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Assessing the Asian Equation

9/09/2005 8:00 PM Eastern

In the early 1990s, Peilin Chou could just about gather a good bridge game among her Asian-American colleagues in Hollywood. Now she might be able to field a couple baseball teams.

Although Chou’s experiences at that time took place inside the shark tank of a Hollywood studio, she and others don’t see much difference inside the multichannel business. “We all knew each other,” says Chou, who now serves as senior vice president of programming at AZN Television. “We still all know each other.”

In a world where minority groups struggle for a seat at the white-dominated table, Asians are going through a painful self-examination phase as they try to break away from cultural patterns, parental expectations and stereotypes that have limited their participation in programming and distribution.

Asian-Americans believe they have been overlooked for a number of reasons, and when they do manage to land a job they face the proverbial “bamboo ceiling” as described in Jane Hyun’s recent book Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians.

There may be 12 million Asians in the U.S., but observers say that they are overshadowed in the minds of media executives by the rapidly growing Hispanic population of 40 million, as well as the 37 million African-Americans in the U.S. Another obstacle: Asian populations are often located in smaller DMAs, such as Hawaii, which diffuses their political power.

Although advocacy groups try to raise awareness of the issue, none aggressively push for media companies to hire more Asian-Americans. Those who do manage to ascend the corporate ladder say they have worked hard to overcome whatever limitations their parents or Asian society puts on them.

LONE WOLF EFFECT

“I’ve spent a lot of time feeling like a lone wolf in doing what I do,” said Laureen Ong, president of the National Geographic Channel, a sentiment echoed by many of her Asian colleagues.

Ong’s experience is not atypical. Growing up as a third-generation Chinese-American in northern New Jersey, she never considered a career in media. After all, she had few role models to emulate, partly because Chinese-American parents usually directed their children to more traditional fields. Children often carried the weight of parental and cultural expectations to go into medicine, the sciences or other professions — but the media? How many Asians worked in the media?

Those who entered the industry held the common thread of a strong drive to succeed on their own terms, regardless of their parents.

“At that time in my life, my mother would have said, 'I don’t understand why you’re going for a master’s degree. Just marry a doctor. Marry a lawyer. You can be a teacher. Life can be fine.’ In my particular case it wasn’t that I argued. … I just dreamed bigger than they did for me,” Ong says.

“Growing up I didn’t even know you could make a living in television or making films,” says Chou. “I didn’t know anyone who did it. When you watched TV you never saw any Asian people; you never saw people in the credits.”

It is difficult to give a precise number of Asian-Americans working at cable networks, MSOs or satellite companies. But thanks to a recent boom in programming aimed at the Asian-American population, more are getting opportunities inside emerging programming companies such as AZN, ImaginAsian, American Desi, MTV Desi, and MTV: Music Television’s soon-to-launch MTV China and MTV Korea.

“You don’t realize the subtle pressure to go with someone you’re more comfortable with,” said AZN CEO Steve Smith explaining the lack of Asian executives in television. “People tend to feel more comfortable with people who look like them or come from similar backgrounds.”

At Home Box Office in the 1980s, despite the best efforts to bring in more minorities, the network found that human-resource professionals “tended to see someone slightly more positive if they looked like them,” says Smith, who worked at HBO at the time.

Similarly, Chou says that well-meaning efforts at her former company, MTV Networks, to find more Asian executives tended to fail, because recruiters found too few qualified candidates.

With Smith at AZN, and Michael Hong at ImaginAsian, the hope is that hiring Asians at emerging, smaller networks, will also prepare a generation of executives who will fill corporate boardrooms and become role models for those contemplating career choices.

Of AZN’s 76 employees, 20 are Asian, says Smith, who tapped into the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment to recruit new executives when the usual search companies turned up empty. It was through CAPE, a 14-year-old non-profit networking group, that Smith indirectly found Chou.

CAPE, which has branches in Los Angeles and New York, offers panels and workshops, screenings, a “Pitch Lab” to help members sell their projects, and social gatherings designed to support Asians in the business.

Moreover, some executives are hopeful that wider corporate exposure to Asian content on these new channels will help break down the barriers that often impede understanding of the differences between Asian and American cultures, which keep the two at arms length inside the business world.

“I definitely think it’s headed in the right direction,” says Chou, who is of Chinese descent and was raised in the California’s Bay Area, in speaking of the Asian work force in television. “It’s something that’s going to take some time. It’s a longer evolutionary process.”

But others believe that progress is far too slow. “It could take centuries to get where we need to get,” says Daphne Kwon, a Korean-American who heads Expo TV. “We’re going to be the last one on the list of people who are helped, because we’re not loud enough.”

Instead, she argues Asians need to do a better job of educating white employers about the benefits of a diverse work force and to tear down the stereotypes and myths holding back the group.

But who will lead this charge? Leaders like Jesse Jackson and Kweisi Mifune, the former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, are nowhere to be seen among the Asian community — at least in the mainstream media.

MINORITY LIKE NO OTHER

First, unlike other minorities, the Asian community is far from a monolithic one that speaks in a single voice. There are so many language differences.

What’s more, “we are not organized. We do not have a common unity bond,” says John Yokogawa, a vice president at Intertrend Communications, a Long Beach, Calif.-based ad agency that specializes in the Asian market.

“Hispanics have a language across the nations.” He also notes that the slavery suffered by the ancestors of African-Americans and the Holocaust that lives in the memory of Jewish-Americans has a binding effect among people in those cultures. But there’s no experience or event that unifies Asians. Kwon says, “We don’t embrace our common history.”

It is a culture not easily organized. Asians of previous generations have worked diligently to keep a low profile, believing that they would realize the American dream only by fitting in and striving.

“We’re not bred to be independent thinkers,” Yokogawa says, adding that Asians tend to be “clique-oriented” and “localized.”

“As a general rule Asian culture is a self-effacing, not a self-promoting kind of culture.” Ong says.

Corporate-recruitment efforts fall short, according to this theory, because they usually focus on sales, an area that is sometimes too assertive for Asians, many of whom have a more passive disposition.

Kurt Takamine, an assistant professor at Chapman University’s graduate program in organizational leadership, spelled out some of the employment issues in a 2002 paper titled “Asian Pacific Americans and Corporate Leadership: What’s the Score?”

First, he hypothesized that Asians often naively believe that hard work alone will catch employers’ attention and lead to promotions.

“APAs [Asian Pacific-Americans] need to find their voice in communicating their ideas, passions and visions to others,” he wrote, adding that management was looking for strong “emotional intelligence” in addition to on-the-job technical excellence. “Understand the value of networking. Networking or Social Capital is essential for climbing the corporate leader.”

In an interview, Takamine says that while Asians are not always familiar with corporate politics, it is wrong to make generalizations across the pan-Asiatic cultures.

Koreans, for example “adopted American values, even in South Korea. They are not unfamiliar with American ethics. It depends on who we’re really talking about.”

Moreover, the further removed from their homeland they are, the more likely Asians are to acculturate to American values and the hard-nosed business community.

Yokogawa certainly sees that in the interactions of her 20-something sister, where “things are starting to become more integrated.”

While Chou sees changes as well, she notes that parental pressure is still omnipresent. “My cousin is 20 and an intern at MTV. … If I wasn’t in the entertainment industry, I don’t know if she would have been in there. Her parents are stricter than mine.”

And some reject outright that picture of the passive Asian. “Most Asian-Americans I know in the media industry are just as savvy [as anybody else] at understanding the need for marketing their work. I don’t think that’s an issue,” says Hong, the CEO of the year-old Imagin-Asian network.

Ong argues that those with the drive and desire like hers can succeed with the right mindset. She relates how as a syndication saleswoman she made a sale to a Pennsylvania TV station manager who said she was the first Asian to call on him. She used he Asian status to convince him to buy a show. “There are interesting things that can happen to you in your career. You can react in any number of ways. I chose to make it a positive.”

Yokogawa suggests that as more Asians turn up in front of the camera, it serves as an impetus for more interest in media as a career. He notes that when he was growing up, the only Asian he ever saw on TV was Jack Soo’s horseplaying cop on Barney Miller. “A lot has to do with seeing more Asians in sports, more Asians on TV. When you see more Asians generally that’s starts to make you think a little more,” he says.

That’s where new networks like AZN and ImaginAsian say they can help, by giving viewers a well-rounded portrait of Asian characters beyond kung fu artists, computer geeks and massage-parlor girls.

“People are going to realize Asians have a lot more to contribute because of the excitement and interest in Asian culture,” says Hong. “The people who hire are no different than anyone else. They are going to be influenced by the mass media.”

He sums up his network’s goal: “If mainstream America would understand the difference between Korea and China, that would be a major victory for the network.”

Chou has similar goals at AZN. “The mission of programming AZN is not just to get Asian faces on TV, not just to get a different perspective of Asians on television, but to change the way Asian-Americans are perceived in this country.”

Despite the good intentions, Kwon doubts little will improve without a forceful corporate push.

“To really crack the barrier, those currently in power need to believe that as business goes increasingly global, fostering executives that have a foot in multiple cultures is an asset. Making executives conform to an 'American style’ of corporate behavior might not be the best way to ensure flexibility and growth in a world where the 'American way’ is no longer the only way.”

But she concedes the cultural perception. “I have held back on self-marketing because I just thought, 'I don’t want to hog the spotlight.’ But I think everyone has done that. Do I think Asians as a group are the ones least likely to raise their heads [to be visible]? Yes, I think that.”

Takamine, like many other executives, advises Asians who are seeking to “make it” in the media to seek out mentors/sponsors for advice and guidance. Those at the top now say they are happy to take on that role.

“Can people already in their jobs help and be great role models to show what’s possible? Absolutely,” Ong says.

In his paper, Takamine urged Asians to aggressively address “misperceptions” held by white employers about Asians lack of willingness to play the corporate power game, and their “anti-social” nature” on the job.

Advice for Asians in the workplace has also come from Hyun’s new book, in which she lays out strategies for advancing. For example, she counsels Asians to be aware of their skills, values and demeanor while seeking out advice in the workplace; craft a “personal marketing pitch” for themselves; and actively search for mentors.

Sometimes, discretion is the better part of valor, and it’s time to retreat. In the hard-charging, often hand-to-hand combat world of the media, those who fail to break out of whatever ancestral chains they feel might simply be in the wrong field, say some leaders.

Advises Ong, “I would say if you’ve got that conflict, you should find a different career.”

 

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