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Learning from four Asian Americans’ stories

(Image courtesy of Victoria Feng)

May is Asian American Heritage Month, and this month a few Asian Americans shared their journeys to success.

Dermatologist Dr. Sandra Lee, also known as Dr. Pimple Popper, Allure Editor-in-Chief Michelle Lee, Boxed CEO Chieh Huang, and New Yorker editor Michael Luo have built successful careers in each of their respective fields and become some of the most well-known Asian Americans today.

For Editor-in-Chief Michelle Lee, her Asian American heritage inspired her work at Allure and encourages her to seek more diversity, not only for Asian-Americans but other minorities as well in the beauty industry.

“I think a bunch of us are now realizing that we can tell our own stories and embrace being different and that society needs to come around the us, not necessarily the other way around,” Michelle Lee said.

This representation is important because in pop culture and many industries Asian Americans and other minorities are severely underrepresented. With recent covers such as Halima Aden, the magazine’s first hijab-wearing cover girl and including three Asian models in last year’s Hair Issue, Allure has made many steps towards diversity under Michelle Lee’s leadership.

However, Asian-Americans still face large amounts of discrimination. In a 2016 survey done by NPR, they found that 35% of Asian-Americans reported that they have encountered insensitive comments or assumptions and 32% reported that they faced negative slurs because they were Asian. This discrimination extended to the workplace, college, and voting.

In 2016, Luo wrote a now-viral response to a stranger who had yelled for him to “go back to China” in the New York Times. Luo, who was born in the U.S., wrote about how the experience further showed him that how even in a diverse world like today, hate-filled comments and racism can exist anywhere. He formerly served at the New York Times as an editor for the paper’s race/related team and is now oversees the newyorker.com website as its editor.

In middle school, Michelle Lee was regularly taunted by a group of bullies who would yell racial slurs at her and tried to block her mom from going down the street. When she tried to report the incidents to her vice principal, the boys continued to say slurs even in front of the vice principal. They received no punishment.

“In many ways, the racist bullying was damaging to me for many years, but it was even more harmful because I witnessed a system that was completely broken,” Michelle Lee said. “Now, I have a strong instinct to tear down that system and to give people a voice who were largely silenced before.”

The Asian American community includes many different cultures and values. Luo wonders if Asian Americans are partially united by shared experiences facing discrimination.

“What sort of unities Chinese Americans, Korean Americans, Japanese Americans, all the different Asian ethnicity under this umbrella of this Asian American — part of that is being a minority group,” Luo said. “Undeniably, that aspect [discrimination] shapes you in many ways.”

Each Asian American family is different.  For Sandra Lee, her parents were not the stereotypical Asian American parents that is often displayed in popular culture, but rather took a more “hybrid” parenting approach.

“They wanted me to experience different things, and they really helped shape my life,” Sandra Lee said. “My father just wanted me to be the best I could be, he wasn’t trying to guide me into saying you have to be a lawyer or a doctor or you’re a failure.”

Thanks to her parents’ continued’ support and her own hard work, Sandra Lee has established herself as one of the most well-known dermatologists today. She first rose to international fame through YouTube and her show Dr. Pimple Popper. Today, she over five million fans (who she calls “Popaholics”) on YouTube and published a book.

As co-founder and CEO of Boxed, Huang understands the importance of hard work.  When he was starting his company, there was two days where no one ordered and employees felt frustrated, but they continued to grind.  This past year, Boxed has raised over $110 million in funding and was valued by the New York Times to be valued at over $600 million.

“Both of my parents immigrated from Taiwan. Their experiences and work ethic gave me a deep value for hard work,” Huang said, “I always knew that this country had so many opportunities available to me, but it was up to me to take advantage of them.”

As his company experiences great success, Huang tries to give back to his community: the company covers $20,000 in wedding costs for employees and pays tuition for their kids, as well as discounts feminine products for customers to protest against the “pink tax.”  

And part of giving back to the community is helping inspire today’s youth.

“One of the things I love most about what I do is young people that come into my office and meet me,” Sandra Lee said. “I’m really proud to be a role model for them and show them that you can do whatever you want.”

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