Target’s Chief Legal & Risk Officer Don Liu Reflects on the Game-Changing Power of Mentorship for Asian Americans

  • May 26, 2021
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In 1989, when I was just two years out of law school, I was asked to join the board of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), then the only organization dedicated to Asian American civil rights. As a young associate of a large Wall Street law firm busy pulling all-nighters, I’ll admit that I hesitated. Then, I remembered why I went to law school: to become a civil rights attorney representing Asian American immigrants like my parents, who struggled to get by running their backbreaking small business and whose rights always seemed to get trampled. It also felt like a way to assuage my guilt: I often felt that by choosing corporate law, I had not fulfilled my duty to the Asian community.

One of my first AALDEF assignments was helping a Korean American family that owned a grocery store in a blue-collar New York suburban town — just like my parents. Their teenage boy was hospitalized after white neighborhood kids beat him severely with a baseball bat, calling him a “chink” and other racial epithets. (Unfortunately, anti-Asian violence is not a new phenomenon.) Traditional legal remedies weren’t an option — his father told me that those boys could kill his son if we filed a lawsuit. We found a creative solution in a priest at the neighborhood church, who volunteered to talk to the kids’ parents. The parents, after hearing the story, were in tears (as was I) and vowed it would never happen again. The case was resolved, and for the first time in my life I felt the power of being able to help other Asian Americans.

That’s how my journey of helping other Asian Americans began, but the inspiration had deeper roots. Like that family, I was often lonely and uncomfortable as an Asian teenager in a mostly white, Philadelphia suburban neighborhood after emigrating with my family from Seoul, Korea, at age 10. Sometimes I resented being Asian. I remember telling my parents’ Korean friends that I wanted to be a lawyer, and they responded: “Who will hire a lawyer who looks like a foreigner and whose English is his second language?!”

Finding Asians to emulate professionally or advise me on my career has always been a challenge. Not enough Asian leaders mentor younger Asians.

“At every step of my career, I have made a commitment to be a catalyst for changing this behavior in the legal industry, measuring my success by how often I was able to help another Asian American succeed.” 

This crystallized for me when I took my first general counsel role in 1999 and became the only Asian American general counsel in the Fortune 500 at the time. I wondered why there were so few Asian American leaders in the legal profession. My answers came from Professor Frank Wu’s book, “Yellow — Race in America Beyond Black and White.” He wrote about the model minority myth (all Asians are successful) and the perpetual foreigner stereotype (even American-born Asians are foreigners). These cultural phenomena became barriers to success for many Asian Americans, and I’d seen both play out in my daily life. 

I am a doer by nature and was actively mentoring rising Asian American legal stars (as I still do today), but I wanted to make a greater impact. In partnership with a colleague and friend who also grew up in a nondiverse, blue collar neighborhood, we created the 10X10 Initiative with a goal to reach 10 Asian American general counsels in the Fortune 500 by 2010. We got there in less than half that time and launched the 20X20 Initiative — 20 Asian American Fortune 500 general counsels by 2020.

Our approach included media coverage on the issue, networking to refer openings to each other and formal training of promising Asian American in-house counsel on “soft” skills that Asian Americans were stereotyped as lacking. Today there are approximately 25 Asian American general counsels in the Fortune 500 and 40 in the Fortune 1000. Each of these lawyers got there by their own merits. But, hopefully, we encouraged the larger legal community to focus on Asian American talent and created a powerful network that was poised to have an even broader positive impact.

During the past year, we have seen so many cases of anti-Asian violence, leaving many victims in a helpless position without access to legal services due to language or financial barriers. It reminded me of my AALDEF case as a young lawyer, and I knew we had to seize this important public moment to accelerate the work. It took only a single phone call back in March to put the wheels in motion to form The Alliance for Asian American Justice, a pro bono initiative that brings together victims with top law firms.

We recruited about half of those Fortune 1000 Asian general counsel — many of whom benefitted from the 20X20 Initiative — and a combination of Asian lawyers and allies at 80-plus large law firms nationwide, many with experience as federal and state prosecutors. We help victims navigate the often-complicated process of finding an attorney by connecting them with law firms that have the right subject matter and regional expertise to support their cases. Even more rewarding than seeing the dozens of victims we’ve already helped has been seeing a community of Asian Americans come together to support their own.

As a leader at Target, I often have amazing opportunities, like my recent interview with actor and activist Daniel Dae Kim at an event for the Target team. He’s arguably the most prominent spokesperson representing the Asian American community today, and his message to accomplished Asian American leaders was simple but powerful: “Send the elevator back down!” Without realizing it, that’s the philosophy by which I have been living and one I’d encourage Asian American leaders in all fields to adopt.

Someday, when my career is all said and done, what I will be most proud of is not what I achieved but the number of times I sent the elevator back down for others — and watched it come up full.

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