Last week, I was honoured to be invited to NBC’s 30 Rock to participate in the first-ever Asian American Ideas Summit, a meeting of over 150 journalists, media personalities and AAPI community leaders. The event was organized by NBC Asian America as an opportunity to meet, network, and get a little behind-the-scenes information about working with journalists.
NBC Asian America was the perfect host for this summit. The vertical was started just a few years ago as a relatively unknown clearinghouse for Asian and Asian American reporting. However, editor Traci Lee has since grown NBC Asian America into the most trustworthy and accessible mainstream outlet for news, both for and about the AAPI community. (Full disclosure: Traci is also my partner-in-crime for #AAPIRewind, a weekly email digest of AAPI news and opinion writing — you should subscribe.)
Capping off a year of monumental growth, NBC Asian America announced today that it has launched a video channel to accompany its prolific written journalism. To mark the occasion, the channel released the first episode of “Self-Starters”, a digital video series by filmmaker Sahra V. Nguyen (sahravang.com; SC/IG/Twitter @oneouncegold) that highlights AAPI entrepreneurs and small business owners.
At last week’s summit, I had a chance to preview this episode — and I’ve been sitting on the hot news of its release for days! It would be safe to say that at last week’s showing, I was completely blown away… and I’m sure you will be too (video after the jump).
The first episode of “Self-Starters” profiles Jason Wang, the young business owner of Xi’an Famous Foods, who makes anyone who didn’t spend their early twenties turning a small family-owned restaurant into a trendy franchise with nine bustling locations feel like a slacker. Nguyen’s first episode of “Self-Starters” is also the best and worst video to watch when you’re hungry — I craved noodles for hours after watching it!
Nguyen cites her own childhood growing up within the pressure to pursue a stereotypical math-and-sciences education as her initial inspiration for “Self-Starters”. “I was mostly a creative, artsy, and athletic kid who didn’t like to be boxed in,” she says. “Now that I’m older, I see that Asian Americans are killing it in pretty much every industry, but we rarely hear about it on a mainstream level because stories related to the Asian-American community are still under-prioritized. I wanted to help share the diverse stories, experiences, faces, and talents within the Asian-American community and inspire folks to see that an unconventional path is possible.”
Many AAPI will likely find that the stories highlighted by “Self-Starters” will resonate with their own experiences growing up in and around AAPI-owned small businesses. Asian-Nation finds that in 2000, 11% of AAPI were self-employed; by 2012, the United States was home to 1.9 million AAPI-owned small businesses. From the general stores and laundries of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s to the family-owned convenience stores and restaurants of today, small business ownership can be seen as a cornerstone of the AAPI experience. This quintessentially AAPI narrative simultaneously invokes complex considerations of immigration, institutional racism, and labour organizing; sometimes, they can also reveal devastating — and important — accounts of exploitation (that, too often, disproportionately impact AAPI women). On a more personal level, the inspirational stories of AAPI small business owners often show people overcoming economic hardship with ingenuity and determination.
Deeply aware of the stifling model minority stereotypes that limit perceptions of the AAPI community, Nguyen hopes that Asian and non-Asian American viewers alike will be motivated by the creativity and self-motivation of her “Self-Starters” to see AAPIs in a new light.
“I hope viewers enjoy the series, and that it reminds them that anything is possible, especially if it doesn’t exist yet,” Nguyen says. “It’s easy to feel intimidated by things if we can’t see examples of it. But, sometimes we have to believe in something before we can see it, because if something hasn’t been done yet, then the world is just waiting for someone to step up and do it.”
One such example of AAPIs forging new ventures from the seeming impossible is NBC Asian America’s new video channel, itself. “For so long, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have either been erased from the mainstream narrative, or their stories have been rewritten and told by others,” says Lee. “Through articles and editorials and, now, videos, we have the tools at NBC News to represent ourselves in this “mainstream media” space.”
“This is an opportunity for people to take their stories and their communities’ stories into their own hands.”
NBC Asian America’s video channel will release a new video each Tuesday, and will include new episodes of “Self-Starters”, as well as still unannounced video projects by filmmakers Jason Y. Lee (Jubilee Project) and Benjamin To (The Band With No Name).
Correction: An earlier version of this post said this was the 3rd Annual Ideas Summit, it was actually the first.