Love Letter to Filipino-American Entrepreneurs: Joel Vazquez

Being a queer, Filipino-American is complicated. Growing up, I never saw myself in a lot of people who were represented in a number of spaces, whether they were everyday families on TV, celebrities in entertainment, and everyday folx who could start their own businesses to do what they loved. 

Yet for Filipino-American History Month, when asked, what Filipino-American entrepreneurs (much less LGBTQ+) are out there? I honestly panicked because I could not think of any off the top of my head immediately; and it revealed a deeper issue in that I could never relate to any founder or entrepreneur even though so many of my Titos and Titas (aunts and uncles in Tagalog) actually owned their own establishments and businesses. They owned restaurants and shops that I regularly went to. They owned laundromats and bodegas that they operated out of their own pockets and often put love and care into maintaining so that they could provide a tomorrow for their children. In every definition of the sense, I should have considered them entrepreneurs.

So, why was this? Why didn’t I?  

From XKCD

There came the rub. So many of the people that I saw represented as successful entrepreneurs were predominantly white men. They were often celebrated and famed for their accomplishments to the point that I only saw that specific group of people as successful founders. It’s easy to dismiss an occupation when you do not see someone who looks like you within it, which is the crux of a struggle that so many people from overlooked communities (including mine) have felt throughout generations within entrepreneurship.

Furthermore, my community was often seen as “less than” and stigmatized. I can literally name a laundry list of incidents that fueled Anti-Asian American sentiments, including traditional stereotyping about going into the medical field all the way to even being seen as someone who could not obtain certain jobs because others projected their own ideas of what roles were suitable for me. Coupled with being queer, I was never seen as someone who could become an innovator or disrupter, even though in every sense, my community is one for literally surviving and being able to create their own sources of wealth because they have been shut out of institutions and jobs on the basis of simply being different. Much less the impact that this had on my self-esteem, it made me condition myself to thinking about what was acceptable for me to get into.

Years later, through unpacking those sentiments and realizing that everyone has to start somewhere,  it has taken me a long time to fight against that sort of stigma and sense of doubt for my own community to become innovators; and in this day and age, there is now more potential for others like me, others who look like me, and others who think like me. In encouraging Filipino-Americans to become entrepreneurs and innovators, I have found it useful to list the potential ways that we can fight against that sense of imposter syndrome and lack of representation. 

I do not speak for all Filipino-Americans but I can speak for myself: 

  1. Recognize that at the end of the day, there are going to be multiple people who feel the same way you do, in that they’re also wondering whether they deserve a space within the room and whether they’re cut out for this. Reframe how you think about this so that you do see yourself as someone capable and worthy of pursuing this pathway!
  2. Continue forming relationships with individuals and communities who can actively sponsor you. This could be people from associations that support overlooked communities like the National Federation of Filipino American Associations, Black Girl Ventures, Out in Tech, Techqueria, and Ascend. Sponsors are willing to utilize some of their power and influence to create opportunities for you to drive your own goals. This could be connecting you with investors or influencers; others might even introduce you to selective programs that support your entrepreneurial aspirations!
  3. Advocate for others among your own group and form solidarity with others from different communities. Filipino-American-owned and Asian American-owned small businesses in general, are being disrupted due to COVID-19 and xenophobia; and many Asian American-owned businesses encompass a large portion of industries decimated by COVID-19. Support could mean actively highlighting fellow colleagues in your space to increase the positive forms of representation of entrepreneurs on social media; becoming a mentor or sponsor to others to further their growth; sharing resources publicly for those looking to get a start; or if you’re in a program/organization, seeing what opportunities and behavioral barriers exist for underrepresented groups to thrive in that environment and how are they distributed.
  4. Unsubscribe from believing in and holding onto one set of ideas about what an entrepreneur is, since these beliefs can be based on who is largely highlighted and seen, which (again) can be centered around whiteness. That’s pretty much the opposite of being a disrupter, no?
  5. Continue doing the work to educate yourself and take those lessons to your everyday life. Learn about the small business owners within your community who may be overlooked. Learn how they got there and what history they hold. Learn what barriers that they face in getting financial support and funding, especially in the context of COVID-19; and most importantly, build relationships with them. 

My goal as a Filipino-American is to break down barriers within entrepreneurship and startups to allow for those within overlooked communities to become people whom they never thought imaginable through innovation. This still stands for Filipino American History Month, so let’s get to work.

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