Who is Albert Shen?
My name is Albert Shen. What I do now is, I have my own business, which I had for many years. And I’m now a Senior Advisor for Advanced Technology and Research at Toyota North America in Dallas, Texas. I’m originally from Seattle, Washington, and as a small business owner, I was a big advocate for small minority businesses; and during that time, I learned that minority business owners have to step up in the public sector and advocate for others.
So, I took a stab at running for office in Seattle – Seattle City Council. It was a learning experience, mind altering in many ways, but you meet many friends along the way. And because of the work I was doing to support President Obama after the 2008 recession, I built up a lot of friends in the administration. So when I lost my race in Seattle, I got the call from the White House to serve in the Obama administration at the US Department of Commerce, and I was National Deputy Director of the Minority Business Development Agency.
I’ve been described as easy-going, a leader and advocate, and a strong believer in business and community. And I always want to help others and am generous with my time and money for worthy causes, and I believe in the community.
I think we all want to leave a mark for our families, to make sure that they have a good home and our children to have a future. And I think with the work that I was doing, I want to make sure that there’s a safe and healthy planet for our kids, especially as the world gets more complex in many ways. I want to make sure disenfranchised communities, the minority communities, are part of that growing economy that we’re having. So in whatever small way with the work that we did in the Obama administration, I believe it was groundbreaking and left a lot of legacy institutional processes and ideas in place for the work to continue. So that’s all I want for our kids and our future.
Tell us about your career journey.
I grew up in a small town in Washington State, in the Eastern side called Pullman, WA, where Washington State University is. My dad was a research professor for the USDA, and my mom had two small businesses – a restaurant and a jewelry store. So we have always been a part of the small business side. But then I went to the University of Washington in Seattle, where I studied Environmental Chemistry. I wanted to be part of environmental global policy; especially back then, global warming, ozone depletion were already emerging as major environmental issues that were going to face the planet. So I focused my studies around that – atmospheric chemistry, nuclear chemistry.
So when I graduated, I worked in the environmental consulting world for a few years in the corporate sector, on cleaning nuclear waste sites and other hazardous waste sites around the Pacific Northwest. But that’s when I realized it wasn’t quite for me when it came to it. As being an Asian American in a corporate company, the ability to move up – I hit the glass or bamboo ceiling, as we call it. So I ventured out and just started my own business in the construction world. I really fell into it, actually. And then became part of a major airport capital program in Seattle, building out a massive International Airport and doing a rebuild. It was a four billion dollar program.
But it was during that time that, as my business grew with the construction project, that’s where I became an advocate for businesses. And I learned how to fundraise, because fundraising is critical for business leaders. And then really integrating community, sitting on non-profit Boards of Directors in the Asian-American community in Seattle, and then from there also getting onto other civic [boards] in the city and state level – mayor and city, gubernatorial appointments – to give my diverse background. Because they were looking for diversity both on business and from various diverse communities to be on these various boards of commissions to support city policy. So that kind of led my trajectory into politics and eventually to the federal government.
What drove me to run when was – when I, as a business owner, faced a lot of institutional barriers and discrimination in the government contracting process. I realized that public policy was not in favor of supporting businesses and the fact that minority businesses have something to contribute. But there were no voices, with technical knowledge of the industry, to apply it to public policy. So that’s when I decided I needed to take a stab at running, because so many businesses were struggling after the recession and there was no one willing to take the political voice to voice for that and change policy. But sometimes, as Asian-Americans, we have to come out of our comfort zones and speak out publicly, even if it means sometimes political consequences for you. And I believe I paid a political price by doing that, but in the end when I ran for office, I think things changed and I can bring more to light the issues that were important that affected those communities.
So at the end of the day, they say even if you lose a political race, you win overall. And I really felt that because then I had the chance to go to Washington DC and work for the President.
How has your background influenced your success?
My background, in terms of being part of my success, I think is mostly from my family, my parents. A lot of Chinese parents in our generation come to the country because they’re faced with some form of oppression from where they were, and they wanted to come to America to build a better life. So my parents arrived here in the early ‘60’s; they met here in the US, here in New York, actually. I was born here but moved to Washington State – but from that time I was growing up, they instilled the importance of culture in Chinese. My parents were into Chinese Opera, therefore myself and my sister were in Chinese opera. We performed; I played percussion, my sister played an instrument, my mom was a singer, and my dad is a Chinese Opera conductor. So we traveled around in the Northwest to perform as kids in Chinese Opera – ‘The Monkey King’, all those fun stories. So that was a great time during our childhood; to be a part of that and carry on that culture.
And food as well – my dad and parents always cooked, and taught my sister and I to cook, especially Chinese cooking. We had a Chinese restaurant too, and my mom had that small business – her jewelry business. So the value of a small business and being a family-owned business really instilled the values of working hard, but also being ethical and just building a better life. So that was the basis of a good solid family foundation and led to the importance of what my parents taught me of being generous. You never want to be too selfish because being too selfish does not leave a good mark for your family. And so we always had that kind of family values, and I carry that to this very day.
What are your top accomplishments?
I think joining the Obama administration is one of the things I feel most accomplished about, because it was something I never dreamed was possible. Never would have even thought, five years ago, that I would be able to serve someone like President Obama and serve the American people. So that and the work we were able to accomplish, to increase the agency budget, to create new policies, create a new office, and to meet the people that I was able to meet, and help make their lives a little bit better, was one of the major things. Because when you travel all around the country, and people want to engage with you on the work you’re doing, and ideas that they have to make the community better.
And I think back to the days when the Ferguson incident, and Baltimore, and Detroit, and Chicago – the civil unrest that was happening around the country, in which law enforcement and the criminal justice system was being very unfair to the minority communities. So I wanted to dispatch the economics team – what we were doing at Commerce – with the US Department of Justice, and be able to bring that conversation together between the criminal justice system and economic development. Because at the end of the day, it’s about economic opportunity for minority communities. So being able to do that kind of integration of two agencies and of policies and ideas was a major step in the right direction.
Now with this administration, I’m pretty sure that’s dismantled; but in the end, the people in place value I think that, in terms of the work that we had done and will continue to do as we move forward.
Just to be home with my family is a good accomplishment because when you serve in the public, it’s an incredible strain for families. And the sacrifice that they had to deal with me not being there, especially to my wonderful wife, it was challenging. But I think at the end of the day, she always appreciated the work I was doing. And actually having the kids come to Washington, DC and get to experience seeing how the government works, seeing what public service does – so to be able to give them that opportunity to see that window, as small as it was, to walk in the White House, to go to the Easter Egg Roll, to be a part of the festivities of a President I think is something that they will never get to experience again. So I think that was one thing I hope – at a personal accomplishment level – for them, to at least give them exposure to the work that I was doing. And with the sacrifice that they made for me to do that work, that they walk away with some appreciation of what it means to serve the public.
I hope that someday they will do the same thing, because this generation needs young leaders; leaders with integrity and leaders that believe that serving the public is a good thing. And they should be proud of it. As Asian-Americans, there needs to be more of them. And that is something I want to make sure, for my accomplishment, that they too will have in the future.
What are your thoughts about the P.O.L.I.N.G.® Principles?
The P.O.L.I.N.G.® principles, as I read it, I think apply no matter what on a daily basis, in terms of what I’ve been doing and many others I’ve worked with. Because we all share a common goal, in terms of servicing the community around you and yourself, and for your family, or whoever else is important to you. So all those principles I truly believe in, and I have carried in some way.
Like the one on (N)etworking, I think is a critical one. When you’re in office, or in politics, or in business, networking is a key, critical part. And how well you network and follow up with networking is a critical part. Nowadays with technology and Linkedin, many other social media, it makes it much easier to network, but you want to be substantive in terms of how you network with other folks, and especially corporate leaders, business leaders, and governmental leaders. So that’s something I’ve always carried personally; I’ve always been very good at networking. You always introduce yourself with a smile, and show some interest in whatever it is you want to talk about. And the follow up – that is critical.
Then when you're in DC – it is an interesting city. I think that even this President is seeing right now, that it takes a certain amount of finesse to navigate the many levers of Washington DC. It is the power center of literally the world in a lot of ways; so much policy and resources come out of it, and if you don’t have the personality of many of the topics on the P.O.L.I.N.G.® principles, you’re not going to survive. So both on integrity, both on networking, personal growth, it takes a lot of work to do that, to accomplish what you want to do, but also to protect your own personal reputation as well. Because no matter what happens, politics sometimes can be, let’s just say, very challenging and dangerous, but nevertheless, people are there for the common good. But because there’s so many competing interests, unless you have a guiding set of principles like P.O.L.I.N.G.®, then you can’t walk out of that without knowing the work you’ve done was something meaningful.
So yes on P.O.L.I.N.G.® - I have heard many other terms around the same thing and they all share a common thing, I think, and I apply a lot of those on a daily basis.
What do you think about the POWER Framework?
I think the POWER principles apply to so many things on a daily basis. But as a business owner, entrepreneur, yes you’re pulled in so many directions – because you want to feed your staff, make sure the business continues to grow, you need to think ahead where opportunities are, so how do you (P)rioritize your time and your (R)esources to make sure that you can grow your business? Which is something every entrepreneur faces, in terms of how they’re going to get through the day. Because it’s hard to think five years ahead when you’re just trying to make payroll on a monthly basis.
Even in the time in the federal government, many competing interests – staff, career staff – are never easy to manage, but it’s building those relationships and prioritizing what the initiative is. We had calls from the White House, from the Secretary’s office on a daily basis. And you always have to shift resources and priorities, so you had to make clear decisions in terms of what needs to be done. And at times, you had to make people work late, you had to work late, or you have to travel somewhere last minute, but nevertheless the directive came down and it’s up to you to do it.
But I think the overall framework is – people are in it for the mission, and once you have everything within the POWER principle then actually falls into place. So as an entrepreneur, as a governmental leader, as a father of a family, so many things on a daily basis nowadays – so it’s really on your own values that I think will determine how you will structure, how you’re going to be successful, and what goals you need to have.
On (O)bligations, (E)nergy. If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, you’re not going to have energy to meet your obligations. For me, I remember one period in time when we were traveling all across the United States to promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that the President really wanted. And I traveled all over and it was a lot of energy, because you had to go last minute to this city to talk to this group on why, because it was trying to get through Congress. But nevertheless, the obligation was to the American people, and we always said that it was a generation defining trade agreement that would establish the United States for the next several generations on trade policy and creating jobs for many of the communities. But we all believed in it, and there was a value we all believed in and we still do to this day.
So with that kind of energy and that value system, it was something that was wonderful to be a part of, but the accountability was back not only to the White House and to the President – the accountability for a lot of us to do it was to the American people. It was to business owners that we’ve met, the Chambers of Commerce, the Asian-Americans, Latino-Americans, African-Americans – all who wanted to see this trade agreement go through. They were all wanting us to make it happen, and so we felt that accountability back to them. But it was really through our energy. And for me specifically – to travel that kind of way I did – if I didn’t have the energy and I didn’t believe it, I never would have done it. But knowing the fact that it was going to result in something positive, then that was really I think the basis of exactly what you mean as the POWER dynamic.
What challenges have you faced because of your background?
As an Asian-American business leader, I have to say there was many. Especially in the world of construction and engineering, predominately dominated by white men in that industry. So I was one of the very few Asian-American business owners of an engineering company in the Northwest, and one specific example of a direct challenge was during my time I was running for office. We were on this big project -we were teaming with another big company to win this big project. And during that time we won the project. I was a sub-consultant to this bigger company. But when I lost my race, they were negotiating the contract during that time, so once I finished the race I went back to the company. I said ‘hey, where are we on this,’ and they said, ‘well, your role is now down to this. The client says the schedule and budget is cutting everything back.’ And I said, ‘well, that doesn’t seem right.’ So I did my own public disclosure request and gained actual documents that they submitted. And it stated in there – because the City actually has specific documents that say how much you’re going to give minority / women-owned businesses – and in it was a certain percentage, in this case 5.5 percent on a 20 million dollar project. .
But when I gave that back to the company, I said ‘this is what you submitted, and this is what you signed, and this becomes a legal document according to the City once you actually win the contract. So you’re either going to give me that 5.5 percent, or I will take it to the City, to the Mayor, and the City Council.’ The advantage was, I ran for office, so therefore I knew the new Mayor and I knew all the City Council members, so they knew who I was. So I publicly shamed them regardless, both the company and the elected officials. One week later, I got a call back from the company saying, ‘you will have your 5.5 percent.’ So I think that lesson was valuable, in the sense that if you don’t speak out, then people will seek to not give you what you rightfully deserve. And I had to do that.
Once I did that, other businesses started to come out with similar stories and I wanted to speak out for them, say on that that same project, as well. To make sure that they got their fair share amount as well. So that was a very defining moment in terms of that work I was doing and the challenge I faced. Now I was fortunate then to actually take that kind of experience, translate that to the Obama administration at the US Department of Commerce, and change policies and ideas within an agency that had the power to be able to do that. They never had that kind of direct experience from a business owner to do that, so I was able to take a lot those examples and actually bring about a new type of policy that came out of the government to help deal with that.
Who have been your biggest influences?
The role models and mentors in life… We have so many over a course of a professional lifetime, also a personal lifetime, and you meet certain folks that you just have a connection with. But during my childhood, obviously my parents were my biggest role models. Then on the personal side, my wife is clearly the best role model for our family and kids; she's a very strong believer in family values and keeping family together and being a family. And I've learned that more since being married to her – the importance of that – and she's taught me more than I would have known ever. Because when I've spent most of my time advocating for others, I sometimes forget for yourself in terms of taking care of your family. So on that side, she's been a very inspirational role model.
Professionally, I've had many key role models, both in the corporate sector and the nonprofit sector, and political sector too. But there's been a few that have been really defining. Once, I was working in the wireless industry and our general manager – who's someone I still stay in touch with sometimes. But a mistake was made and no one else was owning up to it, and frankly I knew that was my responsibility, so I said, ‘you know, that was my fault, and I've learned from it and we're going to correct it.’ But her statement after that was actually very compelling. I think that really instilled for me, when it came to management, was the fact that ‘own up to your mistakes’. Because she actually applauded me for that, the fact that ‘thank you, you've you stood up for your mistake, and you admitted it.’ And that was more important to her than the actual mistake.
So after that kind of dialogue and that kind of recognition from her, I think I really learned to instill that in other future leadership positions that I've been in. So that was a very defining moment when it came to a mentor that actually taught me the importance of admitting your mistakes in a work environment. There have been a few others on the corporate side, and I learned many different things and I adjust to their ideas, but you have your own ideas too. It's been a phenomenal journey in terms of the vast diversity of people I've met. Those few key ones that I've worked together with as my role models have been people and friendships I'll have for a lifetime.
What career advice would you give your younger self?
If I were to give advice to my younger self at this point, I wish I would have gone into the public sector a little bit sooner, because I started a little bit later on that. But I was focused on my own business, and running your own business is frankly another marriage, because it's with you 24/7. And I would tell myself, ‘take time for your family. Take time to take care of them. But also serve the public earlier.’ The career path for political success… everyone has their time frame. I got into a little bit later, but at least I came into it at a time when I had more business maturity and more political maturity – knowing how to handle it. But to start earlier would have been an interesting pathway for me too, because I find the energy – when you talk back to POWER – I found that (E)nergy in the public service.
So at the end, my advice to myself is start earlier. Take care of your family – make sure that's priority number one. And I did a lot of public speaking – I wish I would have started that a little earlier too, but I became I think rather natural at it. Because that's a skill set that I think a lot of Asian Americans are very uncomfortable with – in terms of public speaking – and if you can’t be a good orator, then you can't get your message across, you can't convince others why the work you're doing is important. And it's also good for yourself too. So that's what I would give myself.
Otherwise, take more vacations too.
What is your call to action for individuals?
I'm co-chair of an organization called the Leaders Forum. That is a group of elite Asian-American business leaders who want to serve in public, but is also those that have served in public who want to serve in the private sector. So I meet a lot of Asian-American leaders who are looking to get higher levels in their professional career path. The call to action I always tell them is – get involved in your community, because the world of success is integration of community, politics, and government. Policy cannot be changed unless people are in the right position to do it and if the Asian-American community or other ones want to be more inclusive in the inclusive economy, policy has to change. I think senator Cory Booker said it once best, that generational wealth in this country was created based upon biased government policies.
So if you don't change government policy, and no one's there to change it, then you can't change the community. And that's a critical part I think, as Asian-Americans have got to be more forceful in interjecting into governmental policy. We always tend to say we don't want the involvement in politics – but politics drives money, and it drives policy. And if you don't control those, then it's going to go to some other community or none at all. So that is really the call to action – is that they have to get involved, regardless the politics, what party you’re with. That visibility is critical, because if you're not not seen at the table, you're just not seen, and we have to do better on that. And I’m hoping the work I've done, and many well-meaning folks like yourself as well, to be more involved in the community, to really tell the story. Like I said, we have to be involved in community, politics and in government.
What is your call to action for organizations?
The call to action for organizations on diversity and inclusion… We are seeing a lot more Chief Diversity Officers in say corporations or even nonprofit organizations, but I think what really needs to happen is the implementation of that has to be more systemic. I always equate it to, you can install a new software system for a whole new company, whether it's Salesforce or whatever system; you have to implement diversity to the same level of vigor as implementing a new system. It has to reach every part of that corporate culture or the organizational culture – every arm of that – in order to understand the importance of why they do it. That is ultimately what I think needs to happen.
Right now the conversation is very high level, and the tech companies are taking action by understanding that diversity matters. But the economics behind that is also the fact that this country is becoming more diverse. So by 2044 the United States will be a majority minority country. So economically, companies have to adjust. So from the corporate boardrooms to the C-Suites, to CEO’s of philanthropic organizations to congressional members, all these organizations have to understand that diversity has to be implemented and with a much more deliberate methodology. Right now it's really I think tactical, and it's not strategic enough; and that's really where a lot of us that came out of the government were doing, so you have to be very deliberate on that. It's a very complex issue, but nevertheless corporations are starting to get it as are other organizations. So that would be my call the action – that there has to be a more deliberate systemic implementation when it comes to that.
What are your thoughts about the iD community?
Inspiring Diversity brings a new voice and a new innovative way to talk about diversity - why it's important. And hearing the diverse number of people that you've had on there has been amazingly inspirational. The fact that all these different stories of unique individuals all share a common belief that diversity does matter, and the fact that this world is – like it or not – is becoming more diverse.
Inspiring Diversity is a great platform to be able to broadcast that message. And frankly, the industry itself needs more innovation when it comes to talking about how do we address diversity. So again, I think this is a great way to move the needle forward and to have other folks coming here and talk about it, and their successes as well. And new strategies, because this is a great way to do it – putting it on Linkedin, putting it on social media, and getting it out to people around the world to see what's going on in the world of the diversity. So with that, I applaud it; and I believe it will be successful, and even more successful in the future.
Tell us a surprising fact about yourself.
Something no one would guess? I guess my Chinese opera background. Who does Chinese opera, right? It's something my parents still do to this day as a hobby, just amongst themselves and friends. But I always remember that part of my life as a child doing the Chinese Opera. And I still remember how to play the instruments, and it's just kind of engrained in me, but I don't have a chance to actually do it anymore. Nevertheless, that was part of something I hope to carry on regardless, as generations go on.
Chinese Opera is a very interesting way of opera, because it's not based upon production. It's based about imaginary visualization inside your head. So the props on stage are very minimal, and it's usually used through movement and through your own imagery that you formulate what is actually happening in the storyline. So in that sense it's a very fascinating opera to watch versus western opera, which is very into heavy production and lots of mechanics behind it. But Chinese opera is very simple.
I like to cook when I have the chance – Chinese cooking is my favorite to cook. I play softball, I still to try play softball at my age without falling apart. And then unfortunately something I don't get to do much anymore is skiing. Growing up in the Northwest, skiing and snow was one of my favorite things to do – to be out in the mountains and to be on top of a glacier. I got to do Heli-skiing once, and boy that was amazing. It was very tiring, but it was a beautiful experience to be by yourself in the middle of a glacier and looking across the mountains. It was a very peaceful time. So those are some of the hobbies I like to do.