Celebrating Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month 2024

A Q&A with IIE Team Member and Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Affinity Group Co-Lead Athena Lao

IIE proudly joins in recognizing Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month, celebrating the many contributions and accomplishments of these diverse communities. The month, which began in 1977 as Asian Pacific Heritage Week, was selected to correspond with the immigration of the first Japanese people to the United States. It also encompasses ‘Golden Spike Day’ when the transcontinental railroad was completed due to significant contributions from Chinese workers.

To mark the month this year, we spoke with Athena Lao, a member of IIE’s business development division and co-lead of the Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Group.  


Athena tells us, “AAPI cultures are vast and multifaceted, so there’s no shortage of ways to learn – whether it’s taking a language course, reading different history books about a specific country of interest, or traveling there.” She recommends that anyone who is able just, “choose a country and go from there.” While Athena notes that there are meaningful differences between the cultures of specific Asian and Pacific Island countries, “Asian American” identity, or other diasporic communities. For her, as a Filipina, she’s excited about the retrospective on Filipina artist Pacita Abad at New York’s MoMA PS1. “Her art is grand, political, and vibrant. I recommend everyone in the area check it out, too”


A self-described adventurous eater, Athena “can’t claim a favorite, but I’m always down to try any food from across Asian and Pacific Islander communities.” She recently experienced the tasting menu Naks, a Filipino restaurant in New York City. Though at a higher price than a typical dinner, she insists that “each course was thoughtful, delicious, and accompanied by a meaningful story from the chef’s life.” The experience made Athena proud to see Filipino food presented in such a creative way and even made her embrace her inner foodie, describing the cuisine as truly “elevated.”


In her own words, “Higher education is an important ladder to opportunity for many from lower-income, disadvantaged AAPI communities whose needs and stories are often forgotten or ignored.” According to the Association for Asian American Studies, only 71 institutions offer an Asian American Studies major or program. Noting the statistic, Athena expresses her wish that “more colleges had Ethnic Studies (and by extension, Asian American Studies, which falls in that) so people could be exposed to more interdisciplinary and nuanced understandings of race, ethnicity, and indigeneity;  understand better why our country is the way it is and where each comes from; and have some ideas on how we could make the US more inclusive for the communities we care about.”

At IIE, we believe that diversity, equity, inclusion, and access (DEIA) are critically important to engaging thoughtfully with the world and remain deeply committed to these principles. Formalized three years ago, the Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Affinity Group is comprised of IIE team members in various IIE office locations. The groups are a key part of IIE’s people-driven approach to pursuing and advancing its DEIA Commitment. There are five groups in addition to Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage; they are the Black Heritage, Dis/Ability and Accessibility, Hispanic and Latinx Heritage, LGBTQIA+, and Mental Health and Wellbeing affinity groups.

Athena Lao

Co-Lead, Asian and pacific Islander Heritage affinity group