Sonal Shah is an economist who has held prominent roles in the public and private sector, including at Georgetown University, Goldman Sachs, Google.org, and the Department of the Treasury. She was the director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation under President Barack Obama and served as national policy director for Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential campaign. She’s also an Indian immigrant who moved to America as a child and grew up in Texas. Shah is bringing her unique personal and professional experiences to bear in her latest role as founding executive director of The Asian American Foundation (TAAF), which launched in May.
TAAF aims to combat hate against Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and provide funding and resources to improve AAPI advocacy, influence, and representation. In short, Shah and her team are dedicated to helping the 23 million Asian Americans who represent the third-largest demographic in the U.S. find the collective power in all of their individual diversity.
Shah spoke about TAAF with Katherine Klein, vice dean for the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, during an episode of the Dollars and Change podcast. Listen to the podcast at the top of this page or keep reading for an edited transcript of the conversation. (Find more episodes here.)
Katherine Klein: On TAAF’s website, the mission is: “To serve the Asian American and Pacific Islander community in their pursuit of belonging and prosperity that is free from discrimination, slander, and violence. We were founded to solve for the long-standing lack of investment and resources provided to Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, and we strive to be a catalyzing force for creating a permanent and irrevocable sense of belonging for the 23 million Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders living in the United States.”
There’s lots to unpack there, but one of the things that’s striking to me is the word “belonging” is very prominent. Tell us about your mission.
Sonal Shah: When we first started the foundation, the idea was addressing the anti-hate sentiments against Asian Americans. But when we started digging deeper, the bigger question is: How are Asian American Pacific Islander communities seen as American? And that is really about belonging. How do we create a sense of belonging that, no matter where your origins, no matter where your families might come from, we are all, at the end of the day, American? We might participate in different ways, and we might have different backgrounds and heritages that we bring to it, but we came to the United States for a sense of belonging.
So, we want the belonging piece. We want the prosperity piece, but also recognizing that the hate piece is what’s making us feel like we’re not part of the country and that people don’t see us as American. I think that’s why the depth of that conversation is so important. As I have said before to my own colleagues, I think the belonging is the most hopeful thing we will do, because creating a multicultural country requires everybody feeling like they belong in the United States and that they are contributing to the growth of the United States.
Klein: Do you think the sense of belonging has been significantly challenged and was quite different 10 or 15 years ago? Or is this a long-standing issue that’s only more prominent now?
Shah: For the Asian American community, it has been around for a while. The Chinese Exclusion Act in the 1800s was created to ensure Chinese Americans did not bring their families to the United States. During the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, Japanese Americans serving in the military were seen as not American and were put into camps.
We’re seen as the perpetual foreigners. We’re the perpetual outsiders. I think every immigrant community at some point has probably faced that, but this has been going on for generations. This has been a historical set of conversations.
In 1982, Vincent Chin was murdered because people thought he was Japanese, and the Japanese were taking over the auto industry. That was sort of the conversation then. But it’s the constant, perpetual foreigner myth, as opposed to not seeing Asian Americans as American.
“How do we create a sense of belonging that, no matter where your origins, no matter where your families might come from, we are all, at the end of the day, American?”
Klein: The vision statement on your website is: “An America where opportunities to participate in all aspects of society are equally accessible, and individuals and communities are not rendered invisible nor singled out for false stereotypes, discrimination, or hate on the basis of race.” Help us understand that vision and why those words, why those elements?
Shah: It’s being able to be seen equally as American, no matter what the spaces you might be in, whether it’s in the arts or film or business or in other places. We tend to stereotype groups: “This is where your scientists or your doctors or your business people are.” But we, as humans, are all of those things, right? It might be that we participate in all of those pieces but recognize that we should be seen as a part of all of society and be able to actively engage — not just politically, but socially and economically and culturally. That’s a big part of that vision that we want to put out there. We not only see ourselves in that space and see others in that space.
It goes back to the belonging piece, in that what we’re looking at is: How do we show an America that is actively engaging all parts of society, and Asian Americans feel part of it? It’s also empowering for the community itself. It’s not just what others do to us, but what we do and how we actively engage in that and not fall into those false stereotypes but see ourselves with the power to participate in all aspects of society.
Klein: I’m struck by another statistic that is prominent on your website. Recent research suggests that one in four Asian Americans has experienced a hate incident, and 64% have been asked, “Where are you really from?” How might this show up for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders?
Shah: I get asked that question all the time, and it’s not a political question. It’s from progressives, as well as conservatives, as well as everyone in between. I get asked, “Where are you from?” And I’ll say, “Texas.” And then somebody will respond, “No, but where are you really from?” And I’ll say, “Houston.” I end up asking: “Are you asking what my heritage is? Because if that’s the question, then I’m always happy to have that conversation.” But when you’re not seen as American because people want to know where you’re from, it sort of begs this question of, “Am I always going to be seen as not from here or not from the United States?”
Asian Americans don’t generally report hate incidents, yet when you do these sentiment analyses, you start to get a feeling that people get where they feel they’re being discriminated against. It’s not talked about. People generally stereotype us as successful, so [they think], “You must not face hate.” This question of what does hate feel like and what that means is what that research was trying to get at. What is the sentiment that people are feeling? Every time people use these words of, “Where are you from?” or “What do you do?” or “What language do you speak?” — it’s those questions that are always making you feel like the other.
Klein: Let’s unpack some of the key facts that people should understand and that are an important part of your work. One of them we’ll start with is that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are a diverse community. A large group of this population has family in China, India, the Philippines, Korea, and other places. What should we understand about that?
Shah: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are over 40 different ethnicities — 20 different Pacific Islander communities that, when we lump into one category, we assume everybody is the same and has the same sentiment. I think recognizing that each of these communities has different backgrounds and different histories and different sentiments matters. We’re not all in the same spaces.
In the Filipino community, many are in the nursing or care-giving profession. When Indian Americans were allowed to immigrate in the 1960s and 1970s, we were largely engineers and doctors. That’s who we were letting in for immigration, so understanding that background matters, too. The newer generation that tends to come from the South Asian and other communities tends to be H-1B visas because they have a specific skill set. That doesn’t mean that’s who we all are and that the next generations are going to be the same. The Vietnamese community — a lot of them came as refugees into this country. Recognizing that matters.
Each of us has a different background, and we bring all of our different backgrounds to America. When you lump everybody into the same categories, you don’t understand the diversity of the backgrounds. While we might face very similar challenges, we also have a lot of diversity that we each bring. Understanding that matters, and that’s why data aggregation matters a lot to understand who we all are and what we bring to the table. I think the Latino communities have the same issues — no one Latino community is the same. Even within Central America, it’s a diverse population.
Klein: The Asian American community is recording the fastest population growth among all racial and ethnic groups in the United States in the last 20 years. What is the implication of this?
Shah: We’re 3.5 times faster-growing than other communities. Our second generation is growing faster now than our first generation. There are implications even within that, politically, socially, culturally. What that means is recognizing politically that we’re also figuring out who we are as a community and how we might engage differently within the society that we’re in. Culturally, which professions are we going into in different places? We’re not just going to stay in one set of professions. We’re expanding out to multiple professions. You see a lot of Asian Americans in public service. You see a lot of Asian American growth in culture and the arts. There are lots of places that we’re going to see growth. Understanding that growth rate is also just understanding our own power.
“Creating a multicultural country requires everybody feeling like they belong in the United States and that they are contributing to the growth of the United States.”
Klein: You and others highlight the very large income gap between the wealthiest and the poorest Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Talk to us about that gap.
Shah: Macroeconomically, it’s always easy to say that Asian Americans are the highest income earners. They sit statistically higher than others. But when you look at the microdata, you start seeing the gaps. The gap between the highest earners and the lowest earners is huge among the Asian American community; I think it’s almost 10 times. How do we help those communities? What happens a lot in government and other places is we don’t see the bottom 10% as much as we see the top 10%. All the policies are geared towards the top so that we don’t see the poverty in the Asian American community. It’s the lack of access to finance, the lack of opportunity, the lack of being even seen in the diversity space because you get lumped into this sort of bigger category of being the successful minority group.
It also pits minorities against each other. “Oh, you’re the successful minority, not the unsuccessful minority.” And that is not true. There’s a lot in between. There’s a lot of middle class, lower middle class, and lower income classes. That income gap is actually very wide, and recognizing that is important. Seeing within our own communities what we’re missing and where we need to be investing matters. I think that’s something that we as a foundation will be doing, but it’s also something that we want to bring others along with us to do.
Klein: The final fact that I wanted to explore is the experience of hate incidents. As I said, one in four Asian Americans has experienced a hate incident. That’s really a shocking number. As you’ve taken on this role as the first president of this foundation, tell us what you’ve learned about this.
Shah: Hate incidents are highly underreported in Asian American communities. I think in many immigrant groups we’re sort of taught to just grin and bear it. “Don’t make waves where there aren’t waves to be made. Just keep your head down and work.” I experienced that with my own family. I think there’s a new generation that thinks differently about this, but for many of us, that’s how we were brought up. So, what you see across the Asian American communities is a high underreporting of hate incidents. It might be the way someone talks to you. It might be the way someone behaves with you. It might be incidents of children getting bullied in schools.
This is not a small set of problems. I think in other communities, like the Jewish American community, this is talked about. Anitsemitism is something that we do talk about. For Asian Americans, that’s not a conversation that’s had — not between parents and the kids, and not between kids and other kids. Having this exposure and being able to talk about it and saying Asian Americans also face hate incidents is important. It’s important to recognize where that bullying is coming from because to address it, we need to recognize it.
We’re trying to get more families to report hate incidents when they feel them so that we know what the incidents are. Not to necessarily go to authorities, but at least understanding where that is. If I take those one in four incidents, now it’s a question of: What is that? How are you being addressed? What does that hate incident look like? Then we can get the understanding of what that data is and what that information is.
Klein: The Asian American Foundation launched officially back in May with $125 million committed in funding, and then you very rapidly raised that total to $1 billion. I hear those numbers and hear that fundraising, and it’s like, “Wow, this was a cause waiting for someone to lead it.” You touched a nerve. There was a well of support. What do you make of this huge amount of funding that you’ve been able to attract, and what are you going to do with it?
Shah: I think what was interesting is that people were looking for an organization that could actually bring people together and bring organizations together. One thing we did make sure of is that it’s public, private, and nonprofit dollars. We don’t want to take away from the community itself, but we also know that the private sector matters, and other foundations and philanthropies matter, too.
“Hate incidents are highly underreported in Asian American communities. I think in many immigrant groups we’re sort of taught to just grin and bear it.”
One requirement that we had when we first started was not to separate those dollars and make sure that didn’t happen. Our board first committed $125 million themselves. Then we matched that $125 million with other money. And the billion-dollar number: It’s important to parse this out. It’s corporations that make commitments to give money themselves, some of it through TAAF, and some of it through themselves. But they want to know what they could match with us or what other things they could be thinking about. They want to understand that themselves. Foundations made commitments – not, again, through us, but directly — that they would do more.
So, the $1 billion — 10% actually goes to TAAF, but the other 90% actually goes to communities. We do not want to be seen as taking away from the community. We want to be seen as an accelerator and an enhancer for the community and to be a part of that. There’s another fact on this, which is that Asian American communities only get .5% of foundation resources. For 23 million people, that’s .5%. That’s tiny.
So the billion dollar announcement was like: “How do we bring more money to our communities — more money and a commitment from corporations, from foundations, from community foundations, from philanthropy to communities that have been under-resourced over time and have them be visible and seen so people do pay attention as to how their employees are being treated, who’s being put up in advertisements, what’s being sponsored, what’s not being sponsored, what more should we be doing in communities?” That’s what we wanted to do with that $1 billion.
Klein: What will be the early work and focus of TAAF?
Shah: We’re going to be a funder. We’ll be an incubator, so where we see gaps in the marketplace, we will actually be operating in those spaces. And we will be a convener. We want to make sure we’re bringing the communities together, both within the Asian American community, but also with other communities. We can’t “other” ourselves. We also have to be inclusive.
Within funding, we have four areas of work that we want to focus on. Area one is anti-hate — really focusing and tracking data, responding to hate incidents, working towards prevention of hate incidents, and not just being in the response space. The second area of work is research and data. How do we disaggregate data about our community? We’re actually making the investments where they’re needed and not just lump sum statements.
The third area of work is education. Asian American education is not even seen as part of the education system, so how do we work with teachers, with publishers, and others to say, “Look at Asian American history as a part of American history.” Making sure curriculum is available, and making sure other data is available — that matters.
The last piece is increasing philanthropy to Asian Americans. How do we keep the drumbeat going that Asian American communities should be seen as a part of American communities to be invested in?
Klein: I’m curious, what has surprised you in this journey?
Shah: The first thing is just how much the community wanted an organization like TAAF. When we announced ourselves, a number of people engaged who wanted some organization that they felt gave them the power to do whatever they needed to do in their own community. We hear from corporate ERGs (employee resource groups) that they feel empowered to ask their own corporations to do more for Asian Americans within the companies. We hear from individuals who feel like they are empowered to go do more in their own communities and to ask for more. The fact that TAAF exists has empowered a generation of people to feel like they can go and ask and feel empowered to do and to be, which I think is so inspiring and so incredible. I’m so glad that we were able to do that, even with just the launch.
The second area is, we’ve shown how we can bring the power of community together to raise awareness about a set of issues. In this case, the Asian American community raises awareness about those sets of issues that the community feels are important. And that has been incredible — that feeling that they are being seen is important, and that is coming together.
And then the final piece, and I’ve been highly surprised, was the billion-dollar question of how many people wanted to participate. We still have more people coming to us and saying, “What else can we do? How else can we participate? What else can we be a part of?” It has been fabulous and amazing and inspiring to see that, and the recognition that when we bring people together, people want to be a part of something, that it has hope but is also addressing hate. Both of those things matter equally.
“The fact that TAAF exists has empowered a generation of people to feel like they can go and ask and feel empowered to do and to be, which I think is so inspiring and so incredible.”
Klein: What about for you as a leader? This is a fascinating role. You’re starting something new and big. You’ve got a board. You’re building a team. Give us some insights or lessons you’re learning and trying to remember as a leader.
Shah: We’re still a startup. I think I have to keep remembering that even though we have all this money, we’re still a startup. We still have to go through the process of building institutional structures, building board and governance structures — all of that is a startup, right? When you’re in a startup as an individual, you’re still building all of those things along the way, but the expectations of the world are that all those things have been built. It’s recognizing that those things still take time and still take effort, and we have to work on that together.
I have to constantly remind myself that we’re a startup. In a startup, you’re also building a team, and we started in a virtual environment. We didn’t start as a team in one place. So, how do you build team culture as a part of growth and build a startup at the same time? We’re doing both of those equally at the same time. How do we make sure we’re all doing things together and that information is being transferred on a constant basis, and that everybody is just not living in their silos?
I’ve never done this where I’ve built a team virtually, so this has been a great learning experience of how to make sure we’re constantly talking. Even towards launch, we had a lot of consultants. How does everybody participate equally so information doesn’t fall through the cracks? We’re thinking through that on a regular basis.
The last piece is giving ourselves the room to learn along the way and not be seen as knowing all the answers. Everybody wants you to know, “Where are you going to grant? How are you going to do this? What’s the next thing?” And honestly, we’re still building that. We’re building the steps to that growth stage, and it’s a learning experience, even for me. Even though I’ve done this before — I did this at the White House — it’s still a learning experience because it’s a new group of players. It’s a new group that is still learning alongside you, and you have to leave room for that. I tend to want to stay five steps ahead. Sometimes you just sort of need to be where you are and be OK with where you are, not think about the five steps.
Klein: Recognizing that this is still early days for The Asian American Foundation, when you think about where you want to be five years hence or even longer, what is it that would make you say, “Wow, we’ve had impact. We’ve done a lot. We’ve accomplished a lot”?
Shah: We all have multiple identities, right? I’m South Asian. I’m Indian. I’m a woman. There are so many identities. But if you can feel proud in being your Asian American identity, I think we will have created something that is outlasting us and is multigenerational, because that identity is sort of a political identity but not yet a social and a cultural identity. That identity, I think, is super important. And if people feel pride in that, I think we will have achieved a lot in that process.
Second, I think if we can make headway in being able to talk about anti-hate amongst our communities, of what it feels like and how we participate. How do we actively engage in not just reporting, but in the belonging portion of this? If people feel empowered, we will have achieved something. Maybe we don’t have all the perfect metrics, but there’s a feeling that also goes with the metrics. If people feel empowered to speak up, if people feel empowered to do something, if people feel empowered to say, “We shouldn’t have bullying in schools against Asian Americans” — I think there is so much success in that because that means that you individually feel powerful, but as a community you feel powerful to be standing in the United States saying, “I, too, am here and my voice also matters.” And you’re using that voice to make that happen.