Archimedes was right. You can move worlds.
As the ancient Greek engineer observed, all you need is a place to stand and the advantage of leverage.
Our Asian-American workforce has grown to 50 percent of high-tech jobholders from 39 percent in 2000, as recently reported by the Mercury News. Yet in Silicon Valley's 25 largest companies, only 12 percent of the executive leaders and 8 percent of board members are Asian-Americans, a situation that has not substantially changed in the past decade.
As Silicon Valley veterans with over 70 combined years of experience in leadership in the tech and venture capital industry, we see leverage as the key to tapping into the underutilized potential in the Asian-American community to generate innovation, boost the Bay Area economy, and confirm the region's leadership in the global marketplace.
Asian-American leaders have always occupied a prominent place in the legend of Silicon Valley, with people such as Vinod Khosla cofounding Sun Microsystems to create the technical workstation market, Koichi Nishimura growing Solectron into a global manufacturing powerhouse, and Albert Yu leading Intel's microprocessors to market leadership. Today, we have Vidia's Jen-Hsun Huang, Adobe's Shantanu Narayen and SanDisk's Sanjay Mehrotra as successful CEOs.
Lost in this narrative, however, is the simple fact that they have been the exceptions to the rule.
But why? A combination of culture andchemistry?
It is not because Asian-Americans do not aspire to executive roles. On the contrary, Asian-Americans are more ambitious than their peers in seeking leadership roles, as reported in a 2011 survey published by the Center for Work-Life Policy.
We believe that the key reason few Asian-Americans become Silicon Valley executives is that many bring a cultural background and a focus on individual achievement that leaves blind spots in their understanding of organizational leadership, especially with soft skills and business vision. We have witnessed this in the reactions of participants in a unique advanced leadership program for Asian-American executives at the Stanford Business School, a partnership with ASCEND and Asia Society that we helped initiate three years ago. To paraphrase an Intel engineering director's closing feedback last August, it helped him go from "unknowing to awareness in six days."
But we worry that there is a different narrative in the community. In a 2009 survey, 71 percent of Asian-Americans polled felt that they were disadvantaged in workplace promotions. This has not significantly changed since 1993, when another study found that 80 percent of Asian-Americans in Silicon Valley thought that a glass ceiling existed.
While these feelings persist among Asian-American professionals, we believe there is also a question around "chemistry" at the workplace, a chemistry that is rooted in their cultural upbringing. The Asian culture promotes individual excellence and leadership by mastering hard sciences, such as math, physics, biology, engineering, medicine, gymnastics or music. But when it comes to executive leadership, where people skills matter more than anything else, there is lack of mastery of social and organizational sciences. This is where chemistry matters more. And for leadership roles, soft sciences, which tend to enhance soft skills, such as interpersonal relations, teamwork, cooperation, motivation, compromise, negotiations, etc., are crucial.
This combination of culture and chemistry could give rise to significant business implications. A few years ago, one of us was asked to reassure an engineering team of a newly acquired group in China because team members were considering quitting when they found few corporate executives were of Asian descent. As they observe the growing economies in India and China, many valley tech professionals now see limits to their career growth in the U.S. and are returning to their home countries -- moving economic growth, innovation and jobs out of America.
With an Asian-American majority in the high-tech workforce, the question of unfulfilled ambition and underlying discontent is an unsettling issue in Silicon Valley's future.
What can be done?
Silicon Valley businesses thrive on their ability to attract and retain the best talents from every culture. We believe that the top leadership in Silicon Valley is culture- and color-blind and could be more aware that there is a pool of ambitious individuals in their firms to tap into for executive leadership roles.
We see middle management replete with Asian-Americans who are recognized and well compensated for making outstanding contributions to the organization. Today's picture in the middle ranks has much improved since 1993, when an estimated 6 percent of Silicon Valley managers were Asian-American. We also see many excellent management training courses offered in-house and many mentoring/professional development programs from external professional groups, including groups we support as active board members (TiE and Ascend).
Nevertheless, despite the efforts of those programs, we continue to see few Asian-Americans reaching the higher executive levels.
We suggest that the missing piece in this puzzle is the leverage that can only be applied from within the corporate walls to recognize the scarcity of Asian-American executives, identify talent for the internal high-potential pipeline, and develop requisite organizational leadership skills.
Missing has been internal executive awareness of the leadership gap. We have found that most Bay Area executives, even those leading HR and diversity teams, are surprised with the data when we raise the question with them. But their subsequent comments are always supportive, with the discussion leading to what internal data can be reviewed and what can be done. So top-level visibility and support is paramount.
Also missing have been internal priorities. Although there are a plethora of Asian-American diversity programs and employee resource groups, few are actually organized or funded to address leadership development, the most relevant issue for Asian-Americans in the workplace. Each company needs to define an action plan to address those issues, work to identify potential Asian-American leadership talent, and fund appropriate training within the context of its internal leadership development pipeline.
Finally missing inside many companies has been the active engagement of the Asian-American community, especially its executive leadership. We leaders have been successful because we have focused on solving challenging business problems and growing shareholder value in transforming our companies into world-class leaders in global markets. It's time for us to recognize our additional corporate responsibility and start proactively leading our internal communities to change because, unfortunately, this issue will not go away if we merely lend our passive support. It's also time for the community to demonstrate that you care enough to learn because we have seen that Silicon Valley leadership cares enough to listen.
We already have a world of talent in our Asian-American community. We also have a special place that fuels innovation and growth for our country.
Now all we need is more leverage, greater ambition and drive.
Buck Gee is a retired VP/GM of Cisco Systems and a board member of ASCEND. Vish Mishra is venture director of Clearstone Venture Partners and president of TiE Silicon Valley. They wrote this article for this newspaper.