Throwing One Stone: An Interview with Dave Lu

The cofounder of Stand With Asian Americans discusses how business leaders can support the AAPI community at this moment.

May 28, 2021

| by Alex Kekauoha
Dave Lu, MBA ’04

Dave Lu, MBA ’04, wants to “inspire and raise up Asian American leaders.” Credit: Image by Courtesy.

For months, reports of hate crimes against Asian Americans across the nation had been surging. Then, on March 16, a shooter targeted three spas in the Atlanta area, killing eight people, including six Asian women. Like many Asian Americans, Dave Lu saw the massacre as a call to action. “After a year of seeing attacks on Asian Americans,” he says, “the Atlanta shooting was the last straw for me.”

“Enough.” That was the headline of the open letter Lu published two weeks later in the Wall Street Journal calling on business leaders to step up to support the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. It has since been signed by more than 8,000 people, including prominent Asian American executives and allies of all backgrounds. Building on the letter’s momentum, Lu joined fellow Asian American business leaders to create Stand With Asian Americans, a nonprofit that has committed $10 million over the next year to fight hate crimes and discrimination and to increase AAPI representation at all levels of their organizations.

Here, Lu, co-founder of Pared, managing partner at Hyphen Capital, and a 2004 MBA graduate of Stanford Graduate School of Business, reflects on why his letter resonated with so many people and shares his views on the “bamboo ceiling” and how businesses can empower Asian American professionals in this moment.

Thousands of people, including some pretty heavy hitters in the business world, signed your letter. What do you make of the big response?

It was amazing. I did not expect any of this to happen. I wrote a letter in a Google Doc when some friends reached out and asked, “What are we going to do about this?” Then I shared the letter with them and we got to work. We published the letter and started recruiting signatories. I started to reach out to my network, including Eric Wu [CEO and cofounder of Opendoor] and Tony Xu [MBA ’13, CEO and cofounder of DoorDash]. Soon we had over 1,000 signatures from prominent business leaders like Sundar Pichai of Google. Eventually we started to see support from other allies such as NBA player Andre Iguodala, film director J.J. Abrams, and even President George W. Bush.

I think the letter resonated with so many Asian American people because it was the first time they felt like they could speak out, that they had a voice. There was a lot of anger and fear and frustration in the letter that touched on points that people were feeling but didn’t know how to express. And many Asian people didn’t feel like they deserved to express it because the model minority myth made us feel like we aren’t doing as bad as other minority groups, so we should stay quiet. But ultimately we realized that none of this was OK and we shouldn’t have to tolerate hate, period.

How does the model minority myth affect Asian Americans in the professional world?

We were taught to keep our heads down, lay low, and try not to rock the boat too much. The model minority myth assumes that we have no problem earning money or getting jobs and that we’re doing fine. For some groups, yes, that’s true. But the numbers tell a different story. Some of the poorest ethnic groups in the U.S. are actually Asians.

“At the end of the day, it’s not enough to just be worker bees.”

In the workplace, there’s a huge disparity between Asians and other ethnic groups or races when it comes to getting promoted; we rarely get beyond a certain level. We often don’t get promoted to executive positions, even though we may be a huge percentage of a company’s workforce. At the end of the day, it’s not enough to just be worker bees. This is the 21st century. We’re not building railroads. We should have a seat at the table if we’ve earned it.

You’ve written about this “bamboo ceiling.” What’s the best way to overcome it?

Rather than trying to break the bamboo ceiling, which can be seemingly futile, we should build our own houses. If we really want to promote Asians and change the dynamic, let’s start our own companies. Let’s start the Zooms and the DoorDashes and other businesses and disprove the stereotype that CEOs only look a certain way.

Hyphen Capital, which invests in Asian American entrepreneurs, is a big part of my activism; it’s one way of trying to inspire and raise up Asian American leaders and invest in the next generation.

How is the business community uniquely positioned to support members of the AAPI community in this moment?

People in positions of power at corporations can actually push their weight around, whether it be how they spend their advertising dollars, whom they partner with, where they sell, which distributors they work with. But companies can also acknowledge the disparity between Asians being promoted in the workplace and Asians getting seats at the table. Let’s start recognizing and acknowledging the contributions that Asians make and put them into positions where they need to be, because we’re underrepresented across the board.

What would tech and Silicon Valley look like without Asians?

Years ago, PhDs and graduate students from Asia were the army of developers and electrical engineers that built a lot of the tech behind the internet and computers and phones that we have today. If you went back in time and they all disappeared, I don’t know that the industry would be the same. It would be difficult to build Silicon Valley without all the Asian American graduates from Stanford and Berkeley and the UCs coming to work at these businesses. I don’t know that there would be enough people to actually make these companies what they are today.

Speaking of universities, what can business schools do to support the AAPI community?

Business schools — especially Stanford GSB, which is on the forefront of entrepreneurship and leadership — have such strong ties to corporations and boards, as well as influence in educating the next generation that’s coming out of these business programs. Business schools need to make sure they raise up good leaders and call out behavior that’s not OK. They also have to believe, and teach people to believe, that there’s value in a diverse board, C-suite, and executive team.

Many in the AAPI community are now speaking out and having discussions about discrimination and representation. What do you see as the next steps in this process?

It’s not enough to talk about it. It’s not enough to raise money. We need to see action, as in holding people accountable and being transparent with data that show us what Asian representation looks like inside companies, in C-suites, on boards, in government, in media, and in Hollywood. We need more visibility and transparency in the form of data. Once people see how bad the problem is, then we can start getting to work. But until then, it’s all anecdotal.

Have the events of the past year changed how you view leadership?

Obviously, I’ve become much more outspoken, and I’ve seen many others follow that example and become outspoken too. Throwing one stone of writing that letter and getting people to sign it and putting it in the Journal — that had a ripple effect on so many others who are now speaking up within their workplaces, speaking out against injustices. One person can make a difference. I realized how important it is to just throw the first stone.

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