AAPI Heritage Month: Bergdorf Exec Yumi Shin on Why Mentorship Might Be What Your AAPI Employees Need Right Now

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.

Yumi Shin said she has always felt a sense of belonging in America.

Shortly after she was born, her parents immigrated to the United States from South Korea. She was raised and educated in New York, where she attended Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, then spent her career — which now spans more than two decades — working in New York City for luxury fashion companies, including Barneys New York, Prada and Saks Fifth Avenue.

“I remember kids in grade school noticing my name as being ‘different’ and asking me where I was really from,” said Shin, who is now SVP and chief merchandising officer at Bergdorf Goodman. “This tends to be a recurring theme with Asian Americans — even with those, like me, who were raised in the U.S. But overall I’ve always felt very accepted.”

Reductive stereotypes often paint Asian Americans as a monolith when, in fact, they represent the fastest-growing population in the U.S. According to Pew Research Center, a record 23 million Asian Americans trace their roots to more than 20 countries in East and Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. (In decennial censuses conducted in 1980 and earlier, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders were reported as a single group.) Members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities have often been lumped together as the “model minority” — depicted as hardworking, quiet and largely wealthy — and as a result are left out of important conversations about racial equality.

Although Pew Research Center data shows that Asian Americans have some of the highest educational attainment and median incomes in the country, U.S. Census Bureau data shows that 12 out of 19 Asian origin groups have poverty rates as high or higher than the U.S. average. And in the workforce, white-collar AAPI people are said to be the least likely demographic to get promoted to leadership positions. More specifically, among female employees in the U.S., Asian women occupied the fewest number of management roles, at just 2%, falling behind other minority groups including African American women (4%) and Hispanic women (4.5%).

Despite these statistics, however, Shin said she hasn’t been held back by racial barriers or cultural norms throughout her career. Although she noted that the model minority myth is often perpetuated in Asian households, with parents emphasizing to their children the importance of respecting elders and working hard to fit in, Shin shared that she had a different experience growing up.

“Being diligent and asking for recognition when it’s due to you was always part of the narrative at home,” said Shin, whose parents worked in the South Korean fashion industry for decades, inspiring her own career path. “I think that stuck with me. It taught me the importance of visibility and not being shy about taking credit for your accomplishments, regardless of your gender or color of your skin.”

Prior to her current role at Bergdorf Goodman, Shin has held other leadership positions throughout her career, including DMM at Prada, as well as SVP and GMM of the women’s designer ready-to-wear department at Saks Fifth Avenue.

According to Shin, her ability to thrive in the workplace couldn’t have been achieved without the help of a strong professional support system and experience at companies that celebrate diversity.

“I’ve been fortunate enough that I haven’t felt the impact of racism in the office,” she said. “Starting my career as a buyer at Barneys, I’ve had incredible mentors that were accepting of many different cultures — which has allowed me to be that type of leader as well.”

Last year, Bergdorf parent Neiman Marcus Group launched a spate of diversity initiatives to support the Black Lives Matter movement, which Shin said has contributed to a work culture that is open and accepting of all races. The company debuted its Belonging Advisory Council — a diversity speaker series open to all company associates — and 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. In addition, the company launched a program that regularly measures and reports the company’s DEI performance. Approximately 11% of employees working at Neiman Marcus Group currently identify as AAPI.

To mark AAPI Heritage Month, Shin will be speaking with John Yang, president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, to the Belonging Advisory Council. One of the topics that will be discussed at the event is centered on protecting the civil and voting rights of AAPI members.

With the recent rise in anti-Asian attacks across the country, Shin’s fears have understandably escalated. Still, she’s able to see a silver lining — in the ways both members of the community and its allies have spoken out and taken action.

“I’ve never felt more scared for the physical safety of my family, community and parents,” she said. “But at the same time, this fear is starting to turn into encouragement, as all the chaos is forcing everyone to have a dialogue about ways we can do better.”

Shin is optimistic that these conversations will pave the way for a more-inclusive country for younger generations — including for her 7-year-old daughter, Runi.

“Through telling our stories, we’re hopeful our children will grow up with the sense of belonging in our community — no matter what their background is,” Shin said. “It’s also important for non-AAPI members to educate themselves about the history of AAPI people, and to listen and do the hard work with us.”

She added, “It’s wonderful that we have a whole month dedicated to us, but it’s not just about this month, right? It’s about what we are doing together every day to help bring about a brighter future.”

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