What We’re Up To
We sat down with fellow colleagues Shantha Susman, EVP of the Advocacy team; Cindy Chou, AE on the Technology & Innovation team; and Joy Yang, AS on the Cities team for an AAPI Heritage Month panel. During our conversation, the panelists reminisced on their experience at BR and discussed important issues pertaining to the AAPI community today.
Why did you join BerlinRosen?
Cindy: I joined the gaming team because I like to play games, and I also was very drawn to the strong leadership, especially from Cary [Kwok], who leads the gaming team. I felt like there was a match in terms of the team’s excitement for gaming. I also enjoyed that faster pace of growth because it was a budding team. But more importantly, I felt like the team really cared for each other and having Cary lead the team, she embodies a lot of the traits that I want to have as I grow my career—to lead teams with clarity, forward-thinking and empathy. To see someone who’s such a strong Asian woman in leadership really inspires me
Joy: I joined BR for a lot of reasons, but I can really say that the team at BerlinRosen has some of the smartest, most talented and diverse individuals that I’ve had the pleasure of working with in my career. For me, prior to coming to BR, I worked at a much smaller PR firm—it was about 10 people total. I was the only person of color and that really did show at times. I remember when I was working there around two years ago, it was peak pandemic and this was around the time that a lot of the AAPI hate crimes were happening both in New York and around the country. At times, it was really debilitating. I felt like some days it was so tough mentally to get through my work day and that was just something I distinctly remember feeling like I couldn’t talk to anyone at my company about or didn’t feel like I had the space to acknowledge it during the work day. I feel like if I’d been at BerlinRosen at that time, I would have felt differently. BR does a really great job of providing resources for its employees and creating the space to have difficult conversations, and that’s something that I’ve seen throughout my time here that I’m really grateful for. So that’s a huge reason why I’m really proud to be here.
Shantha: I can definitely say that when the attacks on the nail salons in Atlanta happened in 2021, I told clients I was not in a headspace to jump on calls and everyone was incredibly understanding and supportive. So I feel that. I’ve been really interested in advocacy and social justice issues forever. Before BerlinRosen, I had worked on campaigns in nonprofits doing voter engagement work, issues related to education, economic and racial equity. I came to BerlinRosen because it felt like a chance to do work across a wide variety of issues. With organizations that were really going to prioritize communications because they were hiring us, and to be able to get things done pretty quickly. I felt a great sense of satisfaction in having an idea for an op-ed or a pitch and then we get it out and something is posted by the end of the day. Like things can really move that quickly when we capitalize on moments. That kind of energy and drive and ability to collaborate and get really wonderful ideas with the smartest and funniest people that I’ve had the chance to work with has just been great.
What has been your favorite memory here so far?
Shantha: We’ve done a lot of cool things in my time here, but one really fun project was when we were working with an organization trying to combat attacks that we were getting around comprehensive sex ed in California from Asian parents who were generally college educated and middle class/upper middle class. We were trying to figure out how to talk to these parents. How do we figure out what to message to ensure this essential, life-saving, helpful sex ed information gets out to the folks who need it? I thought, well, we don’t have a whole lot of money here for research, but I bet I could pull together an informal focus group if we’re talking about offspring of college educated Asians. So I put out a bat signal to other AAPI folks at BerlinRosen and we bought snacks and got in the 16th floor conference room and talked about our experiences with sex ed growing up: how did we communicate or not communicate with our parents? What did we hear from them about? What were some sticking points? And from that, we were able to build some very persuasive and powerful messaging and outreach plans to reach our target audience. I think we were able to do some really impactful work there and I loved getting to be creative with colleagues I didn’t get to work with every day.
Cindy: For me, I would say that because I’m a remote worker, my experience is a little different. But when we did go into the in-person tech team summit last winter, it was really fun just to be able to riff with my co-workers who were sitting right next to me. But in terms of the work for the gaming team, I would say, last October/November, we were launching an in-car VR product, and it was focused on getting media appointments in New York City, LA, and SF. And I dug really deep into finding reporters who fit our clients’ needs. Someone who’s a little bit more positive and upbeat, who understands VR products and would understand the limitations of VR and its current state, but also be able to give a good review of the product. So it was really satisfying to be able to exceed the client’s expectations and the number of media appointments we were able to secure and to see the coverage come in from big titles, such as Forbes, Gizmodo and other large tech outlets.
What do you think are some important issues facing the AAPI community today, and what can be done to address them?
Shantha: A few that come to mind are labor issues. The representation of Asian Americans in this country is sort of wildly divergent. There’s the “Crazy Rich Asian” kind, professional classes, and then I think what often gets more overlooked is the low wage labor force: taxi workers, nail salon techs, restaurant workers. We have many large Asian American communities facing housing discrimination. And then within South Asian communities there’s colorism, anti-Black sentiments, anti-Muslim sentiments. And as we look at what’s happening in India and the rise of fascism with Modi, I think about how folks here in the U.S. are connected to that and are financially supporting and shouldn’t be. Raising more attention to these issues and organizing not just within communities, but across, can be incredibly important.
Joy: I think you raise a really great point that I hadn’t thought too deeply of until now: the labor aspect and how we see a lot of successful Asian Americans in today’s society, which is super inspiring, like the “Crazy Rich Asians” trope, but I think that can be a negative stereotype at times too, especially when there’s not nearly as much visibility given to the nail techs and delivery workers, etc., many of whom are elderly. It breaks my heart, and I feel like they’re not given as much of a platform. When you hear about these issues that many in the AAPI community face today, such as discrimination, I think part of the problem is that, at least for me growing up, it’s a common mentality within AAPI cultures to sort of put your head down, work hard, follow the rules in order to be successful. I feel like one of the issues is that some of us in the AAPI community can be a little bit afraid to speak up for ourselves sometimes and what can be done to address that? I think we are seeing improvement today with the power of social media, and that’s a really great platform that encourages people to speak up more. Also having honest conversations, like these. It’s a small step, but a small step in the right direction.
What does AAPI Heritage Month mean to you and how do you celebrate or honor your heritage during this time?
Cindy: I find it pretty important to consistently honor my background day-to-day and not just this month. I try to honor my heritage by cooking for my small group, hosting friends and sharing a lot of the classic Taiwanese dishes and flavors that I grew up with. My parents worked in restaurants in some capacity and were very much working minimum wage jobs. So with that sort of background, I want to keep their story alive and be able to pass that along to people around me. I also try to go back to Taiwan every one to two years and share the stories that I hear when I’m around my family, like what’s going on in Taiwan in terms of the politics or the culture there. I also try to stay connected while I’m here in the U.S. and it can be anything from sharing actual pieces of news or even just sharing memes with my AAPI friends.
Joy: Yeah, I definitely echo what you said about it not just being this month, but something that’s ongoing for all of us. But like you said, it’s a great chance to take the time to reflect and celebrate. I think of my parents during this time especially and their immigrant experience, and I miss them even more than usual. But I think one way that I’ve been incorporating it in my life is by trying new recipes. For example, my best friend and I both love croissants. There’s so many amazing flavors: chocolate croissants, nutella croissants, pistachio croissants. But I feel like there aren’t a lot of really unique flavored croissants inspired by Asian flavors. We asked ourselves: Why is this not a thing? So we decided to buy plain croissants and then make our own fillings. We did a red bean paste that we made from scratch and a taro flavor—we filled them and baked them. It was such a fun little activity for us to do, and we didn’t necessarily do it for this month specifically, but I think it’s something that I’ve been trying to do more, which is figuring out new and creative ways to incorporate my culture into everyday life.
How can organizations and companies authentically celebrate this month?
Shantha: My hot take is that I’m not sure there is such a thing as an authentic celebration unless it comes from people, culture or activities that are already happening. I think suggestions around volunteering and thinking about how you can invest in communities are great things for organizations to do. If the organization has a really vibrant AAPI staff, let’s plan some fun stuff! But I think the question for organizations and companies to consider is: how are you engaging with the incredibly heterogeneous, vast set of Asian communities that exist in the world or in the U.S. and on their own staff? And how can you be investing in resources? What could you be doing differently to serve and include us? This could look like addressing barriers to accessing healthcare or other social services based on language, visa status or cultural norms. It could be around some of the economic issues that I mentioned earlier related to low wage work and how we’re engaging with or influencing immigration, representation, leadership, media and marketing.
Cindy: Getting to know your local organizations in your community and uplifting them. I think a good start is a one time donation—that’s always great. But for a longer lasting impact, I think committing to volunteer on a quarterly basis or once or twice a year. I think it’s fantastic because it is important to build relationships over time, to build that trust and to also be consistently supporting those AAPI communities or whichever community you end up picking.
Can you share any significant achievements or contributions made by AAPI individuals in history that you admire?
Shantha: Two former BR clients! Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, who has been an outspoken advocate for workers, LGBTQ, reproductive and immigrant rights, among other justice issues. She’s a former client (shout-out to We Belong Together!) and an inspiration. Ai-jen Poo has been tremendous around domestic workers and caregiving as a real important concept that we need to prioritize and invest in. Care work is real work and we need to make sure that folks who are caring for their own family members, which happens quite a bit in AAPI households, are seen and supported. I think that is one commonality across a very wide spectrum of Asian countries and cultures around intergenerational, multi-generational living and care.
Joy: I wouldn’t say a specific individual… but I think that the film “Crazy Rich Asians” is something that really inspired me during my time when I had the opportunity to do press on it. It was an incredible milestone for Asian representation in Hollywood. This was the first mainstream Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast since “The Joy Luck Club” in 1993, and since then we’ve made even more progress in terms of Asian representation in Hollywood. Of course, there’s still a lot of work to be done. I do think this shows the more glamorized side of things, but films, TV shows and the media have the power to put a spotlight on larger issues.
What’s your favorite…
Shantha: Chola, which is in Midtown East
Cindy: Tamrind Tree in Seattle
Joy: Fiascheterria Pistoia
Shantha: Vanessa’s Dumpling House
Joy: Patisserie Fouet
Shantha: Padma Lakshmi
Cindy: Eric Chou
Joy: Taylor Swift
Shantha: “My Cousin Vinny”
Cindy: “Attack on Titan” or “Haikyuu”
Joy: “Forrest Gump”
Shantha: “Countdown” by Beyonce.
Cindy: “Unbreakable Love” by Eric Chou
Joy: “Outnumbered” by Dermot Kennedy