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May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and Capital One is focusing on this aspect of diversity in the workplace with professional development initiatives within its Origins API business resource group.

David Kang, senior vice president and head of data insights  at Capital One is one of the group’s leaders. For Kang, a first-generation American whose parents are Chinese, creating initiatives is personal. Kang’s parents immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s to pursue graduate degrees.

“They had hardly anything in their pockets and were poster children for the American dream,” Kang said.  “My brother and I embraced that.”

At the same time, it was ingrained in Kang and his brother to keep their heads down and “act as American as possible, and that equated to being as White as possible.”

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Kang experienced a mindset shift that he said was due in no small part to working for a Fortune 100 bank “which really embraces diversity, encourages inclusion and creates a sense of belonging.” This has enabled Kang to more fully acknowledge his heritage as an indelible part of himself.

Celebrating diversity in safe spaces

By virtue of his senior leadership position, Kang said he felt the need to set an example for the bank’s Asian population. Capital One has several business resource groups where people of shared identities and their allies can come together and celebrate them in a safe space. They are also given resources that focus on growth and development specific to the opportunities and challenges that face people of their particular affinity, Kang said.

For example, as executive sponsor of Origin’s development pillar, Kang is tasked with helping find and create curricula and bring programs that discuss the opportunities and challenges facing the Asian population in the U.S.

“To put a finer point on that, when you look at diversity and inclusion in an Asian context, they make up a disproportionate percentage of the employee population at a Fortune 100 company,’’ as well as at elite universities, according to Kang.

There is also a “bamboo ceiling” for Asians, who are underrepresented in the executive ranks of Fortune 100 companies, according to Kang. “There’s a very nuanced statement of opportunity in terms of what creating a more diverse and inclusive environment means when speaking to the Asian population.”

Besides focusing on how well you do your job, and how productive and skilled you are, Asian employees need to become good at “influencing others who aren’t on your team at leading, communicating and representing and advocating,’’ Kang said. “In my own background, these weren’t areas I felt came naturally to me, and as I engage with Asian associates, they are not natural to them.”

Origins has programming focused on these topics, especially for its Asian middle manager population, which Kang noted tends to be the ceiling in terms of upward mobility for Asian American employees.

For example, there is a coaching program that supports high-potential associates and works on developing leadership skills through training and coaching, Kang said. There is also a small group of executive sponsors who mentor staff on communication skills.

Strategies to cultivate a diverse and inclusive workplace

Fostering diversity, equity and inclusion is a two-way street,’ Kang said. Given the talent shortage – particularly for engineers, developers and data scientists – these measures “require us to be relevant beyond a U.S. population,’’ he said. “There’s way too much opportunity in tech for us to be simply an American company,’’ so Capital One is thinking about recruiting talent globally.

It also requires company leaders to have empathy. Although Kang was born in the U.S. and took for granted his ability to speak English as his first language, because of his parents’ background he said he tries to put himself in the shoes of those with a language barrier.

“A lot of our associates are immigrants and dealing with issues like visas, which it doesn’t occur to me to think about,” Kang said. He noted that it’s important for corporate leaders “to make room to understand their stories and their hopes and ambitions beyond work and spend some time living life in their shoes to create a sense of belonging. That’s one of those understated things that really keeps people motivated and sort of loyal to working for an organization.”

Kang said he coaches Capital One associates, and Asian tech associates in particular, not to feel “handicapped by being Asian and not speaking English as your first language:  Those limitations are internal. The more you can own who you are and not attempt to be the person you think you should be, you’ll show up in a more relaxed and genuine way.”

In turn, “people will want to take care of you,” and that will foster company loyalty, he said.

Capital One’s workforce has an opportunity to be more visible and vocal, and Origins strives to make sure it is raising awareness and consciousness of the opportunity, Kang said.

Origins is now in its 20th year at Capital One and has 8,600 members globally. Surveys are conducted to ensure the programming provided to the group is relevant.

In terms of measuring outcomes, “Capital One as a whole is very much looking at what has happened in both representation as well as mobility among all our underrepresented groups,’’ Kang said. “This continues to be a marathon, not a sprint, and we feel good with each mile marker.”

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