Creatively Different is Cold Tea Collective‘s series on Asian professionals working in advertising, public relations, marketing, and creative fields and their experience as an Asian in their space.
This interview-style series will focus on questions around the opportunities for Asians in this field, the challenges they may face, how cultural values have impacted their career and how their upbringing is reflected in their work.
Michael Africa is the Communications Manager at Herschel Supply Company (Herschel), a Vancouver-based design-driven lifestyle brand renowned for their signature backpacks and luggage. As a member of the Brand Experience team, he develops and leads the company’s external communications strategy across global markets.
A seasoned marketing and communications professional, Africa possesses a breadth of experience spanning eight years, working with brands spanning fashion, beauty, and retail in Vancouver and New York, and has also served as the Assistant Lecturer for the Parsons School of Design x Central Saint Martins Dual City Summer Program, teaching Fashion Communications and Promotion.
Africa chatted with Cold Tea Collective about his experience working in the fashion industry, the unconventional path he took to get there, the distinctive perspective as a second-generation Filipino immigrant, and how his family background ultimately gave him the skills to forge relationships in his career.
What made you choose the creative industry, and what ultimately took you to where you are now?
I have a relatively unconventional career track and I definitely took a long and winding path. I was always wholly intent on pursuing a business management or commerce degree after high school, but I started to take my passion for the arts and painting more seriously around the time I graduated. I attended McGill University in Montreal, but enrolled in the Faculty of Arts instead of the Desautels Faculty of Management as I had originally planned. I did well, but I couldn’t shake my artistic side and transferred to Emily Carr University (ECU) after completing my freshman year.
I graduated from ECU with a Bachelor in Fine Arts in Painting thinking that I had found my calling but simultaneously fell in love with the fashion industry as a result of working a variety of part-time retail jobs. I pivoted again and ended up with an Associate in Applied Science Fashion Marketing Degree from Parsons School of Design in New York (Parsons). The Public Relations professor at Parsons became my mentor and through a number of freelance gigs, I discovered that I wanted to work in marketing and communications.
After four years living in New York, I moved back to Vancouver to become the Marketing Manager at the Vancouver-based retailer Oak + Fort, and eventually, the Communications Manager at Herschel.
There’s a stereotype that Asian parents traditionally want their children to go into the finance, law, and medical paths. Did you have any of those challenges when you decided to go into more of a creative path?
Definitely. I often joke that I disappointed my parents three times — first, after telling them that I no longer wanted to pursue a business degree, a second time when I transferred to an art school, and a third time after informing them that I wanted to go into fashion.
My parents opposed a bit in the beginning although I knew it was only because they were concerned for my future. The type and amount of jobs that exist today are more varied and completely different than the opportunities that were available to older generations. The apprehensiveness or disapproval from parents when the younger generation don’t opt for what are traditionally perceived as secure, high paying jobs is understandable.
Even I questioned myself, but sometimes you just have to follow your instincts and take that leap of faith. Once I was able to educate my parents about the industry, communicate my career plans, and demonstrate my passion and achievements, I quickly gained their full support.
Tell me about your field. Are Asians a rarity in the field of fashion/apparel? If so, why do you think this is the case?
Despite what one may think, I actually feel like there are many Asians working in the industry. My peers at Parsons and at the companies I’ve worked for were Asian and I’ve never felt we were underrepresented by any means. There are many successful and internationally recognized Asian designers and entrepreneurs in the retail and fashion industry.
Let’s talk a little bit about your work in particular. You have such a wide breadth of experience across different functions and now as a Communications Manager at Herschel. How is your cultural upbringing expressed in your work?
My parents are both Filipino and, to be completely honest, certain stereotypes about Filipino culture ring true for me — family is of utmost importance, I have a huge number of relatives, there is always a surplus of food on hand, and my community is extremely welcoming. All of that and being raised by two of the most loving parents played a significant role in making me who I am today.
Over time, I realize that everything I have ever done and a lot of the success I’ve achieved come down to relationship management. Jim Carrey has a great quote from his commencement address a few years ago, “The effect you have on others is the most valuable currency there is.” That really resonated with me.
Being raised in an extremely supportive and loving environment and being taught to respect everyone, regardless of where they come from and what their beliefs are, ultimately gave me the skills to effectively connect and forge key relationships with different types of people to the benefit of my career. Whether that is with interviewers for new jobs, fellow colleagues, brand partners, editors, or content creators.
In fashion, what do people of Asian descent bring to the table?
That’s a difficult question to answer. Everyone’s experience and background are so incredibly unique and, as a group, Asians have a considerable amount of socioeconomic diversity outside of ethnicity. Whether Asian or not, I believe everyone has the ability to bring something new and valuable to the table. The challenge lies in finding what that is and how to express it.
That notwithstanding, many of my friends and colleagues and I who are second generation Asian immigrants have a distinctive perspective because it feels like we may not be as removed from our Asian heritage as future generations might be.
In many cases, we really are truly a synthesis of “foreignness” and western domesticity. We’re mindful of the struggles and hardships our parents and grandparents endured to get us here. I can’t speak for everyone but they give us a special sense of determination and drive to be successful and not let all of the sacrifices made by older generations go to waste. It almost feels like we have a sense of duty to take full advantage of the privileges and opportunities we’ve been given.
What do you think is the biggest challenge to being an Asian in the creative industry?
We’re typically taught to go after jobs in non-creative fields and to champion higher education from elite schools. As a result, Asians are often perceived as the “model minority,” leading to the stereotype that we’re smart, competent, and hard-working. At the same time, we’re often vilified as being overly focused on academics, one-dimensional, lacking interpersonal skills, and unaccepting of other cultures. It’s important not to fall into these kinds of molds or at least be aware of them.
For example, in creative fields, you often see the bulk of an artist/designer/content creator’s body of work centered around exploring Asian themes, heritage, or cultural identity. There’s nothing wrong with that by any means, but one has to realize that in doing so they may unintentionally categorize themselves as an “Asian artist/designer/influencer,” which can limit certain opportunities or alienate some audiences.
When I was active as a painter, I received offers from two art galleries in the Philippines to move there and paint for them, but I politely declined because I felt that doing so could actually hurt me in the long run. I just wanted to be a painter, not an Asian painter, because I didn’t want my identity reduced to my ethnicity. I felt like the art world almost expected me to do that—a young Asian artist grows up, learns to respect his cultural heritage, and goes back to the motherland to explore his roots — it’s such a stereotype in the creative space.
At the same time, we shouldn’t feel ashamed of celebrating our cultural differences, who we are, and where we come from. I think Asians are traditionally more reserved than North Americans and customarily taught to be listeners first and perhaps not as vocal. Those who exhibit bold and brazen personalities are commonly seen as better leaders than those who may be more measured, thoughtful, and empathetic. As a society, we need to critically consider these types of conventions more.
What is your advice for those joining the industry as an Asian or visible minority? What are the practical things they could be doing?
I don’t think being Asian has any effect on someone entering the retail or fashion space. We may be a minority in the grand scheme of things, but no more than many other fields. Just be confident in who you are and the value you bring.
Everything comes down to relationships, whether it’s between you and your colleagues, industry peers, brand partners, content creators, or your consumers. Put in the effort and take the time to cultivate meaningful connections and forge genuine relationships. In the end, you really do get back what you put in. Be humble, but also don’t be afraid to speak up and put yourself out there.
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