Breaking the ‘bamboo ceiling': Capital One executive shares his insights

SVP Dave Kang says the path forward for Asian Americans requires “a mindset shift.”
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· 5 min read

In the first decade of Dave Kang’s career, he lived in Atlanta, Singapore, and Dallas, yet despite changing locations, he never seemed to land in an office where he felt like he belonged. Kang told HR Brew that his feelings changed when he joined Capital One and found senior leadership that looked like him.

“I had not realized through the bulk of my career just how important a sense of belonging is. You don’t realize how important it is until you finally see that it’s there,” Kang, SVP, head of Capital One data insights, explained. “Seeing people around me who also had Asian heritage, and without there being anything explicitly stated, but, just the sense of understanding of commonality really enabled me to feel a lot more comfortable in my own skin, and being a whole person and bringing my whole self to work.”

On the outside. For many AAPI employees, that sense of belonging in the workplace remains elusive. A 2022 international survey from Bain & Co. found that only 16% of Asian men and 20% of Asian women surveyed said they felt fully included at work—the lowest percentage of any demographic surveyed.

Asian employees also struggle to advance at work—a phenomenon often referred to as the “bamboo ceiling.” A 2022 report from Goldman Sachs, titled Asianomics in America, revealed that despite Asian American professionals accounting for 13% of professional positions at large employers, only 6% of senior management positions in the US are held by Asian Americans.

Though public awareness of AAPI representation may increase during May, AAPI Heritage Month, in the form of recommendations for books to read or AAPI brands to shop, Kang said that when it comes to corporate DE&I strategy, executives need to “walk the walk, not just talk the talk.”

As an executive sponsor of Origins, Capital One’s ERG for Asian American and Pacific Islander individuals, Kang is part of Capital One’s ongoing efforts to support AAPI employees. He focuses on teaching employees to navigate the bamboo ceiling, something he concedes is a “hard thing to navigate.”

Kang said most AAPI individuals grow up in a culture of “sort of allowing the meritocracy to elevate you” and are taught that if they work hard, they will be recognized for that work and rise to the top naturally. He said this mindset might have worked well for his parents’ generation, but today’s workers need “a mindset shift that goes beyond the black-and-white of just doing great work and having great output.”

Our interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Tell me about Origins. What is it? How did you get involved?

So, within the Origins group, I sponsor what we call our development pillar, and the programming is specifically tuned to Asian audiences, addressing topics that get around this concept of the bamboo ceiling. That includes things like leadership and communication, relationship-building and networking. And it takes a variety of formats, [from] guest speakers from outside…[to] learning circles and mentorship circles.

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In some of those mentorship circles, what are some of the things that you might work on? What are some of the things that you might cover to help them advance their career?

I really tried to channel some of the things that I learned through my own development…as I was transitioning from being a great analyst to being a great relationship builder and a great leader. And I was surprised when I went to trainings on how to develop more authentic client relationships that the trainings were all about getting inside your own head, listening to how you talk to yourself, and observing yourself, and judging yourself, and letting that sort of critical third eye get out of the way.

So a lot of what I do in terms of mentoring folks on the topics of leadership and relationship-building and networking, channels a lot of that energy, and it’s oriented toward—”Hey, let’s sort of release any self-consciousness, let’s release self-judgment, and in the process, be more comfortable, be more genuine, be more authentic.”

How is Capital One HR teaching managers to develop this talent pool? We’ve talked about what individual employees can do to kind of get out of their own way or to help boost their own profile. Is there anything being done on the reverse end of things?

I believe that addressing diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging is only partially addressed through organizational structures like BERGs [Business Employee Resource Groups]. I think the rest of it is making sure that our leadership not only begins to look like the population of our associates but has an understanding and appreciation and an empathy for what our associates who don’t look like our leadership have gone through to get to where they are, and to make sure that we’re understanding those differences.

And, increasingly, meeting associates where they are rather than asking them to adapt and assimilate to the environments that we provide to them. So that takes the form of training our [staff]—it started with top management but has increasingly cascaded down, creating more equitable…inclusive environments, and understanding their conscious and unconscious biases. And understanding a little bit more about the history of how we came to be the workforce that we are.SV

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Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.