November 27, 2016 5:00 pm JST

Asian-Americans drive Silicon Valley innovation

SHOTARO TANI, Nikkei staff writer

PALO ALTO, U.S. -- For millions of people around the globe, daily life is now dominated by the U.S. tech sector. Facebook is a primary communication tool for many, while iPhones or smartphones running Google's Android operating system are the go-to handsets in many parts of the world. The virtual reality buzz created by Oculus, meanwhile, is making waves as far away as China.

Gavin Teo, partner at B Capital Group

Silicon Valley, the heart of the U.S. tech industry, owes much of its impressive global reach to the Asians and Asian-Americans. Asians are already the largest ethnic group in the Valley, and are expected to make up 43.5% of the population in the region in 2040. With Asia's own tech sector on the rise, having an Asian background can open up vast opportunities for U.S. businesses.

Gavin Teo, partner at venture capital firm B Capital Group, has experienced the benefits firsthand. "The nature of venture capital is you deploy capital into private companies. The business of venture capital is raising money," said Teo, who was born in Singapore and grew up there and in Hong Kong. "I think having an international outlook and having a background in Asia, being able to go back and being able to speak Mandarin and Cantonese just allows you to access a broader pool of limited partners, as well as a broader pool of potential investments."

Maureen Fan, CEO of Baobab Studios

Maureen Fan also sees the business benefits. Fan was born in the U.S. to Hong Kong/Taiwanese immigrants, and after spending time at companies like eBay and Zynga, founded her own virtual reality studio, Baobab Studios. "Knowing that entertainment is so huge in Asia ... everyone in Hollywood is looking at Asia," she said. "And having this Asian background helps me and makes me uniquely suited to be able to bridge the two cultures and bridge the two businesses."

CHANGING ATTITUDES

Asians and Asian-Americans have not always been such a prominent part of Silicon Valley, and talk of a "bamboo ceiling" keeping them out of the highest management positions was common as recently as a few years ago.

But for some, discrimination was not the only hurdle to overcome.

"Asian-Americans have a unique shared experience of being born to Asian immigrant parents who were conservative," said David Lu, a serial entrepreneur who also organizes the Asian-American Founders Circle in San Francisco. "[They] wanted their children to have a safe and secure career, such as becoming doctors, lawyers or engineers."

Ernestine Fu, co-founder of Blackstorm Labs

Ernestine Fu, a partner at venture capital firm Alsop Louie Partners and co-founder of startup Blackstorm Labs, said it took her about a decade in Silicon Valley before she realized that "one of the biggest obstacles for people like me is just how hard it can be to trust your instincts around taking risky bets when you were taught [all] your life to seek stability and avoid risk at all costs."

The young entrepreneur, born to Chinese immigrants, added: "When you grow up your entire life with this mindset, and then you're thrust into the American brand of entrepreneurism ... you can't help but feel this strong dissonance, like everything you're doing is fundamentally wrong."

But things are clearly changing, said Tipatat Chennavasin, co-founder and general partner at The Venture Reality Fund, which specializes in investing in virtual reality- and augmented reality-related companies.

Tipatat Chennavasin, general partner at The Venture Reality Fund

"I think there is also a little bit of a shift in the values of Asians. There is a sense of entrepreneurship as something that is not being looked down on as much," he said. Chennavasin was born in Thailand and moved to the U.S. when he was 2 years old. "It is not so much, 'Hey, you have to be a doctor, you have to be an engineer.' ... You hear success stories of someone else ... and then it opens up the idea of what the opportunities worth pursuing are."

THE ENDURING DREAM

As Asians and Asian-Americans adapted to the entrepreneurship culture in Silicon Valley, the influx of Asian talent has also changed Silicon Valley. Anthony Herman, a Korean-American in the process of setting up his own venture capital business, pointed to one of the most visible signs of change.

"Definitely food. One thing I have seen become natural among non-Asian folks in the tech community is Korean barbecue," he said. "I feel there is something primal about coming together around a fire. That sort of Asian culture, that sort of communal food sharing, coming together, is very Asian to me."

Tech is easily one of the most important sectors in the U.S. It is estimated to account for 7.1% of the country's GDP and 11.6% of the total private-sector payroll. "You can come from any background and you can start a company, and if you have a good idea and you work hard at it, that the company can become [the next] Uber," Teo from B Capital said. "The American dream lives on, it absolutely does. I think that is a little bit of a cliche, but it is true."

And he is confident that this culture will not change, even as one of the most protectionist presidents in modern U.S. history, Donald Trump, prepares to take office.

"I believe that Silicon Valley will continue to be a welcoming home for technology innovation from people of all nationalities under any administration," Teo said. "I think that this open climate to tech innovation is key to Silicon Valley maintaining global competitiveness and leadership."

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