A Chinese American Entrepreneur on Anti-Asian Bias in the Pandemic: ‘I’m on High Alert’

For Celine Tien, the pandemic has brought opportunities for her health care startup. It’s also brought pain and fear

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Celine Tien is the co-founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based Flowly, an app that uses virtual reality experiences and biofeedback, such as heart rate, to help people better regulate chronic pain and anxiety. After two years of working on the concept, Tien and her team launched Flowly in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, raising $2.5 million to date, including a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Drug Abuse. “Covid hasn’t slowed us down. It’s made us work faster and harder to get the product out there,” Tien says. “It’s easier to talk to [investors] now because they understand the pain point much faster.” 

At the same time, for Tien personally, the pandemic has laid bare the kind of bias she has experienced since moving to the U.S. in grade school. Below, she reflects on how becoming aware of her “Asianness” shaped her path to becoming an entrepreneur. —As told to Lindsay Blakely

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In February 2020, I decided to treat myself to a manicure for my 24th birthday. This was right when Covid-19 started taking over headlines but before the lockdowns began in the U.S. 

The nail technician, a Vietnamese woman, took a look at my hands and suddenly asked me if I was Chinese. “Are you China Chinese?” 

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When I told her I’m from mainland China and Taiwan, I was not prepared for the rant that came next. She told me that Chinese people are scary and eat “weird” food. “I don’t like you. You are so bad, so bad and so gross,” she said. 

I was so angry. The thing that really shook me at the moment was not the comments she made. It was that, even though she had spoken loudly enough for everyone in the salon — customers and employees — to hear, not a single person said anything. It was absolutely silent. 

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A few days later, I returned with my mom and two friends to speak to the entire staff of Vietnamese women at the salon about my experience. They were afraid of Covid and associated the virus with simply being Chinese — not surprising given the sensationalistic headlines and that our own president at the time would refer to Covid as “the China virus.” But as the conversation went on, one woman revealed that she had been mistaken for Chinese by a customer, and she, too, was interrogated about whether or not she had the virus. 

I was lucky in that, for the first eight years of my life, my family moved around in Asia — Singapore, Taiwan, Shanghai. I was in the majority, and so I never thought about my Asianness or how I was different. I felt confident, and my family supported that confidence. 

When we moved to San Diego and I started public school at age 9, I got a harsh and fast introduction to the idea that I was different. Kids made comments about my eyes and asked me questions like, “Did you grow up poor eating rice in your village?” 

As I got older, racism was more covert. My brother and I grew up as actors. Bias, of course, is inherent to how movies are cast. In my very first audition, they were looking for a young Asian girl with pigtails who played Ping-Pong. My hair was always in pigtails. On casting calls, I was always either the only Asian girl or one of all Asian girls. 

I’ve always loved storytelling, but my experience in the industry showed me that you have no control over your part, over the materials, over the writing — especially as a young Asian girl. I felt like I needed to do something where I would be the creator. Working at the Asia division of DreamWorks, Oriental DreamWorks, was a great experience. At that time, it felt like a startup. More than anything, it helped validate my interest in entrepreneurship. For my next move, I wanted to work for myself and make a product or service that directly impacted the end-user.

I launched my digital health company, Flowly, in 2020. We make an app that uses biofeedback, such as heart rate and respiration, combined with virtual reality to teach people how to relax and better regulate their nervous systems.

Racism in the startup world can be covert, but it’s definitely there. It usually comes from white male investors making small, dismissive comments. Sometimes investors specifically want to me meet me at ramen places. I think they assume it will help build rapport, but it’s not done with much thought or intention. I had a great interaction with a pretty well-known investor. Then I told him that I had been invited to an awards ceremony highlighting Asian and Asian American entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. “Why does that need to exist? Why do we need to single them out? That doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. I told him it makes perfect sense to me. Asian Americans do not make up a high percentage of executive or founder positions.

I’m the one who delivers our pitch to doctors and insurance executives. A number of times afterward they have turned to my technical co-founder, Julian Soros, who’s a white man, and asked him if Flowly was his brainchild. I’m a confrontational person, but the power dynamics are very complex in these situations. How do you manage that without tarnishing your reputation?

I’m not surprised about the recent violence against Asians and Asian Americans. This was happening long before the mainstream media picked up on it. After the incident at the nail salon, I tried not to leave my house much. When I did, I avoided eye contact with people and stifled the urge to cough. I told my brother who likes to go running outside to carry pepper spray. I have several friends who’ve been targeted. 

Now that I’m vaccinated, I’m out of the house more, but I’m on high alert and constantly thinking about what I’d do if it happened to me. 

It’s going to be a tough transition out of this pandemic. I’m the founder of a company that focuses on pain management. In our view, pain can be biological, social, physical, and psychological. Now, more than ever, it’s really important to me that we are a resource for people to manage their mental health. We, as a broader community, need to be in a position of strength physically and mentally to be able to support those in pain around us. 

 

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