AAPI Heritage Month: VF’s Jenn Sim on How Asians Are Facing a Double Pandemic — One of COVID and One of Fear

For AAPI Heritage Month, FN is spotlighting Asian American and Pacific Islander executives, entrepreneurs and designers as part of its ongoing commitment to champion diversity across all areas of the footwear business.

Over the past year, Jenn Sim has been keeping closer tabs on her parents — as much as she can, that is. After all, Sim is based in Los Angeles, while her mother and father live in New York City, which has seen a staggering rise in anti-Asian hate crimes since the COVID-19 outbreak spread across the United States.

She said she would call her parents regularly, advising them not to walk around the city unless necessary or to remain vigilant when they do. She even purchased an alarm system for her mother as a precautionary measure. But it’s not just their well-being that concerns her: Sim, who serves as deputy general counsel at VF Corp., said she was also worried about herself, her colleagues and her community as a whole.

“It’s the COVID pandemic that keeps us inside, but it’s also a fear pandemic that keeps us inside,” she told FN.

Sim was born in Seoul, but her parents immigrated to the U.S. back in the ’70s when she was just about 18 months old. They settled in Los Angeles, where — despite “limited English” and “little capital,” she said — they opened up a family-owned and-run retail business. As she grew up, Sim and her older sister would contribute after school by working the cash register and stocking shelves. (She also has a younger brother.)

Sim soon realized that she wanted to help people in a bigger way — an interest that launched her career in law. Following college, she took on some pro bono work to advocate for children, families and immigrants. A case involving intellectual property ultimately steered her to VF Corp., which she joined in 2013 and considers a “mix of my interests — both retail and law.”

Although Sim’s career trajectory appears linear on the surface, it didn’t come without its hurdles. The attorney shared that she has encountered her own share of microaggressions in the white male-dominated industry of law. In fact, according to a study published last year by researchers from the American Bar Association, a whopping 70% of women of color reported leaving or considering leaving the legal world because they felt undervalued or faced barriers to career advancement — or even in some cases feeling like the “elephant in the room.”

“I’ve definitely had some experiences in my career where I’ve been asked to do something because I was the token [Asian],” Sim said. “In the legal profession, before I went in house and worked for companies, there were for sure some people I encountered who didn’t want to deal with a woman — particularly a young woman and woman of color.”

Cultural norms and traditions passed down from generation to generation, however, have discouraged many Asians who regularly face bias and microaggressions from speaking up against racial injustice.

“Part of it is that we don’t want to rock the boat because it’s safer for us or we’ve had some advantages because of that,” explained Sim. “And then sometimes we think, ‘Well, other groups [of color] have it way worse, so why am I going to complain when I’ve got it pretty good?'”

This concept of “Oppression Olympics” — coined by activist Elizabeth Martinez in a 1993 conversation with prominent philosopher Angela Davis and used to describe which of two or more groups of marginalized people have it worse off — has only served to divide rather than unite, adding fuel to the fire of racism.

Instead, Sim has advocated for allyship among people of color — using their unique experiences to elevate discussions about race. Sim suggested that this practice is standard at VF — the company’s CEO, Steve Rendle, wrote in a letter five days after the killing of George Floyd last May that “racism is another virus to eradicate.” Since then, it has launched virtual events hosted by its Inclusion & Diversity team, activated employee resources groups and worked on specific initiatives supporting dozens of minority-led organizations through its philanthropic arm, VF Foundation.

“I don’t think companies do this lightly. It’s not easy to just jump on the bandwagon,” Sim said of VF’s commitments. “No matter what position you take, especially in today’s environment, it’s going to be polarizing. We have lots of consumers to answer to, and while some of this is business, most of it is to promote change.”

She added, “We have a big platform. In the end, what we’re about, especially in retail, is connecting with our consumers. We’re in the business of people.”

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