Celebrating Our Rich Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage to Reach a Larger Market

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The story of how Asian Pacific American Heritage Month came to exist in the United States begins in 1977, when Reps. Frank Horton of New York and Norman Mineta of California introduced a resolution to proclaim the first 10 days of May Asian-Pacific Heritage Week. A month later, Sens. Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga introduced a similar bill in the Senate. The month of May was chosen to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese immigrants to the United States on May 7, 1843, as well as to mark the anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad — which many Asian Americans helped build — on May 10, 1869. On October 5, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a joint resolution for the celebration, which was later extended in 1990 by President George H. W. Bush from one week to the entire month of May.

When we talk about Asians and Pacific Islanders, we are referring to two large groups of people who bring a broad and rich diversity to the United States. Asian Americans are people whose families originally came to the United States from East and Southeast Asia, as well as the Indian subcontinent. For example, East Asian countries include Japan, China, South and North Korea, Taiwan, and others, while Southeast Asia includes such countries as Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines. The Indian subcontinent, in turn, includes such countries as Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, as well as the Himalayan state of Nepal. Add to this the Pacific Islander component — which includes Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, Fiji, Solomon Island, and Marshall Island — and a rich, culturally diverse picture emerges.

In the United States, these many Asian and Pacific Islander cultures form an important part of not only our history as a country, but also our current DNA as a people. Understanding and appreciating this part of our cultural heritage as Americans is important because it provides a sense of how, despite some differences, we have, as a country of immigrants, a unifying thread of mutual cultural enrichment that binds us together as a people. As it says on U.S. coins, E Pluribus Unum: “Out of many, [we are] one.”

So how can we use this month to reconnect with and celebrate the Asian and Pacific Islander contributions to our current American culture? How can we leverage this opportunity to learn and to better position our businesses to serve bigger markets? These were some of the questions that I posed to a number of the chief diversity officers (CDOs) with whom I speak almost daily. Below is what one of them — Corinne Abramson, senior director of organizational development and inclusion at Choice Hotels International and a member of the i4cp Chief Diversity Officer Board — shared with me.

According to Abramson, Choice — headquartered in Rockville, Md. — has a large number of employees from various parts of Asia and the Pacific Islands. Furthermore, Asians and Pacific Islanders represent the majority of the company’s franchisees. Abramson says plans are under way this year to have a celebration that will include five to six booths for employees, where they can bring their traditional clothes, name writing, and artifacts. Additionally, because Choice has a large number of employees in Phoenix from various parts of Asia and the Pacific Islands, they are considering hosting an expo to share the marvels of this culture and heritage with an even wider audience. These efforts will primarily be organized and run by a brand new employee group called Choice Asian American Professionals (CHAAMPs).

Abramson says that CHAAMPs has also proposed serving as advisers to the business; they would provide insights into the Asian-Pacific Islander travelers who may be interested in visiting the U.S. and who may become guests at Choice Hotel properties. Therefore, these events and expos would not only serve as an acknowledgement of the traditions and customs of a large group of employees and franchisees, but would also be a first step in broadening the entire organization’s appreciation for and understanding of a large market for their services. Choice recognizes that learning about this important part of our American and global DNA is vital to its business.

Another example of a company recognizing and seizing the opportunity to better reach its customers involves a major airline, whose efforts to penetrate the Korean travel market by creating a Korean culinary experience was underwhelming. This changed when one of the company’s Korean employees in one of its cultural employee groups pointed out that the chopsticks used on the planes were Chinese, not Korean. That one small but significant adjustment — changing the type of chopsticks they provided.— was all that was needed to make the airline’s program more competitive and appealing to the target market.

The takeaway from all of this is that a great deal of value can come from workplace, workforce, and marketplace perspectives, which companies can enjoy by leveraging the opportunity that this month presents to celebrate Asian and Pacific Islander heritage. Three common denominators of the most successful approaches include:

● Make it an all-company event and not just something that Asians and Pacific Islanders attend to hear other Asians and Pacific Islanders speak.

● Make it educational in a timely way. Have exhibits and explain the role played by Asians and Pacific Islanders in your current business, as well as your past successes.

● Make it energetic and fun.

Daniel J. Boorstin, an American historian and a librarian at the U.S. Library of Congress in the 1970s, once said, “Trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers.” Asians and Pacific Islanders are an important part of the root and stock of our history, as well as our present-day fabric. It is to our personal enrichment and benefit as Americans and global citizens to take time this month to attend events, learn about, and reflect on this part of our collective heritage.●

Joseph Santana is chairman of the Institute for Corporate Productivity’s (i4cp) Chief Diversity Officer Board and president of Joseph Santana, LLC. He is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. For more information, visit joesantana.com.