Empowering AAPI Businesses: Addressing Challenges and Advocating for Change


Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) businesses and workers in California are vital to our economy, yet they face unique challenges, especially exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. This period highlighted existing disparities in access to capital and resources, with AAPI businesses experiencing significant drops in sales and facing obstacles in receiving government financial aid, such as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). These challenges underscore systemic issues hindering the financial stability and growth of AAPI businesses.

Despite these hurdles, AAPI businesses continue to play a pivotal role across various sectors, including accommodation, food services, retail trade, and education services. They demonstrate above-average rates of business ownership and employment, significantly contributing to the economic landscape and serving as vital community hubs. However, the pandemic’s impact has been severe, with 84% of AAPI small businesses reporting negative effects and nearly half having to lay off staff, underscoring the urgent need for targeted support and resources to ensure their recovery and sustainability.

These economic struggles are interconnected with broader issues faced by AAPI workers in Westernized work cultures. Cultural differences in communication styles, leadership dynamics, and work-life balance often clash with traditional AAPI values of collective harmony and familial obligations. Moreover, racial bias and discrimination persist in everyday work experiences, rooted in historical contexts of exclusion and colonization.

As we delve into the complexities of AAPI experiences in professional settings, it’s crucial to understand the context and explore actionable solutions to create a healthier work environment.

History of Challenges Faced in the AAPI Community

The historical context surrounding mental health struggles in AAPI communities is multifaceted, deeply rooted in exclusionary policies, racial stereotypes, colonization, and the erasure of racial histories. Exclusion laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and subsequent immigration restrictions fostered a climate of discrimination and marginalization. These laws led to the use of negative stereotypes and racial imaginaries that portrayed Asians as foreigners or “model minorities,” overlooking the diverse experiences and challenges within the community.

Colonization also plays a significant role, leading to cultural suppression, trauma, and disruption of traditional practices that could have otherwise supported mental well-being. This historical trauma, compounded by ongoing systemic racism and microaggressions, contributes to the continuation of racialized stereotypes and biases impacting the mental health of the AAPI community.

Moreover, the erasure and forgetting of racial histories further exacerbate these issues. The struggles, resilience, and contributions of the AAPI community are often overlooked or minimized in mainstream narratives, leading to a sense of invisibility and disconnection from one’s own identity. This grief, loss, and mourning for silenced histories can contribute to feelings of isolation, identity conflict, and mental health challenges within AAPI communities.

Common Challenges Faced Today

Westernized Work Culture

The dominance of a Westernized work culture often clashes with traditional AAPI values and practices, leading to challenges in communication styles, leadership dynamics, and work-life balance. Countries in Asia prioritize collective harmony, respect for hierarchy, and familial obligations, which can conflict with individualistic Western work norms. Navigating a work environment that prioritizes individual rights and autonomy can be challenging for AAPI workers and business owners from cultural backgrounds that emphasize collective welfare and relationships. This can lead to differences in approaches to business ethics, decision-making, and handling workplace relationships.

Burnout and Mental Health Issues

Balancing individual responsibilities and accountability typical in Western culture with the collective welfare and relationship-oriented focus of Eastern culture can create internal conflicts and stress. This struggle to meet the expectations of both cultural paradigms can lead to feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and exhaustion. The emphasis on profit maximization and shareholder value in Western culture can add to this pressure, causing burnout and mental health challenges among AAPI workers and business owners.

Racial Bias and Discrimination

Navigating workplace dynamics that favor Western norms of individualism and rationalism can be challenging for AAPI individuals. The emphasis on personal responsibility and autonomy may be misconstrued as lacking assertiveness or leadership qualities in AAPI workers, resulting in biases in hiring, promotion, and leadership opportunities, limiting career growth and advancement.

How to Address These Challenges

Bridging Cultural Differences

Companies can implement cultural sensitivity training and workshops to address the clash between Westernized work culture and traditional AAPI values. These programs educate employees about differences in work culture and communication styles, fostering understanding and respect. Encouraging open dialogue and communication channels allows employees to discuss and appreciate each other’s cultural perspectives, values, and expectations. Cross-cultural collaboration and team-building activities can promote mutual understanding and respect. Flexible work policies, such as flexible scheduling and remote work options, can accommodate diverse cultural practices and support work-life balance.

Addressing Burnout and Mental Health

To combat burnout and mental health issues, comprehensive mental health resources and support services should be offered. This includes counseling, therapy, and stress management programs tailored to address work-related stressors and cultural challenges. Promoting a culture of work-life balance and well-being, encouraging regular breaks, time off, and wellness activities, is essential. Training on stress management, resilience-building, and mindfulness techniques can equip employees with the tools to cope with cultural and work-related pressures. Creating a supportive and inclusive work environment where employees feel comfortable discussing mental health concerns without fear of stigma is crucial.

Combating Racial Bias and Discrimination

Companies should implement diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives to address racial bias and discrimination. These initiatives promote fairness, equality, and opportunities for all employees, irrespective of cultural background. Regular diversity training and unconscious bias workshops can raise awareness and address implicit biases in hiring, promotion, and performance evaluation processes. Clear anti-discrimination policies and procedures, with mechanisms for reporting and addressing incidents of bias, harassment, or discrimination promptly and effectively, are essential. Creating a culture of accountability and transparency ensures that instances of bias or discrimination are taken seriously and remedial actions are taken to prevent recurrence and promote a respectful workplace environment.


Understanding and addressing the historical context of exclusion, racial imaginaries, colonization, and the erasure of racial histories is crucial in addressing the fundamental causes of struggling mental health among AAPI communities. It requires a comprehensive approach that acknowledges the interconnectedness of historical trauma, systemic racism, cultural identity, and mental well-being while centering the voices and experiences of AAPI individuals in shaping solutions and support systems.

Addressing the multifaceted challenges faced by the AAPI workforce requires a holistic approach that prioritizes cultural understanding, mental health support, inclusivity, and proactive measures against discrimination. By embracing diversity and fostering a supportive workplace culture, organizations can create environments where AAPI professionals can thrive and contribute meaningfully.

As part of the nationwide #AAPISTRONG movement led by National ACE, the CalAsian Foundation is at the forefront of combating hate, discrimination, fear, and bias against the AAPI community. Through our collaboration with National ACE and our corporate and foundation partners, we are leading the charge in California to stand against these injustices. Our efforts extend to AAPI Strong CA, a campaign designed for all AAPIs and those who support them, emphasizing in-language communication, cultural competency, and community engagement.

The CalAsian Foundation continues its battle against the challenges faced by AAPI small businesses and workers, providing complimentary consulting for AAPI small business owners to help them apply for government relief programs and grants. We organize AAPI bias and cultural sensitivity trainings for small business owners, creating an environment of inclusivity and understanding. Our funding of the small business data share initiative aims to collect and distribute data on the AAPI small business community, measuring the impact of racial discrimination and the pandemic while advocating for change. Furthermore, we facilitate conversations through regular roundtables with elected officials, policymakers, AAPI business owners, and CalAsian alliance partners to advocate for better policies and protections for our communities. Together, these efforts demonstrate our commitment to building a stronger, more resilient AAPI community and creating positive change for the future.