One is a Federal Way alumnus who became the first Asian American to be a general manager of a major sports franchise; the other is the doctor who made sure our U.S. presidents stayed healthy; and the final honoree has worked with A-list celebrities like Will Smith and Angelina Jolie.
Richard Cho, Dr. Connie Mariano, and Teddy Zee are this year’s Asian Hall of Fame Celebration honorees. The Robert Chinn Foundation put on the event on November 19 at the Asian Resource Center in Seattle with more than 180 people in attendance. “We need heroes for our community for inspiration,” said Karen Wong, the president of the foundation. “There is no organization currently honoring distinguished Asians on a national level in a contemporary setting.”
Who are these honorees? What made them be the powerhouse they are today? They all came from humble beginnings, but they had BIG dreams.
Richard Cho, 46, is the current general manager of the Charlotte Bobcats, a journey that took some twists and turns. “It was definitely worth the sacrifice.”
The Burmese immigrant from Federal Way graduated from Washington State University with an engineering degree. From there, he worked as an engineer for Boeing. But, it wasn’t his calling. His passion was in sports.
“I did some research into different sports careers and found that a lot of sports agents as well as people in governing bodies like the NBA and NFL had law degrees. So I quit my job at Boeing and went to law school.”
While finishing his degree at Pepperdine University School of Law, Richard interned for the Sonics. He remembers sleeping on the floor of his brother’s one-bedroom apartment for free, earning $4.80 an hour as an intern. “I was starting from scratch again. It wasn’t easy.”
As Richard looked at his future and wondered how he’d move up the food chain in a field that was competitive and saturated with people with the playing pedigree that he didn’t possess, he knew he had to stand out. “I’d better be the first one in the office and the last one to leave,” Richard recalled. “I also remember thinking that I needed to learn everything I could about the business, ask a lot of questions, and help out whomever and wherever I could to help make myself indispensable.”
Richard received the work experience he was looking for with the Sonics from Director of Basketball Affairs to scouting to VP of Legal and Assistant General Manager. Fifteen years later after his internship with the team, Richard got the call that he’d been waiting for – an opportunity to be a GM for an NBA team. In 2010, he became the first Asian American General Manager for the Portland Trail Blazers. “Life is too short to not do something you love.”
Dr. Connie Mariano, 56, is the founder of the Center for Executive Medicine in Scottsdale, a medical concierge clinic for executives. “My motto for my practice is: Treat every patient as though he or she were the President of the United States.”
She should know. Dr. Mariano was the White House physician who took care of President William Clinton and President George W. Bush. She became the first military woman to head the White House Medical Unit.
An immigrant, a woman and in the military, Dr. Mariano broke barriers. She said it had a lot to do with her parents. Her mother came from a wealthy family and was a dentist when she married her father. “She taught me to seek higher education, to elevate myself and the meaning of beauty and grace.”
Unlike her mother, Dr. Mariano’s father came from humble beginnings. He enlisted in the Navy and rose to the highest enlisted rank of master chief. He retired with 30 years of active duty service. “He taught me to work hard, have a sense of humor and work well through camaraderie with co-workers.”
But Dr. Mariano said that while her parents taught her to work hard, the message came across to her as “you are never good enough.” Ironically, the successes that Dr. Mariano accomplished, she often saw was not enough. She always believed she was capable of doing more.
The self-named “Navy brat” achieved another milestone when she earned a promotion to Navy Rear Admiral, the first Filipino in U.S. History to achieve such honors. The ceremony took place in the State Dining Room. “I chose this room because many Filipino stewards of my father’s generation had served in the White House in this dining room, paving the way for me,” she recalled. “I asked my father to place one of my gold shoulder boards onto my uniform during the ceremony. His hands shook when he did so. It was a very moving moment.”
That moment was Dr. Mariano’s favorite memory at the White House. In fact, she wrote a memoir of her entire White House experience, “The White House Doctor. ”
Teddy Zee, 54, is a name recognized in Hollywood with more than 25 years of experience in the field of entertainment. He’s the executive producer behind blockbuster films like Hitch and Pursuit of Happyness. Born to Chinese-immigrant parents, the New York native’s childhood was far from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.
His mom was a housewife with limited English. This made communication with Teddy difficult during his formidable years. His father worked in the kitchen of a hotel and never made more than $17,000 a year.
“I saw how hard my dad struggled to make money. My take away was that I never wanted to work just to make money. I wanted to work and be fulfilled through my work.”
During his childhood years, Teddy used TV and film to escape, but recalls hardly seeing any Asians in a visible media. “I always felt a little alienated in the world.”
With a fascination of pop culture, TV and film, Teddy’s first job right out of college was at the human resources department for NBC. It was there he learned the roles of people who work in the creative side at the networks and studios. “They helped shape what the public sees. I asked the President of NBC Programming how he got his job. Among the things he said was that he went to Harvard Business School. So I applied and got in.”
After earning his business degree and pursuing his passion of creating films, Teddy realized his power behind the camera. “Earlier in my life, my instinct was to blend and shy away from the spotlight. But now, I feel a responsibility to be a leader in the community,” he said. He encourages young Asians and Pacific Islanders by reminding them that they can make a difference, too. “I’m proud to say that the young generation isn’t waiting for someone to step in. They are doing it themselves. Some of the biggest stars on YouTube are Asian Americans. People like Kevin Wu (KevJumba), Michelle Phan, Ryan Higa (HigaNiga) and Wong Fu Productions are changing the world one video at a time.”
Other past honorees include Former Governor Gary Locke and Olympic speed-skating champion, Apolo Ohno.
The proceeds from the Asian Hall of Fame Celebration will support the Asian Resource Center. According to the Robert Chinn Foundation, it’s the first multi-purpose facility of its kind in the United States. The center aims to provide affordable facilities for the Asian community as well as community activities.