Supporting AAPI talent in May and beyond

Hosted by Neil Amato

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and the conversation in this podcast episode is meant to celebrate that and to offer organizations reminders on how they can support employees of Asian descent. The group is sometimes referred to as Asian American and Pacific Islander, or AAPI.

Lisa M. Ong, CPA, is a DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) consultant who says that May is always her busy season because that’s when organizations most often seek an AAPI speaker. Ong shared specific advice and actions for individuals and organizations seeking to support AAPI talent.

For more resources on this topic, visit the AICPA’s Diversity and Inclusion page. You can also learn more about Ong’s organization, Wishing Out Loud.

What you’ll learn from this episode:

  • The differences between “feel-good” and “real-good” DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) efforts.
  • Why Ong considers herself a “DEIB” consultant.
  • The reasons that Ong was hesitant to speak up in meetings in a former job.
  • The importance of strong listening skills in DEI initiatives.
  • Steps that organizations and co-workers can take to support AAPI employees.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this podcast or to suggest an idea for another podcast, contact Neil Amato, a
JofA senior editor, at


Neil Amato: Welcome to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. This is senior editor Neil Amato. For today’s episode, we’ve teamed up with our member-facing D&I team to recognize and celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, which you may hear referred to as Asian American Pacific Islander or AAPI Heritage Month. Joining me is Lisa M. Ong, a CPA, certified coach, and a DEI consultant. DEI stands for diversity, equity, and inclusion. And Lisa will also explain that she’s a DEIB consultant — what those letters mean exactly in just a bit.

Lisa, first, what to you are the differences between feel-good DEI and real-good DEI?

Lisa M. Ong: Thank you so much for asking. My friend Sheri Crosby Wheeler actually trademarked that comment of, “Let’s focus on real-good DEI, not feel-good DEI.” Real-good DEI is a sustainable part of your culture; it’s part of how you define inclusive leadership, great leadership skills. Versus feel-good DEI is often fun, food, festivals, and Instagram moments, right? So, if you’re looking for sustainable change in an organization, this has to be embedded in your culture. And so, the “B” stands for “belonging,” and through my years of working in the diversity and inclusion space, we’re starting to hear the words “DEI” more, which focuses on equity. And equity is the lens in which you look at your operations and the way you do business, and that was a missing element for a very long time.

We focused on counting heads, which is diversity, and inclusion, which was making heads count. But the equity lens is, are we providing equal access to everyone, to those opportunities to thrive and grow? And belonging, even if you don’t understand diversity, equity, and inclusion, belonging is human nature, and we all know what it feels like when you don’t belong. And so, as I work with my clients in the DEI space, I insist that we focus on belonging, because that’s the sustainable, real-good DEI.

Amato: What does this month, May, AAPI Heritage Month, mean to you?

Ong: Well, as a DEI consultant that’s also third-generation Chinese American, right, and I count the levels of acculturation from when my grandparents immigrated from China here, first. My parents were born here, and I was born here. Unfortunately, people see you on the visible dimensions of diversity. So, May is normally my busiest month of the year, because everyone’s looking for an AAPI DEI leader to speak. And then, when you layer on this mass shooting, it’s really heartbreaking. Because I was actually speaking about my fears for the Asian American community, when COVID first rolled out, and when I was first hearing mention of “kung flu” or “the China virus.”

Because there is a long history of anti-Asian American hate in this country, even from the time they just arrived here, and it’s often not taught in American history, right. If you look at the Japanese internment camps, if you look at the building of the railroads, if you look at some of the individual shootings and increased violence that started last spring. And nobody really heard about it because it was happening in one isolated incident at a time and people weren’t connecting the dots. But it took a mass shooting in Atlanta, where there were lots of bodies, to get the media attention. And when I saw that, I just started crying, because I could’ve predicted it.

I mean, I was talking about it in March of 2020, when no one was listening, and now everybody wants to listen and say, “What can we do?” And the biggest thing is words do matter. I know somebody said, “Lisa, it started in China. Why can’t we call it the China virus?” I said, “Because words matter.” And so, sometimes people don’t separate a country from the individual, and I am an American. I just happen to be a Chinese American. And never in my life have I had to fear for my life when I go outside, right.

I live in Texas; we don’t have to wear a mask outside. I wear sunglasses, a mask, and a hat, when I walk around outside, now, because I constantly have to be on the aware of the attack, because I don’t know if — someone doesn’t know I’m “Lisa Ong, CPA.” They just see “Asian person.” And if they’re listening to certain media channels, it can trigger hateful behavior. And so, we have to, unfortunately, be looking out for one another, because of that now, and it’s very sad. And I have to acknowledge that I have privilege — privilege means the world conspires in your favor and you don’t know it, right? It’s not bad.

But as an Asian person, maybe I’m feeling this fear now, but my Black colleagues and my Latino colleagues, some of them have been feeling this fear for many, many years, or their entire life, right? So, as I think about support for one group, I actually ask if we could promote allyship behavior, which is support for everyone. And that allyship behavior, I’m really careful to advise people, please don’t come in as a superhero and try to save the day. But simply come alongside and stand in solidarity, right? That standing up, showing up, and speaking up for people, even when they’re not in the room — going back to the feel-good DEI versus real-good DEI.

I see a lot of people using the hashtags and posting things on social media, but I said, “It’s more important that you text me a heart or praying hands and say, ‘Thinking of you,’” right? Even if we don’t have time to talk, just knowing that you’re there and that you care means a world of difference.

Neil Amato: Kind of on a micro level, what are two or three things that the everyday line manager or coworker can do or be on the lookout for?

Ong: I think the first one that I ask managers to do is to check on their teammates, whether they’re of a targeted group or not, and just say, “I know there’s a lot of heavy news out there, and it’s OK not to be OK. How are you, really?” Right? Not just, “How are you?” check the box, so I can move on and say, “I’ve asked my employees how they are,” but letting them know, “It’s OK not to be OK.” And to share a little bit of vulnerability about themselves and how they’re feeling. When I have a CEO call me and say, “Lisa, I’m woefully inadequate at this, and I don’t even know what to say other than, ‘I’m so sad to hear this news, and I’m worried about how you’re feeling. What can I do to help?’”

Even if they say it wrong, the fact that their intent and their care comes through is so important. That ability to connect with empathy and lead with compassion and authenticity really makes a difference. Now, if that manager has never talked to me at all, before, and then comes and asks, it might feel a little bit awkward. So that’s one. The other thing is, people ask me all the time, “What should I do?” A lot of those texts I was getting, “How can I show my support? What groups can I donate to?” And that’s very important, because less than one percent of charitable donations do go to charities that support the Asian American/Pacific Islander communities, and that’s wonderful.

But I ask people, “Please don’t outsource your help.” So write the check and consider doing something. And doing something can also mean not just listening to other people’s stories or putting a burden on your co-workers, but listening to the PBS Asian American History series. It’s really well done, and when you listen to the history, then you can understand why so many of the AAPI community, when they saw the killing, automatically said, “Hate crime.” Where others were saying, “Oh, it’s not a hate crime,” and they had all these excuses why it isn’t. But if you look at the patterns, you can understand it.

So, I ask them, “Please don’t ask people to constantly live the trauma.” A lot of the people that were interviewing me were saying, “Did you experience attack? Did your family experience attack?” It was almost like they were going for the sensation versus the care. And that’s — I know it’s a little hard to do that, because the media wants to play on the sensation, and I did have family members who experienced attacks. Some of the attacks are not violent attacks; they’re more subtle, right? They don’t want to serve you, or you’re in a store and they’re ignoring you and you’re trying to get their attention, those little things.

But it happens in the workplace more often than we would think, right, not being seen as leadership material. I often hear, “Oh, I love hiring Asian staff because they’re such hard workers and they put their head down and work.” And I was, like, “Whoa, that’s a worker bee perception. Why are you not seeing them as leadership material?” Or, “How come you’re not investing in the main areas that could accelerate their progress in your organization? If you know that communication skills and communicating with impact is one of the top skills that gets you promoted, why are you not providing skills around effective communication?”

If that person has a language challenge, telling them to improve their English is not helpful. Providing powerful pronunciation resources is helpful. Teaching others to have inclusive listening skills is helpful. I used to be coached by my supervisors, they’d say, “Lisa, you need to speak up more,” and I’d smile because they weren’t really considering some of my cultural background of, I was showing respect for elders, I was showing respect for experience. And as the more junior person on the team, I was waiting for permission to speak, right? So, one day I just told my boss, “You know, I could speak up more if you would just shut up more.”

And he laughed and he said, “Excuse me?” and I said, “I wasn’t really taught to cut other people off and I feel like it’s rude, so I’m waiting for my time to speak.” And I know that’s not appropriate in a business setting, particularly in a Western business setting. And he said, “Yeah, I noticed you’re trying to raise your hand in meetings. We don’t do that. It’s not school.” And I said, “But if you would simply say, ‘Lisa, what are you thinking?’ I’d be more than happy to share my point of view.” So when people say, “Lisa, how do I get more of our people to speak up?” I was, like, “Could you be quiet and ask them what they think? ‘How are you seeing things differently?’”

It’s also how you phrase the question. If you phrase the question where it’s going to be combative, I might not speak up. So, if you say, “I have a great idea. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it,” I’m already in my head saying, “Uh-oh, the boss thinks his idea is great. Who wants to tell him his baby is ugly,” right? So, just thinking about rephrasing the question to say, “This idea is not perfect. I’d love for everyone to kick it around. What do you think?” gets the answer, and it demonstrates the person can think and has great ideas and can be elevated into leadership potential.

Neil Amato: Corporate response to racism, especially in this country, was part of the social justice movement that took place now about a year ago. A statement can be simple, it can be easy, some companies have chosen to say nothing. But beyond a statement, what do you look for as far as meaningful response and action from organizations?

Ong: I look to, are you treating this as a strategic business priority, right? At that level of change, a strategic business priority usually has a line item in the budget. It normally has a dedicated resource. It normally has key performance indicators and metrics for success. And instead, what I’ve been seeing is these reactive responses where they’re, like, “Oh, my gosh, Lisa, there’s been mass killings. We need to have listening sessions. Let’s hire outside consultants like yourself to come facilitate listening sessions.”

And I’m, like, “Whoa, you know, I think this is very reactive. If this is your first conversation about race, are you really prepared to listen? Because if you roll these out and you haven’t designed them properly, you could actually be traumatizing and hurting the people you are trying to support. Some of the CEOs I’m working with, who are truly wanting to lead by example, they’re simply hosting small breakfast chats, virtually, with three or four employees, and listening just the four of them. They don’t need an outsider to facilitate that conversation. I can train the CEO to sit back and listen.”

And they’re, like, “What do I say?” “Nothing. You say, ‘I care. I want to be supportive. Help me understand how I can do that for you.’ And shut up,” right? It’s that simple. And they’re, like, “Wow, Lisa, I guess I was overthinking it.” I said, “No, I think part of the problem is people are thinking they have to do big events, so they can publish it thinking that they’re showing feel-good DEI, like, ‘We did these sessions and we checked the box and we’re done,’ and it’s not that simple,” right? If you really want to support your employees, what are you doing to help make sure they have equal access to thrive and grow at your organization, all year long?

Amato: What are some ways that workplaces can support AAPI talent?

Ong:    Yes, this has been one of my life’s purposes is trying to get organizations to even focus on their Asian American/Pacific Islander talent. For the longest time, this was their invisible group, because they’re seen as the model minority, “We’re only focusing on the underrepresented minorities, and we have plenty of Asians.” I heard that many times from the companies I work with. And I said, “That may be true, but when I look at your data — and my CPA background, I’m always, like, Where do we start? Let’s look at the data. When I look at your data, yes, you have plenty of Asians, but you don’t have them in manager level or at the leadership level,” right?

“How come you’ve got them identified as your high-performing high-achievers, but there’s some sort of unconscious bias, or what we call a bamboo ceiling, between that and being seen as high-potential? And you tend to invest in your high-potentials.” So, while I agree that we need to support our AAPI talent right now, because, culturally, a lot of us were raised not to complain, right? We suffer in silence. The day of that shooting, my phone was blowing up with texts. I took 40 unscheduled calls that week.

I had to, because I had a lot of AAPI clients who didn’t feel like they could speak up in their organizations and needed someone to listen. And then I had clients and potential clients saying, “We want to help, but we don’t know what to do,” right? And so, I was, like, “Oh, man, how do I reach all of these people?” So doing a podcast like this allows us to get some resources in their hands very quickly.

Amato: Anything you’d like to add as a closing thought to what’s been a great conversation?

Ong: I always get asked, “Lisa, what’s just one thing I can do to support diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging? You’ve given us a lot of ideas, but what’s just one thing I can do?” And I give them this advice because it covers most of the situations they’ll run into. And I say, “Listen, first. Listen, learn, lead with TLC.” And TLC is with transparency, leadership by example, and caring. And when you listen, learn, and lead with TLC, people will meet you there with grace, they’ll meet you there with helping you to build your understanding. And that’s really what we need to do is move from awareness and understanding to action, allyship, and advocacy.

And right now, I think this country is hungry to move from awareness to action, but in a very thoughtful, intentional way. And so, I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you today, because this is going to have individuals think about, “Before I take action, how is this going to feed real-good DEI versus feel-good DEI?”

Amato: Again, that was Lisa M. Ong, a CPA from Texas. We appreciate Lisa being on the podcast. In this episode’s show notes, you can find more resources on this topic, including information about Lisa’s organization, Wishing Out Loud. Thanks for listening to the Journal of Accountancy podcast.