Through digital storytelling and community events, the women of Collective Blue are challenging the narrative of what it means to be an Asian American female and entrepreneur in Austin.
By Courtney Runn, Photos by Taylor Prinsen
When news broke this spring of celebrities paying bribes to get their kids into college, Regine Malibiran thought of her mom. She remembered a night in the Philippines when she was 6 or 7 years old. After dinner, she sat with her mom at the table in a common familial scene that transcends culture: struggling with math homework. Her mom, an accountant, worked through the simple addition with her until Malibiran became too frustrated.
“The only reason I’m sitting down and helping you with this is so that you can get into a good college,” her mom told her.
Those words stuck with her. When Malibiran was 8 years old, her parents moved their family to San Francisco to escape what they felt was an increasingly volatile, unsafe environment in which to raise children. When she was 14, her dad got a job in Houston, moving the family again. The message throughout Malibiran’s childhood felt clear: We sacrificed our lives for your future.
Nina Ho experienced a similar childhood. She was born in Vietnam and moved to Houston at 5 years old. Ho sometimes forgets her parents endured so much for a better life; it’s hard to reconcile the woman playing “Candy Crush” on her iPad with the same woman who escaped a war-torn country.
When Ho and Malibiran left their well-paying corporate jobs to become entrepreneurs, they knew the message they were sending back to their parents: We’re rejecting your sacrifice.
Though both from Houston, Ho and Malibiran did not meet until a group project at the University of Texas brought them together then turned into an actual business idea (possibly a first in group-project history). Along with three friends, they launched Collective Blue in the fall of 2016 as a brand committed to creating a “space for diverse entrepreneurs and creatives who value community and being unapologetically themselves to come together and support each other’s successes” through digital storytelling and event production. While the other three founders moved on, Ho and Malibiran remained committed.
“The more we can have stories about people who are marginalized or not even thought about, the more impactful that will be on the greater consciousness,” Ho says.
The decision to be entrepreneurs came at a high cost: Ho and Malibiran work multiple jobs to pay the bills since Collective Blue isn’t profitable yet. Ho is a freelance photographer, freelance marketer, leases her home and takes on event-production projects. She was also driving for Lyft for a while to make ends meet. Malibiran is still figuring out what her side hustle will look like.
“It’s not glamorous,” Ho says. “It’s really hard emotionally. There’s been times my bank account hit zero for Collective Blue and I had to be like, ‘OK, this paycheck is coming from here. This is what’s happening.’ It takes a lot of resilience and humility…especially if you don’t come from intergenerational wealth and you’re really, really building this from the ground up and at a young age.”
Ho graduated from UT with degrees in advertising and French with a minor in Portuguese. Malibiran graduated with degrees in English and public relations. Ho’s parents couldn’t understand why their daughter, who had so many opportunities growing up and excelled at school, ended up driving for Lyft.
“Especially as an immigrant, I had to make peace with the fact that I was going to disappoint my parents temporarily to get to a certain point where they understood,” Ho says.
Malibiran still hasn’t told her parents she’s an entrepreneur.
“I think part of the frustration for them and why I’m kind of avoiding that conversation is because of that powerlessness they must feel to have to watch me do what it is I’m doing and not be able to say, ‘Hey, here’s the right way to do XYZ,’ ” Malibiran says.
They worry their parents won’t feel like parents anymore. Their parents worry their children can’t pay their bills and aren’t happy.
In a twist of irony, Ho and Malibiran became entrepreneurs because of their parents. They watched them model entrepreneurship growing up, witnessed them fight for a place in this country and forge their own careers. They both inherited their parents’ hustle and drive; survival is intricately woven into their DNA. Their parents may think their daughters are veering from the paths set before them, but they are actually right on track.
And they can take a step further than their parents. Ho and Malibiran don’t just want to create a business, but hope to impact the world. For many millennials, work can no longer be a seat at a desk separated from identity.
“Millennials really were the first generation to be so immersed in the internet,” Malibiran says. “I could hear about a humanitarian crisis going on in Palestine and, you know, previous generations might not have had that access to that information and be…rightfully upset and want to do something about it as we can.”
The chance to make an impact and pave a way for others makes the risk of entrepreneurship worth it for Ho and Malibiran.
“Our generation, not all of us, but some of us have the luxury of thinking about self-actualization, of fulfillment, of social impact,” Ho says. “We have that luxury because previous generations made certain sacrifices.”
On Collective Blue’s website, Ho writes, “Creative work is a privilege that should be accessible to all.” This is the rallying cry behind the company, to lift up Asian American entrepreneurs and artists, to explore what it means to be Asian American and to advance the narrative for what it can mean.
Asian. American. Individually, these words hold multitudes of identities, experiences and cultures, yet together, they are laden with stereotype, forced to represent what two words alone could never summarize. Asian Americans represent myriad countries: Malaysia, Vietnam, Japan, India, China, the Philippines and the list goes on.
Like most minorities in the U.S., Asian Americans have a history laced with pain. The transcontinental railroad was built on the backs of predominantly Chinese workers in the 1860s, and they did not receive equal compensation to their white counterparts. During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt infamously ordered the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans following the Pearl Harbor attacks, and many remained interned for the duration of the war. In 1982, the murder of Chinese American Vincent Chin sparked outrage when his killers received no jail time and led to demands for more stringent hate-crime legislation. While these instances are prominent examples, they simply skim the surface of the discrimination the Asian American community has faced.
Today, Asian Americans are the fastest-growing minority in the U.S. In Texas, the trend holds, and in Austin, their numbers are doubling in growth every 12 years. Marina Ong Bhargava, CEO of the Greater Austin Asian Chamber of Commerce, leads the chamber’s efforts to provide resources for all Asian Americans in Austin.
“If you ask me where I’m from, I’m never going to say I’m from Asia. That’s such an odd thing to say,” Bhargava says. “I’m going to say I’m from Malaysia. That’s the first identity. And then, when you come here, it’s like, ‘Oh, wait. Hang on a second. So, you’re actually lumping me in to Asian Americans. What does that mean?’ ”
Bhargava sees firsthand the vast diversity of Asian Americans in Austin and the damaging “model minority” myth that leads to lower funds and services allocated to the community. When a wealthy, highly educated doctor and an illiterate refugee fill out paperwork, they are put into the same category, skewing the perceived needs of Asian Americans. Only recently was the Asian American Quality of Life Commission organized in Austin, despite equivalent commissions already existing for African Americans and Hispanics.
Bhargava also believes the stereotype that “Asians are doing well” affects leadership positions for both men and women. While Asian Americans might represent a large percentage of the workforce, representation significantly drops in leadership positions. Though a generalization, Bhargava notes many Asian cultures traditionally don’t encourage women to pursue leadership roles, placing another—deeply ingrained in some cases—obstacle in the path of female Asian American entrepreneurs.
“The different needs of the different groups are so varied,” she says. “So, for me, a big challenge is to be relevant to each group.”
Ho and Malibiran operate Collective Blue with this same mission. They’re intentional to include anyone who identifies as Asian American and provide space for intersectional conversations. At no time was that more apparent than on a rainy Sunday afternoon in February.
At 2:30 p.m. Feb. 10, millennial women started crowding together on benches for Missfits Fest, a “one-day festival celebrating self-identifying Asian American women in entrepreneurship and the arts, produced by Collective Blue and In Bold Company.” Huddled below a disco ball, the audience waited for the first panel, FOB (Fresh off the Breakdown): Mental Health in the Asian American and Pacific Islander Community.
Despite a late start and limited seating, the audience only grew in size and diversity throughout the afternoon. Men wandered in, nursing beers in the back and listening. Black women and white women were scattered throughout the crowd. By the last panel (How to Tell Your Parents You’re Not an Engineer, Doctor or Lawyer: Pursuing a Creative Career), the crowd spilled past the seating, filling the room and actively engaging with the panelists, pushing back and debating about media representation, cultural identity and the perception of minorities.
After an afternoon of panels addressing mental health, sexuality and gender identity, media representation and the creative industry, and a shopping break to explore the vendors lining the room, the festival transitioned to an evening of food, live poetry, comedy, a Bollywood workshop and music.
Gabby Phi, a brand marketing manager at Snap Kitchen, heard about the festival through Instagram and decided to go with a friend.
“It’s not often that I find myself in a room full of people who look like me,” she wrote in an Instagram caption later that same day. “Pursuing a creative career as a self-identifying Asian American woman and seeing the look of disappointment on your parents’ faces when you have to explain to them that you don’t want to be a doctor/lawyer/engineer, etc., is hard.”
She started at UT pursuing a biology major and career in dentistry but quickly realized she wanted to be in a more creative role. While she says “it took a while to prove,” her parents are supportive of her marketing role and freelance-photography career. It’s still been discouraging, though, to come from Houston, where there’s a large Asian American population, to Austin.
“As an Asian American woman in the creative industry in the greater Austin area, I definitely feel like a minority,” she says.
After her Instagram post about Missfits, she says people she didn’t even know commented and reached out to her. Phi ended up connecting with Malibiran and Ho, asking how she could get involved with future events.
Ho says her South Asian friends felt so validated they were included in the event because they’re normally not who comes to mind when people think “Asian American.” Malibiran also remembers one of the vendors, who is black and Vietnamese, crying after the event because she’s so rarely invited to Asian spaces.
“It was such a needed space that we were cultivating for ourselves first that we had no idea…so many people needed to hear this or needed to be involved,” Ho says.
When picking the panels, they thought about what the Asian American community doesn’t often discuss and what the two personally wanted to hear.
“[Filipinos] have a tendency to not talk about things,” Malibiran says. “There’s a lot of heavy focus on image and presentation, so even acknowledging negativity is frowned upon. It’s specifically discouraged. If something bad happens, we don’t talk about it.”
No one shied away from talking at Missfits. Malibiran, who identifies as bisexual, was a panelist on the Memoirs of a Gaysian: Sexuality and Gender Identity panel and talked about her own experience coming out to her parents. Ho’s mom took the Megabus from Houston to attend her daughter’s event and see her work in person for the first time. They haven’t talked about the panels yet, but Ho overheard her mom telling their relatives everything seems to be going well.
“They’re anxious,” Ho says of her parents. “But they’re supportive.”
Ho and Malibiran calculate more than 300 people attended Missfits, not an insignificant number for a first event of its kind. That means 300-plus people did not just hear about entrepreneurship and vulnerability, but also saw it modeled by Ho and Malibiran.
“[Collective Blue] is a metaphor for the ocean, which is like one drop of water is pretty insignificant on its own, but accumulated, it can be something really beautiful and vast,” Ho says. “And I think that’s how we feel about community.”
Ho and Malibiran believe deeply in community, enough so to risk forsaking community to forge a new, better one, one in which Asian American women can be photographers and doctors, entrepreneurs and lawyers, and change the world. Their parents’ sacrifices were not wasted; they were catalysts.