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How bad can it be if people assume you're quiet, studious and good at math? For many Asians, very.

Read Time: 4 minutes

February 12, 2021

Will Cheng and his family Will Cheng had what he calls a “Chinese restaurant education,” learning the value of money, goods, and hard work — literally in his parents’ eatery. What the son of immigrants from Hong Kong didn’t learn was how to “fit the mold to be promoted.”

“It took me five years to go from individual contributor to manager at a previous employer — twice as long as average,” says Will, who’s now chair of the Cargill Asian Alliance Network (AAN). “It wasn’t technical ability, but soft skills. People didn’t think I could challenge authority.”

Though many young professionals face this struggle, Will says he’s “heard from many Asian colleagues that culture — the whole thing about humility and not wanting to put yourself out there — gets layered on.”

Back in the 1960s, a white sociologist tried to label this. The “myth of the model minority” stereotypes Asians as compliant, studious, and smart — as well as good in technical roles but not necessarily leadership.

“People assume if you’re Asian you’re good at science and math, you put your head down and don’t cause trouble,” says fellow AAN member, Shiva Elayedath — “and that’s a problem.”

Shiva Elayedath and his family Shiva, who was born in India, has a rich resume in food science. But when he started seeking non-technical roles, colleagues at his old firm would tell him, “but you’re the strong technical guy.” It took two Asian managers to help Shiva find his voice.

Today, Shiva is the customer-facing representative of R&D here at Cargill, speaking to companies like General Mills and Nestle to help them find solutions.

“The myth of the model minority is a problem because it whitewashes a lot of things that are beneath,” Shiva says. “Individuals can get stuck in roles that define them by typecasting and don’t allow them to grow. Plus, it’s not true for all Asians.” 

Shiva Elayedath Asians, indeed, run some of the U.S.’s biggest companies, like Microsoft, Google and Adobe.

At the same time, income inequality is rising more rapidly among Asian Americans than other racial or ethnic groups. Seventy-two percent of Indian-Americans hold at least a bachelor’s degree according to the Pew Research Center; less than 20% of Hmong, Cambodian and Laotian Americans do. Asia itself is a land of diversity — the world’s largest, most populous continent with over 1600 languages in India alone.

“Don’t make assumptions about people just because of their background,” cautions Shiva. “They may have a lot more to offer than you assume. And maybe they need more help than you imagine too.”

How bad can it be if people assume you're quiet, studious and good at math?

That’s why Will and the AAN just hosted the first of a four-part Cargill lunch-and-learn series on the myth, called “Technical but not management material.” For the 230-plus people who attended, it was a chance to learn — either how fellow Asians have overcome the stereotype or how not to reinforce it as allies. 

When we talk about diversity and inclusion, inclusion is the hard part. Diversity is being invited to the dance party. Inclusion is being asked to dance. This event shows there are leaders who look like us who have found their place on the dancefloor." Will Cheng

Allie Newman, a Korean-American who leads HR for Cargill functions, shared how she’d been bullied as a child and internalized the model minority myth. “You’re your own worst enemy,” a trusted leader told her during an early career review. “You’re afraid to fail. You feel like you always have to be getting straight A’s. You don’t believe in yourself enough. You cannot continue to grow in your career until you fix this. You have to fix this part yourself.”

“You need to reflect more confidence to match your competence,” was the gist of Smriti Canakapalli’s first review. “I was raised not to challenge my elders,” the Indian-born head of strategy and transformation for Animal Nutrition & Health (ANH) says. “It’s taken me years to be able to do that.”

Acting lessons, as well as media and voice training, helped Binh Tran learn to represent his work and command a room. “It’s not necessarily acclimating,” the North America sourcing and procurement leader shared, “it’s figuring out what works within the context of your culture and personality.”

​​​​​​​Added Lawrence Wang, the Taiwanese-American leader of Cargill Digital Labs, “If you’re trying to be somebody else, you’re probably not going to be very good at it.”

Shiva Elayedath cooking

When Will learned being reserved was earning him the label “unengaged,” he initially went to the other extreme and “wouldn’t shut up!” “I was told I was bulldozing. It took me a couple of years to find a happy medium.”

Today, Will is a business intelligence leader in ANH. He applies the soft skills he’s learned but still relies on his ‘Chinese restaurant education’ to succeed. “Nothing is easy, and there’s a value associated with everything. That influences me every day: ‘what’s the value we’re going to deliver?’”