Having ‘AN’ Asian in senior leadership isn’t good enough anymore.
We’re not an item to cross off a checklist. We’re a community, and we have been overlooked and taken advantage of because we have not been vocal enough. We should be judged on our merits and get credit for the work that we do.
My immigrant parents worked as convenience store clerks. They often worked doubles, including the graveyard shift. As the youngest of five kids, I witnessed their sacrifices and hard work. Their hope for us was to be successful — and to be more American.
Growing up, we were allowed to watch two hours of TV each day, which was my gateway to learning how to be more American. But I never saw anyone that looked like me. As a result, in high school and college, I took every opportunity to be more visible. I was elected class president and yearbook editor, and joined the University of Texas at Austin cheerleading team.
But being more visible didn’t necessarily translate into being more accepted. This would become even more evident in corporate America.
My career path in media was untraditional. I started out as a web developer, optimizing landing pages for UX and SEO, a role that evolved to leading paid search and SEO. I then made the transition to digital, then to account management, to running digital media and creative together. I have run media, analytics, data, content, CRM, ad tech and cultural inclusion accounts.
While I am proud of my career, my journey was not easy. I had to work harder than my colleagues. I encountered bias regularly. On several occasions, my work and ideas were taken from me. I was ‘put in my place’ when I tried to speak up.
I earned my MBA from the University of Notre Dame because I felt I needed something ‘extra’ to give me business credibility. And at not one, but two different agencies, I was ‘encouraged to take action’ against behavior that I didn’t believe was ethical, only to be penalized in my performance review for not taking that action and later learning that I was perceived as a bad hire because Asians were supposed to do what they’re told.
I came to realize that there is a bamboo ceiling. While Asians might over-index at senior- to mid-levels and below, there’s not enough representation at the very top. Often, the excuses are poor communication and presentation skills, lack of team management and weak leadership. Multi-dimensional Asians (multi-racial, LGBTQ+, female, etc.) face even steeper challenges. Asians face more pressure to be aware of what and how we say things, to give ‘extra’ and to be endorsed by others.
While I am incredibly proud of my career, including being recognized as Digital Person of the Year in Chicago, I experienced biases and discrimination early on. I used my MBA, technical strengths and teamwork experience from being a collegiate cheerleader and coach to advance my career. It required jumping from agency to agency, coast to coast, across 7 different cities.
Despite these experiences, I was lucky to find mentors and leaders that did believe in and embrace all aspects of me as an expert and leader. I’m forever thankful to those leaders (you know who you are). They are why allyship and mentorships are so important.
I’ve worked at UM longer than any other agency. While no place is perfect, it's where I’ve been the happiest in my career. My leadership team listens, evolves and creates a culture for equity, belonging and inclusion. I might be the first Asian gay EVP, but I know that I won’t be the last, or the only.
Further, I’m thankful for the AAPI community across Mediabrands and Kinesso, because it demonstrates that we have a united and strong voice across our network.
I also know that my parents are proud of me, even though I’m not a doctor and I did drop out of law school. I have assimilated into American culture while maintaining my Asian heritage with a lot of pride. I’m grooming the next generation of leaders, which includes all communities. And I’m leading an incredibly diverse team (across race, age and gender) as my authentic self, without fear or hesitation.
All of this allows me to focus on partnering with clients to truly impact cultural inclusion and drive representation so that little Asian kids can see more of themselves across different screens.
Danny Huynh is EVP Global Managing Partner at UM.