Alex Chi, Goldman Sachs
Source: Goldman Sachs

A year after the pandemic began in New York City, something snapped in Alex Chi.

The 48-year-old Goldman Sachs banker had been inundated with articles and video clips of horrifying seemingly random attacks on Asian Americans in his home town. Then, in late March, eight people were gunned down in the Atlanta area — most of them immigrants from Korea and China — and Chi could stand it no longer.

The barrage of attacks forced a change in Chi, a partner and 27-year Goldman veteran. He became an in-house agitator of sorts, attending protests and rallying his colleagues around a simple idea: Silence is no longer an option.

“The message I’ve clearly put out to other Asian Americans is this: You have to start speaking up for yourselves,” Chi said in a recent interview. “We have to use this moment as an opportunity to finally make ourselves heard and change the narrative around Asian Americans in this country.”

This isn’t just the story of the political awakening of a single New York banker. It’s the story of thousands of Wall Street employees who are, many for the first time in their lives, connecting with co-workers in virtual chatrooms, over Zoom and in person to commiserate about being Asian in finance, and in America.

While Asian Americans make up one of the biggest minority groups in finance, comprising roughly 15% of the employees at the six biggest U.S. banks, few have made it to the operating committees of these institutions. Just one, former Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit, has led a top-tier bank.

Chi, who became a Goldman partner a decade ago, reaching one of Wall Street’s loftiest ranks, says he is one of the first Korean Americans to do so at the 151-year-old institution.

He believes Asian Americans at Goldman and beyond are now pushing back against the stereotype —rooted in a common cultural upbringing that stresses modesty and conflict avoidance and reinforced at times by workplace discrimination — that they are quiet, docile worker bees.

For the broader community, some 23 million people, the past few months have been the first time Asian American issues have reached the national stage in decades. The last time this has happened was probably in the early 1980s, when the beating death of Vincent Chin galvanized an earlier generation to form affinity groups, according to historians.

`China virus’

The arrival of the coronavirus last year brought a surge in bias crimes against Asian Americans, especially in New York and California. Many of the assaults have been against senior citizens and women. The violence has shattered the sense of security for many in the group, according to the Pew Research Center.

But a silver lining to the racial scapegoating that accompanied Covid-19 has been that it has unified many Americans of Asian descent, the fastest-growing minority group in the U.S. They make up a significant portion of the corporate workforce in industries including finance, technology and health care, and are an emerging force in politics.

“There’s so many differences within Asians, but you’re treated as one group,” said Joyce Chang, chair of global research at JPMorgan Chase. “Now, being targeted for hate crimes, people are saying, we are being treated like a monolith, we may as well get organized.”

Lillie Chin, mother of Vincent Chin who was clubbed to death by two white men in June 1982, breaks down as a relative (L), helps her walk while leaving Detroit’s City County Building in April, 1983.
Bettmann | Getty Images

Chang says she studied the history of anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S. while at Columbia University in the 1980s, including the vicious 1982 killing of Chin by two bat-wielding Detroit autoworkers who mistakenly assumed he was Japanese. The killers, who blamed Japan for the decline of the U.S. auto industry, were fined $3,000 and avoided prison.

Chang said the current period reminds her of that time. Both for the larger issues — in the 1980s, anxiety over Japanese economic might was common, while today the emergence of China as a global superpower has policymakers worried — as well as the response.

The first use of the phrase “China virus” by former President Donald Trump on Twitter in March 2020 led directly to an increase in online and offline anti-Asian abuse, according to a recent report in the American Journal of Public Health. Trump had nearly 90 million followers before getting booted from the platform.

A close-up of President Donald Trump’s notes shows where Corona was crossed out and replaced with Chinese Virus as he speaks during a White House briefing, March 19, 2020.
Jabin Botsford | The Washington Post | Getty Images

Now, people are forming pan-Asian affinity groups to help keep track of the bias attacks and boost philanthropy. One such nonprofit, the Asian American Foundation, launched this month and said it has already raised $125 million for AAPI causes over the next five years. It, along with JPMorgan and other organizations, have given money to Stop AAPI Hate, a new group that began tracking bias attacks in January 2020 after a rash of incidents in California.

Initially, it was journalists in New York and San Francisco who chronicled the attacks, which began in the early days of the pandemic and ramped up this year, occurring on a daily basis at times. Then Asian American celebrities including actors and athletes amplified the coverage. Posts on social media brought home the idea that even being famous and powerful didn’t insulate people from feeling vulnerable.

The movement has extended to the finance realm. At JPMorgan, Chang says that after the Atlanta shootings, attendance at an internal forum for Asian Americans had 6,100 participants, about 10 times larger than the typical attendance before the pandemic.

The sentiment of many of those I spoke with was something akin to shock. Several had had superlative careers on Wall Street, and yet here they were, reliving some of the same trauma from their childhoods they had believed was a thing of the past.

A demonstrator during a rally in Seattle on March 13, 2021.
Jason Redmond | AFP | Getty Images

Tom Lee, co-founder of research boutique Fundstrat and a regular CNBC on-air guest, said he faced “merciless anti-Asian attacks” growing up in a small town 25 miles from Detroit. That tough childhood helped him chart his own course as one of the best-known market prognosticators in the country, he said, because he had learned to tune out noise.

“It’s been easy to feel like Asians have a bit of a bull’s-eye on their backs,” Lee said in an interview.

Mike Karp, CEO of Options Group, a recruiting firm that has placed thousands of traders and salespeople on Wall Street in the past three decades, put it a different way.

“They thought they were part of the mainstream until this `Chinese virus’ stuff,” Karp, who is Indian American, said of his AAPI clients. “Now there’s a building resentment that people have, and they aren’t taking it anymore.”

West Coast bias

Distress over the violence she was seeing in San Francisco and the initial lack of national media attention moved Cynthia Sugiyama, a senior vice president at Wells Fargo, to publish a highly personal piece in March.

Sugiyama says she has been overwhelmed by the response to her column, published in the San Francisco Chronicle and LinkedIn, from colleagues and others who related to her experiences being harassed as a child, and her resolve to respond to the current moment.

“I’ve never before felt this sense of community as much as now,” Sugiyama said. “What makes this moment pivotal is that the surge in anti-Asian sentiment on one side has been met with a powerful swell on the other side from Asian Americans who are finding their voices.”

Cynthia Sugiyama, head of HR communications for Wells Fargo.
Source: Cynthia Sugiyama

Sugiyama, who manages human resources communications for a company of 264,513 employees, said that Asian American employees have flocked to internal forums to share their feelings and experiences.

According to employees at some of the biggest banks, one of the main topics being discussed is the difficulty Asian Americans have climbing the corporate ladder.

Wall Street hierarchy

The Wall Street model is to take in thousands of college graduates a year, placing them on the bottom of a hierarchy where analysts and associates grind out long hours in support of merger deals or trading activity. By design, few junior bankers make it to the vice president or director level, where annual compensation typically reaches several hundred thousand dollars. Fewer still make it to managing director, where pay packages often total more than $1 million a year.

For instance, at JPMorgan, the biggest U.S. bank by assets, about 25,000 employees identify themselves as Asian. While roughly 1 in 4 of the bank’s professional workers are Asian, just 10% are senior managers. At the very top of the organization, the bank’s 18-person operating committee led by CEO Jamie Dimon includes just one Asian person, Sanoke Viswanathan.

Park Ji-Hwan | AFP | Getty Images

Some have had the realization that the playbook used by Asian Americans to reach a certain level of workplace achievement isn’t enough anymore.

“Every bank is happy to hire a young Asian who will work double hard and is good at math and analysis,” said a Morgan Stanley employee who asked for anonymity to speak candidly. “As time goes on however, I noticed how most of the people I knew in Wall Street never really progressed past VP level, and many were laid off when cost-cutting rounds came.”

His explanation for this phenomenon is two-fold: Parents of Asian Americans drilled a set of principles into their children — study, work hard — that gets you past the first few hurdles at an investment bank, but that doesn’t necessarily help people advance beyond that. Further, little emphasis is given to so-called soft skills like public speaking and finding mentors, things needed at higher levels, he said.

Some corners of Wall Street are friendlier for Asian Americans than others, he said.

When it comes to stock research, people only care if an analyst makes them money, he said. With mergers advice, however, the client is always right, and sometimes owners of mid-sized and small companies didn’t want to work with nonwhite bankers, he said. In wealth management, Asian Americans often don’t have the social connections to help them succeed.

And, just as with Black and Latinx employees, Asian Americans are hindered because managers are more likely to support and promote people who look like themselves, he said.

`A bit of bragging’

Lee, the Fundstrat co-founder, said that in his 24 years on Wall Street before striking out on his own, he often saw the careers of Asian Americans stall. What hampers them from progressing is an aversion to drawing attention to themselves and the clubby nature of banking at higher levels, he said.

“I’ve seen that the most successful people are the ones who do a bit of bragging,” Lee said. “Asians aren’t really good at that, and I think that hurts us, because it’s easy to not realize someone has a lot to offer if they aren’t bragging about it.”

Tom Lee, Fundstrat Global Advisors
Scott Mlyn | CNBC

Despite the general success of the cohort in the corporate setting, Lee says, Asian Americans haven’t been involved enough in other areas of civic life, especially politics.

That may be changing, however. Kamala Harris, who is of Indian Jamaican heritage, became the first Asian American, Black and female vice president, and former presidential candidate Andrew Yang is a front-runner for New York mayor. Asian American voters were a key constituency in the last presidential election, casting a record number of votes in states where President Joe Biden eked out narrow victories.

Still, some of the Asian Americans interviewed for this story said they felt invisible at work. Or worse, given the spike in harassment and violence, some felt like permanent foreigners despite having lived in the U.S. for decades. Most Americans can’t name a single prominent living Asian American, according to a recent survey.

A big umbrella

Part of what has hamstrung an Asian American political movement is that the construct itself has always been an imperfect solution, a term created in the late 1960s to consolidate smaller cohorts to gain leverage amid the wider Civil Rights movement.

Today, the term Asian American includes people from more than 20 countries across East and South Asia, each with their own languages, food and culture. People who have familial roots in China, India, the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea and Japan make up about 85% of all Asian Americans.

In fact, the presence of most Asians in the U.S. can be traced to the Civil Rights movement, which established that a race-based system of laws was unjust.

After an initial wave of immigration to the continental U.S. in the 1850s, Asians were seen as a “yellow peril” and explicitly excluded from coming to the U.S. for nearly a century by laws including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

That changed after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 opened up migration from Asia, Southern Europe and Africa, instead of solely favoring Western and Northern Europeans. The law would forever change the complexion of the country and happened only after the Civil Rights Act by President Lyndon Johnson.

President Lyndon Johnson signs the liberalized U.S. Immigration bill into law. Attending the ceremony on Liberty Island, (L-R) are: Vice President Hubert Humphrey; first lady Lady Bird Johnson; Mrs. Mike Mansfield (wife of the Senate Majority Leader); Muriel Humphrey; Sen. Ted Kennedy and Sen. Robert Kennedy, on October 4, 1965.
Bettmann | Getty Images

When Johnson signed the landmark immigration legislation in 1965, he was quoted as saying that the previous system “violated the basic principle of American democracy, the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit.”

Seminal moment

Back at Goldman Sachs, Chi realized he had a part to play after the horror of the Atlanta shootings, at least within the confines of his 40,300-person firm. Some managers hadn’t been aware of the violence against Asian Americans, particularly in public areas like subway platforms.

Now, amid the company’s push to encourage more employees to return to Goldman’s headquarters in lower Manhattan, workers were speaking up, telling managers that they didn’t feel safe. Employees got permission to expense rideshares for their commute, and the bank invited public safety experts to offer advice, Chi said.

“In the past, they would’ve just sucked it up and done what they needed to do,” Chi said. “Now, our Asian American community here is speaking up, and they’re going to their managers and saying, `I’m not comfortable. Have you seen what’s going on?'”

CEO David Solomon meets with Asian partners and senior leaders of Goldman Sachs’ Asian Network
David Solomon | Goldman Sachs

Chi also reached out directly to CEO David Solomon, who quickly set up a roundtable meeting where he listened to senior Asian American executives airing their concerns. When Solomon shared a photo of the event on social media and the bank’s internal homepage, it opened up the firm to many more discussions where managers acknowledged they hadn’t known what their Asian American employees were going through, Chi said.

“When I walked out of that room with one of my partners, we turned to each other and said, `Wow, this is a seminal moment, because here we are with our CEO, talking very openly about Asian American issues,” Chi said. “That’s never happened before.”

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