During the heart of the pandemic, the world watched in horror as hate crimes and hostility toward Asian Americans began to rise. For New Jersey, U.S., high school student Albert Zhou, it was both terrifying and mind-boggling that people would blame entire ethnicities and cultures for the spread of the Coronavirus, when in fact they had nothing to do with the global health crisis. He felt both targeted, as well as inspired to speak up for his fellow Americans who also had Asian ancestry. That’s when he got a text from his friend Kyler, and together they began to build Hear Our Voices, a magazine dedicated to raising awareness of the Asian-American experience through writing and art (the cover image was created for the magazine by student Kristy Sorochan).
On this month’s Future of the Business World episode, we explore Albert’s journey for greater Asian-American representation in media and education, which is a story of community, creativity, product development, marketing and personal acceptance.
Be sure to click the arrow above to listen to the podcast. An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.
Wharton Global Youth Program: Hello and welcome to Future of the Business World, the podcast featuring teen entrepreneurs and innovators from across the globe. I’m Diana Drake with the Wharton Global Youth Program at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Wharton Global Youth entices high school students to discover the depth and breadth of business through our summer programs, for-credit courses, competitions and content. We meet many of our Future of the Business World guests through these opportunities and invite them here to tell us more about their lives and their unique business interests.
Today, we are celebrating our 30th episode with Albert Zhou, a high school senior from the state of New Jersey, who studied in our Leadership in the Business World program in summer 2022. Albert is going to share his journey with Hear Our Voices, a magazine launched in 2020 to give the Asian-American student community a voice that has since evolved into so much more. Albert, welcome to Future of the Business World.
Albert Zhou: Thank you so much for having me here today.
Wharton Global Youth: It’s great to have you. Let’s get started. I would like to start with a very basic question. Can you define the Asian-American demographic for us? Who does that include? And also, give us the context of New Jersey — does your high school have a large Asian-American community?
Albert: Being Asian American just means any American that has any sort of Asian ethnicity. This obviously encompasses a wide variety of people, from immigrants from Asia, who are living here now, to people who, like myself, were born in America, but have Asian ancestors that at some point immigrated over here. It includes East Asians and South Asians and people of mixed descent. But basically, anybody who identifies as an American but also identifies with their Asian background, descent and ethnicity. So, to contextualize it. In my experience growing up in New Jersey, I went to a school district that had a very high Asian population — West Windsor, New Jersey. And to be honest, Asian American was actually the majority of my student population. And so, for me growing up, Asian American never seemed abnormal to me, because everyone around me looked like me, had the same lived experiences as me, celebrated the same holidays as me. Around high school, when I applied to [private] high school and I got to my current high school, Princeton Day School, I experienced a sudden dramatic increase. Asian Americans were somewhat underrepresented in my high school; they were a smaller population in my new school. And so for me, it was a drastic change in my life. I never felt like a minority before. I never had seen so many people that didn’t have the same experiences as me. That definitely played a role in me joining the Hear Our Voices team and me trying to push for more Asian representation in media.
Wharton Global Youth: I want to hear more about Hear Our Voices. You and Kyler Zhou are among the two founders of Hear Our Voices [Kyler is the founder and Albert joined to help with recruitment], a magazine specifically dedicated to raising awareness of the Asian-American experience through writing and art. What inspired this project in 2020? Was it in response to the hate and hostility toward Asian Americans that surfaced during the pandemic?
Albert: You actually got it; you nailed it. It was directly in response to the rise in hate crimes and hostility toward Asian Americans that came with the rise of the pandemic. I remember when the pandemic had first started, my mom was extremely paranoid. She said that people who look like us going out in public during the pandemic was an easy way to get targeted, to become a victim. We were seeing stories night after night on the news of Asian women who were being pushed to death on the subway, or another Asian shop owner being assaulted, while people screamed racial slurs and blamed the pandemic on them. So, for a lot of Asian Americans, like myself, it was a very, very scary time. And we felt that we were at risk and we were a targeted group.
I remember one day Kyler texted me out of the blue and he said, ‘Hey, I have an idea. Can we chat sometime?’ We hopped on a Zoom meeting, because obviously this was the pandemic. And he told me that he had an idea for a magazine. He had always been into journalism and he wanted to be able to project his voice. He said he wanted to be able to respond to the rise of hate crimes that we were seeing toward Asian Americans. And he had the idea for the magazine saying simply ‘Hear Our Voices.’ Hear Asian-American voices. We initially started with monthly issues. He wanted to publish monthly issues that would include news about Asian Americans and poems about the Asian-American experience and short stories from different authors. It started off very simple. We just wanted to share our stories and share experiences with as many people as possible and to feel empowered in a way and to feel that there were people out there who cared about the Asian-American experience. But we couldn’t have predicted that over the next few months, it would grow into so much more.
Wharton Global Youth: I’m really eager to talk to you about that growth. Before we do, I’m hoping we can stay with this just a little bit more, because I want to understand better what it was like for you and your classmates and your friends and your family during those dark times of the pandemic. Did it evoke anger? What kinds of emotions did that bring up in you?
Albert: I think most of all, it evoked fear. It was quite scary. A lot of my classmates and I would see videos of hate crimes being committed live. I think social media has really sensationalized a lot of things now and so it’s so accessible to see horrific incidents happening. It’s difficult to see someone who looks like you, who probably has a lot of shared experiences, go through terrible, terrible things. You can’t help but imagine: what if that’s me next? It felt unfair to me, especially because people were blaming all Asians for the Coronavirus pandemic, when really there was simply nothing that we could have done about it. A lot of us had family that was suffering from COVID. I had family back home in China that had contracted COVID and were living through really, really difficult conditions. To see absolutely no sympathy toward that and instead, to see all this hate and violence and crime toward us was very difficult. Hear Our Voices was a vehicle for us to say, we’re not going to just sit back and take the abuse and violence that we’re seeing. I think traditionally in media, there can be a lot of stereotypes about Asian Americans being more submissive and not very vocal about their opinions and their voices. And they’re not really represented in politics and media and that type of stuff. Hear Our Voices was our way of saying the hate has to stop. We want to take action against it. We don’t want to just sit back and watch all this unfold.
Wharton Global Youth: As you just said, you initially rallied a group of like-minded classmates and friends from your community. But then you began to think nationally. What prompted you to want to expand? And can you also tell us more about how speaker events helped you to extend the reach of Hear Our Voices across the U.S.?
Albert: We realized at some point about five, six months into this whole process that our team was very New Jersey-based, which made sense because we were from New Jersey, and there was a large Asian community in New Jersey, as I mentioned before. But there were so many Asian Americans out there that we felt we just weren’t touching with our work and that we weren’t impacting their lives. And so, we wanted to be able to give them a chance to see our content and to see themselves represented in media through a group like us. One of the ways we went about this, and you touched on this, was speakership events. We invited notable Asian-American figures in the community to come and give speeches and Q&A sessions and talk about their experiences or whatever else they wanted to talk about. And then we would advertise these all over social media; all over Instagram, all over WeChat, and on different platforms. And we were able to bring in a lot of people.
I remember our very first leadership event was with Benny Luo, who was the founder of NextShark, which is another journalism company. It was kind of cool to see a founder of a huge journalism company then give a speech for a start-up journalism company like us. He gave a speech and answered a Q&A session. It was a really huge success. We had a lot of people come and I remember messages pouring in after the event telling us what an enjoyable opportunity it was for a lot of people and how cool it was to see themselves represented in a figure like Benny Luo, who was bringing Asian-American representation to media. That really helped us expand our national outreach. People from all over the country from Arizona to Georgia were reaching out asking if they could join the team and that they wanted to write content, or they wanted to apply for a social media position or something. Within a few months after our first leadership event, we got more speakers and we decided that this was a really great way to reach more people. Because while content and articles are great, there is just something about seeing a person live [who can] actually talk about their experiences instead of just write about it. We had a bunch of events with different speakers. And we were able to expand our reach. By the end of the year, we were in a bunch of different states and had really become, I think, a nationwide organization instead of just one that was located in New Jersey.
Wharton Global Youth: Do you have the data of the bump in numbers on your website? Can you give me a sense of how the readership grew?
Albert: Our first issue probably only had 20 or 30 readers, to be honest. I don’t have the exact number on me right now, but it was very, very small. By the end of the year, we had around 10,000 readers nationwide, which was a huge jump. We couldn’t have expected that, and now we’re sitting at around 17,000 readers nationwide.
“For a long time I was very ashamed of my Asian ancestry, to be honest with you. I hated the way people looked at me in public whenever my parents spoke to me in Chinese.”
Wharton Global Youth: That’s very cool. As I alluded to in the beginning, you’ve really evolved into so much more. I want to talk about that a little bit. You also helped to influence the New Jersey State Legislature, right? What role did Hear Our Voices play in New Jersey becoming one of the first states to mandate AAPI — which stands for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders — history to be taught in public schools?
Albert: This project started with a recurring theme that I’ve been talking about all episode, which was we wanted to have more Asian-American representation. For a lot of kids like myself growing up in school, we were never really taught about our history. We learned about American history, [but] we never really learned about Asian-American history. And it was difficult to sit in classrooms and see all these people that never looked like me and really have no idea what my cultural heritage was like, and what my people generations ago were doing here in the country. Kyler and I were talking about this one day after a meeting and he said, we’ve been a journalism company for so long. We have tried to be very independent and kind of stay out of political activities. But perhaps now’s the time to transfer more to the political sector. Perhaps now is the time to make our voices heard through legislation, instead of just stories. So, we reached out to a bunch of different lobbying groups who were working on a bill that would mandate New Jersey public schools to teach Asian-American history. And we got a coalition — one of the most notable groups that we worked with was a group called Make Us Visible New Jersey, that was also focused on making Asian-American history taught, hence the name Make Us Visible. And we pushed and pushed for many months. We were doing all sorts of different lobbying activities and reaching out to grassroots supporters, talking to assemblymen and congressman and legislatures. After many, many months of constant work and calling and advocating and protesting, the New Jersey legislature finally became just the second state, I think, in America, to pass the bill that would mandate Asian-American history. It’s a recently passed bill, so we haven’t seen the far-reaching impacts of it yet. But I hope five, six years from now, some kid who’s in elementary school or middle school, who is Asian American, can take classes about their culture and their legacy and feel for once represented and included in all school curriculums.
Wharton Global Youth: That’s quite a victory. You must have felt great about that.
Albert: Yeah, it was a huge victory for us. And I think a really important stepping stone in the Hear Our Voices journey, because it was amazing to see our work finally manifested in law. It’s nice knowing that people are reading our stories, and people are reading our content and can feel represented, but to actually see themselves represented in schools around the state; to see the government truly put their foot down and fight for us, was a big victory.
Wharton Global Youth: I want you to dig into your Leadership in the Business World experience a bit. Let’s talk business. When you think of Hear Our Voices in pure business terms, are you guys marketing a product? What would that product be? Also, how do you believe innovation fits into it?
Albert: When Kyler first approached me, he saw Hear Our Voices as a vehicle for social and political activism. He saw it as a very noble venture and simply nothing more than that. When he brought me on I said, we might have to shift focus a little bit if you want to reach as many readers as we can, which obviously we do. If we want to maximize your impact, we have to start thinking about Hear Our Voices in business terms. We have to start viewing Hear Our Voices as a company that is selling a product. Kyler said, what are we selling? That doesn’t make any sense? All our content is free on our website. Anybody can read it anytime without a price. So, we’re not really selling anything. We’re not making any money. I thought about it a bit and got back to him. I said, we are selling something what we’re marketing in our products. It is political and social activism, which seems unconventional. How could that really be a product? I thought about it and I said, we are making a huge impact on many people’s lives around the country and many Asian Americans around the country. And that in and of itself is a product in a way. By successfully marketing our stories and successfully marketing our speakership events and successfully marketing our legislation projects, we will be reaching more people. And by reaching more people, we will be doing and having a greater social impact.
Our vision is now a blend of Kyler’s vision and my vision. Hear Our Voices is still a vehicle for social impact and it is a vehicle for change. And it is a vehicle to ensure that we can have greater Asian representation in media and education and all these things. But at the end of the day, the only way to achieve that is by successful marketing and innovation and successful outreach, because there’s simply no way in reaching as many people as we have now — 17,000 — without successful marketing strategies. I think that’s really something beautiful about learning business principles that is just so universally applicable. You wouldn’t think that we would be running Hear Our Voices [like you] run a company. That you would be using any of the business principles that I learned back at my Leadership in the Business World program today for something that seems as socially driven as Hear Our Voices. But it truly is something that you can be used in any field.
I found that some of the marketing techniques I learned back at LBW have helped my journey at Hear our Voices and have helped us expand readership. Connecting with our audience was a huge one. Being Asian American isn’t a monolithic experience. My experience as an Asian American is not going to be the same as somebody else’s experiences as an Asian American. And so, a big focus for us when we were marketing things was, how do we appeal to all the different types of Asian Americans out here? One thing that we had to do was diversify our staff. In the beginning, we started out very East Asian-heavy; lots of Chinese and Korean backgrounds. We said, this is not our only readership base. So, we started recruiting more South Indian authors. We started recruiting authors who were of mixed descent so they could write more about their experiences. And in this way, we reached a much broader audience. So simple things like that. Kyler might not have thought about that when he first created Hear Our Voices, because he was focused on doing good in the world and fighting back against the increase in hate that we saw during the pandemic. But for me, I saw it as an opportunity to create a product that isn’t really on the market. And that is Asian representation in the media.
Wharton Global Youth: Your legislative lobbying proved to be a huge benefit to Hear Our Voices because you ended up winning a couple of grants, right? I’m wondering how you’re applying that money to the project and also where things will be going in the future?
Albert: Yes, it was a great thing. One of the most notable grants that we were able to win was the Princeton Prize in Race Relations. Well, Kyler won the Princeton Prize in Race Relations. And that gave us a $1,000 stipend to pursue a lot of different things. The biggest thing was simply upping our social media. Social media is such a huge marketing trend now. There’s been a huge boom in digital content creation, digital marketing and Instagram allows you for a small fee to pay for all these different promotions that you can get and to get featured in advertisements and to have more user analytics. That helped us a lot. We revamped our logo, and it simply allowed us to broaden our network reach.
Looking off into the future, we’re hoping to work on more legislative projects. We’re hoping to get the bill about Asian-American history being taught in schools passed in other states besides New Jersey. Funny enough, our bill in Arizona is on the docket right now. I know Kyler might be flying out pretty soon to go testify to the Arizona legislature, which is really cool. We’ve already made plans for succession, finding a new editor in chief now that [ours is] graduating. I know Kyler will certainly be staying with the team. I will have to see how my freshman year college schedule pans out. I think we’ve been able to build something that truly lasts. When we first founded Hear Our Voices back in our sophomore year, we couldn’t have imagined that it had gone on for already two years. We couldn’t have imagined that we would reach 17,000 readers. And we couldn’t have imagined that when we graduate, we would still be doing it.
Wharton Global Youth: Can you read a passage from your magazine that you feel is particularly powerful?
Albert: Yeah, for sure. There is an article in our most recent issue. It was an article from one of our writers who talks about learning her ancestral language, because her parents immigrated from India. And they had always encouraged her to learn their language; to learn Urdu, but she kind of rebelled against it. And now she’s looking back on her early years and wishing that as a child she had taken Urdu education more seriously and learned it now.
Here’s the passage: “So by choosing to learn the language, not of what we have, but of what we’ve lost, I fall back into a fluidity it is in my ancestry to fight against. If adaption is the art of hardening, then to be liquid is forgetting how to let go. Not to be ignorant, but to turn towards what you know you cannot keep and remain there for as long as you can push against the flow. With every word I can’t pronounce and every conversation I don’t understand, I’m reminded of how far away India is from my family. Every reminder is a testament to how memory has always been our greatest enemy. It’s only memories that have kept Karachi and Agra alive with us, and alongside them, all of the pain my family has endured for so long.”
This passage really, really spoke to me. For a lot of Asian Americans like myself, our parents encouraged ourselves to learn our mother tongue. And when we were kids, we really didn’t want to. It was boring sitting through language lessons and all this type of stuff. And now I’m able to speak and hear Chinese fluently, but I can’t read or can’t write it, and a lot of me wishes that when I was a kid I took that seriously. For a long time I was very ashamed of my Asian ancestry, to be honest with you. I hated the way people looked at me in public whenever my parents spoke to me in Chinese. I hated the snickers from my classmates when yet another teacher inevitably butchered my last name. I really didn’t want to be Asian. I never saw myself on TV. I never saw myself in sports or in movies or in writing. I never saw myself on the news. I felt invisible in a way, and I wanted to disassociate with my identity in any way that I possibly could. So, for a while, when people asked me the three biggest identities [I carried] around, despite Asian American definitely being one of them, I didn’t want it to be one of them. I didn’t want to be Asian American.
Over the last few years, that has drastically changed. I remember [having] a conversation with my father a few years ago. We had dinner and he was telling me how when he was a college student, he decided to walk from Nanjing all the way to Beijing to deliver medical supplies to protesters on the front line of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, which for context is like walking from here, New Jersey, all the way to [the state of ] Georgia on foot. As he described his heroics, from facing down the barrel hole of a communist soldier to trekking through the desert barefoot, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride. You know, for once, it felt cool to me to be Asian American. I realized that my Asian ancestry is a rich and colorful tapestry. My parents were the first in a Millennia to leave China. It would be a shame if I were to lose contact with thousands of years of tradition, history and culture. It would be a shame if I were to lose so many connections to my legacy and my descent. Which brings me into now this article, which talks about losing contact with your language. It is somewhat of a shame to me that I have lost this part of my culture and lost a part of who I am because I was ashamed of my identity. I never want an Asian American to have to live through that and when they get older, to have to regret that. I want many young Asian-American kids to embrace our identity; embrace who they are. I think that truly is the main mission of Hear Our Voices. For a lot of kids my age, we’re very proud of being Asian American. And we wish we could have embraced it more when we were kids. And so that is, I think, the importance of representation. I think that’s the importance of making Asian Americans say, hey, it’s cool to be Asian American. It’s okay to be Asian American, because there’s so many other Asian Americans out there who are doing amazing things and there’s no reason for you to ever feel ashamed of that.
Wharton Global Youth: Let’s wrap up with our lightning round. Try to answer these questions as quickly as you can. Something about you that would surprise us?
Albert: I’m actually a very avid flutist in my free time. I’m a flute major at Juilliard Pre-College and I’ve been playing flute for about five, six years now.
Wharton Global Youth: In 10 years, where do you hope to be?
Albert: Hopefully, a young entrepreneur that’s creating a product that can have some impact on politics and benefit society as a whole.
Wharton Global Youth: What is your favorite emerging business trend?
Albert: Digital marketing is a favorite of mine. I think TikTok has really perfected this formula. It’s so addicting to just scroll through. And even though I don’t like spending a lot of time on my phone, it’s really crazy the outreach that social media has had on our lives and how it can sensationalize and make viral even the smallest stories and the smallest of products.
Wharton Global Youth: What might you be caught binge-watching at midnight?
Albert: I’m a big Game of Thrones fan. I read the books when I was a kid growing up and I’m a little bit disappointed by how that last season ended, to be honest with you, but you know, I’ll happily binge-watch season one through seven with no complaints.
Wharton Global Youth: A businessperson you would most like to invite to lunch and why?
Albert: I would have loved to invite Steve Jobs over for lunch one day. I read his biography growing up and his business-leadership style was really interesting to me. He was kind of a jerk at times, to be honest. But he was so obsessed with efficiency and perfection and aesthetic design that he always spoke to me as a more artistically inclined person like myself, as a big flutist. And to see someone bring that level of creativity to a more technical field, like computers, was always really fascinating to me.
Wharton Global Youth: Albert, thanks so much for joining us on Future of the Business World.
Albert: Thank you so much for having me. Pleasure talking to you.
Does Albert Zhou’s story of increased Asian-American representation resonate with you? Why or why not? Share your story in the comment section of this podcast transcript.
Albert says the beauty of business principles is that they can be universally applied, even in a socially driven project like Hear Our Voices. Have you approached an unconventional project with a business mindset? How? Share your story in the comment section of this transcript.
Does the passage from Hear Our Voices that Albert reads speak to you? Take a look at some of the magazine content on the website. Can you find a poem, passage or piece of artwork that affects you? Explain how.
Why is it important (or not) to include Asian-American history in U.S. history curricula?