The month of May was chosen as Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) Heritage Month to commemorate the first recorded Japanese immigration, on May 7, 1843. It also marks the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad, the majority of which was built by Chinese immigrants, on May 10, 1869.
At Slack, we wanted to take the time, especially this May, to celebrate our AAPI community and ask them about their rich heritage and family histories, and how they stay true to that identity in the tech world. We also asked how allies might best support AAPIs moving forward: Often, it’s as simple as taking the time to listen.
“For some of us, we’ve gone through many years where our instinct would be to conform to survive or thrive at a new job, school or city. Now, within Slack’s ERGs, I have a safe space and community.”
Finding strength and inspiration in generations past
To start, it’s important to understand that the AAPI term encompasses:
- All of the Asian continent
- The Pacific islands of Melanesia (New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands)
- Micronesia (Marianas, Guam, Wake Island, Palau, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru and the Federated States of Micronesia)
- Polynesia (New Zealand, Hawaiian Islands, Rotuma, Midway Islands, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, French Polynesia and Easter Island)
The expansive AAPI community is inclusive of many different customs and conventions, so for some, like Slack customer experience agent Jagvir Kullar, “there’s not one tradition or practice that the AAPI community holds—it is so vast and spans so many cultures. As a collective,” she says, “I’m most proud of our vibrant and welcoming traditions and celebrations, which are always full of great food and bright colors.”
Robby Kwok, the chief of staff to Slack’s CEO, was born in Hong Kong and immigrated to the U.S. when he was 10. “By then,” he says, “I called anyone who was my parents’ age ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties,’ even though they’re not actually related. This taught me to always be respectful to everyone, especially the generations before me.”
Kwok’s grandparents, parents and other relatives endured many struggles during World War II, making significant sacrifices to escape communist China. “My family taught me that we all need to have a selfless mindset for the greater good of the future,” he says. “If we give more than we take, we all end up with more together.”
For Ankita Rajpal, a business development representative at Slack, her parents are also a source of pride. “They are two of the most hardworking, empathetic and loving people I know,” she says. “They’ve always given me unconditional love and support and constantly strive to be better versions of themselves.”
Senior recruiting coordinator Judy Alanzalon’s parents immigrated from the Philippines. “They expressed their love not with words but with actions,” she says. “I have so much love for their respect and level of care, and I try to bring that same energy every day, even when it’s tough.”
Joseph Lam is a senior associate in business strategy. For him and his fellow Vietnamese Americans, the Lunar New Year, or Tet, is a highlight of the year. “It is one of the most joyous and vitalizing traditions we have,” he says. “The holiday is based around life and starting anew. Friends, family and strangers alike wish each other prosperity, happiness and health.”
When he needs inspiration, Lam looks no further than his grandmother. “My bà was the true matriarch and binding force that allowed my family to survive in this country,” he says. An uneducated, illiterate widow, Lam’s grandmother fled halfway across Vietnam with her sisters in 1954 and then escaped her war-torn country with seven kids of her own in 1975. She was stranded at sea for weeks, lived in a refugee camp in Southern California, and experienced a harrowing first winter before landing in project housing in downtown Houston. “After four decades in the U.S.” Lam says, “she’s left a legacy of dozens of grandkids and great-grandkids and a thriving Vietnamese community where she was beloved. She passed away still not knowing English, how to drive or ever having had a formal job, yet her contributions and sacrifices felt undeniably part of the American narrative.”
“My grandmother passed away still not knowing English, how to drive or ever having had a formal job, yet her contributions and sacrifices felt undeniably part of the American narrative.”
A safe space to celebrate and prioritize each other
At Slack, seven employee resource groups (ERGs) aim to drive belonging by providing support and professional development opportunities across Slack’s global offices. This includes the Earthtones ERG, for our employees who identify as people of color. Kwok has been an executive sponsor of Earthtones for the past four years. “It has given me the opportunity to work with the most diverse group of people around the world I’ve ever worked with,” he says.
Rajpal joined her team remotely in 2020 and was pleasantly surprised by Slack’s ERGs. “There was an instant feeling of belonging and security,” she says. “For some of us, we’ve gone through many years where our instinct would be to conform to survive or thrive at a new job, school or city. Now I have a safe space and community.”
Lam started during the pandemic too. “The Earthtones ERG was an amazing way to be welcomed to the inclusive culture we have at Slack,” he says. He was especially glad to be invited to introduce himself at the Earthtones “small-hands” meeting. “It was a testament to the mantra of ‘Yes, you belong here’ in the remote environment.”
Lam is also part of the Out ERG, in which those who identify as members of the LGBTQIA+ community can connect and celebrate each other. Last June, it held a virtual Pride Month celebration and “out to lunch” event for anyone who wanted to join. “Even in remote times, there are engaging events, from workout classes to lunches to talk about queer parenting,” he says. “It reminds me there are so many fun things to connect with colleagues over that aren’t spreadsheets and Jira tickets.”
Alanzalon simply appreciates that these communities exist. “I feel like I belong at Slack and can be my authentic self. It’s a privilege that I try not to take for granted,” she says.
Kullar is part of both the Earthtones and Women’s ERGs at Slack. “It’s allowed me insight into local and global issues that are impacting different groups within the ERGs and has helped tremendously for my own knowledge and learning,” she says. For example, to celebrate the Lunar New Year, Earthtones held a cooking class where participants learned how to make dumplings.
“My colleagues enable me to speak my mind, problem-solve effectively, and build strong recruiting infrastructure and partnerships. We’ve been able to touch peoples’ lives in a meaningful and positive way. My time at Slack has truly been one of my greatest fortunes.”
A charged time to reflect on a tumultuous year
Given the significant increase of crimes against the AAPI community in both 2020 and 2021, it goes without saying that this year’s AAPI Month strikes a different chord. “I’ve been in dismay seeing and reading about the ruthless attacks on Asian elders and the devastating mass shooting that killed six blameless Asian women in Atlanta,” Lam says. “It’s left me thinking: What does it mean to be American, and does being Asian American make me any less American?”
“What is it about having these shaped eyes and this skin tone that gives anybody the right to say we don’t belong here?”
For Lam, and many others, AAPI Heritage Month serves as a reminder that the AAPI community absolutely does belong in this country. “From the delicious foods we share to the influence we’ve had on technology, business and the arts, the AAPI community’s impact is woven into the fabric of this country,” he says. “This month reminds me that having customs and traditions that we brought from Asia and the Pacific Islands is, in and of itself, a truly American experience.”
Kullar agrees that AAPI Month not only celebrates and recognizes the diverse Asian communities but acknowledges the pain and suffering they are currently facing, as well as the struggles they’ve always endured. “Each minority group has their own set of struggles but a lot of similar ones as well,” she says. “Recognizing that is important in understanding what shaped those communities and what they need to feel belonging moving forward.”
“AAPI Month reflects the rich and diverse history of Asians, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders all over the world. Each culture is unique and brings so much value to our lives. It’s an honor and a privilege to have the opportunity to learn more about AAPI history and culture.”
Bringing your true self to work
In the tech world, “disruption” is often encouraged. But for Kwok, it presents a dilemma: “Culturally, we’re taught not to rock the boat and just go with the flow, which is pretty much the opposite of the tech culture to ‘move fast and break things.’ It can be a real struggle.” He finds solace in mentors who empower him to speak up when he might otherwise hesitate.
For Rajpal, it’s important to reiterate how to say the Indian pronunciation of her name, both internally at Slack and externally with customers and prospects. “It’s actually helped me become more memorable on a cold call when I’m speaking with fellow Asian Americans or Canadians,” she says.
Kullar also maintains this standard. “I stay true to my identity by ensuring people know my name, and aren’t using nicknames if that’s not what I prefer,” she says. “If I can learn the names of my colleagues, they can learn mine too.”
“I spent much of my youth running away from my identity, whether it was being queer or being Asian. As I learned more about myself, I started to celebrate the things that made me different and learned to be unequivocally and unapologetically myself. Welcoming my colleagues into my life, without qualms, is how I stay true to my AAPI identity.”
Alanzalon embraces her own history. The product of immigrant parents, she had a San Francisco public school education, spent time abroad, and has worked in the public and private sectors. “I think about my upbringing and my entire identity as a queer first-generation Filipino-American woman,” she says. “I stay true by thinking about my family’s values: work hard and take care of each other. These values show up in every facet of my work.”
“My mentors and sponsors shine spotlights on me because they know I don’t like doing that myself. To find those people, I learned to be vulnerable about who I really am with them, and helped them understand how my culture influenced my behaviors.”
The importance of listening, providing support and giving back
With the devastating rise of Asian hate crimes, it’s more important than ever to check in on your AAPI friends and colleagues to see if they’re OK. “We generally come from a culture that ingrains silent resilience and emotional suppression as a way to cope and endure,” Lam says. “Personally, it’s been difficult to speak openly about what’s going on and how it’s affecting me, but there is comfort in knowing that I have support from others.”
Lam says one of the best ways to be an ally for any minority or marginalized group is to educate yourself: “The AAPI community is not a monolith. We come from dozens of countries with different traditions and languages. It goes an incredibly long way to learn the nuances and subtleties of the different groups within the AAPI community.”
“If we give more than we take, we all end up with more together.”
Like Lam, Kwok is not often vocal about social issues, and rarely posts on social media. “As an immigrant and an Asian American,” he says, “I realized that I have a responsibility to show up and let our voices be heard.”
Listening is also important. “Really hear and see your AAPI colleagues,” Alanzalon urges. “Acknowledge their thoughts and ideas. Chime in when you’re in a meeting and your AAPI colleague is struggling to find a break to express their ideas. Think about the micro just as much as the macro issues like systemic racism and oppression.”
Even something as simple as normalizing the act of asking, re-asking and confirming how to pronounce someone’s name is significant, Rajpal says. “It is so obvious when leaders or peers avoid calling on people because they forgot or don’t know how to pronounce a name,” she says. “Let’s not make it weird! I would much prefer you take the second to ask if you’re pronouncing my name correctly than avoid saying my name or calling on me altogether.”
If your workspace doesn’t feel safe or encouraging, Kullar says, “take the leap! Encourage leadership to create space for our AAPI communities if they haven’t already. Voice your concerns and needs when it comes to diversity.”
“In the political and social climate we’re living through, it’s important to donate to and spread awareness of organizations working to protect AAPI communities. They help the community thrive and establish roots through employment, scholarships, social welfare initiatives and more.”
When asked what advice she might give other AAPIs, Alanzalon says she’d like for them to take up space—in May, yes, but every other month of the year too. “Let the world know you exist,” she says. Kullar says that though the color of your skin may create obstacles, it’s also what makes you distinctive: “Your culture, traditions and values are what makes you you, and there’s no need to be embarrassed. You are valuable, powerful and a piece of what makes our community unique.”