A Brief History of Asian Employee Resource Groups

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Employee resource groups are not a particularly well-known aspect of corporate America, but they possess a longer history that people might not be aware of.

These groups arose out of the need to better address the concerns of different communities within the country’s increasingly diverse workforce.

Some of the very first Asian American employee groups were formed at major corporations such as AT&T and PG&E. AT&T’s Asian Pacific American Association for Advancement began in 1978 as an affirmative action group at its Bell Laboratories division in Murray Hill, New Jersey. The group’s website reveals that 4A initially stood for Asian Americans for Affirmative Action and included other Bell Companies. It was founded “to ensure equal opportunity for Asian Americans in employment, work assignment, salary and promotion … [and] also provides professional, leadership development opportunities and cultural awareness.”

A group of employees at PG&E founded the Asian Employees Association in 1984 with similar goals. Intel’s Asian Cultural Integration (ACI) was also started in 1984 by its former vice president, Albert Yu.

“[Intel] found out that a lot of Asian talent left, they tried to figure out why; and they assigned Albert Yu to investigate that,” explained Ray Su, a representative of Hewlett Packard’s Asian Pacific Employee Network (HAPEN). “Albert’s solution was to create the ACI.”

The main goals for these  groups were to recruit and retain—what Su calls “the two Rs”—the best Asian talent for their companies.

Giving back to the community appears to be another fundamental element of Asian ERGs. Many have contributed funding and other forms of assistance to numerous community-related causes over the years, including earthquake relief in Asia, Sept. 11 aid and scholarships.

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The Pan Asian Network Group (PANG) at the Sodexo company is a relatively new ERG, started in 2002 by a handful of employees. They began with three main principles: to introduce Asian issues and culture to others at Sodexo, to give back to the community and to hire and retain Asian employees. Beginning with a group of about 10 people, the group now consists of over 200 members.

“We want to clear a path for others, so they don’t have to deal with the same hurdles we did,” commented Vijay Sharma, senior vice president of marketing at Sodexo USA and former chairman of PANG.

PANG has been a strong supporter of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund (APIASF) since its inception. “Through APIASF, we handed out 285 scholarships last year, [many] of them were the first in their family to go to college,” Sharma noted. “Thirty-two of those were Sodexo scholarships.”

PANG also requires each chapter to be active in local issues in their community. One recent project involved teaching senior citizens to use computers.

Today, there is a growing number of Asian ERGs in both the private and public sector throughout the U.S. This list includes The City and County of San Francisco, Wells Fargo, Cisco, Visa, Macy’s, Port of Oakland, Chevron, Ernst and Young, Deloitte and Touche and Kaiser Permanente.

Many of these groups realized that they had many mutual concerns and began working together. Out of these collaborations arose organizations like the Corporate Asian American Employee Network (CAAEN). Co-Founder Joyce Chan, who was working for PG&E at the time, started the network with two employees from Wells Fargo in 2004.

“We all seemed to have the same common goals and issues and realized that working together we could maximize resources,” Chan recalled.

CAAEN was established with 12 employee groups. Today it has 21 member groups — Google is among the most recent to join — encompassing an estimated 20,000 employees.

Its focus was to encourage growth and advancement in the Asian American community. Much of this work involves finding ways to help Asian employees overcome cultural obstacles in the workplace based on three central principles: networking, community and diversity.

CAAEN hopes to continue to grow nationally and, at some point, internationally. Speaking from Beijing, Chan shared her enthusiasm about possibilities for stronger ties with China and other parts of Asia. She explained her excitement at running into other “transpacific” Asian Americans in Beijing—knowing so many people through the ERG networks has helped her adjust to the new city.

Sharma stresses that Asian ERGs are as important for the companies as the employees. “If companies are serious about providing a place that is inclusive for everybody, it has to be more than strategy and statements,” he said. “Resource groups are one way that this comes down to the grassroots level. It helps us imbed the message of inclusion into the fabric of our organization.”

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