In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we’re featuring profiles and interviews with members of our Haas community.
Augustine Santillan, MBA/MEng 21, lived in the Midwest for most of his life. Though he identified as Filipino American growing up, Santillan hadn’t fully explored all of the richness and nuances of his Filipino heritage until he was an undergraduate at Northwestern. At Haas, he hopes to initiate more conversations about diversity and inclusion and encourage more Asian American students to enroll at Haas.
Tell me about your background and where you grew up?
I’m Filipino-American. I was born in Guam, but my parents are from Metro Manila, the capital of the Philippines. My family and I moved to the U.S. when I was two months old. My mom is a neurologist and my father is an IT specialist and so we moved wherever the jobs were. I like to say that I’m from the Midwest because I lived in Cleveland, Green Bay, and later the suburbs of Chicago when I was a college student. As I was growing up in the Midwest, though, I did have some trouble defining myself and my heritage. There weren’t a lot of people who looked like me and so I had to go on this journey of defining my own cultural identity on my own.
So how did you go about defining your cultural identity?
I think it was difficult for me to relate to my culture because I really didn’t feel like I could own it. I didn’t feel authentic at all, especially since I didn’t speak Tagalog. But that changed when I went to college. When I was a student at Northwestern, I joined a Filipino student group that was open to everyone, not just Filipinos and Filipino Americans. As a group, we reflected and talked about our identities, participated in race-focused workshops, performed traditional dances, and wrote skits about our cultural experiences. All of these experiences have helped me define my relationship to my culture, given me more of a nuanced appreciation for my cultural context, and an even stronger sense of pride and gratitude for my family.
Growing up, what were some of the ways you connected and explored your heritage?
I explored and celebrated my heritage through food and family gatherings. We’d cook some of our favorite dishes like pork Nilaga, a stew made with pork neckbones, and chicken adobo, chicken cooked in soy sauce, vinegar, and garlic. My family and I would also go on road trips to visit our extended family in Chicago, especially during the holidays. Karaoke is also a huge part of my heritage. My family and I love to sing. I’ll always remember hearing my parents and their friends sing songs from the Beatles and ABBA in the basement of my uncle’s house. I’m personally a big fan of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s song “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” It’s a great duet for karaoke.
Why did you decide to go to business school and did your heritage play a role in your decision?
I think my upbringing and my love for travel were factors that led me to take on consulting, especially for airlines and hotels. I learned early on that change is the only constant and that there’s always going to be new challenges to tackle. So going to business school and looking at new career paths that address global issues through social impact work is another challenge for me–one that excites me. Soon, I’ll be working at Tesla where I’ll have the chance to combine my passion for transportation with sustainability and clean energy. I’ll be working on strategy for their charging infrastructure, which I’m excited about.
Another reason I wanted to go to business school was because I was excited about creating more representation. Sometimes I feel like people don’t think that they belong in these spaces [business school]. Oftentimes, you hear about Asian Americans being overrepresented on college campuses, especially at Berkeley, and that we don’t need to invest as much energy in recruiting them to come to business school. There’s so much richness and color under this bucket of Asian Americans and I’ve been pushing the community at Haas to think about that diversity. It’s not just Chinese and Korean Americans that are part of the community at Haas, but also Pakistani Americans and Filipino Americans, to name a couple. That being said, I want to be here to pave the path for other Asian Americans and show them that they belong here and that they can be successful.
In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we’re featuring profiles and interviews with members of our Haas community.
Prof. Candi Yano‘s family immigration history is one of twists and tragic turns, from Japan to the U.S., and back and forth again.
Yano, who is wrapping up her term next month as the first Asian-American woman to serve as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and chair of the Berkeley Haas faculty, is an international expert on supply chain management. After three years of helping to win faculty retention battles and countless hours serving colleagues needs big and small, she looks forward to returning to her dual academic role as the Gary & Sherron Kalbach Chair in Business Administration at Haas, and as a professor in the Department of Industrial Engineering & Operations Research.
In between writing her last few memos as faculty chair, Yano took the time to share her family’s fascinating—and heart wrenching—immigration story, as well as the circuitous route she took to discovering the focus of her life’s work via a copy machine at Stanford University.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a city called Gardena, immediately south of Los Angeles. When I was a kid, about half the population there was Japanese American. My high school was more diverse because of busing in the L.A. school district. There were lots of Hispanic students who were mostly local, and African-American students who were bused in from adjacent communities, as well as Asian and Caucasian students. It was interesting to leave home for the first time and realize the whole world wasn’t like that. I ended up at Stanford, and at that point only about 10% of the students were Asian American. It was eye-opening for me.
What was the history of Gardena, and how did it end up half Japanese American?
When my grandparents immigrated from Japan about a hundred years ago, people weren’t coming in big groups, and so they wanted to go to a place where they felt more comfortable. Many of them were young men and some of them were still in their late teens. It’s really amazing to think about them just getting on ships by themselves. That particular area, even though it’s heavily populated now, was mostly fields—lots of strawberries. My paternal grandfather came from a farming background. He came to California because he felt he had good job opportunities along the lines of what his family had done. My maternal grandfather immigrated a bit later, and I know less about his reasons for coming the the U.S.
When did your grandparents arrive?
It was around the late teens, maybe early 1920’s. Then in 1924, the U.S. government decided to cut off Asian immigration with the Asian Exclusion Act. I believe both of my grandfathers were here in the U.S. and they sent for their wives-to-be from Japan, because they all had arranged marriages back then. They came over and got married and started their families.
Did you know your grandparents growing up?
Yes, except my mother’s father, who was killed by the bomb in Hiroshima during the second World War.
Wow. How did that happen, if he had immigrated to the U.S. before the war?
After they had been sent to a relocation camp, my grandfather decided he didn’t want his family being locked up. There were two choices: Stay in the camp or go to Japan. So he decided to take them to Japan, which of course my mother probably didn’t like very much because she was born in the U.S. My grandfather had been a newspaper editor in California, and he picked up that line of work there as an editor at the big regional paper in Hiroshima, The Chugoku Shimbun. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. My mother seems to have survived mostly unscathed because the family was living out in the burbs. Her mother raised the four kids alone after that. They all ended up coming back to the U.S. at different times. My mom came back at the age of 16. She had finished high school there, and then finished out high school again here.
That’s a heartbreaking story.
Yes, it really is. I had a chance to finally go to Hiroshima a couple of years ago. The Chugoku Shimbun newspaper is still in existence. I saw many panoramic pictures showing the buildings as they were after the bomb. It was heart wrenching to see that.
Did other members of your family who stayed in the U.S. have to go to the relocation camps?
All of them. My dad’s family was sent to a camp in Gila River, Arizona. They stayed there until they were released after the end of the war.
Did you grow up hearing stories about what happened during the war, or did they avoid talking about it?
I think it affected people differently depending on their age. My parents were both school-aged at the time, which meant that their parents were protecting them from the worst of it. It’s interesting that they don’t seem to have very negative feelings about what happened. But if you talk to people who are just 10 years older, who were adults at the time, they feel very differently. I think if my parents had been bitter they would have passed it on to me, but they weren’t. And in a sense, I consider myself lucky. I can be Japanese-American but not live with that sense of bitterness.
Did you learn much about Asian or Asian-American history in school?
Some, of course, but it was not covered very thoroughly. When I was in high school, most of the talk was about Russia and China. I did have a U.S. history class that required a term paper, and I wrote about the connections from Pearl Harbor to the Japanese surrender. I came to understand that one of the reasons why the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki was because the U.S. didn’t understand that the Japanese were ready to surrender—but they wanted to retain their emperor, even though he was more of a symbol. The U.S. was being too stubborn about the whole emperor issue, because we don’t have emperors, we don’t have kings and queens in the United States. That was a cultural misunderstanding. Not understanding the roles of various people in government really led to some undesirable outcomes.
An especially tragic example of cultural misunderstanding.
Shifting gears, how did you decide on an academic career, and how did you choose operations as your field?
I took a rather circuitous route. I was studying a lot of math in high school but I was becoming disillusioned with it, so I tried psychology. But when I volunteered as a so-called research assistant for a PhD student, my job was babysitting the five-year-old research subjects. I didn’t really like that. I ended up taking courses on the quantitative end of economics, but meanwhile, I had this odd part-time job. The operations research department at Stanford allowed its PhD students to use the photocopy machine, but they charged a per-copy price plus sales tax. My job was to tally up all the copies and calculate the charges including sales tax, and get the bills sent to the PhD students. As a consequence, I got to know the operations research department chair, and he encouraged me to apply to that department. It was entirely random; I could have had a different part-time job. I did get my undergraduate degree in economics but I eventually did a master’s in operations research and then my PhD in industrial engineering.
Were you in the minority as a woman in that department at the time?
There were at least 25% women in my class, but I never really felt like a minority. Actually, I never really felt discriminated against as a woman throughout my graduate career. Not within the campus environment. There were fair number of Asian students at the time too.
How did you end up at Berkeley?
My first full-time job was at Bell Labs in New Jersey. I decided to take an industry job because I had no full-time work experience and I thought it would be helpful. But it was the wrong time to be there, because it was during the first break-up of the Bell system, transitioning from a monopoly to a competitive environment. The antitrust judge kept on changing his mind, so we never got to finish anything. I was there for 17 months and I don’t think I finished a single project. I had been thinking about going into academia anyway and I said, “I think it’s time to go.” I ended up on the faculty at the University of Michigan and I stayed for about 10 years. But my husband grew up in Berkeley and he decided to take a job out here, so I had to figure out whether I wanted a long-distance relationship. I was lucky enough to get National Science Foundation grant for women faculty to spend a year at another university, and I came to Berkeley as a visiting faculty member. Then I was then lucky enough to get a visiting position at Stanford for another year and have the time to think about it. And then I decided to come back to Berkeley.
You’re wrapping up next month after three years as chair of the Berkeley Haas faculty. How has that been?
Well, first let me tell you about the best part of it. The best part is that I’ve really gotten to know the other faculty in a way that would not have happened otherwise. We have over 80 faculty members and I don’t run into everybody on a regular basis, but I’ve had an opportunity to get to know some really interesting people. I’ve tried to do what I could to help with whatever they they needed. The administrative work has been busy but not very intellectually stimulating.
Do you think this experience will influence your work going forward?
I think there are people I’ve met who I may be interested in collaborating with, but I haven’t had much time to think about it. Right now, I would just like to finish my last 10 memos (this job entails writing a lot of memos) and get back to being a normal person again. I need to do research for my own sanity.
What do you like best about research?
From when I was very young, I got intellectually bored easily, and I need to have something that keeps my mind going. I like finding new things, working on problems that other people have not tried to tackle before. I also like teaching, and I’ve only taught one class in the last four years, so I’m really looking forward to that.
What do you love about teaching?
I really like imparting knowledge and skills to students to allow them to be better professionals when they graduate. I especially like the undergrads. They’re more like sponges. The MBA students are more focused on what it is they want. I have a funny story about an MBA student in my supply chain management class. He took a job at what was SanDisk, now merged into Western Digital. He told me after his interview that virtually every topic I taught in the class helped him to answer their interview questions. He said it was so easy for him to get the job. That feels good. I get little notes from students saying they were able to get their job at this consulting firm or that company because of something I taught them.
Do you feel like being Asian American gives you a different perspective in the classroom?
Obviously I bring the heritage with me, but I have also spent a fair amount of time in Asia, so I think I have a better understanding of the culture and values that the Asian students bring with them. It’s not unusual for Asian students, especially those whose parents are immigrants, to be caught between two cultures. A lot of times I can help them work through the challenge of finding their own career trajectory that might not have been what their parents had planned for them. Also, in my classes I try to help the students who are quieter. In some Asian cultures you don’t speak unless you’re spoken to. I try to draw them out. Because I’m Asian, they can look at me and they say, “She does understand.”
Do you wish there was better understanding of Asian culture in the U.S.?
We are in an environment nationally that is not helping people to be more inclusive. It feels like a divisive time in our world. But let me say something positive: I think here on campus it’s better than in most places. We can talk openly, and I think that helps. But in many industry sectors, the percentages of women and of minorities of all types are far lower than they should be. I really hope that people start to understand each other a little bit better and try to bridge those gaps.
In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we’re featuring profiles and interviews with members of our Haas community.
Prof. Xiao-Jun Zhang moved to the U.S. for love, and stayed because he built a family and a career here.
Since he joined the Haas Accounting Group in 1998, Zhang has become a much-loved professor, opening the minds of generations of students to accounting—even those who start out thinking it’s boring. He twice won the Cheit Award for Excellence in Teaching in the Evening & Weekend MBA program, and last year he made Poets & Quants’ list of the favorite professors of executive MBA students.
Zhang shared how his his life has been a “fate-guided series of decisions,” and how his cultural perspective influences the way he runs his classes in a very intentional way.
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Beijing, China. I went to primary school, high school, and college all in Beijing.
When did you move to the U.S., and why?
I moved to the U.S. in 1992 and the reason was simple: My wife—who was then my girlfriend—transferred to Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, so I decided to follow her to the U.S.
Did you think you’d stay here?
I was young then and didn’t think too much about my long-term plans, including whether to stay in the U.S. or not after graduation. The end result of staying here was more of a fate-guided series of decisions, driven by family more than a deliberate career path.
How did you come to Berkeley?
At the time, I was choosing between several schools—including Berkeley, Chicago, Yale, and Duke. What made Berkeley stand out was my research area of financial statement analysis. My advisor, James Ohlson, had worked here, and my frequent co-author, Steve Penman, was here at that time. From the research collaboration perspective, Berkeley was a natural fit. Also, my wife really wanted to live in the Bay Area.
Was there anything about Berkeley’s culture that attracted you?
If you look around the country, I would characterize Berkeley as of one of the most open-minded places. There’s a strong emphasis on equality, on judging people based on what he or she can contribute, rather than more superficial aspects. For people of Asian origin, feeling that sense of fairness is important. I would choose to work among colleagues who share that same sense of equality and fairness.
Having grown up in China, do you feel like you have a different perspective—as an academic and a teacher—than your American-born colleagues?
I would say so. The way you grew up shapes you consciously and unconsciously in so many ways. I’ll give you an example. In the classroom, I find it easier to understand certain student behaviors, especially with students from Asian countries. In the classroom in China, all we were supposed to do was take notes and memorize what we were told. You’re not supposed to ask questions. I suppose there’s similar cultures in Japan, Korea, and other Asian countries. When you teach graduate classes at Berkeley, you notice students from those cultures tend to be more reserved. I tend to be understanding, and when I design my class, I try to create a very relaxing environment without a lot of pressure to participate. It’s really rewarding when you see these students gradually warm up, and at the end of the semester they are as active as the others.
So do you put less emphasis on participation in their grades?
I put as much emphasis on participation, but I redefine it. I don’t count the number of questions they ask. To me, whether a student has been following the class is the most important thing. I tell the students that, after so many years of teaching, I know just by looking at your eyes whether you’re following the class. Once you take that pressure off, students start to participate in a natural way, rather than trying to think of a question just to ask a question.
That’s so interesting. There’s a lot of discussion around Haas and at business schools about inclusion. People have noticed that men often dominate classroom conversations and are working on changing that culture. Do you find that women tend to speak up more in your classes because of the atmosphere you create?
I don’t pay attention to whether it’s a man versus a woman, but I do tell students, “You may notice sometimes you raise your hand but you don’t get called on. Don’t take it personally, but I want to give priority to whoever hasn’t spoken so far.” Most of the students have no problem with that. Once you tell them, “Your role is just keep raising your hand,” they are likely to continue doing it but they can relax.
You’re a well-loved teacher—you’ve won the Cheit Award twice, and last year you were on Poets & Quants list of favorite exec MBA students. What do you like about teaching accounting?
I like helping them realize that accounting is not just a bunch of rules. Accounting is a way of thinking, in the sense that it’s looking at a business from the financial perspective. You can have all these fancy business plans, but in the end, you’re going to be measured by how the financial aspect works out. When students realize they need to learn this to operate in real life they get excited. Most rewarding is when you see the light bulb go on, and they see that accounting is not boring and it can actually be exciting. Then you just leave the rest to them. They will learn it all by themselves. At the end of the day, they give you credit for what they’ve learned, and they start liking you.
So from that perspective, you don’t have to teach them much beyond the first week?
In some sense yes. Once you help them realize what accounting really is, they will do all the work and teach themselves.
Can you share an example of your recent research?
In finance and accounting there is the book-to-market ratio phenomenon. Basically, people find that the book value (or accounting value) divided by the market capitalization somehow correlates with future stock returns. People got very excited about this idea because it seems they could make money off it. From the academic perspective, the question is why? I think part of the reason has to do with accounting, in the sense that the book value tends to reflect a stock’s downside risk due to the conservatism-bias in accounting. As a result, the book-to-market ratio reflects a stock’s upside potential relative to its downside risk. Another ingredient to this phenomenon is investors’ preference for “positive skewness” in stock returns: In other words, when you make an investment and receive huge return from it, you get a disproportionately high degree of satisfaction. Now you can brag about it at dinner parties, for instance. Maybe the other nine of your ten stocks don’t do well, but that doesn’t seem matter as much. Putting these two ingredients together, we start to see why investors like stocks with a low probability of huge upside potential, which leads them to prefer the so-called growth stocks.
That sounds like almost like a behavioral finance perspective. Is it rational to put faith in a low probability of a high return over a more certain, smaller return?
I would say yes, because these investors get significant happiness from this one big return. The same reasoning underlies people’s preference for gambling. Going after things that make you happy is rational. Trying to understand human behavior and what really gives humans happiness—or what they call in economics “utility”—is quite complicated and quite fascinating to dive into.
Do ever think you’d move back to China?
I don’t see any reason why I’d want to go somewhere else. I couldn’t ask for a better academic environment than Berkeley, in terms of freedom of thinking. Also my family loves living here. Your home is where your family is. I go to Beijing from time to time, but the Beijing of today is completely different from the city I grew up in. The hometown I grew up in will just be in my memory forever.
Catherine Start Pradhan, MBA 20, is the daughter of Pilipino immigrants. Raised in Union City, California, she went to UC Berkeley as an undergraduate, studying political economy, and quickly became involved with the Pilipino campus community. We talked to Start Pradhan about growing up in a close, extended family in ethnically diverse Union City, advocating on campus and off for Pilipinos in careers and education, and her favorite family dishes.
How did your family first come to the United States?
My maternal grandfather was recruited to the Navy and served in Vietnam. Through the Navy, my Lolo (grandpa) and grandma were able to move to the U.S., along with my aunt and my mom, who was 13 then. They initially lived on the naval base in San Diego, later moving up to the base in Alameda and settling in the Bay Area.
My paternal grandfather was recruited to the U.S. Army and served in WWII. My father moved to the Bay Area to find work after completing his engineering degree in Manila. He had been petitioned by his parents who had already moved to the U.S.
Several relatives similarly immigrated here from the Philippines, so I have a huge family who all live within a 10-mile radius of each other here in the Bay Area. That 30+ group of people in the bleachers cheering at the top of their lungs while holding a shiny banner that spelled “Catherine” at my high school graduation? That was my family.
Where did you grow up and go to school?
I was born and raised in Union City, California, a 75,000 person town about 25 miles south of Berkeley. My high school had over 4,000 students and was very ethnically diverse. In fact, my high school offered Tagalog (the Pilipino national language) as a result of the large Pilipino population in Union City and was one of the first in the country to have an ethnic studies department.
Can you talk about what the the Pilipino community is like at Cal?
There are eight Pilipino undergraduate student groups dedicated to various interests from STEM careers to culture building and collaboration within the Pilipino community at Cal was impressive. At the beginning of every year, leaders from each organization would get together for what we called calendering day, during which we looked ahead to the upcoming year and scheduled event dates so as to not host events at the same time to maximize attendance. I joined a group called Partnership for Pre-Professional Pilipinos (P4), an organization dedicated to advancing Pilipinos in law, business, and other professional fields. P4 became my family at Berkeley, and I met some of my best friends through the organization.
As an MBA student, I work with P4 members as a mentor and recently attended their flagship Professional Sunday event, an afternoon of professional development and networking sessions.
What was it like visiting the Philippines for the first time?
Growing up I had always wanted to visit the Philippines, and finally made it happen as an adult. During the summer of 2016, I worked as an intern for Edukasyon.ph, an ed-tech social enterprise focused on increasing access to higher-education opportunities for Pilipino youth. What really stood out to me was the culture of support I felt from people in the space.
I was working on a project to support Edukasyon.ph’s inclusive education efforts and on the first day of my internship, I set up over 10 meetings with people who wanted to help, and each of them connected me to several more. During my second week, I found myself invited to a meeting with community leaders from all over the Philippines who had been advocating for inclusive education policies.
That summer, my grandparents had also been visiting the Philippines, so I was lucky enough to spend time with them in their hometown, Imus, Cavite. It was surreal to meet new family and tour the places in scenes of stories my grandparents told me growing up, with them as my tour guides!
What does it mean to you to be Pilipino-American?
For me, being Pilipino-American means valuing my family and being there for them. Growing up, I spent virtually every weekend with my extended, close-knit family. We spend holidays together and hold joint birthday parties, and show up for each other for dance recitals, graduations, and more recently, births of babies. Just earlier this year, I became both a Tita (auntie) to a new nephew as well as an Ate (older cousin) to two new babies.
Of course, no family gathering is complete without an overabundance of food, another part of my culture I cherish. My favorites include my Lolo’s beef tapa, thinly-sliced grilled sirloin marinated in calamansi, (lime), soy sauce, and sugar, and my grandma’s nilagang bulalo, a hearty beef marrow stew.
What is challenging for you?
Being Pilipino-American sometimes means needing to clarify your identity. Because of the Philippines’ complex colonial history, it can be hard to place Pilipinos racially in the U.S. On several occasions, I have been mistaken for another Asian race or Latino.
Being Pilipino-American also means being resilient. Throughout history in both the Philippines and the U.S., Pilipinos have endured instances of oppression, tyranny, and inequality. Pilipinos have fought for their country’s independence, but also marched for civil rights in the U.S. There is strength and perseverance in our blood.
Finally, it means remembering where I came from. My grandparents and my mom and dad made sacrifices and brave moves to create a better life for myself and future generations, and I am where I am today because of them.
That said, I am proud of my heritage and extremely grateful for the community I’ve felt from fellow Pilipinos throughout my life. As a second generation Pilipino-American, I aim to do what I can to build that community within business, and ultimately make my family and the broader Pilipino community proud.
When Jaskirat Gaelan, BS 19, was honored at last Sunday’s commencement with the “Beyond Yourself” Haas Culture Award, few would argue that it wasn’t deserved.
The daughter of immigrants from Delhi, India, Gaelan has served as president of the Haas Business School Association (HBSA), and as an associate consultant with the student-run Bay Area Environmentally Aware Consulting Network (BEACN), helping local nonprofits and small businesses to be more environmentally friendly and profitable. She’s also used her henna and photography talents to collect donations for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
We spoke with Gaelan, who will work at Accenture in San Francisco after graduating, about growing up Sikh in Modesto, California, her family’s commitment to education, and her commitment to service.
Tell us about your background.
I immigrated to California with my parents from Delhi, India, when I was four years old. We first lived in Alameda, and my parents used to bring me to Berkeley when I was little to show me the Campanile and to show me what college was like. Getting me into a good school was a really big deal for them.
We later moved to Modesto, California. My parents had an ice cream store and a small convenience store and worked from 6 a.m. until 10 at night. I started working when I was young and helped them with whatever they were doing. This year they opened up a beautiful furniture gallery. They inspire me with the mentality: We start with what we have and dream big.
How did the diversity of California influence you?
I love that my parents chose to immigrate to California. California is a melting pot and I really felt that. My friends were a diverse group—Mexican, Taiwanese, Indian. What brought us together was the desire to learn and ask questions and explore. I think that’s why we all got along so well. We all believed in how important school is and had the curiosity to learn and seek help and ask questions. Many of us have parents who immigrated here and were busy with their businesses and didn’t go through the process of the SAT and learning about scholarships and financial aid.
What do you think people misunderstand about Sikhs?
Sikhs are often misidentified to be of other religions. In reality, Sikhism is a unique faith and is not derived from any other religion. Sikhism spans all geopolitical boundaries. People believe Sikhism is all about outer appearance. In reality, Sikhism is a simple religion with three fundamental principles: Naam japna (remember God and goodness in everything that we do), Kirat Karna (earn an honest living), and Vand Chakna (selflessly serve others).
Has being a Sikh in the U.S. been challenging for you?
The nearest Gurdwaras (Sikh places of worship) have been 30 to 40 minutes from the houses I’ve lived in, but every trip there has only been empowering to me. Though I may not be a strict follower, I have a deep desire to explore more about Sikhism.
What was your experience as an Asian American and a Sikh at Berkeley Haas?
I took a class in Asian-American history my freshman year. I loved it, I loved the people. It created an avenue for us to open up to each other about our families, our pasts. It’s been exciting here. I’ve met many other Asian Americans, children of immigrants. We realized that so many things about us, from how our parents encourage us to the types of jobs we want, are all very similar.
Before coming here, I never really had other Sikh students in my classes. (The Sikh population isn’t that large in Modesto.) But here, I could connect with many through the Sikh Students Association and other clubs. That was beneficial because they understood what my family is like, what my culture is like. They’ve helped me with applications and job searching, even praying with me before a class or cheering me up. Having that encouragement was why I was able to get through and figure things out.
What lessons have you learned from your community and culture that you want to share with others?
I’ve learned to help others. You can make a difference in more than your own life. Any success we have is much sweeter if it helps more than just you. Incorporate service at every point in your life, however you can, whether it’s helping one person, or a school, or a business, or a community. I’ve also met a lot of Asian Americans who have helped me to learn who I am and who I want to be. Regardless of your background, be willing to share your culture. It’s so valuable to be surrounded by diverse groups of people. Figuring out things together will help empower us even more to make an even bigger impact.
Twenty years after founding 180 Snacks, a healthy snack company he started up in his kitchen, Michael Kim, EMBA 20, decided to seek a formal business education. His goal was to leave his $30 million company in good shape for his children.
Kim, who arrived in the U.S. from Korea as a child and attended UCLA as an undergrad, launched 180 Snacks in 1998 for personal reasons. He wanted to feed his four kids an alternative to the sugar-packed Twinkies, Hostess donuts, and candy bars that he grew up with. The trick was making his snacks not only healthy but delicious. Today, the Anaheim-based company’s products—organic Almond Square Crunch, Pistachio Squares, Nut & Seed Crunch, and the latest, the Skinny Rice Bar—are sold online and at big retail chain stores including Costco, Trader Joe’s, and CVS.
We spoke with Kim about his childhood as an Asian immigrant, the hurdles he faced, and why he enrolled in the Berkeley MBA for Executives Program.
Where did you grow up and what was your experience growing up Asian in your community?
I was born in Seoul, Korea, and lived there until I was 10 years old, when my parents emigrated to Southern California. I lived in many places as a kid, usually in the rougher area of Los Angeles. We were a typical Asian American family. My parents went through tough times, working 12 hour days, carrying multiple jobs, and they finally managed to own and operate a small beauty supplies shop. Growing up in America was tough, mainly due to racial discrimination, but I was determined to make the best out of the cards I was dealt.
Did you learn about Asian American history at all in school?
No. When I came to the U.S. in the early 1970s, as many Asian families did, Asian history wasn’t of interest yet in schools. As part of the first wave of new immigrants, my parent’s priority for their children was to assimilate by making sure we learned English and adapted to American culture quickly. They believed that was the expressway to college and the guaranteed path to success in America.
You have four children in their 20s. Was their upbringing different from yours?
They were all born in the U.S., so their first language, unlike mine, was English. They grew up in Southern California, surrounded by a large Asian population, so it was very competitive—in fact, too competitive—so we moved to Mission Viejo, California, to give them a more normal childhood. My two sons have since graduated from university (UC Irvine and UC Berkeley) and I have two daughters who are still in school (at Wellesley College and UC Riverside). My children understand about 90 percent of spoken Korean, but they can only speak about 40 percent. They’re working on it!
Why is that important to you?
As a Korean American, I believe that understanding the mother language and ancestry is of paramount importance. I want my children to know that they are 100% American and, at the same time, they are 100% Korean. We take many trips to Korea and to many other Asian countries so that the Asian heritage is ingrained in their identity, alongside their pride in being American. I am the 29th generation of the Kim family and I want my children to be proud to be the 30th generation, and for their children to be the 31st generation of the Kim family.
How did 180 Snacks break into Costco?
It started in the Fall of 1998 when I approached the regional Costco buying office, at a time when being an Asian American and selling to the mainstream U.S. market was not so well received. When I got there, they saw a young Asian fellow and said, “Delivery is in the back.” They assumed I was a delivery guy because I wasn’t white. However, after the meeting with the buyer and some trial sales, my product was well received. The real shocker came when the buyer gave me a whole truckload for an order, which was impossible for me to fulfill. My journey into the world of Willy Wonka’s snack factory had become real.
What brings you back to get an MBA after running a successful business for years?
With my company, I did everything instinctively. I came back here to see if I did it right—so this is more of a confirmation for me. My sons Timothy and Eugene are now training with me to be the company principles. But we’re a small family that sells to major chains so I want to make sure that when I leave this company everything is set up the way it should be. At Berkeley Haas, I am wearing different shoes than the rest of my cohort. So many people here want to be entrepreneurs and live the American dream. I hope that my experiences encourage future entrepreneurs, and that I can be a reference and share my experiences. This is just one small way I can give back.
Who are your Asian heroes?
I read a lot of Confucius and Taoist teachings growing up. The teachings of these great teachers share many similarities with our Berkeley Haas Defining Leadership Principles: Question the Status Quo, Confidence Without Attitude, Students Always, and Beyond Yourself.