Meet our Board Member: Bill Imada

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CAAM is incredibly grateful to have a group of esteemed board members. We recently launched a series of blog posts to introduce them. Bill Imada joined the Center for Asian American Media’s board 10 years ago and is the founder, chairman and chief connectivity officer of IW Group, an advertising, marketing and communications agency focusing on the growing multicultural and millennial markets. Bill is also on the board of directors of PBS. Bill has been instrumental in building CAAM’s family of supporters and being a strong voice for public media.

Below, he shares more about his upbringing, his college years as an activist and leader, and how media plays a role in shaping public discourse.

Can you tell us a little about your personal background—where you grew up and how that has shaped your understanding of the world?
I was born in Ontario, Oregon, in the poorest county in Eastern Oregon. My parents, grandparents, and other family members farmed potatoes, sugar beets, onions, and other produce. While I was still young, my parents uprooted the family and we relocated to Los Angeles. My world was shaped primarily by my parents, who worked long hours to ensure that their children would have a happy, all-American lifestyle. My life experience was shaped, in part, by watching my dad serve as “the gardener” for the wealthy families of Brentwood, Bel Air, and Beverly Hills. And by my mom, who ironed clothes, sheets and pillow cases for upper-middle-class and wealthy families, who didn’t enjoy doing such chores for themselves.

I am the product of public schools and lived in neighborhoods where Asian Americans—mostly of Japanese heritage—were the predominant minority. I was mostly a loner and was painfully shy. I really didn’t find my voice until I entered high school, where 65 percent of the student body was of Jewish American heritage. Most of my friends were Jewish, Asian or African American. In my high school years, my hair length was down to my shoulders and I didn’t really care about going to college. When I graduated, I chose Humboldt State University (to get as far away from L.A. as possible), but ended up at California State University, Northridge, since I wasn’t able to get into the dorms in Arcata, California. At Cal State Northridge, I became an activist for social justice and civil rights, protesting against apartheid in South Africa and demanding that the campus have a more robust Asian American studies program. I later ran for student body president and was the first Asian American to hold that position.

What would you say drives your work as a CAAM board member, and in all of your work?
I am driven by a need to help others. As Booker T. Washington once said: “If you want to lift up yourself, lift up someone else.” I feel that is part of my purpose in life. I was also told by a mentor that I could repay him for his time, energy and support by helping 100 others. To me, helping 100 others was easy. I made a promise to myself that I would expand that number to 1,000 or more. And once I achieved 1,000 assists, I raised the bar even higher. Phil Knight of Nike said it best: “There is no finish line.” Individuals who set out to help others rarely rest or end their quest to help others. It’s part of our DNA. It defines who we are.

What drew you to CAAM?
CAAM is purposeful. It disrupts. It enables. And it gives Asians, Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and other Pacific Islanders an opportunity to express themselves through films, videos, and storytelling. It has a level of brand authenticity that is easy to get behind. And [CAAM] provides a platform for creative and artistic expression that has its roots in social justice, equality, and diversity. I also like being around creative people and hope that some of that creativity will rub off from time to time onto me. We can all use a bit of creativity, inspiration, and a broader purpose in our lives.

Can you talk about your involvement in media organizations over the years?
I first discovered the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (NAATA) when I was serving as a consultant for a major beer, snacks, and theme parks company. NAATA, before it became CAAM, was my first exposure to film. Later, after co-founding an advertising and public relations company, I became the chairman of the Asian American Advertising Federation (3AF), an industry association based in San Francisco that works closely with ethnic print and broadcast media supporting the greater Asian American community. I am also active in national and regional advertising, marketing, and public relations councils and advisory boards, including the PR Advisory Councils for the University of Florida and the University of Southern California, the Advertising Educational Foundation, and the Marketing Advisory Council for Western Connecticut State University. Finally, I serve as a member of the External Advisory Council for Nielsen, which measures media consumption throughout the world, and serve as a board member to PBS and the PBS Foundation.

What role do you think CAAM plays in diversity, including changing peoples’ careers, changing communities, and changing perspectives?
The Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities are diverse, so CAAM plays a pivotal role in educating the wider public that we fully embrace and own our diversity. CAAM has widened opportunities for people in front of the camera and behind it as well. What the public doesn’t always see is the myriad of people who work behind the scenes to make a film come to life. CAAM is also enabling AAPIs and others to tell stories on multiple platforms, but hasn’t forgotten the value of people-to-people discourse.

What areas of CAAM have you worked on and what do you hope to do with CAAM in the future?
I have focused most of my time on bringing new funders to CAAM. It takes time, energy, strong relationships, talent, and monetary resources to support CAAM’s critical work. What I hope to do in the future is to elevate CAAM’s stature nationally. More people should have an opportunity to know CAAM.