Bill Maurer

In 2017, UC Irvine researchers partnered with Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Orange County to launch “Transforming Orange County: Assets and Needs of Asian Americans & Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders,” a comprehensive study to identify the major needs and assets of Orange County's Asian American & Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities. The idea for the work began in 2016 when AAAJ regional director Sylvia Kim and UCI social sciences dean Bill Maurer discussed the need for a baseline study of the Orange County AA&NHPI communities and their economic, social and healthcare needs. Maurer and Kim enlisted the expertise of UCI sociologist and professor of Asian American studies Linda Vo, who tapped Laureen D. Hom, then a Ph.D. candidate in urban planning & public policy, to assist her.

"This study was a really terrific example of cross-campus collaboration with the community to address and find effective solutions for local social issues,” says Maurer. Key among the report’s recommendations was the need to disaggregate the data to better understand the nuanced diversity of the AA&NHPI community and their unique needs.

Maurer recently caught up with Kim to chat about the study's lasting impact, Kim's current work as the founder and CEO of strategy consulting firm Rebel for Good, and where she sees the conversation heading 10 years from now. Their condensed chat is below.


Bill Maurer: Well, Sylvia, thank you so much for joining me for this conversation, as we think about  Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. We first met at UC Irvine’s very first Lunar New Year celebration, back in 2015. I had just become dean of the School of Social Sciences. You were expanding the office and work for Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Orange County, and since that time you left nonprofit work to go work as a VC and recently opened your own consultancy. I've opened two new academic departments and built a big external support operation for my school, and we'll talk about those in a bit. But first, reflecting back, what were some of your hopes and goals when you first landed in Orange County from Toronto, Canada?

Sylvia Kim: First, Bill, thank you so much for having me, and I can't believe that it's been so long since we met each other. I know that UCI has grown tremendously. When I first landed - I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada - it was a huge transition. Toronto is a very different place than Orange County, and I hadn't done enough of the research before I landed, and so I don't think I quite understood the changing landscape of the place that I was going to be living and working in.

But one of the things that I always joke around is that at the time when I moved, I was studying international human rights abroad. Orange County may not be the best place for international human rights, but it was actually a tremendous place of growth and opportunity for the work I ended up doing - especially with the Asian American community, and especially also with the next generation of donors and investors. There was this kind of budding community in Orange County.

And so one of the things that I think back to that time when I first moved is that Orange County is really this kind of blank canvas, this opportunity, where so much is changing. And I really feel like I was part of that changing landscape when I  landed in Orange County and was able to witness a lot of that transformation and growth, and hopefully add some value to it as well.

Bill Maurer: When you were making those transitions, what were some of your hopes and dreams, and what were some of your fears?

Sylvia Kim: I think my fear was that Orange County has a complicated history with racism, and a feeling that it was this unknown suburb of LA (I know a lot of people here hate referring to Orange County as that). But I think for my hopes and dreams, it really was this blank canvas, this opportunity to bring awareness to some of the transforming demographics; to bring awareness to how much Orange County had changed from these perceptions and stereotypes to what it truly is today. And so I think, especially with my work with Asian Americans Advancing Justice, which is how I first met you, a lot of my work was really just bringing awareness to the statistics and the facts and the reality that Orange County is really not what it used to be or not, what people presumed it to be. So that was really exciting - the hopes and visions of just being able to, I think, see the potential of Orange County, of what it can be. That it can really be a place of progressive social justice, that it could really be a place where new communities are born, and can really bring about change in a way that perhaps in its history it had not done before.

Bill Maurer: Yeah, and exactly to that point, our very first collaboration was on a big research report that was called Transforming Orange County. That work really tried to cover economic development, education, political engagement, the whole range of issues impacting AAPI communities in Orange County, and the researchers who were involved also interviewed a whole bunch of community leaders and created a really rich archive of oral history of these communities as they were forming here in the county. Is there any particular story from that work that stands out to you now, almost 10 years on?

Sylvia Kim: I feel like every story stands out. I mean, when I think about what we did at that time, in retrospect, I now understand how monumental it was. It was really the first time that the history of Asian Americans in Orange County was really documented and archived. And so there were so many beautiful and powerful stories. I remember all throughout my time in Advancing Justice, and even now, 10 years after I've left, people are constantly surprised when I say that Orange County is home to the third largest Asian American population in the country, that it is home to the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam, that it is home to the second largest population of Koreans. It is home to this thriving, vibrant, non-monolithic, extremely diverse AAPI community. And so I think this report was really the first time all of that was at least attempted to be documented, and so there was such a rich tapestry of different stories. We talked to various entrepreneurs. We talked to Japanese Americans who had a history of internment. We talked about how Little Saigon came to be, and it was just so powerful. But I would say that when I think about what stands out to me the most from that report, it was the primary recommendation which is the reality - that the AAPI community is not monolithic, and that to really understand the community, especially in all of its growth and transformation, is the need to really have disaggregated data.

There are pockets of communities – enclaves - even within Orange County that, despite all the economic growth and economic drivers, that may not have the same kind of economic and/or social status as other communities. And so when we think about the AAPI community, and I think this was stressed throughout the report, it's so critical to disaggregate the data and to also have those kind of specific, culturally competent services when we're really trying to meet the needs of the various Asian American communities.

Bill Maurer: I think that was really one of the most important contributions of the report that's still relevant today. I've been doing some work recently with the credit unions and a couple of community organizations, including The Cambodian Family. And it's just so important to focus on the specificity of the needs of these different communities.

Now, since that report came out, a whole lot has happened in the world. We had a pandemic. We had a couple Presidential elections, the upending of U.S. and world politics. A spike in anti-Asian hate crimes - which I believe you helped launch an NFT to address. Where do you think we are today?

Sylvia Kim: I think the reality is that the county has continued to transform, especially from the AAPI perspective. I haven't been following the statistics and demographics as closely as when I was doing the community work, but as a mother who's raising two kids in Irvine, I can tell you that I have felt that transformation. Two new H Marts have opened up. I have seen at my children's schools how there are - to our point about disaggregated data - specific chat rooms in multiple, different specific languages. So there's We Chat for the Chinese community, Kakao for the Korean community, another for the Japanese community. It is really surprising to see that as I'm raising my kids in 2024 in Orange County. And so I feel like that demographic growth has continued.

Based on the last Census, we are still the third largest Asian American population in the country, and still the most rapidly growing demographic in the country. And so I can see that the county has continued to transform.

Sadly, a lot of that history of hate and discrimination has also continued, and I think the pandemic really amplified how deep rooted some of the hate really is. So something that I've always advocated from my days in civil rights has always been the need for our community to be allies to other communities and to kind of build those strong partnerships and allyships, and I think that has continued.

At the time of the rise of anti-Asian hate, I was completely outside of the Asian American community work. And so it just so happened that my husband was working at an NFT startup. And so, you know, we did what we could. They had this platform - NFT For Good. They got 88 Asian American celebrities and creatives to donate their brand into an NFT token and they auctioned it off. They raised over $80,000, and that all went to the Stop AAPI Hate Coalition.

Bill Maurer: It's really kind of amazing he was there at that time and able to work with you to do this. So in the past 10 years, I launched the Dean's Leadership Society here in social sciences, really to build connections for our community supporters and our alums, and to build a sustainable fundraising operation. We grew Lunar New Year into a big campuswide community event with thousands of people who attend, and wonderful sponsorships from South Coast Plaza and Disney and others. And you've done some big things, too. You made some moves into impact investing. So, tell us about your journey there.

Sylvia Kim: So first to close off that Asian American chapter, I feel very proud of the work I was able to accomplish with Asian Americans Advancing Justice. The Orange County office is still there in Santa Ana, providing free culturally competent legal services for the AAPI community and working in partnership with other communities and building those allyships. Then I went on to help launch a very critical organization for the future of the Asian American community called Asian American Futures. After that,  I wanted to better understand how to unlock more capital for sustainable impact, and felt that there were certain limitations at times in the world of philanthropy. In 2020, I left the world of nonprofit, and I actually got picked up by a venture capital firm. At that time, venture capital was booming and thriving, and, like everything else in Orange County, you know, it's this kind of blank canvas landscape where anything goes. So I feel very privileged that I was able to join a firm and successfully conceive and launch a woman led impact fund. That was a really exciting time forming a thesis and dreaming up methods of social entrepreneurship. But what I ultimately realized in all my years of pursuing sustainable impact was that you need to be creative and constantly evolving, and VC - in all its glory - may not always be the best method for impact. So I ended up actually going into strategy consulting and now becoming kind of an expert in devising those impact strategies and how to do impact or get impact done right in general.

Bill Maurer: And this is the origin story of Rebel for Good, right?

Sylvia Kim:  That's right. So I was at another strategy consulting firm and I was kind of like, “I don't know if I'm there yet to really launch my own business.” Now-U.S. Senator Laphonza Butler was one of my clients at my former firm, and she looked at me and said, “Sylvia, you need to start your own firm. And if you do, I'll be your client.” When Laphonza Butler turns to you and says, to start your firm, you get it done.

I've been very honored to launch Rebel for Good. It's been about a year on the services side. I work with large C-3 and C-4 organizations around mission-driven fundraising. But on the ecosystem side, I've been able to develop this growing community of next generation donors and investors who, I believe, will really change the landscape of capital investments for generations to come.

Bill Maurer: That’s super and so exciting! You just celebrated your one-year anniversary, right?

Sylvia Kim:  That is right. One year.

Bill Maurer: Fantastic. So one year into Rebel for Good, we are almost 10 years on from when we first met. What do you think we'll be talking about in 10 years?

Sylvia Kim: I think in 10 years, Orange County will be a completely different place. Hopefully it will not be transforming, it will be transformed and a complete beacon of light for all things justice, good and impact. Hopefully, my kids will be alumni of UCI. And, hopefully Rebel for Good will have catalyzed capital for good for multiple movements. You know, there's a lot of possibility.

Bill Maurer: So much possibility. Thank you so much, Sylvia. It's been great to talk to you. We really appreciate what you're doing.

Sylvia Kim: Thank you!

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