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The Asian Glass Ceiling In America

With Buck Gee

Published on: Apr 26, 2019

There is an implicit bias in America that Asian men and women are not fit to be leaders. Buck Gee, a Chinese-American and retired executive for Cisco, Andiamo Systems, and Silicon Valley, talks about the Asian glass ceiling in America. Taking us to an article he’s written on Harvard Business Review, “Asian Americans Are the Least Likely Group in the US to be Promoted to Management,” Buck discusses this misconception as well as how Asian-Americans can learn to value and develop their executive-level skills. Buck has created the Advanced Leadership Program for Asian Working Executives at the Stanford Business School which aims to teach leadership and what it’s like being a CEO. Discover and understand more as Buck shares why working hard is not everything and why organization success is important.

The Asian’s Glass Ceiling In America with Buck Gee

Before our guest joins us, I’d like to read one review from our audience, “A wonderful and inspiring podcast,” by Vanster75. “This is a wonderful and inspiring podcast for not just Asian women but for all men and women of all races. I learned a lot from these wonderful guests and their stories.” I’m grateful for your kind words, Vanster75. Please help us spread the message by keep reading and sharing this podcast. We appreciate your support and review. Please help me welcome our guest.

We are going to have a special interview with a retired executive for a high-tech company in the Bay Area. I like to introduce Mr. Gee. He retired in 2008 from Cisco Systems where he was the Vice President and General Manager of the Data Center Business Unit. He joined Cisco in 2004 through the acquisition of Andiamo Systems where he was the President and CEO. His career spans 35 years in Silicon Valley working as an executive in large Fortune 50 companies as well as small startup teams. He holds advanced degrees from Stanford University and the Harvard Business School. No one is more qualified to answer some of the questions and concerns about the Asian-American Glass Ceilings, which we call the Bamboo Ceiling and other Asian-American issues that we are experiencing now. Please help me welcome, Mr. Buck Gee.

Thank you for the introduction. I’m glad to be here.

Tell us a little bit about you, your family, your childhood and your role model when you grew up.

I was born in Northern California, in the small town of Oroville. My father had immigrated from China in 1937. I was a paper son if you know what that story is. He was claimed an American citizen. He went back to China and got my mother and my mother came back in 1947. I was born in 1949 and grew up in Oroville. Then I went to college at Stanford. I got my Bachelor’s and Master’s in Electrical Engineering as a computer designer. I worked for HP for a while as a computer designer, and I designed a computer for HP. Then I decided I wanted to go back to business school and learn business. I went to Harvard Business School. I came back and graduated in 1980. Then I worked in a series of six startups. Three failed and one IPO, which was acquired by Cisco twice in 1993 and 2004. After 2004, I became division manager, a business unit manager at Cisco and then retired in 2008.

Do you think it is mostly luck or is it persistence?

It’s a lot of skill but I’d say it’s 60% skill and work and 40% luck. There are a lot of people in Silicon Valley who are smart as me or smarter than me and worked harder than me, but their startups fail for various reasons. I was fortunate enough to have some success. You can’t take success to your head and you can’t let failure get you too much. You do the best you can and then you’re either lucky or not.

Most people think that failure is when they fail. Successful people see failure as an experience, “I tried this, it didn’t work,” rather than, “I failed it these things.” It is a matter of perspective.

Certainly in Silicon Valley, failure is not all that bad as long as people see they’ve done good work, made good judgments. A lot of people fail but they understand that trying is what you need to do and if you fail, can you get up from that failure and learn from the failure? You’ve got to see it as a positive. Failing and understanding what you did to fail in that failure and then learning from that experience and moving on, that’s what people are looking for. Can you do that?

How did you have that positive mentality? Was it when you grew up, your parents are nurturing, supportive and allowed you to try many things? Are they very controlling and they say, “No, this is the way that you have to do it, do not fail?” How did you become who you are now?

With regards to my parents, they were fairly relaxed in parenting. They did not force us to do anything. Part of the reason is we grew up in a town where we were one of the few Chinese families in town. It’s different when there are other families where people compare you to other people. There’s familial pressure that your kids are doing well and people reflect that on their kid. Because we were one of the few there, they had no one to compare against. We did well-enough. They were happy. They didn’t insist on getting all A’s. They took the approach where if you get an A, you get a quarter, which in those days was a lot. It wasn’t a punishment or being strict but certainly, they wanted me to be successful and go to college.

The assumption was we’re all going to college. My father came from rural China, in Southern China, so does my mother in a rural village. They probably have equivalent to high school education. The fact that we would be going to college was all they really wanted to do is financial success and it’s very traditional. They didn’t understand things that people understand now because it was a lot less stressful to go to college way back in the ‘60s compared to now. When I got into Stanford or Harvard, I don’t think my father or mother understood that they were elite universities. They were just another place to go to school. There was no pressure on us to do anything other than going to school and to walk to school. That’s all they wanted.

Did you get the whole scholarship?

To Stanford, yes. Back then, it was a lot cheaper. It was still expensive but I will tell you that at Stanford, the quarterly tuition when I started was $525. It was still a lot of money back then, but it was not like now where it’s over $50,000 for the year. For Stanford, it was $1,500 for the year and the dorm costs were about the same amount. It costs about $3,000 to go to Stanford for the year, $3,500 per year. It was a lot easier back then but even then, my father owned a Chinese restaurant. It wasn’t like he was professional, but he certainly was self-employed and was doing okay. I had a scholarship and it paid for my tuition. I went to Stanford because it costs the same as I would go to Cal. The dorm fees were about the same as Cal and the tuition fees in Cal were $50 a quarter. I figured it didn’t make any difference where I went to school in terms of the cost for my father, I went to Stanford.

Did you stay at a dorm or did you live at home?

I was at Oroville, Northern California, so I stayed in the dorm. Oroville is north of Sacramento. It’s about a three-hour drive to Stanford.

Your name is unique, Buck Gee. It’s not a typical Asian name that I’m familiar with. Do you know what it means?

My first name is the anglicized way of saying my Chinese name. My family is Gee. My brothers are all named Buck. I have a cousin with the same name as me and he spells his name, Pak. It’s the same name, same character. When the doctor wrote down, “What’s your kid’s name?” He spelled it Buck. It’s phonetic.

You have a unique name for me. It stands out. Probably, there’s only one Buck Gee in America, in the world.

Apparently, there was another person with the same name somewhere in the Bay Area in Hayward. I know because I got this obituary notice for Buck Gee. I said, “I’m not dead.”

A few years ago, I thought, “There’s no name like mine, Kimchi Chow.” I don’t know why I searched on Facebook and there are a few names. I don’t know if it is a fake profile or not. It’s strange. If you start seeing Kimchi Chow somewhere and it is not a female, it is not me. If you don’t see my face and I don’t live in California, then that’s not me. You live in Silicon Valley for more than three decades and have worked during this time. Did you experience any discrimination because you are Asian?

No, I never did. In Silicon Valley firms and technology, there’s no discrimination per se. I make this comment. There is implicit bias out there but there’s no discrimination. People talk about meritocracy in Silicon Valley and by and large, it is. I didn’t see any. To the point of the implicit bias, I would say part of my success was understanding implicitly. I didn’t think about this until I got involved in diversity questions later on in my life. I made it clear that I knew there was a stereotype of being Chinese and what we were capable of and not capable of. I made a point of making it clear that I was not the stereotype. I tell a story all the time to illustrate that. I was working for a company called National Semiconductor back in 1980. I was in a meeting one day with Pierre Lamond, who at the time was the vice president. He was from France and head of the group.

Asian’s Glass Ceiling: Who am I? I am who I am and I am a little bit of everybody.

Somebody from Houston was setting up our factory there and somebody from Boston. I was a product manager back then. I just started at the National. Before the meeting, Pierre was talking before the meeting started and he said, “I’m from France, I live in Paris. Where are you from?” The guy from Texas said, “I grew up in Houston. I’m born and raised Texan.” The guy from Boston grew up in Boston. I said, “That makes me the only native here because I was born in California.” I know what they wanted to hear. They wanted to hear that, “I’m Chinese and my parents came over,” but I made the point that I’m American so they were clear that I’m not who they think they were. My implicit feeling is that I am different than the stereotype. I have made clear that I’m not who they think they are because they assumed I’m one thing. I made it clear that I am something else.

Do you see yourself as an Asian, Asian-American or American?

I’ll say all of the above. Am I Chinese? Not exactly. Am I Asian? Not exactly. Am I American? Not exactly. I never think of myself as Asian. You think of yourself as Chinese. Although as communities, you think of yourself as Asian. I never thought of myself as anything other than who I am to the point that people think I am or I see myself as Chinese or not Chinese or American, not American. I’m all the above and none of the above. I’ll make two stories. In high school, I was a student body president. I was friends with all the cliques in high school. In high school, they have little cliques: the jocks, athletes, the scholars, the geeks, the social guys, the drunks and the party people. I grew up in a small town and I was friends with everybody. I was friends with all the groups because I was never seen as being a geek or an athlete or a party person. I was a little bit of everything. I was all the above but yet, none of the above. I was not in any group. That was me. I was friends with everybody. I’m not exactly anything.

The other story I like to tell about myself relative to what I’m doing now was a story when I was in Cisco. One of the things I did is I began to look at Asians and the fact that very few Asians were manning Cisco. When I was there, I got involved in Asian diversity because I realized one day in 2006 that in the engineering group, I was the only Asian VP. I was the only Chinese VP. Out of 140 VPs, I was the only one. I said, “I’ve got to fix this.” One of the things I did is get all the directors together. I was a vice president. I called the directors and we had a series of meetings every month to talk about things.

One day I invited Charlie Giancarlo, who at that time headed all engineering for Cisco to talk to the directors. He walked up to me and said, “Buck, thank you for finding me to talk to your community.” That just stopped me for a second. I said, “I’ve never thought of myself as this part of this community,” even though I was doing something for the community. That made me realize in a way I had a responsibility as a role model for the Asian community, yet I never saw myself part of it. I hope that explains your question. Who am I? I am who I am and I am a little bit of everybody.

Quite a few of us, either we have the feeling that we are not good enough or we don’t belong here. Here means the United States. Do I think so? Yes. Quite a few of us feel that way. I used to feel that I don’t belong here. I moved here from Vietnam, I came here as a refugee. I went to college here and went to work here in computer companies. At work, they encourage you to speak up, to give ideas and things like that. It’s the American way. I did that but when I came home, it’s the opposite. I’m not allowed to express my opinion. I feel torn and constant conflict. I say, “Who am I? Do I belong here? I’m not American.” I look at my mirror and say, “I’m not American. I’m not white. I speak with an accent, so I’m not American. I don’t belong here.” I’m not totally Asian or Vietnamese because I don’t think like that anymore. 

I thought it was just me feeling it. As I talked to more Asian women, especially the one who are a little bit like me who wants to be independent, who wants to express themselves, they feel the same way. They said they don’t belong here. I realized that the majority of Asian immigrants, we live here and sometimes we feel that we don’t belong here. That’s why I created my own company and I want to share that you belong to where you live. Let’s combine rather and say, “We are no longer pure Asian. We’re not American. Let’s make us Asian-American because we have a little bit of each side. We are influenced by the thinking of most cultures. Let’s accept it. Let’s embrace it and find a way that we enjoy the way that we want to live and create that culture for us.”

I agree with you and to what you said that we identify as Asian-American. That’s good. I always say this. I can apply this. I am me. I am who I am. There are different sides of me at different times. Myself at work is different than myself at home. I talk to people who work for me. Definitely, I talk to my kids but does that make me inauthentic? I’m a parent and a boss. A parent doesn’t act like a boss. When you’re a wife or a husband, the way you interact with your spouse is different than you interact with people at work. What’s expected of you is different. Given the context of who you are and where you’re at, you should be whoever you need to be in that context. There’s not initially conflict as long as the internal value of what’s right and wrong and internal value of what’s moral and immoral is the same. You’re playing the same rules, but you act a little differently in a context.

Thank you for that perspective. Tell us about your professional journey. How did you become the CEO and president of Andiamo?

Andiamo is a strange one. I’ll give you the general story. The general story is I’ve never looked at my journey as looking for a career. I was fortunate enough to be good enough and get enough schooling to be able to make a lot of career decisions on my own. My view has always been to challenge myself, to do things that I don’t know how to do or something that I want to learn to do. I’ve always been challenged by either new markets and something that I’ve never done before and challenge myself and see if I can do it. It’s my own personal challenge. That’s what drives me.

I’ll tell you a funny story that illustrates this more than anything else. I was in seventh grade. The teacher said in English, “For this semester, I want you to read books. If you read 300 pages of books, you get an A. You have to write a book report. If you read 200 pages of the book, you get a B and if you only read 100, you get a C.” I said, “In that case, I’d better read 300 pages.” I did it in the first week. I said, “Now what am I going to do? Let me see if I can read 500 pages.” The second week I read another 200. Now I got 500. I said, “Now what I am going to do? What if I read up to 1,000?” Now I’ve got 1,000. I said, “I wonder if I get 10,000.” I read 10,000 pages. I wound up with 50,000 pages in the semester. There was no reason for me to do that. No one told me to do that. It’s a question of, “How much can I do? How hard can I push myself to do something that I don’t think I can do?”

I was working at HP on a software project. On a Friday, this problem came up and my boss told me, “We have no time to solve this problem. Let’s just ignore it and go on. This can’t be done.” I said, “Yeah?” I worked the weekend and Monday morning, I showed him the software and solved the problem. When somebody challenged me to do something that can’t be done, I challenge myself to see if it can be done. When I got back from Harvard, I joined a startup or headed a startup with some of my friends. It was in the ‘80s and it was getting into a new field that was just growing. Doing something new and making a contribution was interesting. After it failed, I did another one and that failed. Finally, I did another one and this succeeded. It was acquired by Cisco. I was always doing something new that I hadn’t done before.

For example, I joined a startup in ‘94 to do cable modems, this cable Comcast broadband that you have in your home. In 1994, no one thought it could be done. In fact AT&T, the phone company, was saying, “It’s impossible.” I joined a company to do it and we did the technology and did it. Our company was one of the first three or four companies to have that technology. Then what happens is with that technology, big companies like Cisco made the chip switch to make your $300 product now doable in $50. You rip technology. We started a company, built the technology, went from zero to $200 million. Then when the big guys came in, it went from $200 to zero. What drove me was this challenge.

You’re motivated by challenge. When you were the CEO and president at Andiamo System, who did you report to?

It was a weird situation. It was a spin out of Cisco the way it worked. Some group of people spun out of Cisco. A friend of mine who was in Cisco spun this group out as a startup to do something. He recruited me to be CEO. I had a board. I reported to the board. It was to Cisco, a VP and an outside investor. I reported to the board.

Do you report to the board? Did you run the whole company?


Employees leave Cisco. They spin off from Cisco. They leave Cisco, they go out and start their own company and later on, Cisco brings and buys them back.

They spin out and then they are spun in. As I recall, 40 people with the engineering team spun out Cisco. We eventually grew to about 310-ish or so. When we were acquired by Cisco, we were about 310 people. The condition was we couldn’t hire any more people outside of Cisco. The 40 people spun out and I became CEO of that. Then we grew the company and then the 300 people were acquired by Cisco. When they spun out of Cisco, they were not working for Cisco at that point. They were working for Andiamo and then we spun back in and became Cisco.

Were you involved in the selling of this company to Cisco? Were you involved in the negotiation and things like that? 

Yes. The negotiation was done up front. What happened was Cisco spun this group out. There was a pre-negotiated deal to acquire the company. They had set the first rights to acquire the company. At a certain point, they had a right to buy us at a ratio of this revenue at the time. It was all pre-negotiated ahead of time and then the details are negotiated at that time. I negotiated both deals. It was complicated. Cisco has done a couple like that. It has done at least three like that and maybe four.

The idea of this company is not coming from working on a project for Cisco. On May 31st, 2018, you wrote an article on Harvard Business Review with the title Asian Americans Are the Least Likely Group in the US to be Promoted to Management. Please share with us what prompted you to write this article.

Asian’s Glass Ceiling: People are looking for certain executive level skills that many Asian Americans don’t value and don’t work at.

I’ve been working on the Asian Glass Ceiling since 2006. I will give you some history here. I wrote the article for the Harvard Business Review. There were some charts to back up those claims and they didn’t want to publish the chart, but it was there. What started my whole journey here was one day in 2006 as I was working on Sunday morning, I suddenly realized I was the only East Asian vice president in engineering. I wrote to Charlie Giancarlo who was head of engineering. I said, “Charlie, am I the only Chinese one?” Charlie wrote back and said, “Buck, you are the only one. I’ve often seen the same thing and wondered why. Find out what’s going on and see what we can do about it.”

What that led to was finding out that in an organization that is roughly 60% Asian in engineering, at the time, only 15% of the high potential pipeline or identified potential leaders were Asian in engineering. When you looked at the vice presidents in engineering, there are 104 vice presidents and I was the only Chinese in an organization, that’s roughly 20%, 25% Chinese. When you looked at directors one level down from the senior directors, it was 7%. 20% in the general population, 7% of directors and 1% of the VPs. When I raised the issue inside Cisco, they said, “We had never thought about this as a problem.” John Chambers, we’ve talked to him about this and he said, “You are right. We have a problem here. You guys tell me how you fix it. I don’t know what the problem is. You tell me what the problem is and we’ll support you and fund you to fix it.”

I’ve concluded with talking to a lot of people in Cisco, a lot of Chinese Cisco Directors and managers that the reason they weren’t getting promoted was they didn’t understand what it takes to be a general manager. They didn’t understand what it meant to be an executive. I tried to find training programs to teach them how to be executive, but there was nothing there. I created in 2010 a program at Stanford Business School, Advanced Leadership Program for Asian Working Executives to teach what it takes. What happens is that people are looking for certain executive level skills that many Asian-Americans don’t value and they don’t work at and they were not developed. That’s our problem. The other problem is that people don’t expect that of many Asian-Americans. People don’t see that there’s an implicit bias that Asian-Americans, both men and women, are not fit to be leaders. In a lot of cases, that can be true. They don’t see that potential. They don’t expect to see that potential. What happens is they may see it, but they tend to ignore it because they don’t expect it of you. That’s their problem.

Our problem is that to a large extent, we reinforce that image of non-leadership with our behavior. In fact, I saw a study of women saying that of all the race and genders, Asian women are considered the least fit to be leaders. That’s the implicit assumption. I don’t have to show you that article, but that was a Stanford report that was published. I saw the same thing myself. The best example of that in terms of expectations leadership is that when I sent an email out to these certified East Asian directors, I said, “Let’s meet and talk about this.” I got two emails back from two directors who said, “Do we have permission to talk to about this topic?” My immediate reaction was the reason they’re not high-potential is you don’t ask for permission to talk about something like that. If you’re senior director, you’re making $200,000 a year, you’re managing a group of 150 people, these issues are your responsibility to talk about. You don’t need permission to talk about it.

If that’s the attitude, then you aren’t going to be an executive because when you’re a VP, you don’t ask permission. You just do what you need to do. What you have to understand is you have to know what’s good enough for the company and you do what’s good for the company. You don’t ask permission to do it because that’s your responsibility to know that. If you don’t understand that, then you’re going to fail as a general manager, you’re going to fail as an executive unless you understand them. That’s a simple example of the kind of people we’re looking for. They asked permission for this. They want approval and permission. They want to be told what to do. When you’re a GM, you’re not told what do you. You tell other people what to do. That’s what I was looking for and I didn’t see that in a lot of directors in Cisco. That’s why I started the program to teach them. Those are things they have to understand.

Were you the one who created that program at Stanford?

Yes. What happened was me and a friend of mine, Wes Hom, who was at that time a VP at IBM, we went to Stanford and said, “We need this kind of training for Asian-America leaders.” We characterized the typical kinds of problems that we saw in our directorial population. Stanford agreed. The business school agreed to put it on. It’s a sample program. It’s taught by the business school. It’s a one-week program. Wes and I are still there every year. We sit in all the classes and act as mentors to those people. It is a regular business school program that teaches leadership. We also bring in the dinners in the evenings with the Asian-American leaders, CEOs from the Bay Area to talk to them. They tell them what it’s like being a CEO. They reinforce the lessons during the day of things they do, so they can see somebody can do it.

The reason we do that is we bring a lot of our VP friends is to be sure people understand there’s no single prototype for being an executive CEO. You don’t have to be the tall, white, blonde man to do it. You have to learn to be able to do certain things. You can see Asian men or women who are at that level and they are much more like us than the tall white man. At least they’re doing the same kinds of things. You have to be able to do those things and be a leader. It’s different than being a middle manager. What we’re trying to do there is have them understand that it can be done but there are certain things that many of them are doing or not doing to get them into position.

How long ago did this program start?

The first program was in 2010. It runs once a year except for the one year after Chevron wanted to buy the class. We had a different second class with Chevron. Chevron sent 40 people at that class: twenty from the US and twenty from Asia.

I saw the cost is around $13,000 for six days.

Sunday through Friday.

It’s been almost nine years, the program.

This is the 11th class this year, 2019. Every year we get about 40 to 50. Half are directors, VPs or general managers. The other half is one level below that, either senior managers who are looking to be directors or directors looking to be VPs.

Who will pay for this program? Does the company sponsor it? 

The company pays for it.

You mentioned that there are some traits or values that are required from these individuals in order to reach the C level. What are they?

Before that, I want to show this chart. It’s a little complicated but it may be not so. I want to call it the Manager Parity Index. The Manager Parity Index is very simple. It’s a percentage of managers by race divided by the percentage of non-managers. What percentage of people move one level to another level? For example, if Asians are 30% of the population, parity would be a certain percent of managers. That would be a parity of one. What this says is that if you look at 2016, Asians are 0.68 or they’re 32% below parity. That is 32% underrepresented. It’s a relevant number in the workforce. Very little has changed from 2007 to 2016 to say we’re underrepresented in middle management compared to our numbers in the workforce. You look at all of the races, they’re above parity or relevant numbers in the workforce.

They’re promoted at higher rates than Asians. There are more Asians promoted just because they’re more of us. In fact, in Silicon Valley, 47% of all tech workers are Asians. There are more of us, so they see us. If you look at the relative numbers on a partial basis, we’re less represented than all of the races in middle management. That’s what this chart says. That’s why we say that we’re the most represented as a number, 47% in Silicon Valley. They’re most likely to be hired not just in the Bay Area, most likely hired into a white-collar job in the Bay Area but least likely to be hired to manager than any other race. That’s surprising. The data says that whatever’s happening, we don’t understand what we need to do to be managers and particularly executive managers. Back to your question, what are we not doing?

The values and traits that we need to have.

The first thing I want to say is that the advice that people have been giving you about working hard to get promoted is totally wrong. I’m not saying working hard is a bad thing. It’s a good thing. If you’re an engineer or you’re a marketing person, all you’re doing is working hard and showing you’re a great engineer, a great individual contributor. If I’m a manager and I know you like to do that, I’ll keep you doing that as long as I can because you don’t tell me otherwise and because I don’t think you want to do otherwise. That’s the implicit bias against the stereotype of Asian. You love working. You’re showing me you love working by working harder, so you must love what you’re doing. People will tell you to work hard and get ahead.

That’s part of the reason that we haven’t made any progress because people don’t know or people don’t understand the real dynamics. What they don’t understand and what you typically hear when people in the journey says, “I was the best. Just work hard because that’s what I’m focused on.” What they do not tell you is that they had other factors going on as well. That’s the part that people aren’t telling you. All these that you’re getting from all the other people, it’s great but it will never get you to the next level. It certainly stops and more than anything, it shows more than anything else when you get to the executive level. Working hard is irrelevant there at my level. It’s great but if that’s all I’m good at, I’ll never get it. What’s more important is the ability to have organizational influence. That is the same.

Asian’s Glass Ceiling: What you know is important because it’s what you do.

The best example of that is I moved down to the manager level. As you’re going through the ranks as an engineer or a technical person, a finance person, whatever, what you know is important because it’s what you do. Your work product is what you do or things you around you that you know basically. As you go higher and higher, what’s important are those people who work around you and how much you influenced them as a functional manager and you generally know what you’re doing. The work product is things for the company. You have to deal with people in sales and you want to be sure that people in sales know what they’re doing and can sell your product. You want to be sure the marketing field knows what to do. You have to see the manufacturing people or the finance people, accounting people, the development of people. They are all your peers. They’re all working just as hard as you and has their own things to do.

Most of the time, what you’re trying to do when you’re a general manager is having people do things for you more than they’re doing. Getting to do that has nothing to do with what you know, it has zero to do with how hard you’re working. The most important thing is to understand that if that point you’re trying to have organizational success, not your success. Organizational success has less to do with what you’re doing. It is important what you do and what your organization does. Unless the other parts of the organization are working with you for this success, you will fail. If you build a great product and the sales guys sell it or go to the wrong customers or don’t know how to sell it, you fail. When manufacturing folks don’t have the product done on time when you need it, when a customer orders it, you fail. It doesn’t matter how well your product is. People are looking for leadership skills like that. The question is in lower levels, when I’m looking for leaders, I’m looking not for people working their butt off as hard as they can. That’s important. Can you learn these other skills too? Do you want to learn these other skills too? Can you deal with relationships? Can you see the big picture?

If all you’re doing is working and not showing me, then you will stay exactly where you are. That is the first problem that people have in this community is people giving them the wrong advice because people giving this advice don’t know what they’re talking about. These are large organizations. That has something to do in another story I love to tell and that’s culture. Part of this culture is this. At Stanford, one year we had a panel with a general manager from China and the CEO of Airbus Japan. We talked about what it was like to rise in the US. They said, “How did you get to the CEO in China?” The general manager who runs the factory in Shanghai said, “You do what the big boss says.” As CEO of Airbus Japan, “How do you get to be a CEO in Japan?” He says, “You’re the last man standing,” which means you don’t take risks. You keep your head down, you hope everybody else gets shot and you’re the last man standing. Don’t take risks.

That is not how things work in the United States. If you grew up in Japan or had Japanese parents, you were brought up in a culture that says, “Be careful. Don’t take risks.” In China, you do what you’re told. Remember my story about sending an email out to these people and saying, “Let’s talk about this.” They came back saying, “Do I have permission? Did the boss tell me if I can do this?” That’s what people are looking for. Can you learn those skills? Do you want to learn those skills?

The second problem that we have is that we are hesitant to ask for what we want because we’re afraid people will say no. Also to ask what you want is not in the Asian culture. You’re too forward, too aggressive and too demanding. People say, “If I work hard, my work will show that I’m good enough to do it.” No, you have to ask for it as well. You have to ask for that. If you’re not showing it, you have to ask, “How do I learn to do more? I want to be a manager. How do I learn to be a manager?” We’re reluctant to do that because number one, we’re afraid for people to say no and number two, you’re afraid that you’ll be seen as too ambitious, which is not cultural.

We have our culture working against us or our learned behaviors are what we learned, what our parents taught us, to be quiet and work hard. Don’t rock the boat and get ahead. That’s not the way it works in big companies. All the things your mother and father taught you would get you so far. If you look at the data, it only gets you so far. That’s our problem. I don’t only blame us. It’s also the other problem is in that people have certain assumptions about the model minority being quiet. The problem is not only that we’re afraid to ask for more, but because people assume we don’t want anymore, whereas it may not for other people, for non-Asians. They don’t assume that for non-Asians. They think they are great. If they’re white, they think they know what white mentality is. We are not given the benefit of the doubt. That’s our problem and their problem.

Thank you so much for pointing this out. We have disadvantages from two sides. One, they perceive that we are not capable because of boundary by cultural limitation. The second thing is because that’s what we have been trained. We have not been trained to speak up. I mentioned to you at work when I was working as an engineer or as a manager, I’m speaking up. I show up and express it. When I go home, I shrink. It’s not that I’m not able, but I feel that I was not allowed to speak up. We see more and more Indians, they are also Asians, but more Indians are moving up to the C-suite. In Silicon Valley, the majority of the two races that are dominant in the Silicon Valley are Indians and Chinese. Maybe more Chinese than the Indians as a number. Why were the Indians able to move further than the Chinese? Do you have any other input or perspective about it?

First of all, the assumptions are right. I look at the number of executives in Silicon Valley in the 25 largest companies in 2000 and then looked at again in 2011, 2012. What I found was in 2000, 7% of the executives in the 25 largest companies in the Bay Area as identified in their financial filings were Asians. 6% East Asian, mostly Chinese in the US and 1% South Asian, Indians. 7% total, 6% East and 1% South. I looked at 2012 and the percentage had gone from 7% to 12%. It was the original 6% Chinese, 1% Indian. That went from 7% total to 12% total. In 2012, of the 12%, 6% were Chinese and 6% are Indian. All the growth has gone to Indians. Perception is real. It’s not just on the data because you have people like the head of Google and others. I took the raw data and it’s true. The other thing I want to point out is even looking at Indian numbers, they’re still underrepresented, relevant numbers in the workforce. Both Chinese and Indian, East and South Asians are still both underrepresented. Don’t assume that because they’re doing so great, they’re better than anybody. They’re still underrepresented.

I haven’t seen any research on this. I have talked to a number of Indians about this. We have this open conversation. My views are that there are three reasons. The first reason why they were successful is number one, by and large, a lot of the Indian migrations to Silicon Valley started at the same time after 1965, which was the relaxation of immigration laws. A lot of Indians came to the United States for education and some did very well, in the beginning in Silicon Valley. Very few in the beginning, but they all came at the same time. Those who were successful, they had known each other. It was a very small community. Because it’s a very small community, they saw themselves as new in Silicon Valley. A few leaders got together and said, “We need to help that generation of Indians coming in.” They accepted the responsibility of being community leaders and did things when they were successful in their startups. They started funding other Indian startups and created an organization called TiE, which was still the most successful Asian-American organization, professional relations in Silicon Valley.

One thing was that they all came in together and had a small network because there was only a small thing. The most important thing was that they saw themselves as community leaders and helped the next generation and they became role models for more and more people as community leaders. They built TiE as a network of Indian-American leaders. The Chinese community was split into three parts: the old Chinese who came in early, the Hong Kong Chinese, the Taiwanese Chinese and the mainland Chinese. They all came in in different ways and they didn’t have these built-in networks. Unlike Indians who came into one large way where they knew each other, they’re all from the same schools. In India, they had something in common. We had a lot of differences in our community as a group because they all spoke different languages. Taiwanese didn’t talk to the Mainland. In fact, they consider them enemies.

The other reason is there were no Chinese leaders who stepped up as community leaders who said, “Let’s do something for the whole community and help the next generation.” Indians saw themselves as one community and leaders got together to help the community. I don’t see that even now in Chinese communities. I don’t want to blame anybody, but the dynamic was that we’re so focused on ourselves and whether it’s a Hong Kong or the Taiwanese or Mainland Chinese or the Tsinghua University people or the Beijing University people. They didn’t extend it and say, “We need to help.” As a result, there were no outstanding community role models so people could see that, “I can make it too and how do I get there?” They did help each other. We still don’t help each other that much. It means two things. We should learn from the experience because we’re not doing that right. Our community is still desegregated. Our community needs to pull together into small organizations. There’s still no large organization that pulls all community together. There’s no Asian-American community.


I feel that way. Why are we so separated?

It is difficult because Vietnamese is different from the Chinese. Hong Kong speaks a different language than Taiwan.

We speak English here. Why not use English as a common language? I feel that in my generation, I want other Asians to see that we are not Asian, we are not Americans. We are Asian-American. I use the word Asian as globally. You’re not Chinese, you’re not Vietnamese, you’re not Hong-Kongers. You are not Taiwanese. It’s Asian.

That’s what they have done successfully in their community. They have seen themselves as a community and we have not pulled together as a community.

Is there any organization right now that is trying to help the Asian community get together and support each other and mentoring?

Not yet. There are people trying. I’m trying.

I appreciate your insight a lot, Buck. Would you give us your top three recommendations to young Asian-American professionals who want to be in the C-suite someday?

Despite what I said at working hard, definitely work hard. When you’re a young professional, you have to sell your reputation. That’s the first thing. The second thing is when you’re working, understand that what’s important is not just what your boss knows, but what everybody around your boss knows. There are pieces of advice. Somebody tells this story who became eventually one of the head partners at PWC, PricewaterhouseCoopers. They would assign him to different offices. He said that when he would start in a new office, he’d look around the office and he would ask his question, “Who can affect my career? Who makes decisions which will affect my career? I want to be sure that they know what I’m doing.”

The reason that’s important is that the way that promotions work is that I’d be in a room with our general manager and there are probably ten or fifteen of us in the room. I’d be sitting with our boss. Each of us had maybe one or two recommendation for promotion from senior managing director. Maybe you’d have ten or fifteen people that you want to promote. You had three or four promotions you could give. You have to choose. I remember one case where I put up somebody and three or four people in the room said, “I know this person. He did really well. He worked in sales. I know he’s really smart.” I remember one instance where one of my peers put up a person and he said, “This person is smart and did a good at work.” Then I said, “Anybody wants to say something?” No one said a word whereas four or five people sitting in the room said, “This guy’s a good guy.” He got a promotion. My guy who three or four people knew versus the one person no one knew. Understand that it’s not just your manager who has input on your promotions as much as your managers and peers as well.

Think of it this way, given that understanding, who’s going to support your manager when he or she promotes that recommendation? When you’re working hard and all you’re doing is working hard and the only person knows that is your manager because all you’re doing is working hard. You’re at a disadvantage if somebody who’s working just as hard as you are and also talking to other people as well. That happens one or two ways. When you’re in a meeting with your managers and peers, if you’re not saying anything, they don’t learn anything about you. Whereas the person that says something in those ways, they know whether you’re good or bad because they hear what you’re saying. Let’s be sure you understand that this process in getting promotions has as much to do with who knows what you do. Unless they know what you do, then they don’t know you’ve done anything at all.

That’s the second one. What’s the third recommendation?


Asian’s Glass Ceiling: What’s important is not just what your boss knows, but what everybody around your boss knows.

You’re managing to know what you want. Rather than ask, let your work speak for itself. You have to ask, “I’d like to know more about this. Ultimately, I want to be a manager. What are new skills? Where are my weaknesses? What do I need to do?” They can try to help you. Your manager may be a good person, but they’re probably not a mind reader. They can’t help you if they don’t know you. It’s hard for a lot of Asians to ask because it is perceived as being too ambitious. The other reason that people don’t ask is they’re afraid people are going to say, “You don’t deserve it.” Understand in this environment, your manager is not like your teacher and grading you. Your manager is there and they’re supposed to help you. If you’re a good employee, their goal is to keep you in the company, keep you challenged and motivated so you stay in the company.

They will try to keep you there as long as possible. If they say, “No, you don’t matter,” their concern is not that you’re unhappy. Their concern is you are going to leave the company because you can’t get what you want. Understand from my perspective, I’m a manager. I don’t want to say no unless I want to lose you. Understand my perspective as a manager and you asked me that. I don’t want to say no because it’s my job I don’t think you’re ready. When I say no, I’m afraid you’re going to go somewhere else where someone will say yes. That’s always my fear. That is certainly one difference between East Asians and South Asians. South Asians are willing to ask for what they want. That’s a big difference.

Somebody mentioned to me about that too. More Indians are asking for mentorship whereas the Chinese never ask somebody to be a mentor for them.

That’s because in the Chinese perspective, that’s a sign of weakness not aspiration. You don’t know what you’re supposed to know. That’s the working harder and getting it done stuff. If I can prove that I know it all, I can get ahead and the answer’s no, that’s not right. If you don’t ask for something, it’s right then you all get ahead. That’s why I say that all the advice people have been getting is totally wrong.

I know that the audience are getting a lot of stuff from this interview. What if they want to get in touch with you? How do they do that via social media?

Just look me up on LinkedIn or Facebook. That works.

Thank you so much for being here with us at The Asian Women of Power podcast. Until next time, live, life, loud. 

Links Mentioned:

Episode Quotes :

"Failure is not as bad, as long as you can get up again."

"My personal challenge is always challenging myself on things I don't know how to do."

"There's an implicit bias that Asian women and Asian men are not fit to be leaders."

"Being a leader is different than being a manager."

About Buck Gee

Mr. Gee retired in 2008 from Cisco Systems, where he was Vice President and General Manager of the Data Center Business Unit. He joined Cisco with its 2004 acquisition of Andiamo Systems where Mr. Gee was President and CEO.

His career spans 35 years in Silicon Valley, working as an executive in large Fortune 50 companies as well as small startup teams. He holds advanced degrees from Stanford University and the Harvard Business School.

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