ho's the Man? If you answered Bill Gates or Andy Grove, your eyes are firmly on the rearview mirror. They may not know it yet, but the ground on which those two corporate establishment icons built their empires is being cut out from under their feet by a sustained burst of Asian entrepreneurial and technological energy that's producing unimagined new software and wonder drugs, web servers and computer games, networking hardware and storage devices at a rate the present regime can't fully digest.
The hardy Chinese first came for the gold rush of 1849 and stayed on to sweat the building of the transcontinental railroad through the tough half, the half had to cut and blasted through the solid granite of the rugged and unforgiving Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas. That heroic feat turned the once impossible dream of California into a very possible reality. The industrious Japanese who followed at the turn of the last century moved heaven and earth, millions of tons of earth, to turn the state's arid deserts into fertile fruit orchards and truck farms capable of feeding half the country. Then in the seventies came the fearless Coreans who colonized crumbling inner cities and rebuilt them into vibrant commercial centers--with the help of later waves of Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese who continued the Asian colonization of California by channeling their thenceforth underused human capital into the explosive burst of entrepreneurial activity we see today, forever renewing any part of California threatened with decay.
The Asians brought the drive to succeed and fed it to their kids before packing them off to the ivy league and the elite universities of California to acquire the savvy with which to burnish what they had built until it shone with a golden patina.
"Asian Americans are among the most success-oriented individuals in all of California," says Dr. Young Jeh Kim, president of Pacific States University in Los Angeles. That success drive often comes from the fighting spirit of immigrant parents determined to give to their children better lives than the near starvation they themselves encountered in early 20th century Asia. Education is at the heart of this success. Just check the numbers. Asian Americans constitute 95% of the top 5% of students in American colleges and universities. Indicative of most California campuses, Orange County's highly respected UC Irvine boasts a 52% Asian population. Asian Americans are twice as likely as whites to have an advanced college degree.
Between 1972 and 1987, business ownership by Asian Americans and Asian immigrants increased tenfold, leading to the obvious conclusion--better qualified job applicants, better jobs and more Asian-owned businesses. 400 electronics companies in Northern California's Silicon Valley are owned by Asian Americans. And in 1990, 11% of the Asian American and Asian immigrant population was self-employed--a level identical to that of whites.
AsianAmericans are roughly 12% of California's 32 million people and the figure is growing. 60% of Asians who were born here or have been here the last 20 years have household incomes 33% higher than the population at large. The signs of Asian prosperity are everywhere. In fact, they're written in Chinese, Japanese, Corean and Vietnamese characters. Visit Monterey Park, just east of Los Angeles, and you can toss away your old images of any "Chinatowns" you've ever known. But only one-tenth of L.A. County's Chinese population lives there. The rest are spread out in adjoining cities. And many more are dotted throughout the Southland. You can spot their black Mercedes parked in front of many of Orange County's multi-million dollar corporations.
Drive down Sunset Boulevard and the famous Club Lingerie rock club is adorned with Japanese lettering. Little Tokyo in downtown L.A. is a thriving cultural center where many assimilated Japanese spend their weekends linked to their heritage. Like a rose in the desert, Little Tokyo, located just east of the Civic Center, plays a major role in keeping downtown Los Angeles from crumbling into a wasteland.
Koreatown is probably the most impressive of the Asian contributions. Sprawled out for miles in all directions in L.A.'s heart, Corean shops, mini-malls, banks and professionals have concentrated into such a financial success that overseas Corean conglomerates recently made a wave of speculative land purchases. Official signs on Olympic Boulevard and Vermont Avenues now mark Koreatown, owing to its semi-official status as the Seoul of Southern California.
The thriving Asian communities in California have also burgeoned a significant overseas trade. As these communities grew during the '80s, California's overseas trade quadrupled, making up 18% of total U.S. trade. 80% of California's trade is with Asia. The influence is so strong, in fact, that you no longer need to live in Asian-concentrated communities to find Asian goods. Your local Lucky's or Von's supermarket will generally stock what you need in its Asian foods section.
To the north, in the San Francisco Bay Area, a trade association that could well be a model for the next century is the 700-member Asian American Manufacturers Association (AAMA). To read its membership directory is to literally glimpse the future of American business and technology. Or perhaps look up your new boss.
These Asian American entrepreneurs have definitely been thinking globally and acting globally.
"A sizable number of our members have been previously focused on pursuing business opportunities only in the United States, but a shift is underway," says George Koo, AAMA chairman and managing director of International Strategic Alliance Inc. "There is an increasing awareness that if you are not participating in the Asian market, you're really missing out. The trap that many American companies will face is in becoming overly comfortable with and dependent on the domestic market. In the future, they're going to have to think internationally, or one day they'll find some international company has arrived in their backyard and is eating their lunch."
The AAMA was founded in 1980 by handful of San Francisco and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Its original purpose was to provide a network of mutual support for Asian American entrepreneurs. These new high-tech titans were brought together by the need to share experiences and exchange ideas, along with the fierce determination that they should no longer be locked out of top management positions in mainstream corporate America.
"A lot of Asians 15 or 20 years ago in Silicon Valley, Orange County and elsewhere were stereotyped as being very good at technological things, but unable to manage business worth a darn," says Koo. "As a result, they were bumping their heads against a glass ceiling." PAGE 2
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