How 3 best friends started a community for 'the modern-day Asian American woman'

·10 min read

We are all works in progress; even the successful women you see owning it on Instagram faced stumbling blocks along the way and continue to work hard to stay at the top of their game. In this series, we're sitting down with the people that inspire us to find out: How'd they do it? And what is success really like? This is "Getting There."

Nearly four years ago, Janet Wang, Helen Wu and Melody Cheng launched a passion project, a podcast called "AsianBossGirl," for "the modern-day Asian American woman." In the premiere episode, the three best friends explained they wanted to highlight "raw, unfiltered conversations about Asian American women going through a unique set of obstacles" and discuss a range of topics that weren't "really spoken about in the public eye" — stories about everything from dating and sex to family and mental health.

Each episode would help fill in a gap they saw in mainstream media's representation of young women who straddled American and Asian cultures and speak to the experiences of 20 and 30-something Asian American women in particular. "There's such a great movement right now for women and women's voices ... our voices are definitely being heard right now but I think for us, what it is is that the Asian American female voice isn't as loud as just the overall women's voice," Wu said.

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Sixty episodes later, the podcast hosts quit their corporate jobs in user experience, finance and social media to turn their podcast into a full-fledged multimedia company in February 2019. The AsianBossGirl team celebrated their 100th episode at the end of January and in addition to podcast episodes, they also produce videos, host fan meet-ups and run an online store with an exclusive merchandise line.

Here's how the trio got there.

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TMRW: In AsianBossGirl's first episode, the three of you explain that you want to highlight "raw, unfiltered conversations about Asian American women going through a unique set of obstacles." Can you describe these obstacles? What's different for Asian American women specifically?

Janet Wang: When we started this podcast, there were Asian American female voices present in media, but not many, and those who were present were mostly celebrities, actors, beauty gurus and vloggers. There wasn't anyone we could relate to directly as working women and corporate professions.

For Asian American professional women, our multicultural upbringing impacts the way we view and operate in the world. It informs our career choices, how we manage our romantic relationships and friendships, how we approach political and social issues, our comfort level (or lack thereof) with talking about grooming, sex, etc.

Many of our professions and career pursuits are impacted by our cultural upbringing, whether we selected certain industries because our immigrant families value financial stability, or we deliberately went against them and have to struggle defending our decisions. As female minorities in the workforce, we are also often confronted with certain stereotypes, expectations and limitations that only other double minority individuals can truly understand.

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Outside of our careers, managing romantic relationships and dating as an Asian American woman means we face many of the same obstacles as any young adult in the modern world of online dating, but it also means that we often confront stereotypes and fetishes that others do not, and that the cultural background of our partner can play a big role in who and how we date. Additionally, many Asian American women (of course not all), shy away from certain topics, like political and social activism and mental health, partially because our Asian cultures promote obedience and withholding emotion, yet these are topics that are incredibly prominent in America today. This means that how we relate to these issues is very unique.

TMRW: The podcast has grown a lot. It's not just the podcast anymore. There's the merch, the meet-ups and more. Is there anything else that you've been doing to build and foster connections throughout the whole organization now?

Helen Wu: Not only do we have our podcast, which is our bread and butter, but we have an active YouTube channel, a fast-growing newsletter, merchandise, a growing Instagram and social media presence and we’ve been doing a ton of outreach and speaking events too.

Our dream is for ABG to be the ultimate connector for Asian women — from a place to find friends in random cities, to finding a mentor, to finding capital to build out your business — a place for Asian women to really support each other and help one another thrive. If we can grow to be that kind of a hub, we will have reached beyond what we knew possible.

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TMRW: What was it like in the beginning starting a small business? How was that learning as you go?

Wu: I always think about how the eight-hour work day was created. In 24 hours, you have eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep and eight hours for personal time. In those last eight hours, the three of us decided that prioritizing ABG, while balancing our 9 to 5+ jobs for the first part of the day, was what we would do. So, we did. We held each other accountable while giving ourselves the flexibility that we needed, and we took it one day at a time and one step at a time.

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When we first started selling merch, we wanted to sell T-shirts and fulfill them ourselves. We realized we needed to set up a website and a shipping account. We also realized we needed a tax ID to sell, so we went through that process. We needed to open up a bank account to receive payment, so we went to a bank. We needed shipping material, so we ordered some in bulk online. Who knew that there’d be so many steps to selling an item online? All of this may seem simple in hindsight, but they felt like mini fires in the moment. As three women who come from very different industries, none entrepreneurially focused, we found ourselves stumbling through every step. What’s incredible though, is that now we know how to build a small business, and we have grown to be incredibly resilient, adaptable and flexible with change. And I think there’s something impenetrable about starting from scratch and learning so much along the way.

TMRW: There are so many podcasts out there now. Do you ever worry about standing out within the big space?

Melody Cheng: We think it’s amazing how there are so many Asian and Asian American podcasts for people to choose from and listen to. We try our best not to compare and focus on the fact that ABG is told from our perspective as Helen, Janet and Mel and whatever guest we bring on. No one can take away your story. At the end of the day, we truly believe everyone’s story is unique and we’re just here trying to share ours as Asian American women navigating our 20s and 30s.

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TMRW: What's the biggest lesson each of you has learned over the past four years?

Wang: I've learned leadership and activism are exercised differently by different people. I never saw myself as a natural leader or activist, based on the definitions and examples I saw in the world around me growing up. I’m naturally reserved, introverted and peace-loving. But this podcast, both co-hosting and building the business, has shown me that I am both a leader and an activist in my own way. I've also learned how to be focused but flexible — set middle-term goals with a big picture mission and execute small tasks that turn into large projects.

Cheng: There is just so much! To be honest, the biggest lesson I learned is that being vulnerable is a strength and it takes courage to share publicly what we’re going through. There are so many times I was very hesitant to share because it was something so close to me. However, after sharing, I realize how many people feel the same as me. I think it is truly the power of sharing, because you normalize feelings and situations you deem as “wrong." So I’m very thankful that ABG is our public therapy sessions, because I wouldn’t be as aware of who I am without this podcast.

Wu: One thing that I’ve learned from this journey of growing our podcast is that there is power in numbers. When you feel seen and represented through proximity, or through consumption, you inevitably feel a sense of empowerment. That’s why images like Kamala Harris taking on the vice president role, or even the scene of Wonder Woman in the battlefield, is so viscerally empowering, because it changes something in your psyche, that as women, we are limitless in what we can do. Growing up, I always felt that my personal story was incredibly mundane. Coupled with a heavy dose of fear in public speaking, I never shared my story outside of my own inner circles. But with this podcast, I’ve come to see that my stories, and the stories of those we share on our platforms, are expanding the outlooks of so many young women out there who now believe that they can achieve their full potential in life. That to me, is the most rewarding part of this process. And even if it means facing my fear, and feeling the tremble in my voice, I know that pushing through this fear is worth it.

"When you feel seen and represented through proximity, or through consumption, you inevitably feel a sense of empowerment."

TMRW: What are some of the things that people have told you? How has ABG connected people or touched them?

Wu: To our listeners, ABG represents a sense of familiarity, like a hub that has become a resource for a lot of Asian Americans out there who have expressed feeling lost and voiceless. Everyday, we receive emails from all over the world, from the teenager in Kansas who says we’re like the older sisters she’s never had, to the mom from Australia who says she wishes that she had a podcast like ours growing up and that she’s excited for the world her daughter will grow up in. There's also the 23-year-old man, someone we’d call an ABB — Asian Boss Boy — in New York, who says he’s never understood what women had to go through until he listened to our podcast. Our podcast has become a simple way for people to feel seen and heard and to take on the world more confidently, knowing that they’re not alone in the struggles they go through.

TMRW: What would you recommend to others who want to do what you're doing?

Cheng: If you’re looking to go into media, especially into Asian American entertainment, I would say to first know your own identity. As you enter this big space, you have to know what you’re representing and understand your part in it, so take that time to self reflect. Set your intentions right away and truly know the mission of your work and be patient. What’s not going to work is if you’re in it for instant gratification, like followers or fame. That’s not going to work.

TMRW: You three are the face of the podcast, but I know it kind of takes a team. Who are the unsung heroes behind you three ladies?

Wang: Our team includes podcast editor Michelle Hsieh, newsletter editor Haemee Kang, newsletter designer Stephanie Kim, social media intern Ashley Chen, video editing intern Rachel Lee, partnerships and events manager Eric Wang and advisor Philip Wang. And most importantly, our ABG and ABB community of listeners and supporters!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.