In Silicon Valley parlance, we are witnessing a “zero-to-one” opportunity in Asian American cultural construction. I’ve been thinking about this since my reaction to Crazy Rich Asians got more attention than I expected.
Still, saying that Asian Americans are doing anything new might come as a surprise to a lot of people. After all, there are sixth and seventh generation Asian Americans, and you can easily find Asian restaurants, Chinatowns, and even Asian-themed museums. However, these artifacts are vestiges from a different generation. They are closer to representing the few sentences that mentioned Chinese railroad workers and the Chinese Exclusion Act in our history books than anything we can relate to today. As an Asian American, visiting an old Chinatown or an Asian museum makes me feel just as foreign as when I visit Asia. The idea of the model minority has stripped us of any discernible character.
Wesley Yang’s been writing about this for a while.
Here is what I sometimes suspect my face signifies to other Americans: an invisible person, barely distinguishable from a mass of faces that resemble it. A conspicuous person standing apart from the crowd and yet devoid of any individuality. An icon of so much that the culture pretends to honor but that it in fact patronizes and exploits. Not just people “who are good at math” and play the violin, but a mass of stifled, repressed, abused, conformist quasi-robots who simply do not matter, socially or culturally. — “Paper Tigers” by Wesley Yang in New York Magazine. May 8, 2011.
That is what zero feels like.
But what does one feel like?
These Tweets from famous Asian American athletes look quite ordinary because…they are. But these were also the rare moments where an Asian American got to display her or his full personhood, in all of its simplicity (like feeling hangry and having a celebrity crush) and complexity (like talking about cultural appropriation). Something that most ordinary Americans are not used to seeing from Asian Americans so publicly.
Since Yang’s article in 2011, Asian Americans have experienced an unprecedented number of opportunities to publicly renegotiate with the rest of America about what it means to be Asian in this country. At the Oscars, Chris Rock inadvertently ticked off Asians, fueling #OscarsSoWhite and the ensuing attempts at reconciliation, which helped set the stage for the success of Crazy Rich Asians. Harvard, the most sought-after Asian brand, is currently contending with its biggest boosters about how to fairly evaluate their children. The progression from zero to one will require more cultural representation and public discourse about what it means to be Asian American. In Taiwan where I grew up, people can’t tell white people apart. Racism and stereotypes strike me as problematic largely because compelling alternatives are not readily available. I feel like we are at the cusp of this rise in the American cultural consciousness as I read these names — Michelle Phan, Steven Yeun, Amy Chua, Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Ryan Higa, Tim de la Ghetto, Hasan Minhaj, Eddie Huang, David Chang, Shib Sibs, Fung Bros, Bobby Hundreds, Akwafina, John Cho, Ken Jeong, Ali Wong, Daniel Dae Kim, Grace Park, Shim Lim, Lana Condor, Randall Park, Kamala Harris, Andrew Yang, Harry Shum Jr., Ted Chiang.
This rise is not an accident. We are seeing the rise today because Asian Americans have built up hard power (i.e. economic means) and we are beginning to demand soft power (i.e. cultural influence) in the United States.
Asian American Hard Power (the market)
It must first be noted that the simplicity of the “Asian American” grouping ignores the important differences among the 40+ subcultures that fall in this bucket.
Population: The Asian American population is projected to grow to 25.7 million by 2019 (7% of the U.S. population), more than doubled from 10.9 million in 1999 just twenty years ago (and the year when I moved to the United States). Asian Americans are the fastest growing population group, faster than the Hispanic-American population.
Purchasing power: According to Nielsen, Asian American buying power increased 257% between 2000 and 2017 (compared to 203% from the second-fastest growing group of Hispanic Americans). They are projected to have a combined purchasing power of $1.3 trillion by 2022. Asian American household income of $110,523 is the highest among all population groups including non-Hispanic White households (Asian Americans are also the highest in individual mean income of $44,887).
Young and educated: Because the most recent immigration wave started in 1965, Asian Americans skew younger than the general population (34 as opposed to 38). If you only consider the second-generation, the median age is only 30. Asian Americans are more likely to enroll in college at 87% compared to 72% for the average American.
Greater Asian Diaspora: It would be remiss to not mention a similar rise in the Greater Asian Diaspora. In terms of population, there are 1.7 million Chinese in Canada and 1.2 million in Australia. There are 1.8 million Indian-British, 1.5 million Indian-Canadian and 1.3 million Indian-South African. Unsurprisingly, Crazy Rich Asians, the movie that spoke specifically to Asian Americans, also dominated the box office in Canada and Australia.
The rise of Asian American Soft Power (the opportunity)
A few months ago, I started noticing my Asian American friends started to share memes from a Facebook group called “Subtle Asian Traits.” The group now has more than one million members and it seems like almost every Asian American I know is in there. If you’ve read this far, it shouldn’t surprise you to find out that the group was started by students in Australia. As one of the founders told the New York Times:
She said she doesn’t mind that her friends ask her about her heritage, although answering questions can be “a bit tedious.”
The endless stream of memes in the “Subtle Asian Traits” group provides relief — it’s a chance to belong for once without having to try.
“We don’t have to explain stuff,” she said.
A New Yorker article describes the impact of this random Facebook group has had on an Asian Canadian:
Jin Angeles, who is twenty-six and lives in Toronto, told me that he has become much less apprehensive in opening conversations about his own Asian upbringing — topics that, before Subtle Asian Traits, would only come up if some event occurred to break a silence that he had never quite noticed before.
Specifically the way Subtle Asian Traits (“SAT”, lol) helps create feelings of belonging is through the sharing of memes that only those in the in-group would understand. Here’s an example:
According to Pew Research, second-generation children of immigrants are more likely to identify with the Asian American or American label than the label associated with their heritage country (i.e. “Korean-American”). There is a tremendous opportunity in being part of this secular movement, and entrepreneurs are starting to pay attention.
Opportunity: Asian American-first businesses
What does it mean to build a business to specifically cater to Asian Americans? With an exploding population and spending power, it pays to explore this idea more.
The first 99 Ranch Market opened in 1984 in Westminster, CA and has since expanded to 50 locations, making roughly $350M a year. Alex Zhou started Yamibuy in 2013 as the online equivalent of 99 Ranch Market to target the younger generation of Asian Americans. In just five years, Yamibuy has grown to $100M in annual revenue and has received $10M in venture funding to fuel its growth. Yamibuy has expanded to beauty and home/kitchen appliances, which maps perfectly to the categories Asian American consumers over-index on according to Nielsen.
Coffee Meets Bagel, EastMeetEast, 2RedBeans, Minder, Shaadi
In the competitive dating market, Coffee Meets Bagel has survived against better funded competitors by carving out a niche of Asian Americans and that niche pays at a much higher rate. Compared to CMB, EastMeetEast is more overtly focused on Asian Americans, from working with Asian YouTubers to creative billboards in LA K-Town to having “fobbiness” as a filter in your dating profile.
2RedBeans went directly after the overseas Chinese market (you can log in with WeChat), which has also enabled them to stay relevant. I haven’t checked these out but I hear there are Minder and Shaadi to tailor to Muslims and Indians specifically.
Michelle Phan / Ipsy
Asian Americans are the most digitally connected minority group in the U.S. Using the YouTube, Asian Americans have side-stepped being overlooked by the mainstream media and built their influence online. Amongst all the Asian beauty and food influencers, Michelle Phan has had the most success riding this wave. Her company, Ipsy, is doing north of $360M in ARR and has people talking about a $2B exit. Building on YouTube is a great way to target Asian Americans.
When I first heard about Instant Pot, it was around 2016. My Asian American friend Esther Yu was spreading the good word about the Prime Day discount. Then in 2017, my other friend Wil Chung convinced me to buy one, but by then I’ve already seen Instant Pot infiltrate every Asian household I go to. The product was engineered to facilitate making immigrant comfort dishes like curry. It even has buttons specifically for “porridge” and “rice.” Typically, the young people are the first to discover new products, but in the case of Instant Pot, they started magically appearing in the homes of my older family and relatives at the same time because Asian Americans are the more likely to be connected with their families through messaging apps like Skype and Whatsapp (Young Asian Americans are twice as likely to be using those apps compared to the average population because of their families), and they made for convenient gifts for our immigrant parents who love to cook.
Crazy Rich Asians, GoldThreads and NextShark
Movies are like startups (with longer odds). The phenomenon that was Crazy Rich Asians grossed $238M worldwide on a $30M investment. The lesser-known movie Searching, #StarringJohnCho, did $78M worldwide with South Korea accounting for $22M of the box office on a shoestring budget.
South Morning China Post with their Goldthread and Abacus properties are bringing professional, high-quality media production to target Asian Americans and those with an interest in China. New media startups like Nextshark has also quickly carved out a niche celebrating Asian Americans in a relatively short time.
These are just the first of many businesses that are smart enough to take advantage of Asian Americans’ digital savvy and desire to identify with their culture.
Opportunity: Asian cultural import
It’s not rocket science to think that something that works in Asia might work in the Western world, especially with a growing and established Asian Diaspora. Many Asian Americans I know grew up without role models who look like them, beauty standards they can aspire to or products that speak to them, but when we visit Asia, we find them in abundance.
Mari Kondo / KonMari Media, Inc.
What sparks joy for me is to tell people that Mari Kondo is VC-backed. She’s helping to export Japanese Shintoism and minimalist values to the rest of us. While she is clearly Japanese, the backlash she’s facing in the United States has many Asian Americans up in arms defending her because the other-ification is not dissimilar to how they’ve been treated and threatens to take away one of the few heroes they can look up to who looks like them.
K-Beauty and Yoga
K-Beauty, at least according to my female friends (and a few male friends), has been on the come-up for a while. South Korea exported $5B worth of cosmetics. While it’s unclear how much ended up in the U.S., Rakuten’s survey indicates that the category has grown by 300% between 2015 and 2017, and these products are disproportionately purchased by Asian Americans.
Yoga, which came from India, has also been growing rapidly in recent years. 36M people now practice yoga according to the 2016 Yoga in America Study, which is up from 20.4M in 2012. It’s a $16B industry that has grown 60% between 2012–2016.
This past February, BLACKPINK went on Good Morning America to announce their US tour dates and quickly sold out. A week later, BTS presented an award at the Grammys. You can find many Asian Americans at the root of K-Pop. Jae Chong moved to Korea in 1992 to start the first K-Pop Hip-Hop boy band SOLID. Tablo from Epik High grew up in Canada and graduated from Stanford before moving to Korea for his music career. Jay Park was doing YouTube videos from Seattle before he became one of the biggest K-Pop stars to cross back over to the U.S.. You can trace many more K-Pop producers, songwriters and business executives back to their Asian American roots. The rise of K-Pop is really Asian American homecoming.
There’s this guy, Sean Miyashiro, who’s been going around signing artists out of Indonesia (Rich Brian), Australia (Joji, who recently became the first Asian artist to debut #1 on Billboard‘s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart), Korea (Keith Ape), China (Higher Brothers) and making them superstars in the U.S. and worldwide. Only a few artists on the label are Asian Americans, but the formula is a hit with Asian American youth.
Opportunity: American fast-follow
We’ve moved from the days of Chinese knock-offs and copycats to Americans “fast-following” Chinese startups and localizing their strategies for the U.S. consumers. Not only has venture capital started to flow more to China than to the U.S., the staggering number of urbanized consumers in China will inevitably produce ideas that Americans will only adopt later on as we become more urban over time. Connie Chan has been talking in much more depth and nuance than I can capture. If you follow her on Twitter, you will find great talks like this one on how Chinese startups have more diversified income streams than advertising.
Lime is a clear fast-follow from the Chinese trend of dockless bikesharing, but they’ve adopted it for the American commute by electrifying its micromobility fleet and adding scooters to the mix. The startup is most recently valued at $2.4B. Asian Americans who have experienced these services first-hand in Asia and have strong ties there are most likely to be the ones to help bridge their cross-over to the United States.
Wish is a shopping app that boasts 300M users with a valuation over $8B. Chinese consumers already benefit from being able to order from Chinese sellers on sites like Alibaba and JD.com, but American consumers has to go through various middlemen marking up low-priced Chinese products. Wish offered an alternative. 94% of the sellers on Wish are Chinese while 30% of its buyers are based in the U.S. (the rest are in Europe).
American Ninja Warrior, The Masked Singer
Americans will also continue to copy the best of Asian media. You probably could’ve guessed that American Ninja Warrior is based on a Japanese show Sasuke, but did you know that the latest show on FOX, The Masked Singer, is based on the South Korean show The King of Mask Singer (you will be really delighted to learn who won the first season)?
Betting on #AsianAmericanRising
Now is literally the defining moment in history for Asian Americans and I’m optimistic because betting on Asian America has always yielded high returns against all odds.
In the technology industry where Asian Americans historically have the most advantage because they represent 27.2% of the work force, only 18.8% become managers and 13.9% become executives. This is the classic “bamboo ceiling” and it highlights the struggle that Asian Americans face even when they are relatively privileged.
However, when I compiled a list of “unicorn” startups (i.e. companies with private valuations over $1B) and their founders, I found that out of 206 unicorns, almost one in four (23.8%) are led by an Asian American or Asian Diaspora founder. In other words, Asian Americans have created nearly $200B (29.4% of $659B) in aggregate value. Just like with Hollywood, Asian Americans are impacting Silicon Valley by side-stepping traditional corporate ladders and writing their own rules as entrepreneurs.
In a world where everyone is connected through the major tech platforms, focusing on niche populations and helping them fuse their identity makes for smart business. The restaurant review platform Yelp can attribute much of its success to finding product-market fit among Asian Americans. One study found that Asian American women are 201% more likely to use Yelp. The online publication BuzzFeed has also found success by identifying with Asian American users. Their staff of writers regularly create content about Asian American topics after discovering that people like to share content that help them express their identity.
I’m excited for the future of Asian America. There are a lot of exciting opportunities to create new products and services created for a population that is more likely to live in multi-generational homes, more likely to travel, more likely to purchase consumer electronics, home, kitchen and beauty products, and more connected digitally and globally.
Where can we share stories through food? Where can we buy glasses that fit our noses and falsies that fit our eyes? Where can we watch our version of BET, Univision and Telemundo? Where do we go to feel like we belong? Where is the next Uniqlo that’s made for our bodies? Where is the next Lime to bring innovations we enjoy in Asia to us?
I can’t wait to see what we do next.
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