Asian-Americans make up only around 5.8 percent of the total U.S. population, according to 2011 Census data. It’s no surprise, then, that I personally had not even virtually connected with an Asian-American woman entrepreneur—until this February.
Meet Samantha Fong, Southerner, co-founder and COO of Front Door, a Memphis-based startup that is disrupting the real estate industry. We were ecstatic to have her as a contributor to our site in the first month of our launch, but I personally wanted to know more about how she got to where she is.
Samantha and I began what we hope to be first of many conversations about being an entrepreneur, a woman, a Southerner and Asian-American, not necessarily all together at once. Below is a part of our first conversation, which was held on our StartupYall Slack channel and has been edited for space and clarity.
Ayumi: I’m totally not asking you “Where are you really from?” which is something I’ve definitely heard a few times, but where were you born and where did you grow up?
Samantha: I’ve been asked that a lot too. :face_with_rolling_eyes: I was born in Memphis, TN, and I grew up in Marion, AR, which is right across the bridge from Memphis.
A: I’m guessing you weren’t asked that because you sounded southern or something. Where does your Asian heritage come from? Who in your family moved to this country and then found themselves where you were born/raised?
S: My dad’s family came from rural China, but he was born and raised in the South. My mom was born and raised in Hong Kong. She met my dad on a blind date. Her older sister was already here in West Memphis, AR. They went on a date when my mom came to visit. She moved here a while after they started dating.
A: Wow! it’s a true Arkansas love story!
S: Haha, definitely!
A: Here’s a bit about myself. I was born in Japan, and I can definitely recall that my father had this love of ‘America.’ so, when I was 10 (4th grade), we moved to Johnson City, TN. I really enjoyed growing up there, but it was not what we expected. Johnson City is near Bristol Motor Speedway. I remember that we had to drive 2 hours to Knoxville in order to buy any short-grain rice.
S: Oh my gosh! We have a Chinese food market in Memphis so that’s really convenient. Because you know the Walmart rice just doesn’t cut it. :joy:
A: Johnson City definitely didn’t have an Asian-American community, so I never really had this mindset or…maybe attitude…that I belonged to ‘another’ category. If anything, I was in the category of people in the marching band and did Odyssey of the Mind. People would ask me for recipes to ‘shrimp sauce’, but there wasn’t an overt sense of feeling completely like an outsider to where I grew up, even though I didn’t look, well, white.
S: I was in the marching band too! I grew up for half of my life in a small town – Hughes, AR. And I never was treated as an outsider, but I had people who acknowledged my Asian-ness, I guess you could say. They would make fun of me but it didn’t last long. I got in a fight in 4th grade. But other than that I never felt any different.
A: What did you play?
S: Flute/piccolo, aka the only thing I could lift at the time. You?
A: Trumpet. It was an interesting instrument to play all through high school, since I ended up making it into All-State band a few times. I definitely felt my Asian-ness when dudes totally assumed that 1) I was a violin player, and 2) I couldn’t be a trumpet player.
S: I went to All-State a few times and everyone assumed I was trying out with a violin or cello. My parents were so Americanized. People thought I was half-white growing up. I had a friend in high school tell me he didn’t even know my dad was Asian until he saw him at a band concert. I was like, my last name is Fong… Lol
A: You know, actually, I can totally relate to that! My maiden name is Fukuda, which often caused some difficulty for some, but we grew up doing ‘American’ things and participating in our town. What’s interesting is that I’ve been living in Tennessee for 25 years now, but some people still compliment me on how well I speak English. I get that they mean well. Part of me now makes me want to say, “You do realize I also went to college…”
S: Haha! I know. When people hear me on the phone, they assume I’m a white girl. I’ve gotten a southern valley girl a lot. I don’t really know what they mean by that… :neutral_face: Like, I grew up here. Of course I sound like that. Goodness.
Have you seen the show Fresh Off The Boat on ABC? It’s hilarious and totally relatable.
A: YES!! They definitely capture a lot of what I’ve experienced really, really well, without it seeming so foreign. I’m a huge fan.
S: Haha! I know! I love it. My mom was like don’t tell me this is how you felt. We weren’t like that!
A: And it’s not necessarily that it was just like it, but little moments really capture the spirit of certain situations. I’ll admit that some of that kind of makes me tear up because I’ve never really seen it captured that well.
S: Right! I loved the Chinese New Year episode. Growing up, and even most of today now, it’s just like I eat and get red envelope money. I had a friend always ask and I’m like I’m sure it’s on Google. :joy:
A: So, you went off to college….where did you go, and what was your major? And I know we both joined a sorority!
S: I went to University of Memphis and majored in exercise science! But my mom is a realtor and I worked for a realty company throughout college so everything isn’t THAT far-fetched from my schooling, but startups or anything of the like wasn’t what I studied at all. Haha
A: Oh, my gosh! It must have been kind of funny that Fresh Off the Boat comes on, and they have a mom who becomes a realtor!
S: Yes!!! And I know! I died. My sister was like “mom! That’s you!!” :joy:
A: Oh, does your dad have a steakhouse, like the dad on the show?
S: Haha, he does not. He used to own a store though. Super Asian.
A: Had to ask. And what was their reaction to your entrepreneurial venture?
S: My mom always knew I’d do something unconventional so she was surprisingly supportive. I couldn’t have made it this far without her. My dad’s the typical Asian dad. In the background and just willingly agrees. Yours?
A: I think it’s a work in progress. For them, it’s more a matter of ‘what is fail-safe?’ They see professional degrees with a license to be something no one can take away. But they should’ve known I can’t just pick the most conventional Asian path…because I’m not sure I ever have.
S: Right. Haha
A: I went to Vanderbilt University and studied sociology and music (majors that may or may not have been some form of Asian kid rebellion).
S: Haha! I actually went to pharmacy school for a year before realizing that was not for me. :joy:
A: So, our lives have been embedded in the South. When did you become a founder?
S: Since last May. I went to grad school in St. Louis for sports rehab and actually had a job in the field, but hated it. I was working with older clients instead of athletes. So Jessica approached me. We worked at the same firm for five years so it was perfect timing.
A: Hooray! And you also were in an accelerator?
S: I was. We went through StartCo’s upstart accelerator.
A: Have you met other Asian-American entrepreneurs?
S: So far, it’s only been you! 🙂
A: Oh, wow…. And I’m super new at this.
S: Haha I am too! We are in the same boat.
A: #FreshOffTheStartupBoat. What I’ve noticed is that in tech, Asians kind of get lumped into those who already are well-represented. But in the case of Asian-Americans as founders, that’s a different issue. On one hand, for the day-to-day happenings, I’m not looking around and telling myself “wow, I feel out of place.” But as a whole, it seems like Asian-Americans get almost ignored from the entrepreneurial conversation because people just assume we’re doing fine.
S: That’s so true. Someone told me that about the Asian thing before, too.
A: Just thinking back on the times when other kids just assumed we played the violin…..have there been situations now where people assumed certain things about you?
S: Hmm. I think everyone assumes I’m good at math. I’m actually terrible. Lol
A: Ha! Yeah…I sometimes don’t know if some assumptions stem from being a woman or being Asian-American. This isn’t necessarily an assumption, but I do wonder if some don’t really immediately think ‘leader’ when they see an Asian-American, simply because they don’t really meet any.
S: Ooh! Yes!!
A: So that experience has made me wonder about inclusion in the entrepreneurial community, and the potential power that we could have in ‘changing the ratio.’ The thing is, I realize that I’m Asian-American. But I’ve navigated various spaces where I’ve presented myself as just who I am, and not as a person of a certain race.
A: Is simply being out there hustling as a founder enough? Or would it be good to make a point about being, well, not white, every once in a while something if we do want to see a more ‘colorful’ entrepreneurial ecosystem in the future?
S: That’s a good question. I’ve always presented myself as I am too. I know I’m Asian-American and identify as that, but I’ve always presented myself as just me and have never felt different. I do wonder what it would be like to make a point about being not white though. I haven’t tried positioning it like that. :grimacing:
A: I also wonder, do other minority founders see us as minority founders?
S: I know here in Memphis they don’t. A majority of the non-white founders definitely have told me they equate me with being a white founder.
A: which puts us in a really strange and awkward place….
A: And in a way (at least, in my opinion), that sort of comment places us in a position where it’s very lonely.
S: I know! I agree. It’s weird.
A: Well, this is definitely a conversation we should keep having in the future.
S: This is the beginning of a wonderful friendship.