Thoughts on Leadership: Celebrating AAPI Heritage Month

By Gino Blefari:

This week my travels find me at home, starting Monday with my typical WIG calls. On Tuesday I participated in the Berkshire Hathaway Energy Weekly Executive Team Meeting and monthly HomeServices of America leadership meeting. I spent Wednesday filming various projects in Los Altos, California and today, I attended the second session of the 2021 Berkshire Hathaway Energy Executive Learning Conference. Immediately after the session, I will be driving to Southern California to attend my oldest daughter Alex’s commencement ceremony at USC. Now I can proudly say there is a doctor in the Blefari household. It’s a proud moment as a father and one that made me think about the leadership example I set, not only for my team but also for my family.

When it comes to leadership, family and heritage play such a vital role. And while last week’s Thoughts on Leadership post was dedicated to the mothers of the world, this week’s post is a celebration of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month and AAPI leaders around the country. I asked some friends and colleagues to share their thoughts on leadership, AAPI contributions and how we can all honor and support the AAPI community this month and forever.

AAPI Heritage Month is about a sense of appreciation. It recognizes our existence and is an encouragement to continue our contribution to the success of the society here in the U.S. As AAPI leaders, we have a lot more work ahead. We need to continue to nurture our next generation to become leaders who make our country proud. There is an old Chinese saying, “Taken from the people and used for the people.” It means we work hard and make money from our consumers; we then use our hard-earned money to help the people in need.

Amy Kong | 2021 AREAA National President

In this Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month, I am the proud son of a first generation immigrant Korean Presbyterian minister and a second-generation Korean mother who was born in Indiana in the 1920s with immigrant parents. Growing up in Hawai’i forms and embeds an entirely different perspective on race and prejudice because of its multi-ethnic environment where no one race is a majority. It wasn’t until I attended college on the mainland U.S. that I first encountered racial prejudice, which was subtle to varying degrees, but it was there.  At first, it was confusing, and my reaction was to question who I was and why was this happening. The Civil Rights Act was still new, and segregation was still part of the community. When getting a chest ex-ray, I was confronted with making a choice between black or white when indicating my race on the medical questionnaire, so I drew my own square and marked other. I can remember professors remarking how well I spoke English. I was told at the Dallas, Texas draft board after my student deferment was overlooked that they did not think they were drafting “my kind.” Clearly, there were the awkward interactions when I met people for the first time because on the phone, they could not tell I was Asian. I can’t say I didn’t wonder why this was happening to me or that I wished I were someone else but fortunately those perspectives did not persist. My upbringing in Hawai’i, where who you were was more important than your ethnicity, helped me to make that transition. It is easier to talk about it today than it was as a 20-year-old, living 5,000 miles from home. The point in all of this is if we give children an environment where they can see themselves as individuals and not be judged by the color of their skin or their ethnicity, they can excel going forward. 

Earl Lee Co-president, Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Hawai’i Realty

Diversity in America isn’t going to shrink, and the fabric of America is becoming more colorful.  That’s why the real estate community has to be ready to serve this dynamic market if we are to prosper over time. It is within this context that I think about AAPI Heritage Month and I truly believe diversity and inclusion can help our society become stronger, more dynamic and more resilient. I immigrated to America from Korea when I was nine. I did not know a single word of conversational English when I arrived. Like most immigrant families at that time, my parents had limited employment options, so they worked various “menial” jobs to make ends meet. Ultimately, they saved enough to open up a dry cleaning business. That business required long hours and very little time off, so our summer vacations were typically no more than two to three days long. Somehow my parents cobbled together enough money for a down payment from people they knew to purchase their first home, which ultimately allowed them to benefit from a strong house appreciation. The equity/wealth from our family home helped to cover my sister’s and my college tuition and helped to pay off the debt from my parent’s failing business. I tell you all that because obtaining recognition of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month wasn’t without struggles. In 1977, a few members of Congress tried to pass a resolution to celebrate the AAPI community’s contribution to America, but it failed to obtain necessary support in Congress. With renewed determination in the following year, the effort passed, which designated the first ten days of May as “Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week.” What started out as a week or ten days became a whole month over time!

Jim Park | Chair Emeritus, AREAA

For me, Asian Heritage Month is the time to reflect and remind myself of my family’s story. My parents courageously traveled from Korea to the U.S to build a better life and I am thankful as they’ve given me and my sisters a worry-free childhood and the opportunity to pursue our endeavors. Their bravery and hard work are a common story among many immigrants and the embedded reminder will always keep me grounded.

Julie Tran REALTOR ®, Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices California Properties

I’m genuinely thankful we have AAPI Heritage Month. AAPI Heritage Month is a time to celebrate and honor the differences that make our country so beautiful. We remember that during this month, our society recognizes our communities for the achievements we’ve made in this nation, which ultimately recognizes that the AAPI community has played a significant role in the creation of America, with their contributions to our science, arts, sports, industry, government and commerce. Learning about our history and heritage helps me understand who I am and what roles I need to play to ensure the future for our younger generations.

Keith Vong | Team leader, Intero Real Estate Services, Vong Group Real Estate

AAPI Heritage Month is about educating and sharing with others what you know and love about your culture. As a Filipino American, it is important to me to represent Filipino characteristics such as hospitality, kindness and optimism. I am lucky not to have gone through all the struggles my parents and their parents had to endure, yet I recognize them and am grateful for what I have. I think this has helped me structure my leadership and business culture.

Melanie Terry | Owner and chief creative designer, iDesign Spaces

To me, AAPI Heritage Month is a celebration of diversity and culture. It helps remind me of my culture and at the same time shows the world the wonderful cultures in America. As I have always said, it is the different cultures that make up the fabric of America and it is our diversity that makes our country so great. I hope everyone can see that even though our cultures are different, we all share the same love for community and country. We should work together in peace, respect each other and treat each other with the kindness that we all have in our hearts. People sometimes don’t realize how easy it is to get involved in AAPI Heritage Month or any culture really. Just smile and make an effort. Every culture needs help and involvement. People just need to open their hearts and minds.

Robert Do Owner, president, office manager and company designated trainer, Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Elite Real Estate

For me, AAPI Heritage Month is about showcasing what makes us a vibrant part of the whole picture of America. My father’s family immigrated to San Francisco from Hong Kong when he was five years old. Two years later, his father passed away and his mother was left to raise three young children in a country where she didn’t speak the language. Despite these setbacks, he co-owned his first business by the age of seventeen. Later he worked his way up from janitor to management in a steamship business, entered commercial real estate and bought his first home in his twenties. His stories inspired me to pursue entrepreneurship, lead by example with a strong work ethic and to always have integrity. I believe it’s important to have an abundance mindset, to share opportunities with others and be authentic with everyone you meet.

Yvonne Yee | REALTOR®, at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices PenFed Realty