Asian American Spotlight - Debbie Shon
November 14, 2021
• Posted in

Debbie Shon is a force of nature and a leader who has the chutzpah, intelligence, and resume of a true super woman. A graduate of USC and Georgetown Law, Debbie has been a political, legal, sports and entertainment powerhouse for decades. She is the first registered agent for the National Basketball Association, one of the first Asian American C-suite executives in Corporate America (United States Steel), former CEO of Ticketmaster China, Chief Strategy Officer at USA Gymnastics, and national board member of The Smithsonian.

Tell us about your background.

I’m a third generation Korean-American from Southern California. My people came to the shores of the United States in 1904. My father was born in Cuba and raised in Hawaii. My mother’s side came to California through Hawaii as well.

I don’t know why, but I’ve always gravitated towards politics. I’m not good at anything except arguments (as my husband will attest), and I’ve always gravitated towards the unusual. I’m from LA, which means sports and entertainment. Unlike now, when you can track guys with a click of a mouse, I had to go out and find my heroes the old-fashioned way. I would look up something called the yellow or white pages of a telephone book, and connect the dots on how to get to my favorite singer or actor. I would stand in front of their houses and follow them, or stand in front of a movie studio and then track them down as they left the studio. And I did this at the junior high school level. That’s how nuts I was.

Koreans weren’t really that large of a population, and like most immigrants, we gravitated towards a church or some kind of religious group where we all gathered and shared our food, culture, and language. But I’m third generation, and I didn’t want to speak any language other than English, primarily because I didn’t feel the utility. I ended up speaking Italian and French. And instead of going to Korean school, when my mom would drop us off, I would climb to the rooftop with my transistor radio (we didn’t have iPods or anything else back then) and I would blast rock and roll music. I would do this until my mom came back, and then I’d come down from the roof.

Who would you say your role model is?

You know, I remember giving a speech once to a large group of university students. They asked me who my mentor was, and I thought nobody that I know of... then, Angela Oh, the civil rights activist, hit me and said “It’s your mother...of course it's your mother. She's a trailblazer.” And I thought, You know what? She's absolutely right!

I had this very strong female model right in front of me. At a time when women were relegated to staying home and not doing much outside the house, my mother was a triple major from USC who lost her husband early, but had the wherewithal, strength and power to raise four children on her own, take care of her own mother, and take care of my father's parents at the same time. I don't think my generation had that kind of wherewithal to step up and fill that void. And yet she painted a mural for us that showed you can do anything as long as you put in the work and understand that you're going to have to bust down some doors. Sometimes you'll lose. If so, you just got to pull yourself up, suck it up and move on. And she demonstrated that every day.

My mother became a teacher after my dad died. She went back to school, got her diploma in education so she could put food on the table, and somehow or other, became part of the bilingual, multinational, and multicultural push in the Los Angeles Unified School District. She helped write the first multicultural program in the country and helped get a lot of people elected to school boards who thought the way she did and believed in public education, which is the way out of the ghetto, the barrio, or wherever you’re from.

So I watched her through the years, standing on stage to address major groups and talk about public education and educating all children, even those that can't speak English who are new to this country. Of course she was my role model. She was definitely a template for me to watch and be encouraged by. 

Could you tell us more about your childhood?

Well, I had an unusual childhood where anything was open to me. For some strange reason, my mother indulged me more than any of the other kids, whether it was chasing after Elvis Presley or the Beatles. Later on, I would pretend to be the press or media. I mean, I was like 13 and I would flash some little thing I made up. There weren’t computers back then. I had to go to the library where there was a photocopy machine, and even those were rare. I made little press badges for myself, pretended to be a reporter to get in to see whoever I wanted to meet. My mother indulged it to the point where she ended up following me to some of these locations. And when I would get kicked out, she would talk her way in. So she got to know the Rolling Stones. She got to know the Beatles. She got to know Herman's Hermits, all of these people that I followed. And she would be backstage because they loved her. I mean, here's this little feisty gal pushing her way in because her daughter, along with her little friends from school, wanted to meet them. My mother would come out from backstage and say, “OK, now they're ready to meet you”. So, yeah, I got to meet those people when nobody else did because of my mother. And that launched sort of my desire to do whatever I wanted to do. I became a trial lawyer and a good one at that. There's this sense, I think, having grown up with an absence at home, of wanting to protect others because I felt I could.

Can you tell us about your work in politics?

So, I think there are blogs talking about this—that I wasn't Asian enough for the Asian community because I didn't speak the language. And because I didn't accept the status quo if I thought I deserved something. I don't second guess. I don't feel timid when I think I deserve something, when I think somebody else's injustice hurts them. I believe it can be changed. I don't believe in mincing my words. I don't believe in taking second best. I don't believe in being kept back. And it annoys people. It angers people. Even my own party once told me this. It was the only time I let my Democratic Party tell me I wasn't ready.

There was a partner of mine, who had done his time in pro bono work, and we were going to run for assembly in L.A. It was a new district. Koreatown is carved into it. And I thought, I could win this. And I put away my little pennies and I had enough money. I believed so much in this that I would even take a second mortgage out if I believed in somebody or myself. And I thought this was an easy run. I went to the party and I said, I want to run for this office. I've already committed one hundred and fifty grand, which today probably isn't a lot of money, but back then it was enough to get through the first stretch. No one else had that kind of money in their coffers yet. The Democratic Party, including several of my very well known partners, told me ‘It's not your time, Debbie. It's not your time. You have to let John go first.’ And I thought, white boy gets to go before me, so I agreed to wait. And he was ahead in the polls. But on the day of the election, he went out to see a movie. But that's the day you've got to be out there greeting everybody and making sure they're voting for you. He lost by 7,000 votes. So I could have had that seat.

That was my last foray in actually trying to become elected, though. Now, I'm trying to elect people to do what I think is right. So this is a long way of just saying, I think I'm unusual because I know I belong in the room. I know I belong at the table. And if there's no room at the table, I make a bigger table. As Shirley Chisholm said, “if you don't have a chair, bring your own.”

What do you think the next steps are to bring about change for the Asian-American community?

We need to increase representation. My passion is politics, sports and entertainment. And I work with them all sort of meshed together. Politics, sports and entertainment, because I think the latter two inform the first. You know, when Black Panther came out at the same time as Crazy Rich Asians, I went, “oh no.” I want a Black Panther for our community. As much as Crazy Rich Asians was kind of cute and sweet, and gave a lot of employment to Asian-American actors, I wanted a Black Panther where little kids can stand in their living room in their Black Panther and Wakanda Forever garb. I wanted that for us. This world exists only in non reality, where we control the world beyond what anyone else can envision. And leading everything, when in reality we actually do. If you look at Silicon Valley, why doesn't anybody know that the CEO of Google is South Asian?

Recently, I was watching Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever. Episode nine of the last season. She allowed the Hapa kid to come to the forefront and talk about Manzanar with his grandfather. It was all of two minutes worth of the sitcom. But I was weeping. I was like, oh my God. She did it. She reached an audience that we were never able to reach.

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