I’m often the only Asian-American, and often the only person of color, on a design team. If I had to venture a guess, I believe it’s due to a part of our cultural upbringing for many Asians in the US where we place a greater emphasis on prestigious careers like a doctor, a lawyer, or a finance aficionado. My mother used to say “a successful artist is a dead one.”
In the last year, I had the pleasure of having tea with several Product Designers in the Boston design community. All of them identified as first-gen Asian-American and we connected through HubSpot’s First-Gen in Tech event. Conversations like being the only person of color on a design team are one of the few recurring topics that came up in discussion. These conversations were genuine, unique, and worth sharing with others who may find comfort in similar struggles and perspectives as a first-gen Asian-American product designer. That’s why I wrote this piece.
What’s it like being to be a first-gen Asian-American product designer?
Call me a hipster but I love being different and breaking the mold of what’s an expected career for Asian-Americans. I’ve always rebelled against the idea of becoming a doctor, or a lawyer (you’d understand if you have Asian parents). I’ve always been the creative type and those roles didn’t reflect who I felt like I should be. As a product designer, I love doing what I do for work because it doesn’t feel like work. I love being a problem solver, and I love working in tech.
However, there aren’t many Asian-American designers and there wasn’t always someone I could share my stories with and relate to. With so few of us, it’s often hard to not feel like the outlier of the group.
Growing up, I would consume whatever entertainment my parents consumed, and that would be Hong Kong media. Unfortunately that meant a lot of older American pop culture references go over my head. I can tell you about legendary actors like Andy Lau and Tony Cheung who made Hong Kong films that inspired movies like The Departed. But I wouldn’t know what the Truffle Shuffle is, or why Ponyboy needs to stay golden, and that is usually met with a “What? How can you not know what that is?” Not being able to have relatable conversations has the opposite effect of feeling inclusive and it can feel lonely.
It’s also hard when you don’t see yourself in others. Representation matters — without seeing someone who does design work for a living, you won’t have anyone as a role model to aspire toward. That’s one of the many reasons why Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther are two of the most important films of 2018.
This is also why it’s important to work at a company that has a culture of inclusivity. Inclusivity isn’t about conforming to be someone you’re not. It’s about creating a healthy environment where it’s OK to be you. Inclusivity sounds like you’re part of a conversation and you have an impact on a team and on company initiatives. Inclusivity looks like there are other people who look like you that work with you instead a homogeneous pool of people of the same sex and color. And most importantly, inclusivity feels like you’re embraced for who you are and your perspective matters.
What are some challenges being a first-gen Asian-American product designer?
My colleague, a woman who was one of the first in her family to go to college, recently wrote a really great article (shared internally at HubSpot) about being embarrassed of her success. It’s something that resonated deeply with me as a first-gen Asian-American. While it may not affect my day-to-day, it does make conversations about my work with my parents a bit awkward.
The memory of bringing my parents for a tour of the HubSpot office to show them where I work produced mixed feelings. As I walked through the office with my parents, I showed them our beer garden, our wall of snacks, our fridges full of greek yogurt and fresh fruit, our ping-pong room, and yes, even our nap room. And holy shit is that cold brew on tap? I remember being sheepish and almost grimacing as my parents marveled at our office.
Why did the tour of our lavish office made me recoil? My father works as a chef for a Chinese food take-out restaurant, and my mother works in clinical billing for a community health center in Chinatown.
I wanted my parents to feel proud of my achievements. Especially as someone who never truly followed their advice when it came to studying for a subject that was suppose to lead me to a prestigious career (I studied marketing and advertising design). In some ways, I was proud, and in others, I actually felt a bit embarrassed, a bit guilty, and a bit of a fraud. I’ll often tell people that I stumbled into design and got lucky, when in reality, I worked my ass off to get to where I am today. But it doesn’t feel like it because it didn’t align with my cultural and parents’ expectations. And the effort I put into my career can never compare to the physical hardship my father puts into his work to raise my brothers and myself.
All of the things I mentioned above only added to my anxiety of feeling like a faker. Not feeling like I was accepted, like I deserved this, or being “part of the cool kids’” conversation because I grew up with a completely different background and culture, did little to help reinforce my identity as a designer or even just as a professional in the workforce. On the contrary, it amplified my impostor syndrome and it took a long time to build my confidence as a designer and now a lead.
How does being first-gen empower you as a product designer?
As a designer, critique is the magical “stuff” that makes you better at your job. But with my cultural upbringing, critique often stings and smells of failure (for all of you designers out there who resonate with this, it’s ok, and you didn’t fail). It can take longer to recuperate my energy and move forward as I’m often much harder on myself. But by embracing it, I’m sharper about my work and have a stronger eye for detail. It makes me learn from my mistakes and try harder than those around me to create great work. And if I have to fail, I’ll fail with grace and know what variables to change to ensure success.
As a first-gen Asian-American, it’s hard to take praise for my design work. Modesty and humility are highly valued in Chinese culture. But damn, does praise feel good. It’s very conflicting. I’ve since learned that it’s ok to receive praise and most importantly, I could help others feel included if I learned to give praise as a design lead.
It’s also ok to have a bit of showmanship to talk about your work. To combat the strong urge for modesty, I ask of the following for all of my new managers:
- Coach me on the area of opportunities where I can celebrate my success
- Tell me when my work is “good enough” to socialize
- Be my speakerphone to celebrate my success
Celebrating success not only helps you be an advocate for yourself, but your publicity can have an influence on those around you.
Embracing who I am has also given me strength in reinforcing my own image. A great design lead friend at HubSpot, Loe Lee, who is extremely smart, bright, and approachable, once told me that she would love to be more like me because I’m always so stoic, which gives me the appearance of being calm and mature.
First-gen Asian-Americans are often raised to wait to speak out of respect for others. We are taught to never speak out of turn and wait to be called on before speaking.
In reality, it’s a small part of who I am (to not speak out of turn). Another part of me is that I like to absorb all variables before speaking to add a balanced response or comment (again with the fear of failure). I loved that Loe called me out on it because it made me feel good about my identity and not needing to conform to be someone I’m not in order to succeed.
Specifically, in American culture, modesty and humility is often replaced by being bold and being outspoken. As a design lead, my diversity allows me to be more empathetic to those who come from different backgrounds because it’s not always about being the most outspoken or the one who is the most bold. Many times it’s about who adds the most substance to the conversation.
Because of who I am and how I communicate, I’m more sensitive to other communication styles. And as a design lead, I think it’s important to identify the communication styles of my direct report so I can evaluate their performance and work — not just how outspoken they are, or their personality. For example, I always look for opportunities to give everyone an opportunity to speak in meetings. And to go one step further, we can all do a better job realizing who is the underrepresented person in the room and observing opportunities to make space for that person to speak.
To really lean in on learning about my direct reports’ work and communication styles, I ask all of my new designers these questions:
- How do I know when you’re not “feeling it”?
- How should I support you when you’re not “feeling it”?
- How do you like to celebrate success?
- How do you like to receive feedback?
- How do you like to share ideas and feedback?
The last superpower I have as first-gen Asian-American is realizing that even I have my own unconscious biases based on the surrounding environment I grew up in.
Growing up, when I started to get more exposure to mainstream American entertainment, I developed an unconscious bias of the white male protagonist as the hero of the story. This often translates to unconsciously believing white male candidates are better suited for most jobs. And most people often have a similar-to-me bias as well — I may think a candidate who looks like me, or grew up in the same city as me, or went to the same university as me, may make a better candidate. It’s important to know and recognize your unconscious biases — here’s two quick things you can do to help combat them:
- Harvard has great test you can use to examine your unconscious biases. Take the test to uncover your biases.
- Follow through with your unconscious biases by creating an evaluation guide to help you assess the candidates you interview.
Here’s a snippet of the template I use when evaluating a design candidate to ensure I’m asking objective questions to gauge experience and skill:
- Did the candidate have a clear problem statement for the project they showed?
- What examples of being user-centric did the candidate show?
- What was the candidate’s design process? Did they articulate it well?
- Was the candidate able to explain their design decisions?
- How did the candidate measure success or failure?
Any other advice for other first-gen product designers?
Embrace who you are and your perspectives and don’t feel like you need to conform in order to succeed. Your unique perspective adds value to the team. Research and studies show people are often more prepared for meetings when they know someone in the room (like yourself) has a different background because you might disagree with their work. And this often leads to more innovative work and ideas. Your diversity adds more perspective to the room and forces people to think beyond their own bubble. Homogenous groups leads to homogenous solutions.
If you’re a Product Designer in this field, make yourself and your work visible. There are many aspiring first-gens who need to see someone like you (literally) to aspire to become like you. Join local UX communities, volunteer for career days at your local university, and start employee resource groups where you work.
As someone who is under-represented, you have a greater empathy on the struggles of being a professional in tech, and specifically a Product Designer. Support other under-represented groups and be an ally. Volunteer, participate, and continue to learn how you can influence and help those around you. Even sit in on some events to understand the language and the conversations being had.
Lastly, sign up for our First-Gen in Tech event at HubSpot.
What are some struggles you have as a first-gen Product Designer? Or even a first-gen professional in your field? What are some advice you wish you could’ve given to yourself? Comment below and let’s start a discussion.
Oh and also, if you are a product designer who identifies as a first-gen, or from an underrepresented group and want to grab a tea to chat, don’t hesitate to reach out!