May 2, 2023
Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month: Four Leaders Igniting Impact
The positive impact that Houstonians who identify as Asian American or Pacific Islander have in our community is vast. For Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month Greater Houston Community Foundation is proud to highlight a handful of people we have witnessed first-hand igniting positive and meaningful change in Houston and beyond.
We recognize that many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are creating positive change and acknowledge that this list is far from exhaustive. We encourage you to share the name of a philanthropic leader we should highlight in next year’s campaign by emailing [email protected]!
Nancy Chan, Executive Director at WoodNext Foundation
As the Executive Director of the WoodNext Foundation (WoodNext), based in the San Francisco area, Nancy Chan has partnered with Greater Houston Community Foundation to help with WoodNext’s strategic philanthropy throughout Greater Houston. WoodNext is the philanthropy of tech innovator and Roku CEO/Founder, Anthony Wood, and his wife Susan. Greater Houston Community Foundation helps WoodNext identify and vet grantee organizations in Houston and learn about our region’s overall nonprofit and funding ecosystem.
WoodNext’s philanthropic efforts are guided by the Woods’ overall mission to advance human progress and remove obstacles to a fulfilling life. This mission translates into making grants related to economic opportunity, mental health, homelessness, scientific research, and disaster recovery. In Houston, they are particularly proud of supporting the launches of local affiliates/chapters of several organizations: Friends of the Children, Rising Tide Capital which will provide entrepreneurship training via local partner MAM Houston, and Home Builders Institute BuildStrong Academy. They have also provided funding to Harmony House.
Recently, Chan dedicated a significant amount of her personal time to volunteering with the philanthropy affinity group Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP).
“Through AAPIP, I co-authored the report, Invisible Ink: Media Representation of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. We explored news media coverage of AAPIs and sought to answer several questions through our research, including: How are AAPIs portrayed when featured in news articles, and what are common themes? Do these news articles perpetuate the model minority narrative or illustrate the diverse experiences of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders? I was motivated to conduct this research because I realized that it is critical for news media to accurately and robustly include AAPI people given the power of the media to shape the perceptions and decisions of philanthropy, policymakers, and other key decision-makers.”Nancy Chan, Executive Director of the WoodNext Foundation (WoodNext)
We asked Chan to name a Houston Asian American/Pacific Islander who inspires her, and she shared more about Sonja Gee, the President and CEO of Memorial Assistance Ministries Houston (MAM), which serves 17 zip codes throughout Houston. MAM’s partnership with Rising Tide Capital shows her commitment to how the power of entrepreneurship can transform lives and communities. Gee is the daughter of Chinese immigrants, and entrepreneurship was at the heart of Gee’s family’s ability to find growth opportunities and succeed in America.
Ethan Kao, Student at Rice University, Former Youth Leader of the Family Giving Circle, and Co-Founder of the Asian American Youth Giving Circle at Greater Houston Community Foundation
Greater Houston Community Foundation has partnered with Ethan Kao to ignite meaningful and positive change in our community for many years. Kao has been involved with many of our Giving Circles, which allow donors with similar interests to come together, pool their donations, and recommend grants to the causes that matter most to them. In fact, Kao helped co-found the Asian American Youth Giving Circle. In addition, he served as a Youth Leader for our Family Giving Circle. Most recently, Kao has been mentoring our Houston Youth Philanthropists (HYP) program participants. Our HYP program is designed for high school juniors and seniors, providing participants with business knowledge and fundraising experience to learn about the business of philanthropy and community leadership.
Throughout Kao’s life, he has aimed to make a positive difference in Houston through various aspects, including family, work, philanthropy, and volunteerism. Under his mother’s mentorship and partnership with his brothers, they established The Awesome Fund. The Awesome Fund is a community impact-focused fund that raises money through real estate projects and fundraising events. The Kao family is passionate about tackling issues such as early childhood education, animal welfare, and refugee support.
“What I find most inspiring about Houstonians is their incredible sense of community and the rich diversity they embody. This awe-inspiring community brings together people of various cultures and backgrounds, fostering an environment where individuals can learn a great deal from one another. Furthermore, Houstonians are open to sharing and helping each other, offering unique and valuable perspectives once they establish connections. This vibrant blend of cultures and genuine support for one another creates an inspiring atmosphere that sets Houston apart from other cities. Plus, they make great food!”Ethan Kao, Student at Rice University
Kao credits his mother, Mandy Kao, for instilling the importance of making a difference for those around you in him and his brothers. Mandy has dedicated most of her philanthropy to the betterment of the Asian community, specifically the empowerment of Asian girls, within Houston with grace, determination, and passion.
Virginia Li, Tax Partner and Houston Tax Practice Leader at RSM US LLP
On a professional level, Virginia Li has partnered with Greater Houston Community Foundation to serve her clients holistically by connecting them with our philanthropic services to ensure their funds go further and their unique giving goals are met. On a personal level, Virginia is passionate about giving back to the Houston community, specifically partnering with organizations like Goodwill Houston to change lives through the power of work and Ascend Leadership Houston Chapter to develop and elevate Asian business leaders.
One of the most inspiring things she finds about Houstonians is our ability to unite and rally for each other during disasters like Harvey or the pandemic. She cited Chow Down in Chinatown, a Facebook group with more than 20,000 members that was launched in February 2020, as a perfect example to highlight the Houston spirit. This group highlighted Asian-owned businesses and restaurants combating harmful misinformation surrounding Asian people and businesses during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of this platform, thousands of Houstonians came together, supported, and were educated on more of Houston’s best Asian-led establishments. Virginia loves how the diversity of Houston makes our city so unique, and for the most part, we all live well together. We asked Virginia what obstacles she encountered in her professional life related to her ethnicity or gender.
“There are still obstacles for women in leadership roles. Though we’ve made progress, there is still an underrepresentation of women in executive-level roles. Throughout my career, I have been blessed to work with strong women executives who modeled how to have a successful career and family life. They were quick to see my potential, mentor, and advocate for me. As a result, I have an impactful leadership role at a large, diverse organization, and I do not take my role lightly. Because of this, I intentionally seek opportunities to coach and mentor women of all backgrounds, as I know some of the challenges they may face. I hope to empower them to see their potential and embrace the opportunities before them.” She also shared a quote from Stephanie Hsu, an American actress, who, when asked about what the awards season has taught her the most, Stephanie stated, “Stand in your light…people need you to stand tall and have the courage to be seen. Lean in.”Virginia Li, Tax Partner and Houston Tax Practice Leader at RSM US LLP
Virginia stated that she is most inspired by Pastor Fred Tow and his wife, Ellie Tow, when asked which Houstonians inspired her the most. The Tows are leaders at Houston Chinese Church, and they inspire Virginia and her husband through their servant leadership, steadfast faith, and gratitude even during challenging times. They are beautiful examples of selfless love and how there is always a way to find room to be thankful and serve others.
Kaiser and Azra Lashkari, Co-Owners of Himalaya Restaurant Houston
Greater Houston Community Foundation has recently partnered with Kaiser and Azra Lashkari, owners of Houston’s famous Himalaya Restaurant, to help them continue to grow their philanthropic legacy. Their restaurant, Himalaya, has received local and national recognition, hosting celebrity chefs Andrew Zimmern and the late Anthony Bourdain.
However, their impact in Houston goes beyond providing Houston with the best Indian and Pakistani cuisine at an affordable price. Because of the restaurant’s success, the Lashkaris have supported many Houston-based nonprofits, including Star of Hope, Houston Food Bank, and Periwinkle Foundation. The Lashkaris are incredibly passionate about eliminating hunger in Houston and beyond, as they know that being nourished is a lifeline to survival. We asked Kaiser what motivates him to give back, and he stated,
“On our return journey from this world, we won’t be taking a single dime with us. Therefore, we might as well share our wealth with less fortunate people. I was born into a middle-class family, but both my parents loved to help the less fortunate. My parents are my role models as far as being philanthropic. I faced some very tough times making ends meet while establishing my business. There was a time when I literally had no money even to buy food, but my beloved wife and I have been blessed to make our business a resounding success.”Kaiser Lashkari, Co-Owner of Himalaya Restaurant Houston
The Lashkari’s shared that what they love about Houston is our open-mindedness when trying new and different foods. Houston is fortunate to have cuisine from all over the world represented in restaurants throughout our city. Kaiser, as Executive Chef, often takes inspiration from the food he gets to experience in Houston from other countries and incorporates it into his Indian food, like the Masala Shepard’s Pie, the Paratha-dilla (an Indian Quesadilla), or the Masala Matza Ball Soup. This comes as no surprise as should you have the privilege of dining at Himalaya, you will often hear the Lashkaris switch between five languages, Urdu, English, Gujarati, Hindi, and Spanish, as they visit with staff and patrons.
The Lashkaris shared that their advice to other restauranteurs looking to give back to the community is to follow their passion, don’t give back for publicity, and find an issue area based on their life experiences.