lucky that a lot of places that I’ve worked at in the U.S. have been very inclusive of my heritage. Cadre does a good job of this — we’re just trying to fulfill the company mission in each of our different roles. It’s helpful that there are leaders at Cadre who are Asian and in management positions. That sets a good example.
Selina: I have a finance background, which is typically a white, male-dominated field. Coming to Cadre has been eye-opening. Prior to my role here, I was relatively successful because being Asian, I’m a good follower and a hard worker — two very typical Asian American traits in the workplace. At the same time, Cadre is a safe and encouraging environment for leaders and managers to listen to your opinion. I was surprised when I first began working here and my manager would often ask me, “What do you think, Selina?” That really encouraged me to speak up and grow more than I did in previous roles. That was really important.
Will: What Selina says really resonates with me. As children, many of us were taught to put our heads down, do our work, and don’t question our elders. When we came to America, my parents didn’t realize that we lived in a different culture and some of those elements can actually hold you back. Early in my career, the constructive feedback I always received was to speak up more often. It took a long time for that to sink in and now, being in a leadership position, it’s important for me to model that behavior to junior team members.
Can you speak more about the importance of being a role model and your hopes for the future?
Will: As a child, I didn’t know what careers were available to me. My parents were doctors in China and came to the United States to do research (my father was getting his Ph.D. in microbiology), so naturally they wanted me to be a doctor, too.
Having lived through the Cultural Revolution in China, my parents actually thought business people were “crooks,” but when I went to college, one of the most coveted fields to enter was investment banking! When I started out in my career, I didn’t know how to act or behave in a business environment because my parents couldn’t give me any advice in that area, but I was very fortunate to have a great community of friends and colleagues. There’s this mentality that I was taught as an immigrant: “You have to do it yourself. No one’s going to help you.” That thinking actually prevented me earlier in my career from reaching out and creating important relationships. Now I realize some of the things my parents told me were wrong, and part of me that wishes I learned this earlier. I’m certainly going to make sure my daughter has a different experience as she grows up.
Selina: My experience is a little bit different. My dad is a businessman in China so he’s one of the “crooks.” I’m familiar with that mentality, because that’s how my in-laws perceived businessmen in China until they met my dad! My father always valued relationships. Growing up, I would see him having long dinners and drinks with my uncles to discuss business, so I always understood that building relationships was very important. To a certain extent, that was early mentorship for me.
At my first job [in sales and trading], I made sure to reach out to people for advice. I probably felt comfortable doing that because I grew up watching my dad do the same — he asked for advice and gave it to other people. I still keep in touch with my manager from that first job. Having mentors isn’t always about getting career advice, it’s about staying connected with people. I was very lucky to realize this early in my career and it has helped me grow professionally.
Varnika: In India, having role models and mentors at the workplace wasn’t really something I thought about, but I’ve started to think about it more here in the U.S. As an immigrant, you don’t have a community by default, so you have to work to form it. Having conversations like this is helpful — they make you realize that you have to take active steps to build your network.
Since I’m in the beginning of my career, Cadre has been the first place where I’ve started forming those relationships. Adults spend the majority of their waking hours at work, so naturally it’s where you look to find mentors. Since joining my team last year, we’ve grown to include five women and four men who are all from different backgrounds personally and professionally. It’s been great!
Clément: I had a different experience. My parents didn’t raise me to be obedient or to put my head down and just work hard. I think this was partly because my mom was an investigative journalist in France, so her career put her in a position to go outside of her comfort zone and push people.
Growing up, one of my best friends was a third-generation Chinese person in France. His parents were completely integrated in France and as a result, he had the same mentality that I did. I think your mentality as an Asian American depends a lot on how your parents raised you, and also when you mature as an immigrant (which can change over time). If the country you live in is welcoming and your workplace is welcoming, your perception as an immigrant can change.