Over the past twelve months, the rise in anti-Asian hate and xenophobia, combined with a global pandemic have made this 2021 AAPI Heritage Month more important than ever. In celebration and recognition of AAPI Heritage Month, the staff of Committee of 100 sat down (virtually) with some of our members and asked them about their careers, what the past year has been like as a Chinese American and their hopes for the future.
This week, we spoke with Charlie Woo is the co-founder and CEO of Megatoys, an international toy manufacturer company headquartered in Los Angeles, California. The company also has an office in Hong Kong as well as manufacturing facilities in Shenzhen, China, and in Commerce, California. Charlie has been a member of Committee of 100 since 2000.
Committee of 100: Earlier this year, Committee of 100 released a study, commissioned with the Economist Intelligence Unit, that looked at 175 years of Chinese American contributions to the United States. What was one conclusion you drew from the study?
Charlie: During last year’ s presidential campaign, Asian American candidate Andrew Yang was criticized by some in the community for asking Asian Americans to do more to prove our patriotism as a way to fight discrimination. A better approach in my opinion would be to educate the American public that Asian and Chinese Americans have already made tremendous contributions to every facet of American society and are continuing to do so despite discrimination. As Chinese Americans, we need to continue to tell our stories of our contributions and patriotism, and to dispel myths and stereotypes. That was the motivation of the study and this is a very much needed project during this challenging time.
Committee of 100: There are more than 5 million Chinese Americans in the United States today and it is one of the fastest-growing populations in the U.S. Do you feel that Chinese Americans are well represented in government, business, and other parts of society?
Charlie: We have made significant progress in terms of having a seat at the table in government, business, and civic arenas over the past 20-30 years. And yet, the community is still being overlooked. What we need to do next is to help our representatives gain more influence and move to the head of the table, so that they can open doors for more representation of the ever growing and diverse community. To do that, AAPI leaders should reach out not just within but also beyond their own circles and professions to form coalitions with like-minded leaders in other arenas to empower each other and to hold each other accountable. The community also needs to build closer relationships with those who represent us. We all need to do this together as no leader can succeed alone.
Committee of 100: In light of all that has happened over the past year related to Covid and the rise in anti-Asian hate, does this specific year of AAPI Heritage Month have more of a special meaning for you?
Charlie: I am involved with another Asian American organization, CAUSE, that has been collaborating with African American and Latinx community organizations to conduct public opinion polls in California on race relations and other important issues. What we found was despite the devastation of Covid-19 and the anti-AAPI hate, AAPIs continue to be more optimistic than other ethnic communities about the opportunities this country offers, and that we will be more accepted in the future. AAPIs overwhelmingly embrace their ethnic identity despite being attacked for it. The current generation of AAPIs is showing the same kind of strength, resilience, as well as the positive spirit our predecessors showed during the most challenging times in history. In addition, our surveys show that both the public and the AAPI community have become more aware of racism that communities of color have faced. This mutual awareness is the foundation for building allyship to combat ignorance and hate together. We should take pride and celebrate how our community has come together under attack. We should all take a moment during this special month to reflect on how we have endured and to recommit to building a better country for future generations.
Committee of 100: What moment or learning experience inspired you to work in your professional field?
Charlie: Some people consider me to be an “outside the box” entrepreneur. I was trained as a scientist without any business training. I became an accidental entrepreneur when I took a summer off to fulfill my obligation to help my immigrant family start a “mom and pop” business importing toys from Asia, not knowing the odds stacked against us. I later encouraged other immigrant entrepreneurs to start similar business to become our competitors. I also invested in deserted industrial real estate in downtown Los Angeles. All these decisions were against conventional wisdom. I didn’t do these because I had any special insight about economic trends. My science education has given me an open mind with insatiable curiosity. Without a business background, I was not bounded by traditional thinking. Of course I have had my share of ideas not working out as planned. But I don’t consider those as failures. I just learn from those experiences on how to do better the next time. Being an entrepreneur has been rewarding because I enjoy the freedom to explore.
Committee of 100: For those Chinese Americans and AAPIs who are getting ready to graduate college here in the month of May and June, what advice would you give to them?
Charlie: Chances are your career will not follow the path you have planned. Be prepared to learn how to adapt and take advantage of the opportunities in an ever-changing world. Some things shouldn’t change with time. These are your core values and the skills needed to connect with others. I have often heard the say that it is not just what you know, it is also who you know and who knows you that is important. Take the time to build meaningful relationships. It is often not the work that you do but the people you work with that make a rewarding career.
Committee of 100: What do you most want to be remembered for in terms of making your mark on this world?
Charlie: We are often judged by where we have gone and what impact we have made along the way. I enjoy my business career. I have my share of experiences of civic and community participation and serving on government commissions. Along the way, I have known some great people I have learned from. I have seen how great leaders make an impact. I have often been the only AAPI in the room and have been looked upon to represent my community. At this stage of my career, I could keep focusing on striving for greater success. But I would rather take some time to take stock of the relationships I have developed and the experience I have gained and see how to leverage that to help the next generation. Inspiring others to go beyond where I have gone, and then making sure they in turn will bring along those behind them to go even further would be most meaningful to me.