As we near the end of Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage month, we at Bunker Labs are excited to amplify AAPI voices. Tim Hsia was kind enough to share his experience with us, and talk about one of his heroes. Tim is an Army Veteran, a serial entrepreneur, and a member of the current Bunker Labs CEOcircle Program cohort.
Interested in making brilliant entrepreneurs like Tim a part of your personal brain trust by joining CEOcircle? If your venture has over a million in revenue, or over five million in fundraising, you’re exactly the sort of Bunker Labs entrepreneur we’re looking for! Fill out an interest form today, and be ready for applications to open June 8th.
I’m Tim Hsia
I’m an Asian-American entrepreneur. I have started a nonprofit company, a for-profit company, and a venture firm. I love starting and building things. Before becoming an entrepreneur, I served in the U.S. Army. I’d like to accomplish two very different things in this essay:
1.) Thank Asian-American Veterans for their service and do this by highlighting Eric Shinseki’s career
2.) Share some context on my background and why I’m an entrepreneur
World History is Family History
I’m not the first person in my family to have attended a military academy. My grandfather, Liu King Qui served as a General in the Nationalist forces (Kuomintang Army) and attended Whampoa, the Republic of China Military Academy (here’s a good read on The profound legacy of China’s Whampoa Military Academy). My grandfather fought alongside the U.S. Army against the Japanese in World War 2. I grew up on stories of the hardships my grandparents faced during the chaos and tension of first World War 2 and then the Chinese Civil War. When my family eventually fled China, they were only able to bring bare necessities and a few cherished valuables. Two of the items my grandparents kept included a picture of my grandfather in his uniform and a faded U.S. Army memorandum commending him for his leadership.
It’s perhaps unsurprising I grew up with a strong interest in history. In middle school I devoured practically all of the World War 2 books my school had, and in high school, I took college history courses at Florida State University learning Indian and Russian history. My favorite courses in high school were history, and I was fortunate to have two fantastic teachers (Scott Brown and Pete Cowdrey). Luckily, they were patient with my antics: I once signed my name on a copy of the Declaration of Independence hanging on a class wall.
Perhaps part of the draw of history was that I didn’t want to be compared to my older siblings, who always achieved fantastic grades in math and science. I didn’t want to live in the shadow of my siblings and forever be compared by my parents and other community members with other high-achieving mathematically-inclined Asian-Americans.
Lessons From The Past
History is one of the major reasons I applied to West Point. From my history readings, I admired many West Point graduates such as William Tecumseh Sherman (a soldier’s soldier), Henry Ossian Flipper (first African-American graduate), Dwight D. Eisenhower (consummate professional), Jonathan Wainwright IV (leadership from the front), & Rocky Versace (courage under captivity), and I was particularly inspired by a line that some West Point history instructors would share: “At West Point, much of the history we teach was made by the people we taught.”
Just like in high school, I had some fantastic history mentors & teachers at West Point: Phillip Cuccia, Thomas Nimick, and Lance Betros. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned from history that I’ve taken with me into both my military service and entrepreneurial life:
1.) The future is unpredictable. And change is the only predictable thing.
2.) There are typically two wars, because the first one oftentimes doesn’t fully resolve the issue: the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, The Civil War and Reconstruction, even the first Gulf War in 1990 and the second Iraq War in 2003.
3.) Almost all wars last much longer than anyone anticipates.
4.) If you want to be part of the future, you need to actively be a part of it: you can’t sit it out like the Russians who didn’t participate in the UN Security Council that approved the United Nations involvement in the Korean War.
5.) Your weaknesses can become your strength and paradoxically your strengths can lead to your future weakness.
6.) Something seemingly small, like the shot that started the Revolutionary War at the Battle of Lexington, can lead to massive consequences.
7.) Money and power reveal a country or person’s real character and priorities.
8.) All great things require significant sacrifice. And it takes years if not decades of hard work for greatness to emerge.
9.) There are many more lessons, but this is a short essay, so forgive me for missing so many other important lessons.
West Point and Risk Management
At West Point, I double majored in Military History (my true love) and Environmental Engineering (my “tiger” parents told me that going to West Point and not majoring in engineering would be a shame). I enjoyed both majors and even stayed at West Point in the summer to take as many credits as possible so I could buffer out my course load during the normal school year.
I was motivated to learn and achieve but I was also trying to gain a measure of independence and self-reliance. I think much of my life has been balancing pursuit of a goal against a fear of failure. While at Stanford, I had the same approach of hedging my bet, which is why I pursued a JD and an MBA in graduate school. And my reasons for doing both degrees at Stanford were again similar. I wanted to learn and achieve but I also hoped that, because I did not know what I wanted to do after graduate school, having both degrees would allow me to hedge career risk.
At West Point they want cadets to drink the Kool-aid about joining the infantry branch, and beyond wanting to challenge myself, that is one of the major reasons I joined the infantry. At Stanford, the campus Kool-aid is entrepreneurship. That is a major reason I am an entrepreneur. I’m good at drinking Kool-aid.
Risk mitigation would seemingly be the opposite of entrepreneurship. But the best entrepreneurs are constantly seeking to reduce risk. As Andy Grove once titled his book: “Only The Paranoid Survive”. But what drove me to entrepreneurship was likely two things, I drank the Stanford Kool-Aid on entrepreneurship (mimetic desire by virtue of spending the first few formative years of my civilian existence at one of the epicenters of “startup temples”) and what I didn’t like about my time on active duty was the lack of control. I wanted to feel in control of my career.
Meeting Eric Shinseki
While at West Point I had two very brief conversations with then-Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki. The more I learned about his history, the more I came to appreciate how much Shinseki and Asian-Americans have contributed to our country. Here are just a few highlights from Shinseki’s illustrious career (I share some of these notes because I don’t think enough Americans appreciate all that he did for our country):
1.) Shinseki was a Japanese American officer who rose through the military ranks even though America had fought a horrific war against Japan.
2.) He was severely wounded twice fighting in Vietnam and had to fight to stay in a military that felt he was too physically impaired to remain a military officer.
3.) He applied to law school and was accepted but at the last minute decided to stay in the military because he felt that’s where his country needed him and because of his sense of duty.
4.) Unlike many Generals that grew up in the “military system”, he could see the flaws inherent in the US Army and the need for new equipment, new doctrine, and a new mentality. He is the rare insider who took an outsider’s approach to reformulating the military. He wasn’t afraid to wield the power that he had spent decades amassing as he climbed the ranks of the Army.
5.) He spoke truth to power by telling Congress how many hundreds of thousands of troops were necessary for our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And because of his moral courage he paid a political price, when politicians such as Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and members of the Bush administration forced him into early retirement.
6.) He was called to service again by leading as the Secretary of the VA. While he did his best, he was once again removed from office for reasons completely beyond his control. But he did what we are told at West Point and the Army good leaders should do: they take ultimate responsibility for what their unit does or fails to do.
7.) Over the years he has quietly been helping to build a physical monument to US Army Veterans past, present, and future at the National Museum of the US Army.
Living History of the 442nd Infantry Regiment
Shinseki can best be captured by his portrait in the Pentagon. In the background, he makes it clear he sees his career as an extension of the legacy and a living memory of the 442nd Infantry Regiment. The 442nd is the most decorated unit in US military history “composed almost entirely of second-generation American soldiers of Japanese ancestry (Nisei) who fought in the European theater of World War II”. The background depicts the 442nd Infantry Regiment valiantly saving the Lost Battalion.
What I find fascinating about my admiration for Shinseki is that he is a Japanese-American soldier who made me, a Chinese-Taiwanese-American soldier whose grandparents fought the Japanese, feel like the US Army was somewhere I could thrive. He also made me feel like the Army was a place where any Asian, regardless of their background, could serve without being viewed with unfair suspicion.
Here are some essays I have written about Eric Shinseki and Asian-Americans:
During his retirement ceremony in 2002, Army Secretary Thomas White stated that “History will show him to be one of the greatest Chiefs of Staff the Army has ever had.” And it seems that the events of history since his retirement have vindicated General Shinseki’s previously unpopular positions. As a result, U.S. soldiers possess a Stryker vehicle ideally suited to the counterinsurgency fight because of its balance between speed, maneuverability, firepower, command and control systems, and armor.
“Yes” is my response when Asian-American parents ask me, “Is the military a friendly place for Asian-Americans?” I cite not only General Eric Shinseki, a former Army Chief of Staff, but also the fact that my current commanding officer (a lieutenant colonel) is Asian-American. Additionally, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, one of the most decorated Army units ever, was composed primarily of Japanese-Americans.
As an Asian-American, I believe military service for Asian-Americans is important for two reasons. For better or worse, many Americans equate military service with public service and giving back to one’s nation. If Asian-Americans are not proportionately represented within the ranks, then other Americans will believe Asian-Americans are not doing enough for the country and hence are not American enough. Secondly, as the United States disengages from its conflicts in the Middle East, there is likely to be renewed military and political interest in what is happening in South and East Asia. Not having a diverse composition of Asians in the military can hurt not only military preparedness but also result in the United States military misinterpreting the military actions of the rising Asian nations.
My Time in Iraq
While on active duty, I served in Stryker Brigades and deployed twice to Iraq with Stryker units. During my first deployment in the summer of 2005 in Mosul, I was in a vehicle that was hit by an IED. On my second deployment in 2007-2008 while in support of the surge in Iraq, I was in another Stryker vehicle traveling from FOB Warhorse to FOB Normandy, and it, too, was hit by an IED right before we were about to cross a bridge. Thankfully, none of us in either explosion needed medical attention. I believe the Stryker vehicle was a major reason that the impacts of both IEDs were not catastrophic, and am grateful for Shinseki’s leadership and his stewardship of Stryker vehicles and brigade combat teams.
A Real American Hero
Last year my family visited the National Museum of the U.S. Army and my kids had the chance to not only visit the museum but to also meet with Patty Shinseki & General Eric Shinseki. I’m so glad that my sons were able to meet a real American hero. I believe Eric Shinseki is one of the most important Asian-American leaders of the past 50 years, and I think America doesn’t celebrate its heroes enough – especially its living heroes. More Americans should know about American treasures like Patty & Eric Shinseki.
I highly encourage people to watch the following videos of Patty and Eric Shinseki to learn about the sacrifice and leadership of these two American heroes. Their lives have been an expression and synthesis of Duty, Honor, and Country.
- Eric K. Shinseki The Frontiers of Freedom: From Vietnam to the Fall of the Berlin Wall
- Eric Shinseki “A Chance To Care For People”: Service As The Chief Of Staff And The Secretary Of Veterans…
- Patty Shinseki “When You Help Others, The Returns Are Multiplied”: Caring For Army Families
A Proud Legacy
I hope my two sons study the lives and legacies of Eric Shinseki and the service members of the 442nd and find inspiration from the sacrifices of Asian-Americans, both past and present. As Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month ends, I’d like to thank the countless Asian-Americans who have served, led, and died for our country.
About the Author: Tim Hsia
Tim Hsia is a distinguished honor graduate of West Point and was commissioned as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army where he deployed twice to Iraq. Tim transitioned from active duty in 2010 and graduated from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and Stanford Law School in 2014.
Tim is the CEO & Founder of Media Mobilize (an online ad network, marketing agency, and media company).
Tim is the founder and Managing Partner of Context Ventures, a venture fund that invests in consumer startups and also in military Veteran founders. Tim’s startup investments include Workflow (acquired by Apple), Morning Brew (acquired by Business Insider), The Hustle (acquired by HubSpot), Thredup (IPO), and Proterra (SPAC).
Tim is a co-founder and board member at Service to School (co-founder) and the Marine’s Memorial Association (Marine Memorial Club and Hotel in San Francisco). Service to School is a nonprofit whose mission is “To prepare transitioning servicemembers and Veterans for their next chapter of leadership by helping them gain admission to the best college or graduate school possible.”
He likes to run, learn history, and spend time with his family.