The Asian American experience in the United States has been marked by a basic contradiction. Part of the country’s tapestry since the 1800s, they comprise nearly 6 percent of the U.S. population and are a powerful economic force: 2 million Asian American businesses generate $700 billion in annual GDP and employ around 3.6 million people. But as our new report COVID-19 and advancing Asian American recovery finds, this cohort has historically been overlooked despite their wide-ranging contributions to U.S. society.
COVID-19 has only brought this dynamic into sharper relief: Asian Americans have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic—a theme also felt by the Black, Hispanic and Latino, and small business communities, too—and analysis of past economic downturns suggests that Asian Americans experience more serious and prolonged rates of unemployment.
We spoke to two of the report’s authors, McKinsey partners Emily Yueh and Harrison Lung, who are also part of the core leadership team of our ‘Asians at McKinsey’ affinity group. They spoke about the report’s most important findings and their own Asian-American experience during COVID-19.
Where did the idea to pursue this research begin?
Emily: At the onset of COVID-19, we wanted to understand the unique impact it was having on Asian American lives and livelihoods. Asian Americans contribute substantially to the U.S. economy—for example, our research finds that 25% of Asian-owned businesses employ more than one person, nearly twice the U.S. average (13%)— but language barriers prevented many Asian Americans from participating in COVID-19 relief programs. Of the four financial-relief services offered by the U.S. Small Business Administration, none of the websites provide translations into Asian languages.
Harrison: And as the pandemic pressed on, we looked at the lives that were lost, the mental toll it has taken on Asian Americans, especially amid rising xenophobia, and the many contributions this community has made during these unprecedented times, from essential workers on the frontlines, such as doctors, nurses, and food service employees, to the number of small and medium businesses that Asian Americans own and operate.
The research took a poignant importance as we saw the world respond to racial injustice. We felt it was important to serve as allies to both our Black colleagues and broader, marginalized communities—that we, as an Asian American community, stand by them in these difficult times.
What are the most important findings you hope readers take away?
Emily: First, that the notion of Asian Americans as a “model minority” is really a fallacy—the cohort has the highest level of income equality within the U.S., and socioeconomic mobility is incredibly difficult for some Asian Americans. And second, that it’s not enough to recognize these disparities, but not act—it’s critical we build inclusion and diversity into operating models, strategy, and our goals as business leaders.
Harrison: I’d also add the takeaway that the Asian-American community is not a monolith. There is a tremendous amount of diversity within this cohort, which makes it very difficult to make a blanket statement for the group. For example, there's a vast difference from which countries Asian Americans come from, to the languages they speak, to their education and income levels.
You’re both leaders of ‘Asians at McKinsey.’ What has being a part of this group at the firm been like, particularly during a challenging time like COVID-19?
Harrison: When COVID-19 forced many of us into remote work and life, we launched a new initiative to form mini-communities of 10 to12 members across all tenures and career tracks to openly discuss their experiences during these times. These conversations have really stayed with me. In one discussion, I heard from a U.S.-based colleague with elderly parents currently living in Asia. With the travel restrictions and border closures, she was afraid she would not be able to be there for her parents in case of emergencies and other potential health concerns.
Emily: It's been really inspiring and also sobering to have several of our members of ‘Asians at McKinsey’ come together in these small-group discussions. In one of the first discussions we had, I shared an anecdote about my mother, who is Chinese American, who had gone to her Tai chi class and was asked to leave by her instructor, who said: "You're making me sick. Get out of here." As a first-generation immigrant, she didn't even tell me about this situation until two weeks later, and my reaction was outrage. When I shared this personal journey with our AAM community, I was completely blown away by the outpour of not only sympathy and empathy, but action. People galvanized around the need to educate, to build awareness, to do outreach.