Over the past two years, the rise in anti-Asian hate and xenophobia, combined with a global pandemic have made normal, everyday life difficult for the AAPI community. By sharing stories and insights from those in the Chinese American community, Committee of 100 hopes to shed more light on the issue and help celebrate the amazing accomplishments from within the Chinese American community to the world at large.
Each month, the staff of Committee of 100 sits down with one of our Next Generation Leaders and asks them about their careers, what the past year has been like as a Chinese American and their hopes for the future. Committee of 100’s Next Generation Leaders program focuses on young leaders who are passionate about the organization’s mission to promote the full inclusion of Chinese Americans across society and advance the betterment of U.S.-China relations. The program was first established in 2017.
This month, we spoke with Chris Shen, Co-founder and COO of Revere VC. Chris oversees business development, operations and strategic projects at Revere, a fintech company that he co-founded in 2020. Revere empowers investors with venture capital analytics and software solutions to manage risk and gain actionable insights into their private funds portfolios. They are based in the SF Bay Area and are fortunate to have the support of institutional venture capital funds, family offices and asset management firms in 11 countries around the world.
Before co-founding Revere, Chris co-founded West 22nd Capital Advisers, a Hong Kong-based single family office and private investment firm, where he served as co-managing partner, chief operating officer and a member of the investment committee. He primarily invested in other funds (ranging from venture capital to hedge funds), as well as earlier stage startup companies. Before moving into the investment world, Chris was a lawyer, where most of his legal career was with the global law firm Baker McKenzie, where he was a special counsel based in Hong Kong and Beijing. In that role, Chris focused on advising large APAC-based corporates with corporate finance transactions.
You can connect with Chris on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Committee of 100: As a Chinese American, what are some of the challenges you have encountered to become a leader in your respective field?
Chris: My career has been primarily international and non-linear, which presents a different set of challenges that most Chinese Americans would face if they were, say, based in New York, London, or San Francisco. These challenges are interesting in that instead of what most would face from a gender, ethnicity, or race perspective, it was more around national origin and work culture, as the way things are “done” in the APAC and China region is often very, very different from western countries. While I am a tech entrepreneur in the Bay Area these days (with a whole host of challenges there!), I will highlight my experiences and challenges as an expatriate lawyer in Asia (2006-2019) as I think this will provide more insight to readers.
I was inspired to move to China in 2006 to try something new; it was going to be a 1-2 year stint and we’d move back to the US. Also inspiring was what was going on in China…I visited 7 cities in late 2005 and saw enough to know that I had to be there. It was apparent at that time that the basics of supply and demand, as well as China’s modernization sprints and pursuit of internationalization (at least at that time) — something incredible was happening; something we’ll never see again.
On the ground, it seemed like there weren’t enough people (ironic, I know) to do the financial, legal, accounting and related work. It felt like the large corporates and businesses (Chinese and Western) wanted someone who looked Chinese (me) but was culturally “Western” – they could “seamlessly” interact with both sides, as a bridge of and to both worlds. In the mid-2000s, most people also saw China as a hardship posting and refused to go there or demanded (and received) exorbitant ex-pat packages to relocate. I didn’t need such a thing. I was 25, fresh out of law school, and had lived in Texas my entire life and wanted to see something new.
When I began my career in Beijing in 2006, it was an absolute shock – outside of that fateful, now life-altering 2005 trip, I had never visited (much less lived or worked) in a foreign country that wasn’t Canada or Mexico. While my China thesis was correct and moving there was one thing, I didn’t give much thought as to what it would take to remain there. Beijing, particularly pre-2008 Olympics Beijing, was to me an idyllic “old” version of China where the city, despite a mishmash of foreign businesspeople, embassy staff and language student/English teacher types, was not nearly as international as Shanghai and certainly not as westernized as Hong Kong. Adding another element to this shock and the various challenges, I also didn’t speak much Mandarin growing up in Texas (to my mother’s chagrin). In the beginning, it was always an adventure talking to Beijing taxi drivers, as well as ordering food in restaurants with Chinese-only menus and no pictures. As you might have guessed, 2006 Chris spent a lot of time asking himself what in the world he was doing there!
I suppose the challenge of “not being from there” and the need to recreate your network when starting out is tough anywhere you go. In my case, I knew a grand total of 3 people in all of Beijing when I arrived, and maybe double that in all of China. Piling on the usual challenges that anyone working at a professional services or advisory firm would encounter – you need to work hard, survive, build your professional network to and climb the corporate ranks, etc. It would obviously help to speak the same language, go to the same schools, and come from the same hometowns – you know, to quickly build rapport and personal connectivity. Whether you are an investment banker, lawyer, accountant or other service provider, the dirty little secret is that basically everyone is smart and hard-working enough to do the work, but as you rise through the ranks of that firm, you will be tasked to maintain existing client relationships while developing new ones, as well as burnishing the brand and reputation of the firm. You are only as good as your book of business. Needless to say, this Texan-Chinese lawyer who spoke barely any Mandarin (and zero Cantonese when I was shipped to Hong Kong in 2008) and had never lived in China was trying to do this with one hand tied behind his back while hopping on his right foot.
In any event, fast forwarding to the things worked out through sheer determination, a lot of hard work and very, very long hours, good mentors and a more than a bit of luck, I largely overcame these challenges as a lawyer. I stood out anyway, so coupling that with a knack for business development I was fortunate to develop and bring in clients as an associate, which then lead to a promotion to counsel at one of the world’s largest law firms at age 33, and the ability (and responsibility) to travel across the region to work with and support a variety of smart clients all over Asia. To illustrate this, in one 48-hour stretch in 2010, I had an all-Mandarin meeting in cold Beijing, then had to drop off luggage/swap clothes in Hong Kong to fly down to humid Bangkok for another marathon overnight meeting (mostly in Thai and starting at 9pm) to meet a 9am deadline, and then flew over to even more humid Singapore for a drafting session (finally in English). Challenges are what they are and when you’re going through them it can really suck, but sometimes you just need to grit your teeth, hop on that plane, and power through – the only way, as they say, is through. Proving you belong – even in foreign countries — is not as hard as it seems if you’re willing to really work hard, respect others, and be smart about things. It is not exactly material for a TV show, but a lot of which was basically unheard of…especially for an American gweilo / hua yi who didn’t speak Mandarin when he showed up in 2006.
Committee of 100: There are more than 6 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?
Chris: Yes and no. The positive yes is that when I left for Asia in 2006, there were a few well-known founders and businesspeople of Chinese descent, but I would not say they were mainstream. Being from Houston, I recall the fascination with former Houston Rockets star Yao Ming, but we wouldn’t mistake him for being Chinese American in any sense. On the flip side, when I moved back to the US in mid-2019, I remember being stunned by the amount of Asian (and some Chinese American!) representation in popular culture, where our Korean brothers and sisters led the way with Oscar-winning films, tons of binge-worthy Netflix series focused on Asian-American culture, great homegrown talent (i.e., shoutout to comedian Sheng Wang who is from Houston, as well as many Asian American actors and musicians) that everyone was talking about! Those 13 years overseas gave us a ton (if not too many) Marvel Superhero movies and I would have never expected (but pleasantly surprised) for Simu Liu to lead one of the Marvel franchises!
The flip side of this is no…while it is great to have made these strides, we as a collective have been mired and will likely continue to be mired in a seeming tug-of-war to nowhere, and by that, I mean the effects of the rapidly deteriorating US-China relationship. With the world’s most important relationship at its lowest point in decades, and its future impact seemingly unknown given the increasing rhetoric (on both sides) of a hot war over Taiwan, Chinese Americans are inexorably and unfairly caught in the middle. The irony is that the vast majority of Chinese Americans have no real nexus or tangible connection to China – a substantial amount of folks like me are really different from me – they haven’t even visited the mainland China, much less lived and worked in the region for an extended period of time like me. That said, make no mistake – none of us should have to “choose” a side, take loyalty tests or eat more hot dogs – we are Americans through and through. It is of utmost importance to increase and push for awareness of Chinese Americans that we are Americans, full stop. Our connectivity or affinity with our ancestral homeland will be across a broad spectrum for a variety of reasons, but the blatant racism and rhetoric (ahem, Donald Trump), witch hunt nonsense, idiotic race-focused policies, etc. must be met swiftly head-on and decisively dealt with. We need people that look and act like us representing us in all facets of business, politics, media, etc. We need to stand side-by-side with and enlist allies who have been through this type of hatemongering and have come out stronger on the other side.
Committee of 100: What do you believe needs to be done so that more Chinese Americans feel empowered to follow their dreams and push forward to create the programs/businesses/position they want?
Chris: There really is no silver bullet or magic wand that can instill or inspire a specific individual, much less a large, diverse group, to do something in particular. You need to have an idea of what you want and be ready to sacrifice to get there – this is something lost on a lot of people. If I had to guess, it starts with something more basic, like being a role model that you can relate to. I think it is critical at the grassroots level to give back – it does not need to be something that grabs headlines, involves large sums of money or is flashy, but anyone who is in a position to “pay it forward” or “give back” to help, inspire, mentor or motivate the younger generation of achievers should do so. When those who “can” get together in groups, that’s when the magic happens.
Committee of 100: What moment or learning experience inspired you to work in your professional field?
Chris: I can’t really pinpoint one particular moment or learning experience but it is likely a love of entrepreneurship, but not for the headline-grabbing reasons that most people attribute to “being a founder”. Frankly, there is nothing glamorous or sexy in being an entrepreneur – whether that is a tech startup, an HVAC repair company or opening a restaurant. Everyone has seen the Jeff Bezos office picture from the 90s with his ill-fitting clothes and the spray-painted Amazon.com sign. That is what it really is like sometimes. However, what is attractive and serves as an inspiration to the millions of entrepreneurs out there is the ability to shape and control your destiny, to essentially “bet” on yourself. This is not in everyone’s DNA so this isn’t a call to quit your job and open a snowboarding shop, but oftentimes you’ll know when you know!
Committee of 100: For those Chinese Americans and AAPIs who just recently graduated college, what advice would you give to them?
Chris: Don’t go to law school. Just kidding. Sorta.
In all seriousness, most people’s lives and careers are not going to be linear. Things will bounce around, crazy stuff happens, markets and industries will evolve. Perhaps most importantly, you will change. If your situation and means permit, the best thing you can do in your early 20s is to get as far away from your hometown. You don’t necessarily need to move to Beijing like I did, but the best way to expand your horizons, grow up and learn about yourself and life is to go somewhere where you are out of your comfort zone. For many, this is New York City (so I hear, I’ve never lived there), but literally could be anywhere given the digital nomad / remote work revolution that young Millennials and Gen-Z are so passionate about. Experience new experiences, absorb knowledge (helps to travel and read books, while limiting social media), and live, love and work with people who are completely different from you.
I would also say, don’t be afraid of hard work – for two reasons. First, hard work trumps intelligence when intelligence doesn’t work hard. Your prospective everythings…bosses, employers, co-founders, partners, etc. all know this too, so this should be self-explanatory. Secondly, more so than any generation – younger grads these days that enter the workforce are already focused on stuff that was basically the realm of more entitled midlevel/senior employees. This includes work-life balance, purpose-driven this/that, my company should be loyal to me, etc. If you value that above all, that’s fine; be you. However, when you’re starting out – do remember that you are pretty much useless – your only value, frankly, is your hard work and effort. The super valuable initial opportunities that you get from others to grow and scale your career will come from your grit, grind, and hustle, a.k.a. hard work. Remember, there are no handouts and even trust funds need to be replenished.
Much has been made about “connecting the dots” but the only way to get these “dots” is to work hard and live a differentiated life with purpose; only then do you have enough dots to actually connect.
Committee of 100: What do you most want to be remembered for in terms of making your mark on this world?
Chris: This question is a tough one and I don’t have anything really too inspirational or quotable to conclude with. The reality is that as I have gotten older, I have really begun to realize what the quote “the days are long; the years are short” really means. You realize the most important thing is not money (though super important for various reasons), possessions, titles, or experiences but, in fact, time. For me, it is by far and away most important to me to spend the time to be an excellent father to my two kiddos, a supportive and caring husband to my wife, a strong and reliable partner to my co-founder and employees, and a general net positive on all things I touch and people that I meet. That would be an excellent use of time and be just good enough for me.
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