An undeniable air of hustle, passion, and resilience surrounds Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) entrepreneurs. When you back them, you're not only giving an AAPI founder the resources they need to build their dream, you're also showing respect and the deepest appreciation for immigrant families who left their home country and sacrificed their dreams for their children.
Take Tony Xu for example. Tony is the founder and CEO of food-delivery startup DoorDash, which went public in 2020. His mom, Julie Cao, moved from China to the United States with no knowledge of the culture and language. Her goal was to start an acupuncture and medical clinic, but her Chinese medical degree wasn’t accepted in the US, making it difficult. Instead, Cao landed her first job waitressing and eventually ended up managing the restaurant. This is a story that many AAPI communities resonate with.
Years later, Cao saved enough money to start her clinic, first in Illinois and later in San Francisco. When Tony was a teenager building websites for his mother’s clinic, he began to realize the significance of his mother’s achievement. As Tony became a successful tech entrepreneur, he looked to his mother’s journey for inspiration.
Thousands of jobs, companies, and groundbreaking ideas can be traced back to parents’ risk, hard work, and sacrifice. In 2017, the Center for American Entrepreneurship reported that 43% of 2017 Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants. In 2016, the Kauffman Index of Startup Activity found that immigrants were two times more likely to become entrepreneurs than people born in the U.S.
Here at Worklife, we’re thrilled to be supporting Asian American & Pacific Islander entrepreneurs (and Asian Canadian and Asian Australian founders as well!). Keep reading to learn more about their unique upbringing, rich cultural history, and the values and experiences that shaped them to become great founders.
Leading VC rounds with at least one Asian American & Pacific Island Entrepreneur
Every round we’ve led at Worklife has at least one AAPI entrepreneur. The list includes:
- Rupi Kaur's new stealth startup
- Kairos, a no-code way to design, launch, and maintain NFT projects, founded by Katie Chen (previously Airbnb and Slack) and Jeany Ngo (previously Brex, Airbnb, LinkedIn)
- Flow Club, a virtual co-working space, founded by Ricky Yean and David Tran. The company has been featured in Fast Company and Protocol.
- Office Together, an office reservations and scheduling system for remote and hybrid teams. Founded by Amy Yin, who was previously in the engineering teams at Coinbase and Hired.
Asian American & Pacific Islander entrepreneurs building the future of work and life (we backed all of them early)
Worklife’s primary goal is to improve people’s lives by improving their work. We’ve seen the Great Resignation, the Great Reimagination, and tools for remote teams, small businesses, and all types of frontier jobs shatter outdated molds of what work should look like.
Many of the tools we back were created by influential Asian American entrepreneurs, like:
- Cat Lee and Jack Chou, co-founders of mental health peer support platform, Pace
- Shou Wang, founder and Chief Revenue Officer of global hiring software, Deel
- Ricky Yean and David Tran, co-founders of coworking tool, Flow Club
- Amy Yin, CEO and founder of Office Together
Learn more about these game-changing AAPI leaders below.
Cat Lee and Jack Chou, Co-founders of Pace
Pace is a group mental health platform founded by Asian American founders Cat Lee and Jack Chou. Chou recently wrote about what motivated him to start Pace: personal struggles with mental health. At one point, Chous was in his prime from any outsider’s perspective—welcoming a new baby, working a killer job, living in San Francisco—yet his inner life was dark. Chou felt helpless and out of control, but he was ashamed to ask for help.
Chou’s experience parallels that of Alexi Robichaux, who also took his mental health struggles and turned them into a tool to help others.
Chou and Lee’s company, Pace, is an antidote to this problem. The company strives to make seeking mental health support normal, social, and fun. Rather than an individual process, Lee and Chou believe that mental health can be a group effort (like any other fitness endeavor—from spin class to basketball game).
We wrote the first check for Pace and continue to follow-on.
If you’re hiring internationally, you’ve probably heard of Deel. Deel is one of the fastest growing startups during the pandemic and it was co-founded by Shuo Wang. With Deel, Wang and co-founder Alex Bouaziz aim to help companies navigate the future of work with tools for payroll to remote and hybrid teams.
Wang and Bouaziz’s startup-worthy idea came from experience. Wang moved to the U.S. from China and co-founder Bouaziz did the same from France. In the states, they were both plugged into the international community. Over the years, they watched as many friends made the hard decision to move back home, giving up amazing opportunities in the process. Wang said that seeing this process made her want to hire her friends abroad. When she looked into it, her research revealed a lack of cheap and quick solutions.
So Wang and Bouaziz developed their own solution, Deel.
Today, Deel is cutting through transaction costs and paving the way for:
Ricky Yean and David Tran, Co-founders of Flow Club
Flow Club was founded by David Tran and Ricky Yean, who met at Stanford, where they started building their first company.
Yean immigrated to Los Angeles from Taipei, Taiwan when he was eleven years old. He initially struggled to find community with the Korean-American kids at his school, who ostracized him as the new kid who didn’t speak English. Yean describes feeling like a cultural orphan. For the next two years, he avoided speaking at school until he sounded like his classmates.
Now, Yean and Tran have built a community that brings people together from all walks of life for productive virtual coworking sessions with people from around the world.
Flow Club benefits include:
- Higher focus
- Better boundaries between work and rest
- Fewer distractions
- Higher creativity
- Wider network or peers
- Better motivation
Co-founder and avid runner David Tran believes in the benefits of designing a workflow as carefully as a training schedule. Flow Club is making that possible.
Amy Yin, CEO and Founder of Office Together
The idea for Office Together emerged while Yin was working as a software engineer at Coinbase, where she created the employee resource group Women@Coinbase. When the company went fully remote, Yin was not sure about working from home. Although she developed a routine that worked for her and grew to like the new setup, she still missed working with her team. She played with the idea of tools that would safely facilitate this. Meanwhile, Yin:
- Left Coinbase
- Joined On Deck’s Founder Fellowship
- Called HR leaders and office managers for insight
That same year, Office Together raised $2.2 million in a seed round for Office Together.
Office Together offers teams features ranging from desk reservations to health checks and contact tracing, easing the transition from fully-remote to hybrid setups.
Charles Hua, Co-Founder and CEO of Poised
The experience made him want to improve his communication style, which would help him "make it" in a traditional, white male-dominated company. Poised was born.
Poised gives real-time feedback to help anyone:
- Eliminate filler words
- Bring up energy
- Improve confidence
Users can fully customize the app, use it during live meetings, and analyze their patterns over time. The team is just getting started.
Asian Canadian Entrepreneurs Building Startups
Rupi Kaur, Founder of Stealth Startup (Soon to be Announced)
We invested in Rupi Kaur's new stealth startup because Rupi has worked incredibly hard to be one of the most iconic poets of our generation. She was born in Punjab, India but emigrated with her parents from India to Canada as a young child to escape persecution of the Sikhs. Inspired by her mother, Kaur began drawing and painting at an early age. She attributes her success to her immigrant mother who moved mountains to see her daughter succeed.
Kaur says of her mother, “It makes my stomach turn—her life and the way that it’s gone and the things that she’s had to do to give up, so that I can have this life. It moves me in so many ways.” In her latest collection, The Sun and Her Flowers, Kaur dedicates an entire chapter to the story of her parents.
Allen Lau and Ivan Yuen, Co-founders of Wattpad
While we didn’t back self-publishing platform Wattpad way back in 2006, we have followed their incredible success and wanted to highlight their founders’ contribution to the arts and entertainment space.
Since its inception, Wattpad has grown exponentially, even spawning high-profile Netflix movies like the Kissing Booth and After.
We invest in Asian American tech founders
Kairos was started by product designer Katie Chen and designer & artist Jeany Ngo, who learned to code and design from YouTube. The company’s goal is to pave the way for “diverse and radical participation in crypto.” Kairos makes it easy for all artists to get started selling NFTs by taking care of:
- Generating one-of-a-kind artwork with rarities like earrings, rainbow hair, drinks in your hand, and quirky attributes that make an individual NFT more valuable.
- Easy customizable smart contracts based on your own terms for sale and re-sale without writing any code or hiring an expensive crypto lawyer or developer
- A creative space to host your NFTs without designing your own website
Chen and Ngo are also doing things differently by choosing Solana blockchain as a sustainable alternative to Ethereum.
We invest in tech that helps anyone start a small business
Beyond providing AAPI entrepreneurs and founders with the capital they need to start their companies, we also invest in technology critical to launch for all creatientrepreneurs, from small business owners to startup founders.
Below, we’ll highlight a couple of our portfolio companies are creating big opportunities in this space.
CASHDROP, Launch with Zero Seller Fees
CASHDROP is a mobile-friendly way for food trucks, farmer's market stalls, and other types of immigrant-run businesses to accept money. Founder Ruben Flores-Martinez modeled the app off of informal transactions he saw happening on social media around him—from Instagram DMs to Venmo.
Flores-Martinez has seen firsthand how easy-to-use tools allow more people to become creative entrepreneurs. One of CASHDROP’s user’s spicy candy business idea finally came to fruition because of the app. Since getting started on CASHDROP, this small business owner has opened one brick and mortar restaurant, with another on the horizon.
Flores-Martinez told our team that CASHDROP is “here to help people turn dreams into reality. To impact lives, help them make a shit ton of money, and create an alternative reality to the boring predictable way things have been sold before.”
Shef, Home Cooked Meals Out for Delivery
Shef is a homemade food marketplace that helps talented cooks make a meaningful income by selling homemade food to their communities. It's basically the Airbnb of food. 71% of Shefs are women of color, the majority are Filipino, South Asian, and East Asian. Shef also reports that:
- 75% of shefs are women
- 80% of shefs are people of color
- Shefs represent over 95 countries
The company was founded by Alvin Salheli and Joey Grassia, who are celebrating women and parents for being the lifeblood of their communities. Salheli and Grassia want to reconfigure the food industry by widening the scope of who is recognized as a chef.
This is a special startup because immigrant moms are making up to $1,000 a week doing what they love.
Self-Made Stories We Love
So many influential Asian Americans have stories of forging new paths and making it on their own. As a fund dedicated to making it easy for anyone to turn their passions into a career, we’re psyched to see what these creatives are up to.
Awkwafina, Class Clown to Golden Globe-Winning Actor
Growing up, Awkwafina, born Nora Lum, felt like she was the person that everyone expected to fail. Although she attended performing arts high school LaGuardia, she barely scraped her way to graduation with below average grades and classroom antics aplenty. After graduating and attending college, she still couldn’t find her place. Throughout that time, music kept her going.
On her 24th birthday, Lum recorded a music video for “My Vag.” The video got attention from feminist publications, ultimately kickstarting her career. Nearly a decade later, Awkwafina’s success continues to grow. She:
- Stars in and executive produces her own show, Awkwafina is Nora from Queens
- Won a Golden Globe for Best Actress for film the Farewell
- Is slated to appear in a long list of high-budget films (from Disney’s The Little Mermaid to Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings
Simu Liu, Deloitte Accountant to Marvel Superhero
Awkwafina stars alongside Chinese Canadian actor Simu Liu in Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings.
Liu—who will play the titular character, Marvel’s first Asian superhero—started his career as an accountant. It wasn’t until he got fired that he decided to take a leap of faith and pursue his dreams of being an actor.
Ten years of hard work later, Liu has racked up 44 IMDB credits on projects including:
- Orphan Black
- Awkwafina is Nora from Queens
- Kim's Convenience
- Star Wars: Visions
To the managers who fired him, Liu says: “THANK YOU. You did for me what I never had the courage to do myself; you destroyed a life that I was building for someone else, so that I could finally begin to build a life for me.”
Bonus: Companies you didn’t know were founded by Asian American entrepreneurs
The companies we back only represent a fraction of the impact the AAPI community has on industries like tech, entertainment, beauty, and everything in between. There are countless influential Asian American women founders, Asian American tech founders, and Asian American entrepreneurs.
We’ll highlight a few below.
Amar Bose, Bose
Bose was founded by American-Indian entrepreneur, Amar Bose, who got his start with electronics when he ran a radio repair business out of his parents’ home. He founded the iconic audio company a decade after graduating from MIT with a degree in Electrical Engineering.
James Park, Fitbit
Fitbit was co-founded by Harvard dropout James Park, whose parents were Korean immigrants and small business-owners. Park credits his parents for showing him what hard work looks like.
Christine Chang and Sarah Lee, Glow Recipe
Christine Chang and Sarah Lee are the co-founders of Korean Beauty brand Glow Recipe. They drew on their heritage and marketing expertise to create a product line that delivers Korean skincare ethos in a format American consumers understand.
Steven Chen, YouTube
Steven Chen, one of Youtube’s three co-founders, was born in Taiwan and immigrated to Illinois with his family in 1986. Since selling Youtube to Google, he’s continued to start businesses like Avos Systems and Nom.
He is also one of our investors and dear friends.
Eric Yuan, Zoom
CEO of Zoom, Eric Yuan, applied for a visa 9 times before he was finally able to immigrate from China to the US in 1997. Before founding Zoom, Yuan managed the Cisco online conferencing tool, Webex.
Yuan has been a supporter of Worklife from the beginning. I gave my pitch to start Worklife to top innovators including Yuan and Marc Andreessen. It is because of their early support that Worklife is able to provide so many AAPI-founded companies with the capital they need to thrive.
Our commitment to Asian & Pacific Islander Entrepreneurs
Worklife writes the first check to put a founder in business and we look for unproven, immigrant founders who want to get plugged into Silicon Valley tech circles from anywhere.
We’re entering an age where:
- Couples build the next big thing from their kitchen table
- Women can switch careers and start businesses at any age
- Influencers become entrepreneurs (Emma Chamberlain, Rihanna)
The bottom line is that anyone can start something and if you're actively raising, we make investment decisions in 24-48 hours.
Want to learn more about companies we’re excited about? Check out:
- These 5 Black Women Became Entrepreneurs During the Pandemic. They’re Thriving.
- The story behind viral TikTok beauty brand Youthforia
- From Robotics to Global Payroll: Shuo Wang and the Future of Deel
- Atlanta’s Slutty Vegan is Blowing Up the Restaurant Industry
- 9 Leaders and Startups Building the Future of Work