Silicon Valley’s influential Asian American Pacific Islander leaders
AAPI leaders from across Silicon Valley have held positions of power in business, local government and the White House.

Asian American and Pacific Islander residents make up about 39% of San Jose’s population and 42% of Santa Clara County, according to U.S. Census data — and the impact of local leaders is visible across the region.

Activists and nonprofit organizations continue to work to bring Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) residents equity, representation and access to services. Asian Americans for Community Involvement, a community-based nonprofit, provides health care, behavioral health and wellness services to underserved residents.

In celebration of National Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, San José Spotlight is highlighting some of the most influential community leaders in Silicon Valley. While this isn’t an exhaustive list, these individuals have broken barriers, shaped history and inspired change.

San José Spotlight has previously recognized some of the most influential Black leaders for Black History Month, trailblazing women for Women’s History Month, impactful Latino leaders for National Hispanic Heritage Month and inspiring leaders in the LGBTQ+ community for Pride Month.

Here they are in alphabetical order by first name.

Alex Lee was the youngest Asian American elected to the California State Assembly and its first openly bisexual legislator. File photo.

Alex Lee

At age 25, Alex Lee was the youngest Asian American elected to the California State Assembly and its first openly bisexual legislator. In 2020, he received more than 72% of the vote despite being outspent. After the districts were redrawn in 2022 he ran again and won a second term in a new district. He represents District 24, which includes San Jose, Milpitas, Fremont, Newark and Sunol. 

After his family emigrated from Hong Kong, Lee lived in Milpitas and San Jose. As a legislative policy advisor in the state Senate and Assembly, he crafted legislation to combat climate change, improve schools and protect seniors. His priority is affordable housing. He has introduced a flurry of bills to protect single-family homes and create publicly owned, affordable mixed-income social housing. He is passionate about social housing, which he introduced in 2023. His bill was passed, but Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed it.

“As I grew up, I saw more and more families struggling to build a future here,” he said. “Close friends and families were being priced out of the community they loved and often moved far away. The crises we are living through requires that we fight for bold solutions.”

Ash Kalra was the first Indian American to be elected to the San Jose City Council and California Legislature. Photo courtesy of

Ash Kalra

Ash Kalra was the first Indian American to be elected to the San Jose City Council and California Legislature. While serving on the city council from January 2009 to December 2016, he supported public safety, education, public transportation, clean energy and open space. Since being elected to the state Assembly in 2016, he’s worked toward equity, social justice and housing solutions. He represents District 25 ,which encompasses the majority of San Jose including the downtown and open space areas in southeast Santa Clara County.

Kalra moved from Toronto, Canada to California as a child. His career includes positions as a Santa Clara County deputy public defender and law professor at Lincoln Law School of San Jose and San Jose State University. He also served on San Jose’s planning commission before being elected to office.

In 2020, he vied to become attorney general, taking aim at corporate polluters, companies taking advantage of workers and what he said is an inequitable criminal justice system. The same year, he authored the California Racial Justice Act to confront racism and systemic bias in the justice system. He secured $10 million for Santa Clara County to purchase Laguna Seca in Coyote Valley for permanent land conservation and $1.5 million for Lake Cunningham water quality and shoreline improvements. He has secured $10 million in road safety improvements for dangerous streets in East San Jose. Kalra is running for reelection to the California State Assembly.

David (left) and Victor Duong of California Waste Solutions donated 1,200 oxygenator machines to aid COVID-19 relief efforts in Vietnam. File photo.

David Duong

As chair of the Vietnamese American Business Association, David Duong helps businesses bid for contracts. As CEO of Cal Waste Solutions, he looks for opportunities to help the community and invest in labor and new technology, he told San José Spotlight.

Cal Waste Solutions, which serves more than 10 million customers weekly, had humble beginnings. Duong’s parents, who owned a large paper mill in South Vietnam, fled with their family in a small boat at the end of the Vietnam War. They were rescued at sea after floundering for days when the motor died and put into a refugee camp in the Philippines, he said.

In 1979, they immigrated to the United States, arriving in Washington, D.C. The winter snow and intense cold led them to travel by bus to San Francisco, where 16 family members shared two studio apartments. Then in the 1980s the family discovered hidden treasure in the form of cardboard, cans and bottles from street trash. With $700, they bought a used pickup truck and started recycling for cash and a business was born.

“We worked hard,” Duong said. “We saved every dime. That’s how we started our business. This country has opportunities for people who are willing to work. Work hard, focus and believe in yourself.”

Erica Yew is the first Asian American Pacific Islander judge of Santa Clara County Superior Court. Photo courtesy of the Orange County Register.

Erica Yew

Erica Yew, appointed by former Gov. Gray Davis to serve on the Santa Clara County Superior Court in 2001, is its first Asian American Pacific Islander judge. Yew served as a member of the Judicial Council from 2009 to 2012 and on the Commission on Judicial Performance from 2010 to 2019. In May 2023, she was elected president of the California Judges Association.

“My parents left their homeland to give their children opportunities in this country,” Yew said in a statement. “I have been proud to serve as a member of the legal community and judicial branch … I am the beneficiary of the goodwill and support of so many people.”

Yew worked as an attorney before joining the bench and was president of the Asian Pacific Bar Association of Silicon Valley. She served on the California State Bar Board of Trustees and Pro Bono Project of Silicon Valley, and taught classes on judicial ethics, the elimination of bias in the court system and language access in the legal system.

Yew has won several awards, including the Judicial Council’s Distinguished Service Award and the John W. Gardner Leadership Award from the American Leadership Forum Silicon Valley. Last year she received the Rose Bird Memorial Award from the California Women Lawyers organization.

Assemblymember Evan Low is running for the Silicon Valley Congressional District 16 seat. Low is pictured at the South Bay Labor Council election night party in March. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Evan Low

When Evan Low joined the California Legislature in 2014, he was the youngest Asian American legislator ever elected to the state Assembly. He represents District 26, which includes Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, parts of San Jose and several unincorporated sections of Santa Clara County.

Born and raised in Silicon Valley, his work in the community motivated him to pursue a career in politics. In 2006, he successfully ran for a seat on the Campbell City Council, becoming its first Asian American councilmember. In 2010, at 26, Low became the youngest openly LGBTQ+ mayor in Campbell and the country. He helped balance the city’s budget and increase transparency by streaming city council meetings online. He worked to assist small businesses by reducing red tape and streamlining licensing processes.

While in the Assembly in 2015, Low launched the California Legislative Technology & Innovation Caucus to help the state retain its status as a global leader in technology and innovation. He chaired the California Asian American and Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus and is a member of the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus. Low is running for Congress in November against former San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo.

Jenny Do was an attorney, activist and champion of the arts. Photo courtesy of the Law Office of Jenny Do.

Jenny Do

Jenny Do was an attorney, activist and champion of the arts. At 18, she emigrated from Saigon, Vietnam to the United States with her mother and younger brother. In wartime, her family left their home to seek safety in the countryside. Upon their return, they had to beg for shelter. Do faced derision from residents due to her fair skin and longed to go to America. Through the Amerasian Homecoming Act — which allowed children fathered by U.S. citizens during the Korean and Vietnam wars to immigrate to America — she got her wish.

Do found work as a clerk with the Center for Southeast Asian Refugee Resettlement and did case management for low-income residents before opening a private law practice. From 2013 to 2022, she served as executive director of the Friends of Hue Foundation, which operates shelters for children in Vietnam. She created a gallery to showcase Vietnamese American artists, sat on the San Jose Arts Commission and served as an adjunct instructor at San Jose City College. Do organized a relief effort when Coyote Creek flooded in 2017 and a food drive for seniors during the pandemic in 2020.

When Do was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, she bucked tradition and shared it openly. She died in 2022 at age 56.

“Jenny was such a vibrant person who energized everyone around her,” Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez said at a Board of Supervisors meeting. “Her can-do spirit gave people confidence they could accomplish anything.”

Former San Jose Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen filing her papers to run in the District 2 Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors race on May 1, 2023. File photo.

Madison Nguyen

Madison Nguyen joined the Franklin-McKinley School District Board of Education in 2002 — the first female Vietnamese American elected to public office in California. She made history again in 2005 as the first Vietnamese American elected to the San Jose City Council and as vice mayor. She later served as executive director of Hunger at Home, executive vice president of the San Jose Chamber of Commerce and executive vice president of AsianNet Media.

“When I was elected… it wasn’t just an honor for me; it was definitely an honor for the Vietnamese community. Definitely for my family,” she said. “It’s just a tremendous honor to be in a position to impact that kind of positive change.”

Nguyen’s family fled Vietnam in a fishing boat when she was 4. At age 12, she worked in the fields of the Central Valley alongside her parents. They got up at 4:30 a.m., packed into the back of her dad’s pickup truck and drove 45 minutes from Modesto to Patterson. They picked fruit daily, but it wasn’t enough to pay the bills. They received cash assistance and food stamps and the family of 11 lived in Section 8 housing. Political engagement isn’t a priority, when immigrant families are focused on putting food on the table and working to send their children to college, she told San José Spotlight.

Nguyen is running in the November race for the District 2 seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. Her focus is on homelessness, housing costs, mental health and public safety. She wants the county to partner with school districts to provide vocational, technical and trade programs for high school students.

Margaret Abe-Koga tells supporters that her message around public safety helped her gain an early lead in the Santa Clara County District 5 supervisor race. Photo by Brandon Pho.

Margaret Abe-Koga

Margaret Abe-Koga is proud to have been the first female Asian American Pacific Islander to serve on the Mountain View City Council and as vice mayor and mayor. She is serving her second term as mayor and served three terms on the council.

The daughter of Japanese immigrants who struggled with English, Abe-Koga said providing a voice for the AAPI community motivated her to become involved in public service.

“We have to voice our concerns and represent the reality of what our AAPI community is about, their makeup and what we also face in terms of challenges,” she told San José Spotlight. “Especially in the last few years, with the rise of anti-Asian hate, it’s even more critical that we are seen and heard and have a voice in decision making.”

Abe-Koga’s policies focus on public safety, housing and transportation. A breast cancer survivor, affordable health care is important to her. As mayor in 2020, she provided $6 million in rent relief during the pandemic. In 2014, she introduced a minimum wage increase and in 2023 helped launch a basic income program for families and pregnant women. Abe-Koga was a congressional aide to Congresswoman Anna Eshoo and district director for Assemblymember Evan Low. She is running for District 5 Santa Clara County supervisor in November to address housing costs, homelessness and crime.

Michele Lew is the former CEO and president of the Asian Americans for Community Involvement from 2005-2016. File photo.

Michele Lew

Michele Lew is the former CEO and president of Asian Americans for Community Involvement from 2005-2016. She helped expand primary care health services, launched gambling treatment programs and expanded the group’s presence in East San Jose, where she said there’s a large and growing lower-income Asian population. 

“I worry about the dramatic income disparity in Silicon Valley and how that impacts everyone, especially low-income Asian Americans,” she told San José Spotlight. “Asian people now are the largest racial group in the county, and it is incumbent on us to work with all communities in Silicon Valley to make sure we’re taking care of each other.”

Lew said growing up in the 70s, there were few Asian American students in her elementary school. Her parents tried to assimilate into mainstream culture, she said, by speaking English in the home to help their children succeed. As CEO of The Health Trust, Lew is committed to health equity and wants to help expand the county’s health-related safety net, she said.

Former Congressman Mike Honda speaks at the International LGBT Leaders Conference. File photo.

Mike Honda

Mike Honda, who served in Congress from 2001 to 2017, was the second Asian American elected to the California Legislature. He was appointed to serve on the San Jose Planning Commission in 1971 and elected to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in 1990. He served in the state Assembly from 1996 to 2001. Honda later had a hand in politics, supporting the Democratic Party, working for immigrants’ rights and promoting Asian American lawmakers.

Honda was about 14-months-old when his family was relocated to an internment camp near Granada, Colorado during World War II. This month, he attended a ceremony designating the area as part of the national park system. Honda recalls fighting with students in elementary school who called him a “Jap,” a derogatory name for Japanese Americans.

“Through my father, I began to understand we need to know our own history,” he told San Jose Spotlight. “He told me about the camps. My dad made sure I understood what happened and why it happened.”

Honda became involved in government after returning from his experience in the Peace Corp. Former San Jose Mayor Norm Mineta appointed Honda to the city’s planning commission and as chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. Mineta was the first Asian-American he knew in politics, he said. Mineta became his mentor, he added.

Norm Mineta was San Jose’s first Asian American mayor and the first Asian American to serve as Secretary of Commerce and Cabinet Secretary. File photo.

Norm Mineta

Norm Mineta represented Silicon Valley in Congress from 1975 to 1995. He was San Jose’s first Asian American mayor from 1971 to 1975, and the first Asian American to serve in a U.S. Cabinet position. He served as secretary of commerce under President Bill Clinton and secretary of transportation under President George W. Bush. Mineta co-founded the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

The son of Japanese immigrants living in San Jose, he was 10 and wearing his Cub Scout uniform when his family was sent to an internment camp after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. While serving in Congress, he was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Liberties Act, which required the U.S. government to apologize to Japanese Americans sent to the camps.

As secretary of transportation on 9/11, after watching United Airlines Flight 175 crash into the South Tower of the World Trade Center in New York and learning American Airlines Flight 77 had struck the Pentagon, Mineta ordered 4,500 flights grounded and diverted to Canada. For his efforts, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“The vice president was seated across from me,” he previously told San José Spotlight. “I thought he was going to break his neck when he snapped around to listen to what I was saying.”

The city’s airport was renamed in his honor to San Jose Mineta International Airport. This year, a statue was unveiled for his remarkable service to country and city. Mineta died in May 2022 at age 90.

Otto Lee is at work in his Milpitas-based campaign office during his run for Santa Clara County supervisor in this file photo.

Otto Lee

Otto Lee spent his childhood in Hong Kong. His family immigrated to California when he was 15 due to political unrest. Lee’s father, who had been an attorney, became a restaurant owner in America. Lee, who had experience waiting tables and dish washing, became an attorney himself and opened a law firm.

Before Lee became a politician, he served 28 years in the Navy, including several tours in the Middle East. He learned to not give up and keep charging forward. He later served on the Sunnyvale Planning Commission, where he helped orchestrate smart growth and a revitalization of its downtown. He was one of the Sunnyvale City Council’s first Asian American members, serving from 2003 to 2011. Lee served as vice mayor from 2005 to 2006 and as mayor from 2006 to 2007. He created a Mayoral Green Ribbon Committee to promote environmental awareness.

In November 2020, Lee was elected to the District 3 seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, following a campaign focused on affordable housing, homelessness and public and behavioral health. As supervisor, Lee works to address the growing fentanyl problem in the county, especially after he lost a 29-year-old cousin to an overdose. In January 2022, Lee and Supervisor Susan Ellenberg declared a mental health crisis due to mental illness and substance use disorders and charged the county with creating a plan to address treatment needs.

“Service has been at the core of my values and life’s path and I wanted to help my neighbors, so I volunteered to serve on the Sunnyvale Planning Commission,” Lee told San José Spotlight. “Norm Mineta has always been an inspiration, but it was during my time as commissioner that I got to meet and learn from him, along with Paul Fong, Michael Chang and Mike Honda. Their mentorship and guidance have inspired my service to the community.”

In the state Assembly, Paul Fong focused on affordable housing, education, the environment and education. Photo courtesy of Alchetron.

Paul Fong

Long known as the Godfather of AAPI politics,” Paul Fong served in the state Assembly from December 2008 to November 2014, where he focused on affordable housing, the environment and education. Fong especially cared about the environment, introducing a law banning the possession, sale and distribution of shark fins and worked with the Sea Turtle Restoration Project.

Raised in Sunnyvale, Fong was 3 when his family emigrated from Macau. A third-generation flower grower, he opened the Flower Cottage, a flower shop in Sunnyvale, in 1980. Before being elected to the state Assembly in 2008, Fong, who earned a bachelor’s in sociology and master’s in public administration from San Jose State University, was a professor of Asian American studies at De Anza College and political science at Evergreen Valley College. He teaches history at San Jose State University. Fong served as a trustee of the Foothill–De Anza Community College District from 1993 to 2008.

“Asian hate has been going on for a long time,” he said on Ding Ding TV. “There’s been a lot of Asian hate throughout the history of Asian Americans in this country and we need to stop that.”

Sarita Kohli is President and CEO of Asian Americans for Community Involvement. Photo courtesy of Asian Americans for Community Involvement.

Sarita Kohli

Sarita Kohli became president and CEO of Asian Americans for Community Involvement in May 2017. She is also a licensed marriage and family therapist. At AACI, Kohli works to provide the community with clinical services, mental health and community programming.

“Her dedication and passion to providing health and wellness services to communities in need, coupled with her business acumen makes her the ideal person to lead AACI,” Hanley Chew, chair of AACI’s board of directors, said in a statement.

Kohli joined AACI in 2003, serving as program coordinator for the Center for Survivors of Torture (CST). In 2005, she became the director of mental health and community programs and served as executive vice president from 2014 to 2016. Michele Lew, prior CEO and president of the organization, said Kohli is a superb leader who has continued to expand AACI’s services, including launching dental services and growing AACI’s presence in East San Jose.

In May, Kohli and her team were honored at the 13th annual Behavioral Health Community Heroes Award for the CST program and continuing refugee support. 

Partnering with the California delegation, Ro Khanna brought more than $1 billion in American Rescue Plan funds to Santa Clara and Alameda counties. File photo.

Ro Khanna

Ro Khanna was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In the 1970s, his parents emigrated from India to provide a better life for their children. Khanna’s commitment to public service was inspired by his grandfather who was active in Gandhi’s independence movement, working with Lala Lajpat Rai and fighting for human rights.

Prior to serving in Congress, Khanna was deputy assistant secretary of commerce in the Obama administration. Since being elected to Congress in 2016, he’s worked on banning political action committee and lobbyist funding, creating technology and manufacturing jobs, supporting apprenticeships and vocational training and investing in new industries and clean technology. He supports Medicare for All, affordable child care and free public college and vocational school.

Khanna brought CEOs of fossil fuel companies before Congress to testify about climate disinformation and held hearings to investigate health harms associated with leaded aviation fuel, wildfire preparation measures and the effect of climate change on food supply.

“Climate change is not only devastating to the environment and the economy, but it also disproportionately impacts low-income communities and communities of color,” he previously told San José Spotlight. “The government has to pass the Green New Deal, and we need to invest in innovative solutions to combat climate change.”

Partnering with the California delegation, he brought more than $1 billion in American Rescue Plan funds to Santa Clara and Alameda counties. Khanna worked on legislation which formed the basis of the CHIPS and Science Act, which invested $52.7 billion in semiconductor research, development, manufacturing and workforce development. He also helped secure $4.1 million in federal funding for the Silicon Valley African American Cultural Center.

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected].

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