The model minority stereotype does not depict Asian Americans as leaders. We’re considered hard working and obedient. Those are hardly leadership qualities. What can we do to break out of that mold in the workplace?

The Model Minority Myth is certainly an insidious stereotype that permeates American society. Unfortunately, it has been ingrained in American culture for almost 60 years and continues to be reinforced by the mainstream media and entertainment industries.

It will not be eradicated overnight and will likely take years, if ever, for it to be eradicated from the American psyche. So with this backdrop, rather than tackle what is likely a long-term battle, focus on how to use it to your advantage in the immediate term. Use it to establish credibility with your bosses and co-workers by fulfilling only the positive aspects of the stereotype which can help you climb the corporate ladder.

For example, hard work, diligence, and loyalty are necessary ingredients for any aspiring professional. Validate this through your work and actions. However, as you build greater internal credibility, use this social currency to branch out and demonstrate the leadership qualities that your company rewards.

Volunteer to speak in front of the team, present ideas to senior management, meet clients – whatever your firm associates with leadership. Demonstrate publicly the traits and stereotypes that your company values in their leaders. You will slowly break the mold by showing, and not telling, others that you have what it takes. Being an Asian American in the workforce comes with a lot of baggage but you need to walk before you can run. 

I feel like I’m on an island at work. Where can I go to find mentors to help me navigate the workplace and put myself in a positive light?

You have rightly identified that having mentors are critical to your career success. They can impart upon you the wisdom of their own follies and can give you fair warning about career roadblocks ahead. So definitely seek them out.

However, before you seek out a mentor, I believe it is important to first acknowledge that fundamentally all people are self-interested. That includes even well meaning mentors who appear to ask for nothing in return. Most mentors (present company included) see magnanimity as a way to feel good about themselves and give back to society. Generally, all they ask for in return is gratitude and the feeling of having made a positive difference. 

Ideally, you should try to find a mentor at work who is positively inclined to help you because they see emotional benefit in doing so or they simply like you. Try to appeal to whatever will appeal to your potential mentor most.  If the mentor is also your boss then it’s an added bonus because they will look out for you at key moments like promotion or compensation time.  However, don’t just rely on their kindness. Make sure you do a great job for them and determine what other ways you can help your mentor.

If you aren’t able to find a mentor at work, then look at your industry-at-large or other social networks. Schools, associations, and clubs are all great sources. Perhaps there are senior professionals on LinkedIn who come from your industry or ethnic group and would be willing to mentor a young professional. Cold email them. Don’t be shy about asking for help. But always remember the art of reciprocation.

Be effusive in your gratitude and if you can offer something to your prospective mentor make that clear. Perhaps there are specific projects they need help with? By all means raise your hand. Life is a two way street and I firmly believe that you get what you give.  

A lot of companies right now are openly expressing solidarity with the Asian American community as we combat a tide of hate? How can we as a community turn a negative situation into a positive by creating more opportunities for advancement in the corporate world.

Although we don’t have empirical data tracking the perpetrators of these hate crimes, it does appear that most of them are random attacks conducted by non-Asian Americans against Asian Americans in public places such as streets, stores and other public venues.

I don’t see reports of violence against Asian Americans in the workplace by co-workers in mass. That being said, in the immortal words of the Italian Renaissance writer Niccolo Machiavelli, “Never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis.”

Use it to shine a light on Asian Americans in your workplace and the contributions you and others have made to achieving your company goals. Oftentimes I have found that Asian Americans can be overlooked in the workplace but with the renewed focus on the social challenges of Asian Americans, now is the time to use the spotlight.

Take on new projects at work that can help educate others on Asian American interests and dispel some of the biases like the Model Minority Myth. Perhaps even demonstrate some of your leadership capabilities by organizing fundraising events, neighborhood watches, and race seminars. I’m a firm believer in doing well by doing good and making sure Asian Americans are treated as equal Americans can only benefit your company.

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