API Summit 2024 Offers Insights into the Entrepreneurial Experience

March 13, 2024 • By The UCI Paul Merage School of Business

On February 28, 2024, the Asian/Pacific Islander Initiative at the UCI Paul Merage School of Business hosted its first API Summit. The event brought together voices from the Asian/Pacific Islander business community to share their experiences as API entrepreneurs working in Orange County.

The inaugural API Summit asked panelists to explore the themes of breaking barriers and empowering voices. Over 100 people were in attendance to hear two panels of distinguished speakers.

In opening remarks, Merage School Dean Ian Williamson celebrated the leadership of the Asian/Pacific Islander Initiative. “What we are here to do is inspire innovation through inclusion,” Dean Williamson said. “We want to create a space to allow [students] to unleash their creativity.”


Sharing stories of breakthroughs

The first panel, moderated by Merage School Associate Professor Liz Chuk, focused on how the panelists have broken barriers throughout their careers. The panelists included:

  • Karen Nguyen, Merage School MBA ‘11, founder and CEO of Inspired Enterprises, a company offering experiences that bring together art and wine.
  • Sashee Chandran, Merage School B.A. ‘07, founder and CEO of Tea Drops, a maker of innovative teas.
  • Tim Li, founder and CTO at MaxDecisions, a software engineering firm serving the banking sector.
  • Viet Nguyen, CEO of Kei Concepts, a software company serving the restaurant industry.

The panelists each shared their stories, offering a cross-section of the API experience. Chandran spoke of her parents, both immigrants, saying, “They had to be resourceful. They were the first entrepreneurs I ever knew.” To get started, she took a sabbatical from her day job to make time for exploring her ideas.

Li explained how he suddenly left China as a child and had to adapt to his new home in San Francisco with no preparation. He discovered he enjoyed learning languages. For him, learning the language of computers was an escape.

Mr. Nguyen spoke about the disapproval of his parents when he dropped out of UCI. “I took a leap of faith,” he said, taking the money he saved by not paying tuition to start a restaurant.

Ms. Nguyen described her journey from working in the corporate sector to becoming an entrepreneur. She said she had an inner voice telling her to pursue her own interests. At the same time, she learned important lessons about starting something new. “You’ve got to have savings,” she said. “Have a Plan B.”

Li, who teaches a class on entrepreneurship at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, offered additional points: finish school and try to join a multinational firm. He said that by taking that path, would-be entrepreneurs might meet their cofounder or first investors there.

Chandran encouraged audience members to take advantage of the resources available to new entrepreneurs, like free centers for mentorship. “Start something, even if it’s small,” she said.




Lifting up the voices of API entrepreneurs

The event’s second panel explored strategies for making API voices heard in the workplace. or Derek Powell, Merage School MBA ‘98 and a director at Altman Solon, a consulting firm, moderated the discussion among a panel that included:

  • Diane Thai, business advisor at EY Management Consulting.
  • Grace Hwang, head of campus recruiting at American Airlines.
  • Mary Anne Foo, executive director at the Orange County Asian and Pacific Islander Community Alliance (OCAPICA), a nonprofit serving the API community.
  • Nate Cho, Merage School BA ‘03, senior director at SiriusXM.

Each panelist reflected on their personal histories and how they found their voices. Hwang said her upbringing made her reluctant to be the loudest person in the room. “Sometimes that could inhibit you in corporate America,” she said.

Foo described her experience of growing up confronted by racism despite being part of a family that has been in the United States since 1851. Her experiences working with businesses in Oakland Chinatown inspired her to embrace her identity as an Asian American. Today, the organization she leads works to combat the API community’s struggle against permanent otherness.

The group described the issues arising from hate crimes against the API community and the need to create spaces where safe, open conversations can take place. Foo said that telling stories to others can help to drive change.

Hwang described her experience of coming out as pivotal to her journey toward authenticity. She encouraged the audience to share personal stories and be vulnerable as key strategies for building stronger relationships. She said she relies on the relationships she’s built throughout the organization at American Airlines to overcome the feeling of not always being heard.

Authenticity was a core principle the panel emphasized. Thai said it is important to “just be yourself.” Use mistakes as learning opportunities, and ask questions. Hwang added that understanding yourself is an important component of authenticity. “When I was younger I was more focused on hitting achievements and didn’t take the time to ask what’s most important to me,” she said. She added that taking a moment to think about her personal goals would have helped guide her decisions.

Powell concluded the discussion by encouraging the audience members to own their profiles. “Don’t wait for others to tell you how you’re performing,” he said. “Know your ideas.”

The Asian Pacific Islander Initiative plans for the API Summit to become a regular event. Visit the group’s webpage to learn more and join their mailing list.