When first generation Asian American immigrants came to America, they found themselves lost in a sea of unknowns. The long standing networks and relationships built not only over lifetimes but over generations were suddenly greatly diminished if not completely extinguished in a new country and home, and they found themselves starting everything from scratch. Their children found themselves taking on more roles than the average kid, often translating at parent-teacher conferences or reading government and insurance notices that came in English-only.
Many of these youth had to figure out the American schooling system on their own, and when college was finished, they had to puzzle out the complex ins and outs of American society, politics, and economy on their own. Though filled with love, hard work, and support, their first generation parents for the most part could only provide the basics, and the rest was up to the young Asian Americans to conquer on their own.
As more and more of these subsequent generations of Asian Americans are growing into seasoned professionals and citizens of American society, many have fallen into the rut of the model minority identity. Efficiently sorted and placated by high scores on standardized tests, taught to derive self-worth and validation from wearing prestigious college sweatshirts bearing the names of Caucasian men, and taking their place as highly-skilled slaves to the existing sociopolitical and cultural power system, it is no wonder this particular American heritage group stands last in line to sing proudly to the nation and the world, in the words of Langston Hughes, “I, too, am America”!
Going on their 16th year, the Asian Professional Exchange (APEX) is a Southern Californian-based organization that strives to create a network of these young Asian American professionals so that they may break away from the bonds of model minority stereotypes and provide and create the sort of social capital found only in old-boys clubs that have been denied to them from the start. This young generation of Asian American professionals has cut paths through the jungles of the complex American terrain full of countrymen that continue to define them as “foreigners”, and in so doing, they have gained wisdom, knowledge, and tricks-of-the-trades that come only with time, patience, and experience. On top of that, they want to share it with each other, their communities, and with the generations of Asian Americans to come.
To start such an organization and keep it alive for almost two decades is, of course, no easy feat. Asian Week thus spoke to APEX Founder and Advisory Board Member Stephen Liu to get the inside scoop on the struggles that lead to the inception of this community based professional network. Here is what Liu said:
“There were lots of struggles during our formative stages. APEX was founded in 1993 in the wake of LA Riots. There were lots of Korean organizations that had sprung up in response. There were also a lot of ethnic specific groups like Taiwanese Professionals, Japanese Professionals, Chinese Lawyers, Chinese Accountants, etc. There was one pan-Asian business organization called Asian Business League, but I was 25 at the time, and they were too old! Now I’m “that age”. In addition, a lot of organizations weren’t focused on giving back to the community.
I went to a LA Junior Chamber of Commerce mixer and really loved their vision targeted at LA area professionals in their 20s and 30s, community service (they did the Watts Olympics) and professional development networking. So I went to the mixer, and I knew no one. (I grew up and went to college in SD). I asked how to get involved, and felt like it would take forever to prove myself and get on the board. I had no “in”. So I got a handful of new friends that I had recently made at the time and started our own group called APEX where we all had an “in”, a group that would be Pan-Asian, targeted at young professionals, and committed to excellence in community service, professional development and cultural awareness. Above all, I wanted to make sure that the group was inclusive, so that a new person coming into town would feel welcomed.
Some of the initial comments were:
“It’s been tried already and it didn’t succeed.”
“Yeah I was thinking about doing the same thing.”
“Asians in LA are too busy with their own personal lives to get involved with community.”
“Asians in LA are too spread out.”
“Asians won’t go for a pan-Asian group, they want to marry within their own ethnicity.”
Of course we were able to rise above everything and the rest is history.
APEX grew exponentially during our first five years. I’m proud we were able to initiate and sustain several key programs that are mostly over a decade old. The best thing I ever did for APEX was to step down from the “Presidency”, though I am still Chairman and remain involved when called upon – some years more so than others. Early on, we established a culture of attracting and growing new talent to lead the organization. These new superstar talents have evolved and grown the organization to what it is today.”
One glance at APEX’s calendar of events can be rather overwhelming, but that is just evidence of how active this organization is. One of the key programs is the APEX Mentoring Program (AMP) where young newcomers to the professional world can be paired with seasoned professionals in their respective fields and gain advice on career choices, personal development, and networking. The APEX Youth Olympics, happening this year on May 16th, brings together at risk youth for a day of leadership and fun team building activities. Major events include the Annual APEX Community Leaders Reception, the APEX Career Symposium, and the annual APEX Awards Gala.
INSPIRATION + LEADERSHIP + HOME + MENTORSHIP = APEX
Members of APEX find time out of their extremely busy professional lives to get involved in the many community service activities that APEX has kept running for so long. The current team of young professionals continuing to breathe life into APEX definitely sees something in the organization that makes it worth their commitment. APEX’s current president, Hogan Lee, describes APEX as “inspiring”:
“I constantly see examples of inspiration within and because of APEX. I see that through APEX, people are inspired to get involved in their communities through events such as the APEX Community Leaders Reception and the Youth Olympics. Internally, I see the APEX board inspiring each other to raise the bar not only for the organization but to be stronger leaders and to become more relevant in the community we serve. On a personal level, the APEX board and the synergy, support, and teamwork that I see on a daily basis inspires me to work harder for the greater good, and I’m so excited to be a part of it.”
Having moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco in 2004, Vice President of Operations Jeffrey Chao found in APEX the perfect place to volunteer in the community and make progress for the API community:
“My personal goal is for APEX to be able to generate strong leaders who never forget where they came from. That means that these leaders, no matter what title they have or how much they get paid, will always come back to their API roots and help further elevate their community. ”
For Mimi Lee, Director of Strategic Marketing, joining APEX after a friend highly recommended it to her brought about a feeling of “home” in a city she didn’t grow up in:
“The most important reason I decided to be involved with APEX is so I can feel at “home.” Since moving to LA from Las Vegas in 2000, I have never felt so at “home” as I do now. This has a lot to do with APEX. Before APEX, I never felt a part of the city, and my networks were limited. Now, I’m giving back to the place I call “home” by philanthropy and that makes me happy to be here in LA.”
Director of Mentorship Jean Rhee sums up the importance of the APEX mentoring program as a key strategy to strengthening the API community:
“I believe that mentoring is vital to the continued success and advancement of the API community. APIs have worked long and hard to become leaders of American industry and society, and mentoring programs like AMP are important vehicles through which we can ensure that there is a transfer of knowledge and experience from generation to generation.”