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.
In March, Stefanie Tsen Ward was walking with her 1-year-old son in the Dallas neighborhood where they lived when she was verbally harassed.
“A couple of young, white men in a truck drove by and, using a racial slur, screamed out to me, ‘Go back to your country,'” Tsen Ward told FN. “That was extremely alarming and disturbing.”
She continued, “We’re in a very safe neighborhood, but in that split moment, it didn’t matter what my title was or what my upbringing was. Complete strangers saw me for the color of my skin and wanted to make me feel very uncomfortable and unwelcome.”
Tsen Ward, who is the SVP of customer engagement and West region integrated retail at Neiman Marcus Group, is a first-generation American and of Taiwanese descent. She is one of many Asian Americans who have become a target of anti-Asian hate — incidents of which have escalated at an alarming rate during the pandemic.
According to a report from nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate, more than 3,795 incidents of anti-Asian hate — including verbal harassment, physical assaults and civil rights violations — were recorded between March 2020 and February 2021. Texas, where Tsen Ward lives, ranked fourth highest in anti-Asian incidents, with 103 cases.
Growing up in New York and New Jersey in what she calls “more affluent neighborhoods,” Tsen Ward said she experienced “notions” of racism but didn’t view them as racist at the time.
“Kids would make fun of my Chinese lunches in grade school, which made me feel like I was the problem and had to fit in better,” she said. “I’m realizing, now more than ever in this past year, how cultural stereotypes had an impact on me when I was younger. I’m fortunate enough, however, that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown more forthright about who I want to be and what I want to stand for.”
She added that this sense of confidence was cultivated during her undergraduate years at Columbia University, where she was inspired by other young Chinese Americans who found ways to marry their American identities with their cultural heritage, as well as through the support of mentors she’s had throughout her 11-year career in the retail industry. (Tsen Ward is a former Sephora and Louis Vuitton executive.)
Now, she believes that speaking up about her experience is crucial to helping raise awareness about anti-Asian racism and lay the foundation for positive change. Her first step: bringing up that incident with her organization.
“I picked up a microphone for one of our weekly calls and told my peers, ‘Hey, I’m taking 10 minutes to address diversity, belonging and my own recent encounter with racism,'” Tsen Ward said. “It was really difficult for me as the emotions were so raw, but I also realized it’s important for those of us in positions of power, especially Asians, to speak up and share our stories.”
According to data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Americans of Asian descent make up just 6% of senior and executive leadership roles. The disparity is even greater for Asian American women, who make up less than 2% of such positions in the U.S.
“I’ve learned it means the world when more junior team members, particularly those who are Asian American, see someone of a similar background in a more senior position take a stance and show recognition,” she said. “It gives them hope that there will be progress.”
Tsen Ward, who worked as an investment banking analyst before entering the retail industry, noticed that the lack of female Asian American representation in the upper ranks was particularly apparent in the corporate finance world. (A study by management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. showed that less than 2% of C-suite-level managers at financial service companies are women of color, including Black, Hispanic and Latinx, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, and Asian.)
“I definitely feel I’ve experienced less of a stark contrast working in fashion, but we know there’s still a lot of action to be taken across all industries,” said Tsen Ward.
She noted that working at a company like NMG that supports minority voices and fosters open communication has made her feel more comfortable opening up about her encounter with racism.
“It’s something really important for entities to think about that,” Tsen Ward said. “You may not have your programming exactly right, but it’s crucial you create a platform to talk about these matters.”
Last year, as conversations around racial inequality were pushed to the forefront following national unrest over police brutality against Black people, NMG launched a spate of diversity initiatives. In addition to instituting a program that regularly measures and reports its DE&I performance, the company debuted its Executive Leadership Development Series, led by diversity expert Dr. Katrice Albert, to educate NMG executives on topics like cultural intelligence and diversifying talent in hiring. It also introduced its Belonging Advisory Council, a speaker series open to all associates.
What’s more, to mark AAPI Heritage Month, the council will host fellow NMG executive Yumi Shin, SVP and chief merchandising officer at Bergdorf Goodman, and guest speaker John Yang, president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, to discuss protecting the civil and voting rights of AAPI individuals.
Beyond sharing her story with team members at Neiman Marcus, Tsen Ward joined forces with friend and Hyphen Capital founder David Lu, who coined an open letter titled “Enough.,” denouncing violence and anger against Asian Americans. The letter, which was signed by more than 80 Asian American business leaders — including Tsen Ward, who helped gather signatures for it — was published in the Wall Street Journal on March 31, two weeks after a series of shootings at multiple Atlanta spas left eight people dead.
As part of their Stand With Asian Americans campaign, Lu and his associates have collectively committed $10 million over the next year to fight violence against Asian Americans. In partnership with the Asian Pacific fund, the campaign is supporting a range of community-based organizations, including AAPI Women Lead and NAPAWF to support the rights of AAPI women and Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a national network that defends those impacted by hate crimes and ensures they have proper legal representation. The campaign is currently accepting donations through StandWithAsianAmericans.com.