Updated: Mar 10, 2019
"This is the thing that is going to be the hardest for Asian Americans: we've internalized the market success mentality so deeply, so deeply that I spent years training entrepreneurs to try and become successful in the market. And I'm very proud of it. But the truth is, the market will have no solutions for us on this one."
Below is the audio transcript for Episode 9, lightly edited for clarity.
We’re excited to share a conversation with one of the most unique candidates to enter the 2020 presidential race: Andrew Yang. By any objective measure, Andrew stands out amid the crowded field of presidential candidates.
For one, he’s not a seasoned politician. He’s actually a serial entrepreneur, more known for starting and leading companies than waging political battles. Andrew is also running on a policy platform that proposes universal basic income.
And last but certainly not least, Andrew is Asian American which will make him the first Asian American to ever run for President of the United States as a Democrat. (For the record, the first Asian American to run for President was Hiram Fong, a senator from Hawaii who ran for the Republican Party presidential nomination in 1964. He was also the first Asian American US Senator.)
Andrew says on his website that being the first Asian American President is not his motivation for running. But, the mere act of running is pretty game-changing. At the very least, it’s opening a dialogue about the future of humanity and the role Asian Americans should play in civic life, politics, and broader society.
In this episode, we talk to Andrew about:
His upbringing ,
His brief stint as a corporate lawyer which then led him into a career of entrepreneurship,
His thoughts on Asian American civic involvement ,
Why he is running for president, and ultimately
Why we all need to wake up to the economic realities of our time.
Andrew will also serve up a brief primer on his campaign platform. Get your notepads ready.
I. Andrew Yang’s Early Days
Andrew: I'm Andrew Yang. I'm running for President as a Democrat in 2020 on a platform that technology is transforming our society and that we need to evolve very quickly to think about work and value more broadly.
Lynne: We met Andrew at his campaign headquarters in NYC, a humble office space in the Garment District, decorated with campaign placards, a loose-hanging basketball hoop, and an assortment of flyers on the wall, one of which simply said: Math.
Andrew: So I was born in Schenectady New York. My parents immigrated from Taiwan in the 60s.
Lynne: Like many Asian American immigrants at that time, Andrew’s parents came to the United States for academic reasons. His parents met in grad school, and his father went on to work at IBM generating 69 patents over the course of his career. Andrew spent his high school years at Phillips Exeter Academy, one of America’s most elite boarding schools.
Andrew: I was a very nerdy kid. When I was growing up I feel like there was a monoculture, certainly where I was, and that we all were just trying to conform to a particular way of being, especially as a boy.
I remember vividly feeling like this misfit and just remembering, I will always remember this and want to try and look out for whoever is the underdog.
Lynne: Andrew never forgot this sense of marginalization. But he writes in his book The War on Normal People, released last year, that he thinks many people do. Specifically, he’s referring to a sect of educated Asian Americans who end up channeling their energy towards working hard and going on to become successful by the standard definition - which isn’t a bad thing at all - but in the process, they forget about their own isolating marginalized backgrounds.
Andrew: Instead of embracing that sense of marginalization, I think most of us embrace a sense of success or acceptance which does not involve typically making a lot of fuss about the circumstances you experienced years ago.
If we all did remember that, then we'd be much more aligned with whoever is marginalized by race or gender or circumstance, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status. But most Asians don't act like we care about any of that stuff, like we just sort of get to a certain point and we build our lives and forget the alienation.
Lynne: You’ll hear elements of this theme of rooting for the underdog throughout Andrew’s trajectory, but early on his path would seem quite conventional. He did well in school, checked all the boxes on the ladder of achievement, and didn’t really think much of it.
Andrew: My calculation was pretty simple: My dad has a Ph.D. in physics. My mom has a Master's in math my brother was getting a Ph.D. So, I said I should go to graduate school. I was like, "Which one? Well, which one can you do straight out of college that seems very straightforward? Law school! " And then I took the LSAT and did very well. So, it wasn't very sophisticated which is not unusual in that era. Most people I went to Columbia with at law school didn't know what they were doing there. We were all just sort of there.
II. A Bumpy Path: Law School, Startups, Throwing Parties, and Teaching the GMAT
Lynne: So Andrew went through the motions, following a well-trodden path where success was "assured".
Andrew: You're good at school, school’s not terrible. So you’re like, alright this is fine. It's only when you're good at school and it leads you to a terrible job did I be like, "Holy crap, this path leads to nowhere."
Lynne: And then the hard truth began to sink in…
Andrew: For me, everything changed when I showed up and I got the law firm job I wanted. I was a corporate associate at Davis Polk and Wardwell which was the firm that I targeted and it was just such a miserable job. I was like, this is the job that being good at school gets you? It's terrible.
I said,"There needs to be a different path towards something better." I joke with people all the time that what motivated me was just being a corporate attorney for five months and seeing how terrible it was. So I was the first in my class to leave.
And I guess I could have done what most Asian Americans would do in that situation, stay at Davis Polk for two years and then try and find another job or move in-house but I just didn't have the stomach for that. So I left to start a dot com that crashed and burned, which then led to a lot of other things.
Lynne: That dot com was a celebrity-affiliated fundraising site called stargiving.com, which was then followed by a brief stint at another startup that ran out of money. Those early failures were admittedly difficult days but they were instrumental in teaching Andrew how to build a business.
Andrew: Starting that business was an incredible education because you know, I was like a 25 year old lawyer. I didn't know what I was doing but just ran around and hustled it up.
After my startup dies, I lose people a quarter million dollars or so and still owe law school debt. At this point, I was the very unsuccessful Asian-American. I'm like net worth of negative 100,000. My parents are lying to people and telling them I'm still a lawyer while I'm living at a friend's place.
Lynne: After his second failed startup, Andrew went on to work at a health care start-up called MMF Systems Inc, where he learned from more experienced entrepreneurs. He also started throwing parties and turned it into a side gig.
Andrew: It actually was pretty cool during that era where I could go to any one of a bunch of lounges downtown and they’d just give me the VIP treatment because I'd bring them thousands of dollars and moderately heavy drinking Asians.
So, I was doing that and teaching the GMAT at night because my friend started this GMAT prep company, which also ended up being a very important step in my career.
Lynne: This GMAT prep company was called Manhattan Prep and it went on to become the number one test prep company in the country. Manhattan Prep put a huge emphasis on teaching, hiring only the best teachers and paying them very well which turned out to be an excellent strategy. Andrew started out as a teacher and was later asked by founder Zeke Vanderhoek to take over as CEO. In 2009, the company was acquired by Kaplan.
Andrew: So those were the glory days but it took a long time to get there. Between the time I left the law firm and then joined Manhattan Prep, I think it was about six or seven years.
Lynne: While Andrew was CEO at Manhattan Prep, he personally taught the analyst classes for its high-end corporate clients like Goldman Sachs, Mckinsey, and JP Morgan. And it was in these classes that he began to notice a growing talent gap.
III. Starting Venture for America
Andrew: Imagine teaching the analyst classes for Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, and seeing all these unhappy kids who don't like their job and are taking the GMAT to go back to business school, taking out $100,000 in loans so they can find their passion and purpose. I was like, what a train wreck. During this time, it was also the financial crisis so I thought, Man we need to get our talented people out of all becoming bankers, consultants, lawyers, doctors or coders and hopefully doing something like Zeke or I did where you end up building a company that creates jobs.
Lynne: Witnessing this trend, Andrew decided to start something new. He left Manhattan Prep and poured some of his personal savings into Venture for America, a national entrepreneurship fellowship program that sends talented university grads to cities in need of an economic boost like Baltimore, Detroit, and New Orleans. Their mission at the time was to create 100,000 jobs by 2025.
It was a lofty goal, but it inspired many...including myself. I joined the team as employee number 5. In the early days, we worked out of the Manhattan Prep office and would personally email every single Venture for America recruit.
Andrew: Looking back, that was a real trip because I would go places that fall like Cornell and Vanderbilt and any other school I could get an info session with. I'd go and there would be nobody there because no one ever heard of Venture for America. It was just me, hanging out outside. I'd go sometimes and there would be two kids. I also went without a salary in the early days because I was trying to stretch the resource. I mean, we didn't really have any meaningful resources.
Lynne: Andrew crafted a credo that to this day every Venture for America fellow signs. It states:
“My career is a choice that indicates my values. There is no courage without risk. I believe that actions are the proper measure of one’s accomplishments. I will create value for myself and others. I will act with integrity in all things.”
Andrew: I just really believed in Venture for America to the point where it overrode any potential reservations that have about asking people for money or help or whatnot.
Lynne: Today, Venture for America is a multi-million dollar organization that has helped create over 2,500 jobs around the country. VFA alums have gone on to start dozens of companies that have raised over $40 million and counting. By most metrics, the organization has helped foster a thriving entrepreneurial environment in many struggling cities.
But in 2017, Andrew began to notice an alarming trend as he traveled across the Midwest. What he saw was a growing discontent among working class Americans that he just couldn’t shake. With Venture for America steadily growing and in good hands, he handed over the reins and left the organization to tackle a new set of problems.
IV. The Yang 2020 Platform
Andrew: Imagine spending seven years helping hundreds of entrepreneurs in Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, Birmingham, Baltimore, and all these other cities creating several thousand jobs in those communities and then getting awards from the White House and a movie gets made about you and your organization. And then you have this sinking feeling that develops and festers more and more, that you're pouring water into a bathtub that has a giant hole ripped in the bottom, that your efforts are futile, that millions of jobs are being lost and if you create 100 jobs, it's awesome but in the grand scheme of things it's not going to stop the tide.
Lynne: This tide is the rise of workplace automation and the wave of jobs it will eventually displace. He says that we automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs in swing states like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Iowa, leading to Donald Trump’s election, and we’re about to do the same thing to more jobs.
Andrew: ...and then you go to the political establishment and say:
“We're in the third inning of the greatest economic and technological transformation of the history of the world and it's going to get much much faster very quickly because we're going to automate the retail jobs, the call center jobs, the fast food jobs, the truck driving jobs. By the time we're done, this place is going to be unrecognizable."
And then what you get from them is this total blankness, where you're speaking another language because you're talking about facts and figures and no one in politics cares about anything other than words, ideas, feelings, and fundraising.
Lynne: If you want to talk facts and figures, Andrew has them.
Andrew: When I did research for my book, I found that 57% of Americans can't afford an unexpected $500 bill, which is something that for most of us listening to this will think is crazy. The average net worth in this country is about $38,000 and only $6,000 if you exclude home and vehicle equity. I mean that's the national average, 50% are below that. So yeah, this country's wealth disparities are literally among the worst in the history of the world.
Lynne: On the campaign trail, Andrew often makes the joke that what the country needs more than ever is the opposite of Donald Trump, aka an Asian American who is good at math.
Andrew: This country needs an Asian American perspective insofar as that perspective might actually lead them to recognize the reality of the situation we're in. So, it's not immigrants. It's not globalization even. It's not just a massive surge in racism out of nowhere. It's the fact that our economy is being transformed for good and so, that's the set of ideas that possessed me in 2017 after Trump won. I was coming back from these meetings thinking, "What are we going to do? This country is really fucked."
Lynne: To adapt to this new future, Andrew is proposing what he calls the Freedom Dividend. The Freedom Dividend is a form of universal basic income which would provide all Americans between the ages of 18 and 64 with $1000 per month. He’s convinced that actual financial resources in the hands of people is the only solution to fend the impending technological apocalypse.
Andrew: You say to someone, we're going to automate away hundreds of thousands of truck driving jobs. 3.5 million truckers, average age 40, 94% male, average education high school. And then the knee-jerk reaction because we're so conditioned that everyone needs to have a place in the market is like, "We have to retrain those truckers!"And then the biggest fantasy is to turn them all into coders, just like we turned the miners into coders, or whatever the ridiculous notion of the day is.
Lynne: Andrew’s main message is that few jobs will be immune from the relentless advance of automation. This includes factory and retail workers in addition to many well-paid white-collar jobs that were once assumed to be a safe bet like wealth managers and lawyers.
Andrew: The thing that is going to be the hardest for Asian Americans is that we've internalized the market success mentality so deeply, so deeply that I spent years training entrepreneurs to try and become successful in the market. And it's beautiful work, very wholesome, I'm very proud of it. But the truth is the market will have no solutions for us on this one, we really are going to need to evolve.
Lynne: Andrew’s still an ardent believer in capitalism. He just believes we need an updated form of it, centered around humans.
Andrew: The plan is to evolve in terms of the way we see both work and value. Put $1,000 a month in the hands of every American adult. So if you're listening to this, it doesn't matter what your job situation is, you're going to get $1000 a month. This would create several million jobs. It would make families and communities stronger, it would improve people's mental and physical health. It would help people move, retrain, and even start new businesses in some circumstances. It would bolster the Main Street economies. It would take us from a mindset of scarcity, which is where most of America is , and move us towards a mindset of abundance and relative optimism.
Lynne: While Andrew has 72 other proposals for his platform outlined on his campaign website, yang2020.com, his primary focus is on the future of work because as he sees it, nearly all other issues will stem from this impending crisis.
Andrew: I was with a couple of guys yesterday who cared deeply about climate change and what I suggested to them was that the average American right now is so focused on their month-to-month survival that they just do not care about climate change. It's only after you get their head up and you secure their future that they'll say, "Yeah, that really is a problem. My kid is going to have to live on this planet too."
The way we reverse this mindset is through actual resources in people's hands. There's no other way to do it.
Lynne: Which brings up a rather profound question. Where will we find our worth in the future when fewer of us are working and deriving less value from the market?
Andrew: I did not intend for it to get that philosophical. But as soon as you start pressing on it, you realize that's where we have to go because AI can outperform a radiologist just like it can a taxi driver. And so that radiologist might have spent like 10-12 years in schools getting really good at reading film's release. So we're going to need to get much more human, much more quickly. Because this set of measurements will kill us.
V. Call to Action for Asian Americans
Lynne: It’s tempting to listen to this doomsday message and then turn back to our life of modern amenities. I too wonder how serious this threat of automation is. But ultimately, I think it boils down to the simple truth that nothing is ever assured. And that it’s always in our own self-interest to pay attention to these broader societal trends like rising inequality, automation, and displacement - even if it doesn’t affect our current day-to-day. Because you never know when it will.
Andrew: You gotta look around at our world where there's a mass shooting in a synagogue a month ago in Pittsburgh. I said to a group of Asian Americans that we’re one generation from that happening to us if we don't get our shit together and if you look around and say, "Oh I'm alright because I'm getting my Amazon deliveries or whatever." It's like yeah, you’re going to be alright until you're not.
I'm not running for President because I'm Asian and I want to do this thing for Asians. I'm running for President because I can see very clearly which way this country is going and also that none of the current politicians have a deep enough understanding of what the causes are.
Lynne: It’s worth noting that to date, Asian Americans have been somewhat of a non-factor in politics. We don’t have the numbers, at just under 6% of the population, and are too spread out across different sub-groups with no major alignment to specific political party. But politicians also haven’t paid much attention because we aren’t usually the first to show up in civic life.
Andrew: I do believe that my campaign can have immensely positive effects in terms of the way that Asian Americans get perceived, where they see that we are actually willing to define our self-interest a little bit more broadly. To me, it's enlightened self-interest anyway. It's like, you know, it doesn't take much of a leap to see how this is going to be very important for our community.
We're in a very unique place and I think we need to become the lever or the glue because the dynamics between the different races are such that I think Asians end up being the most white-friendly. We pass into certain environments and then we almost disappear. What I found happening to me and to most other people I resemble is that you don't really have a fixed sense of consciousness or righteousness about any of this stuff, you end up just doing a job and living your life and that alienness you felt, it's easy just to forget about it because now you're hanging out with a whole battalion of Asian-American yuppies in your enclave. And there's not that sense of struggle anymore.
Lynne: So, how can we show up? How can we command attention to the issues that matter to us? And how can we be stronger allies to other marginalized groups? Here’s what Andrew thinks.
Andrew: Outside of my campaign, which I would love for you to support, I think Asian Americans need to put our money where our mouth is. Frankly, we have more money than most other Americans i.e. if you look at our our economic success, we have as much money as white people in terms of the average and higher education levels on average, but we have a degree of insecurity that makes us somewhat stingy.
We need to start putting our money where our mouth is in terms of demonstrating our values. The values could be something like “Hey, I'm going to buy from Asian American businesses.” That would be something. Or it could be donating to Asian American organizations, also something. But it can also be like, "Hey, I'm going to donate to an organization that helps poor people in this community and most of them are not Asian, but it's cool." You know, we can contribute to a larger community.