Celebrating AAPI Innovators and Entrepreneurs at Harvard
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Celebrating AAPI Innovators and Entrepreneurs at Harvard

These five founders made it to the PIC finals — hear from them in honor of AAPI month.

Aria Mustary of Mai Soli Foundation pitches onstage at the 2024 President's Innovation Challenge Awards Ceremony.
Aria Mustary of Mai Soli Foundation pitches on the Klarman stage at the 2024 President's Innovation Challenge Awards Ceremony.

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Here at the Harvard Innovation Labs, we’re honoring this year’s theme — “Advancing Leaders Through Innovation” — by asking AAPI finalists and winners from the 2024 President’s Innovation Challenge about the challenges and opportunities that AAPI founders face, and who has inspired their own journeys.

Who is an AAPI visionary that has inspired you, and why?

“Two AAPI visionaries who have profoundly inspired me are [the late] Dr. Sam Gambhir, [a pioneer in molecular imaging] from Stanford University, and his [late] son, Milan Gambhir,” says Emily Wang (College '18), founder of Beaver Health, a digital platform that supports families caring for older loved ones.

“I met them at a science competition during high school. Dr. Gambhir was incredibly supportive of my project to develop bright fluorescent proteins, and I was impressed by Milan’s humility, motivation, and easygoing nature. Their commitment to solving one of the world's most pressing challenges — early cancer detection — deeply influenced me. Not only were they brilliant and passionate, but they were also highly inventive, developing groundbreaking solutions such as an ultrasonic watch that detects cancer via microbubbles and a smart toilet that can identify cancer biomarkers. Their innovative spirit and mission-driven work continues to inspire me and countless others.”

Aria Mustary (HGSE '24), founder of the nonprofit Mai Soli Foundation, shares that her mother was her inspiration for starting her venture. “She was pulled out of school at 15 years old and married off to my father, who was double her age, at 16 years old," says Mustary. "Child marriage affects 12 million girls every year, but my mother was able to break the cycle for me and my sister by empowering herself through real-world education and entrepreneurship. This is what we do at Mai Soli Foundation: prevent child marriage for young girls by investing in their education and entrepreneurship skills.”

Yujie Wang (GSD/SEAS '24) cofounded Vocadian, which is tackling workplace fatigue management through predictive voice AI. "Feifei Li is not only an extraordinary computer scientist who pushes the boundaries of machine learning’s applications, bringing it to everyone’s daily life — she is also a resilient leader when faced with challenges and critiques in career and life. Li holds firm belief in her faith, pursuing her vision and mission, pushing forward the responsible implementation of AI and [serving as] a role model for younger generations.”

Emily Wang accepting her PIC trophy with Matt Segneri and Harvard Interim President Alan Garber
Emily Wang accepts a $75,000 award at the 2024 President's Innovation Challenge Awards Ceremony, while Yujie Wang and Brandon Chi deliver their pitches onstage.

When asked about the challenges AAPI entrepreneurs face today, several founders pointed to lingering stereotypes and a lack of representation in leadership positions.

“Asian individuals are often stereotyped as hardworking, technically skilled, and detail-oriented, but not necessarily as leaders or visionaries. This perception can make it difficult for Asian professionals to be seen as potential leaders or to be given opportunities for advancement in roles that require visionary thinking and bold decision-making. Some refer to this concept as the “bamboo ceiling," explains Brandon Chi (HBS '24), cofounder of agriculture tech startup Crop Diagnostix, which won our fall 2023 Shark Tank pitch competition with Kevin O'Leary and a $25,000 prize at the PIC.

"But even AAPI entrepreneurs that break through this so-called bamboo ceiling do not get the coverage, visibility, and respect that they deserve. Successful entrepreneurs like Tony Xu, cofounder and CEO of DoorDash, and Eric Yuan, founder and CEO of Zoom, do not get the visibility and recognition that white CEOs get. This creates a perpetuating cycle, where the lack of existing representation reinforces future under-representation. Without visible role models in high leadership positions, aspiring Asian leaders and entrepreneurs may lack mentors and face challenges navigating career advancement and startup development."

How can the entrepreneurial community better support, recognize, and make space for AAPI innovators?

"Create platforms for AAPI entrepreneurs to showcase their work, offering mentorship and networking opportunities, and implementing improved support mechanisms are crucial steps," says Manasi Mehan (HGSE '24), cofounder of Saturday Art Class, which provides access to visual arts and teaches social-emotional learning skills to marginalized children in India. "Additionally, creating safe spaces for dialogue, addressing biases, and promoting allyship can break down barriers and create a more supportive ecosystem for AAPI innovators to thrive in the entrepreneurial landscape."

"Recognizing the cultural diversity and strengths within the AAPI community is essential for celebrating unique perspectives and contributions." Manasi Mehan, Saturday Art Class

"Trust [our] diverse experiences, stories, and innovative ideas for our ventures," says Mustary. "As a Bangladeshi American woman, I have a unique story that is often not heard by most judges, panels, and funders. My story is not trusted until my white, male counterpart validates it. This is not right. As a community, we need to do a better job of trusting and helping build up AAPI women founders to reach their highest potential."

Manasi Mehan accepts her award from Matt Segneri and Interim President Alan Garber at the 2024 PIC
Manasi Mehan (center) accepts a $25,000 award from Interim President Alan Garber (left) and i-lab executive director Matt Segneri (right) at the 2024 President's Innovation Challenge Awards Ceremony.

What keeps you motivated as you pursue your venture?

"Seeing a 10-year-old student derive more meaning and learning from a Piet Mondrian painting than any adult I have come across, reinforces my belief in the power of giving children access to creative outlets within their education," says Mehan. "I work with an amazing team of 15 creative individuals who live and breathe art. Together, we have been able to create spaces that are safe, free, and engaging for children to co-create and learn, which has been a source of motivation and inspiration for me in turn."

Wang draws strength from her grandmother, who "motivates and inspires me each day with her resilience, kindness, and enduring passion for learning new things. The transformative impact Beaver Health has already had on so many families is incredibly empowering. Each smile we bring, each story that is told, and each new family connection reinforce the value of our work and the positive change we're creating in the world."