May 1 marks day one of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month 2021. Origins date back to the late ’70s, when Congress introduced five joint resolutions designating one week in May to commemorate the accomplishments of Asian and Pacific Americans. Over the years, the gesture was extended into a monthlong celebration, paying tribute to the myriad contributions that generations of Asian American and Pacific Islander Americans have made to the country’s history, society, and culture.
In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, our editorial associate sat down with four members of the Keller Williams AAPI community to explore how these agents’ cultural identities and experiences inform the ways in which they conduct their businesses. Here, these agents share their journeys and insights within the real estate industry.
All four of our featured agents are active members of the Asian Real Estate Association of America (AREAA). AREAA strives to promote sustainable homeownership opportunities in Asian American communities. To learn more about the organization and its mission, click the button below.
PJ Santiago, Fairfax – Capital Properties
At 16 years old, PJ Santiago wanted a PlayStation but found himself having insufficient funds. So, he took a job working as a receptionist at a mortgage brokerage. In the process, he not only got his coveted console (as well as a pancake maker, which he shares, was quite underwhelming), but he got a taste of the satisfaction of working in the housing industry, and the value of looking at your business through a cultural lens.
“Because of the diversity among the people that I worked for (I worked with individuals of Pakistani, Korean, Vietnamese, and Thai descent), I was able to incorporate a lot of those different approaches in the way I take care of my clients and run my business now, 20 years later,” Santiago shares. That first job left a lasting imprint in Santiago’s life, and built lifelong relationships. In fact, two of his former bosses actually invested in real estate with him after he got his license. “In Asian culture, if you provide a strong, positive contribution to what someone is trying to do, they are going to remember you and they’re going to be working with you, because loyalty is something that is ingrained in our culture.”
Today, Santiago runs his business as a solo agent with help from a transaction coordinator and a marketing admin. Not only does he have a substantial business primarily generated through word-of-mouth referrals, but he has a substantial presence within his community through philanthropic efforts such as providing medical-grade supplies to those in need and becoming a founding partner of the art therapy program at his local children’s hospital. Within the industry, he is committed to the Professionalism and Ethics Advisory Group of Northern Virginia.
Santiago, who is a first generation Asian American by way of his Chinese mother and Filipino father, has a true gift for connecting with his clients. As one client of Korean descent has made him aware, he possesses a strength called ‘nunchi.’ “In Korean culture, nunchi is a word that basically states that you have really good instincts when it comes to reading a room and understanding both physical and emotional boundaries,” Santiago explains. “It is saying you have really good emotional intelligence.”
He credits this gift to a combination of his experiences, his attending George Washington University (a top-tier university when it comes to the diversity index), his failures, and his community. “I am succeeding because of the help and support and community-centric approach that I have when it comes to interacting with the Asian American community,” he says. “At the end of the day, I know that if I work with the KW culture in mind, I’m complimenting my AAPI heritage.”
Linda Lee, Carmel Valley / Del Mar
When Linda Lee decided to make the switch from CPA to Realtor 19 years ago, her parents were not thrilled. For a long time when interacting with her clients, Lee would reference her CPA background – but as she started planting sturdy roots within the industry, she started taking deep pride in her work solely as a Realtor, and taking powerful steps toward moving the industry forward.
Running her business as an individual agent who leverages additional associates on an as-needed basis, Lee is a member of Gary Keller’s Top 100 Individual Agent Group, and is currently at about $35M in closed and pending transactions for the year 2021. “I just want to be the best Realtor I can, and be a role model here in the U.S. and internationally,” Lee shares. “I want to be the best version possible at all times.” And, of course, Lee wants to continue building a big life for her 14-and-a-half year old canine companion, Sugar.
In the United States, Lee has worked toward this mission through her involvement as the former President of the Greater San Diego Association of Realtors, and State President of the Women’s Council of Realtors, as well as serving in the NAR Leadership Academy in various capacities at the local, state, and national levels. Internationally, she is fostering relationships among the industry by serving as a National Association of Realtors Global Ambassador for China, Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
Born to Taiwanese parents herself, Lee’s role focuses on building relationships with investors and buyers from these countries, both on the residential and commercial sides, while facilitating communications and fostering more opportunities for NAR members. “I want to do this for the NAR, for the U.S., and provide both sides with a better understanding and be that bridge,” she shares. In this role, it’s not uncommon for her to be in rooms with top investors looking to become more comfortable and knowledgeable with the market and its various players. “Because I’m a working Realtor, boots on the ground, I can give people examples of what is actually happening,” she says.
Lee’s background plays a huge role in the volume and variety of projects she has chosen to align with. Of her heritage, she says: “I am from Taiwan originally. Being Asian, and with the current climate, I would like to highlight how we contribute to the success of America. We are hardworking, invest heavily in our education, and continue to develop ourselves as responsible citizens of the USA.” As for her family, “In general, we are very low-key and hardworking. We go the extra mile.” On a grand scale, this extra mile is evident. But, it extends to the small details, such as taking the time to email the buyer’s agents on the other end of her transactions and letting them know why her seller did not select their clients, making them smarter for their future multiple-offer scenarios. All in all, Lee is focused on creating a smarter, more knowledgeable, and kinder industry at every level – from the local agent to the international market.
Tommy Choi, KW ONEChicago
After graduating college, Tommy Choi found himself in what he refers to as a ‘corporate crossroads.’ “Every day, I woke up and the first thought in my head was, how many days until Friday?” he shares. But as he stepped away from that world, his transition into real estate was a natural one. Choi’s current career path pays homage to his grandfather – who immigrated to the United States from Seoul, South Korea, to Chicago, later joined by Choi’s father. “For my grandfather, one of the biggest opportunities he sought after from day one was to own his own home,” Choi says. “He wanted to put his stake in the ground and be able to say, ‘This piece of America, this piece of Chicago’ was his because he worked hard to achieve it.”
As a youngster, Choi learned that homeownership isn’t a guarantee or a right, and it requires work to achieve and even harder work to maintain. During that time, Choi’s grandfather “Planted a seed in me that wouldn’t start to sprout until I was at that corporate crossroads,” he says. Now one-half of the Weinberg Choi Residential team’s leadership, with $80M in sales volume for 2020 and a part of Gary Keller’s Top 200 Masterminds, Choi is thankful for the lessons learned from his grandfather, and shares his story at every listing appointment. “Why I’m sitting there at the dinner table is because I’m honoring my grandfather’s legacy. I’m honoring him by helping people achieve the same goal of homeownership,” he says.
The concept of legacy is the thread that weaves every aspect of Choi’s business: his mission is to help build the legacies of his clients, family members, team members, and friends through providing the perfect real estate experience. “My proudest moments revolve around that,” he shares. “Whether it’s through achieving homeownership, or helping our POC clientele build wealth through relationships. Unfortunately, the dark side of history is that there were a lot of opportunities that were missed out on because at the time we were on the wrong side of fair housing laws.”
Choi’s Korean American background and family story fuels his continued growth in part because he sees himself as the ROI for his parents and grandparents. “I want to make sure that they feel proud of everything I do,” he says. “But the other side of it is my other AAPI Realtor members, and any BIPOC Realtor members.” As a child, he remembers collecting sports cards, and coming across a card of Pittsburgh Penguins hockey player Jim Paek – the first Korean-born National Hockey League player. That card sits on his desk today. “What that card did for me was that it instilled confidence that if I wanted to be a player, I could. And if I wanted to be a successful business owner, I could do that. This little card – that’s the power of inclusion, of representation, and why it matters.”
Christie Xie, Cambridge / Somerville
Born in Beijing, China, Christie Xie immigrated to the United States alongside her parents when she was 9 years old. This experience, she shared, provided her with the mindset to go after her goals and create a big business. “The biggest thing I learned while growing up is that if you want to do something, you need to do it yourself,” she shares. “With that mindset, I am naturally self-motivated, and I became much more independent as a person, which enabled me to focus on the execution of my ideas.”
Having these strengths allowed Xie to leave her initial career in the finance industry, and build a team business which does $20M to $25M in sales volume on a yearly basis, and also covers two additional lines of service, including asset management and developments such as flips, renovations, and new construction.
Xie’s intention was never to join the industry, but as she began educating herself on real estate while buying her first condo at the age of 25, the transition felt natural. As part of her educational journey as a consumer, she signed up for courses and read books in order to gain the knowledge she needed for her purchase. Then, she decided to stick around on a part-time basis. She remembers walking into a local brokerage, being given the hiring manager’s number, and leaving a voicemail. “The second day they called me back and said I was hired because my voicemail sounded so professional.”
Currently, Xie’s personal mission is to give everyone around her the opportunity to feel financially secure – a mission she is able to deliver on through the fearless mindset developed from a young age.