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The Colorful World of Rich Tu

Photos By : Nathan Bajar

Rich Tu was a New Yorker living in Oregon during the Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton presidential election.

 

Oregon is not like New York. The food is different. And the people, let’s just say, are not as diverse. Despite working for a multinational corporation, Rich felt out of place.

“I was out of my comfort zone,” says Rich, who now serves as a vice president of digital design for ViacomCBS MTV Entertainment Group.

 

So, during the election run-up, as the candidates solidified their platforms to sell to the masses and Rich heard the anti-immigrant remarks by the future president, he felt uneasy.


But Trump’s words, at that time, weren’t just an insult to Rich, a Filipino American whose parents came to the U.S. from the Philippines in the mid-1960s, but also to his friends. He grew up surrounded by immigrants or children of immigrants who’d made the ultimate sacrifice.

“There was a lot of rhetoric around immigrants,” Rich says. “Everything was extremely negative and derogatory. It felt like an attack not just on the backbone of who built this country, immigrants, but it felt like a personal attack. It was a personal affront to every immigrant who came to this country to dream and sacrifice, not only for themselves but for the future of their kids.”

It was at that moment, Rich flipped the script.

Rich Tu in Brooklyn, NY.

Rather than tear down, he wanted to build up. He wanted people to know about the contributions of immigrants and the role they play in society. “If there’s one thing that I know how to do, I know how to create,” Rich says. “I know how to make stuff.”

With some knowledge of GarageBand software and a mic, Rich began gathering his friends — immigrants and leaders in the creative industry — to his apartment to chat. Inspired by Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, who at the time spoke about Black excellence, leading by example and uplifting the Black community, Rich wanted to do the same. But for the immigrant community.

“Immigrant excellence,” is how Rich phrases it.

“That’s what makes this country great,” exclaims Rich. “What’s beautiful about this is that anyone can be an immigrant. It’s not predisposed to just people who recently arrived here. It’s a mindset.”

So since 2016, Rich has hosted a podcast called First Generation Burden, the title referencing the burden on immigrants and their children to succeed and live the American Dream.

The free podcast is described as a conversation that “focuses on the intersection of immigrants and the creative community. We celebrate the unique and diverse immigrant population in America through long-form interviews. Basically, it’s just a bunch of fun conversations with good people.”

“I wanted to release my frustrations and do something cathartic and in a constructive way,” he says. “It was a statement.” Making a statement has been Rich’s forte since winning the Young Guns International Award in 2010.

Born in New Jersey and raised by immigrant parents, Rich had a knack for artistry. He spent hours at comic book shops, reading Marvel and DC Comics. He knew the authors and studied their styles: Mark Bagley’s Ultimate Spider-Man, Todd McFarlane’s Amazing Spider-Man and others. “I was always a creative thinker,” says Rich, who credits his father, a trained architect.

 

Despite being an artist at heart, he graduated from Rutgers with a general degree — communications — and a minor in psychology. But it wasn’t until he pursued his masters at the School of Visual Arts that he began taking himself and his artwork seriously. “I initially wanted to be a comic book illustrator, but I didn’t have the patience and discipline for that specifically,” he says.

The award-winning design work of Rich Tu.

Instead, Rich focused on crafting his visual art skills. He describes his work as a mix of bold, colorful, energetic and line-driven design. He began contributing to The New York Times and Shepard Fairey’s Swindle magazine. He started his career in advertising, working weekends doing mock-up ads. The gig paid little, but it gave Rich a sense of direction and pointed him to a more significant industry.

Taking advice from his brother-in-law, an artist, Rich put together and submitted a portfolio of personal and professional work to The One Club, a nonprofit for the creative community. The organization’s Young Guns award is one of the pre-eminent honors for artists under 30 years old in the creative industry. The list of winners is a who’s who of creative industry leaders.

“Once I won that, it opened a lot of doors,” Rich says.

Being so young and achieving so much, and as a person of color, he soon realized that not everyone in every boardroom he walked into looked like him. Even in the creative industry, there aren’t a lot of people of color in leadership roles.

So, Rich turned his attention to uplifting other people of color. He believes in diversity.

At Nike, Rich worked on several campaigns, one of which championed immigrant rights. He designed the limited-edition Nike Air Max 270 React shoes, sale proceeds of which went to the American Civil Liberties Union to support immigrants’ rights.

The shoe design with Nike is one of his first collaborations inspired by the First Generation Burden podcast, Rich says. The podcast, now encompassing 64 interviews ranging from 30–60 minutes long, is in its fifth year. Last year, it received Honoree recognition in The Webby awards for Live Podcast Recording.

Fast Company, a technology, business and design news outlet, said the podcast is something that artists should listen to. For Rich, the podcast allows him to have a deeper connection to the people he knows.

In one of his first podcasts, he interviews Ahmed Klink, a well-known celebrity photographer. Born in Lebanon and at the age of two, Ahmed, with the help of a 17-year-old family member, fled the country’s civil war for the Syrian border en route to France to reunite with his parents.

In another podcast, Veda Partalo, a vice president at Spotify, talks about her journey. Originally from Bosnia and escaping that country’s civil war, she and her family spent more than a year at a Hungarian refugee camp.

“When you hear stuff like that, you begin to connect so many dots about that person,” Rich says. “The strength of that person and their innate drive. They are truly an inspiration.”

When he speaks about his guests, Rich’s voice is a mix of passion and excitement. He doesn’t get paid to host the podcast, nor has he sought out advertisements. At least not yet.

“Selfishly, I want to learn from my friends in an open and honest forum. So I can grow myself.”  

Rich took a break from the podcast earlier this year for a few months though is now looking to ramp up again and connect with other creatives.

“This is a way to celebrate ourselves,” says Rich. “It is the ability to connect and to show the diversity, the variety, as well as create a community around the shared thoughts and feelings that we are global citizens. We are willing to tell our tales that show pride and that we are the tellers of our own story.” 

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