Why This Asian American Founder Is Speaking Out About Bias
For much of Steph Speirs’s life, talking about her experiences with bias felt like oversharing. Now, she’s leading a company amid a spate of anti-Asian violence, and it feels vitally important. Speirs is the CEO of Solstice, a “community solar” startup based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that aims to bring affordable solar energy to households that otherwise can’t access it. She co-founded the company in 2016 with Sandhya Murali–who is also a woman of color–and expects to raise a Series A this summer. Here, Speirs, who grew up in Hawaii and moved to the mainland for college, reflects on how her attitude toward her Asian American identity has evolved, and how her upbringing unexpectedly set her on the path to entrepreneurship. –As told to Sophie Downes
I never wanted to be an entrepreneur. My dad was an entrepreneur and he had a business that failed, so I’d only seen the downsides, like the financial insecurity. We grew up on food stamps, and those money issues actually caused my family to split up. My mom ended up leaving my dad and raising three kids alone. I got to go to incredibly privileged schools as a scholarship kid; meanwhile, my mom was working minimum-wage jobs, and I saw how hard her life was. I grew up recognizing that there was deep inequality in our world, and I came to understand only later that the innovation from entrepreneurship could help address that inequality.
Living as an AAPI person in America, your daily experience often includes reminders that other people see you as foreign. Growing up in Honolulu, I didn’t realize that I was a racial minority, because I was surrounded by people who looked like me. There are a lot of Asian folks in Hawaii. But I lived in Orlando from second to sixth grade. My dad was adopted from China by folks who lived in Florida, so he had this calling to go back there. That was a rude awakening for my whole family, including my mother, who had only lived in Hawaii after immigrating from Korea. I was one of only two people of color in school, and I was teased for being different. Kids would call me “slanty eyes,” and adults would tell my mom or dad to go back to their own country. The 1980s and ’90s were a pretty xenophobic time in America. My parents internalized that. They wouldn’t even teach us their languages, because they were afraid we would grow up with an accent and be made fun of like they were. We went back to Hawaii after that. Those few years really reinforced to me that Hawaii was a more welcoming place to be Asian.
My first work experience after college was on the 2008 Obama campaign. In my first couple of weeks there, a co-worker said to me, “I love Asian women. Don’t worry, I don’t have yellow fever, but I think you’re really attractive.” I ignored it, but another co-worker heard and got the person fired. It would never have occurred to me to do that, because those kinds of comments were so prevalent in my life (outside of Hawaii). I would get ridiculous things said to me at bars and parties, mostly by White men, and I’d just learned to brush it all off. But that was a turning point for me–to realize, why didn’t I think that was more messed up?
I am a woman, an Asian woman, and I also identify as a queer woman, so it’s hard to say which of those non-dominant groups people will react to. A lot of the hypersexualized comments feel race-related: I’ve had that happen in fundraising situations, with investors making comments about my appearance, and in one case actually propositioning me. And even when you’re talking to impact investors who are really good people trying to do a good thing, they also come with their biases. There was one instance when a funder called me up and said, “We’re really interested in funding y’all, but I noticed your co-founder is pregnant. Can you tell me more about your maternity leave policy as part of due diligence?” I said, “How often do you ask male founders about their paternity leave policy?” He stammered and said, “Well, never, but that’s different.” In those instances, I find that pushing back in the most empathetic way possible is the best way to have the conversation. But someone needs to point out that the expectations for women founders are different. Still, for every unpleasant experience that has to do with stereotypes, there are investors and advisers who are incredibly supportive and are trying to help us be successful, because they recognize the rarity of seeing women of color leading organizations, particularly in clean energy and climate.
The cracking open that our society has experienced on many levels during the pandemic also applies to a reckoning within the AAPI community. There’s an element of our culture that’s about putting others before yourself and putting the needs of the community before your own needs, and that’s a beautiful part of Asian culture, but it lends itself to being quiet about one’s own struggles, or suffering, or hurt. I have watched my parents experience racism their whole lives, and yet I never had a conversation with my mother about race until this past year, when these attacks started happening.
We started a Slack channel for the AAPI folks at our company and offered them a forum, and I think it’s really telling that we did the same thing after last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests and everyone wanted to talk about it, but with this group, people said, “Thanks, I appreciate that but don’t really want to talk about it.” I think it goes back to this cultural predilection, which I also share. But I realized that in not speaking about these experiences, I was contributing to a culture of complicity. So I have shifted my thinking from “I don’t want to complain about my own problems” to trying to foster those conversations in my personal and professional life, to make people feel like they’re not as alone in this.
The pandemic showed that it’s only in working together that we address the root cause of issues, and I feel like the same is true of racism. I’m optimistic that people of color are realizing that they can band together and build power and build wealth among themselves that shifts entire systems. If we stay in silence, we stay in our silos. If we voice our experience and look for commonalities between other marginalized, under-resourced communities, then that is the pathway out of this.