Apple showcases 4 leaders making change through technology at AAPI event: 'You don’t really know that you’re different, until someone tells you that you are'

·5 min read

A career in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) continues to be the fastest-growing profession in the United States. White and Asian employees are reportedly overrepresented in the field, but Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have an added layer of racism and stereotypes working against them in STEM.

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The AAPI community has faced an onslaught of hate and discrimination in the past few years. A recent report by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism found that anti-Asian hate crimes had increased by 339% in 2021. The figures for such cities as New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles exceeded the already record numbers for 2020.

Apple’s hope in hosting its April 2022 panel of exclusively AAPI app creators was to highlight how leaders within the AAPI community have taken real steps to counter racism and influence positive change through tools and technology.

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“As a kid, you don’t really know that you’re different, until someone tells you that you are,” Annie Vang said at the panel. “Can you imagine living in a world where you’re constantly told no? Or imagine living in a world where it was illegal to write your own language?”

Vang is the creator of HmongPhrases, an app that aims to keep the Hmong language and culture alive and digitized. As a Hmong American, Vang recognized that Hmong was dying out, as more and more people in the community assimilated in the U.S. by learning English.

For centuries, the Hmong people lived in remote areas of southwest China and and their attempts to achieve independence were repeatedly shut down. In the 1600s, it was made illegal to write the Hmong language, so for centuries, it survived only in its spoken form. Today, it’s estimated that over 170,000 Hmong people live in the U.S.

“I created HmongPhrases 11 years ago, to teach people simple, conversational phrases and words in Hmong,” Vang explained. “My goal was to leave a digital footprint to preserve my language for future generations.”

The idea of preserving culture — no matter where in the world — was also the inspiration for Larry Liu’s app, Weee!, a grocery and food delivery app that connects AAPI and Hispanic shoppers with the necessities for their favorite meals.

“When I came to the U.S., I remember I had to drive one and a half hours to the closest Chinese supermarket,” Liu said. “Or I had to resort to the three feet asking aisle in the local mainstream grocery store to buy just some really simple things.”

Since mid-2017, Liu has watched Weee! grow by leaps and bounds — which he had expected, knowing how important food is to AAPI and Hispanic households and how easy Weee! makes it for shoppers to get what they want and need. No more three-hour, round-trip drives for basic ingredients.

“[The success] showed me two things: One is: There were a lot of people just like me, who wanted to have the food they love but couldn’t have easy access to it,” Liu said. “Second, there was a way to actually solve the problem now, with social media and with with the apps.”

Making things easier and more accessible through technology is also what Sue Khim wanted to produce to help more people learn STEM outside the classroom. She knew this would be a tall order — a quick poll at the beginning of the panel found that almost nobody in the audience considered themselves a “math person” — but her app Brilliant has over 10 million users.

Khim’s dad was her inspiration — on road trips, he would quiz her with math questions from the front seat and would explain the answers in ways that were, as she put it, “sparkling ‘Aha!’ moments” for her.

“My choices were: Clone my dad or build something new,” she joked.

Thanks to Brilliant, more than 10 million people are having those “sparkling ‘Aha!’ moments” as they learn about math, science, technology, medicine and computing.

“I started Brilliant and made it our mission to inspire and develop people to achieve their goals … by taking nearly everything about how math and science are usually taught and flipping it on its head,” Khim said. “We replaced a Victorian education system from 300 years ago with a fun, vibrant world.”

Swupnil Sahai, the fourth panelist at Apple’s event, co-founded his app, SwingVision, based on his love of tennis. Its aim is to democratize sports, by offering shot tracking and analysis for tennis players of all levels.

“As tennis players, [my co-founder and I] wanted a way to get data about our game, just like the pros do,” Sahai explained. “But there wasn’t an affordable way to do that at the time.”

Sahai taught himself to code through Apple’s SWIFT program and worked out a way to launch a tennis app on the Apple Watch that would keep track of scores. His idea got him an Apple WWDC Scholarship and he eventually worked on an artificial intelligence element for the app’s coding.

But ultimately, it wasn’t about Sahai’s tennis scores. The app touched a nerve with many amateur tennis players — including one named Joey who lost 200 pounds while learning to improve his tennis technique.

Most importantly, in the U.S., the average amateur tennis lesson is estimated to cost between $60 to $100 per hour. Professional lessons with highly qualified coaches that take players to the next level can set you back $150 to $300 per hour. These prices do not include the cost of rackets, clothes, balls or renting a court — all of which make tennis one of the more expensive sports.

“[SwingVision] will enable players to improve their game faster than ever before,” Sahai said. “We’re building a remote coaching platform … and unlock coaching access for millions of players around the world without tennis infrastructure.”

Vang, Liu, Khim and Sahai started their apps because they recognized there was space for people to grow and improve and that they could help facilitate it. You can find all of their apps — HmongPhrases, Weee!, Brilliant and SwingVision on the Apple App Store.

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