Allan Fung and his path to leadership in public service

By Stephen D. Zubiago

Today, I’m introducing you to my friend, Allan Fung.

Allan has a long history of public service. He began his career as a prosecutor, serving as a special assistant for the Rhode Island Attorney General, and was elected as the first Asian American mayor of the City of Cranston in 2008. In addition, he has run for governor twice in the state of Rhode Island. Now, he is in the private practice of law.

Allan and I have known each other since our high school days, and I’m thrilled he’s here to share more about his path to leadership in public service.

Listen to our full conversation below and subscribe to NP Leading the Way on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

SZ: Tell us a little bit about your background.

AF: I am very fortunate, Steve. My parents were the first generation to this country. They both met each other in Hong Kong, got married there, came over in 1969. I could never imagine doing that—leaving their country, their family, their friends to start a new life—with a family about to start. I was born the following year in 1970 in good ol’ Providence, Rhode Island, so I am a native Rhode Islander born and raised. That’s how I ended up going to Classical High School and Rhode Island College. You can see the Rhode Island theme in me. But then, you know, I veered a little bit north to Suffolk University for law school. But, decided to come back home to practice law and get involved in public service, and the rest is history. Now I owe everything to the state, my family, and I’m proud to be back here.

SZ: So tell us what your parents did upon moving to the United States.

AF: They ended up coming to Rhode Island because I had an uncle that was here first. They were in the restaurant business, so my mom and dad teamed up with my uncle. They started a restaurant, a restaurant they owned for 35 years in Cranston called Kong Wen Restaurant, which (Kwong Wen) was my dad’s name. I grew up in that restaurant with them. It was a small family-owned restaurant, so we all worked together, lived together, ate together in that restaurant.

SZ: I can vouch for Kong Wen. I lived in Cranston when my wife and I were first married. We went there all the time, and Allan’s mother, without deviation, would always add extra food to my order. So nice.

So transitioning from that, have you had any mentors and if you had, tell us about how they’ve advised you.

AF: I’ve got mentors in different parts and different aspects of my life. One of my closest friends is the CEO of Old Sturbridge Village. He’s not only a good friend, but he’s also a mentor to me, especially during those 12 years that I’ve was basically the CEO of our state’s second largest city. So through the ups and downs, I would always call on Jim, talk to him about issues that popped up, how he would handle stuff, but most importantly, just be a resource for each other on a lot of the day-to-day operational stuff.

I always looked up to my parents, and the hard work ethic they instilled in me.

But outside of just anyone in the close inner circles, I was a big fan of Dr. J. and not just his basketball playing skills. What I respected about him was his basketball playing career and professional side of life. He started his own business. I was always impressed with that entrepreneurial side, and I took a lot from his example—how he handled himself professionally, personally, and at different stages in his career.  There were many different people that I looked up to and modeled my life after.

SZ: Do you mentor anybody, and if you do, what do you talk to them about?

AF: I feel it is so important to provide mentorship to anyone that is willing and wants my help in whatever different role or focus. I found that during the time I was mayor, I helped a lot of young students that approached me about public service, community service, or even getting involved in politics. So, I have helped a lot of different people along the way.

In fact, one of the individuals I helped wanted to start a Young Republican’s club, but was having difficulty because he couldn’t get a teacher to sponsor him. He made an appointment with me, sat across from me, let me know what was going on. I picked up the phone right away, got on the phone with the superintendent, and made sure it happened. Today, this individual is working down in Washington, D.C. So, it’s stories like that where sometimes just dedicating that time to help the person sitting across from you makes a difference. It means a lot to them, it means a lot to myself, too—to see people grow and start their careers, now doing something that they are passionate about.

SZ: Let’s talk about your accomplishments. Getting elected to the city council and then mayor and being a candidate for governor are things to be proud of. I know you’ve done a lot of other things in your life as well. So talk about things you are proud of.

AF: I loved serving the past 12 years as mayor and am proud of why I got involved in politics and ran for office. I never really envisioned myself as that person with my name on the ballot when I was going through college, but I was angry. Angry at what was going in the city that was home to my parent’s restaurant. When I started looking at what was going on, that anger motivated me to run for office. I was part of the team that helped turn the city around, whether on city council or as mayor, to take it and transform it, not just the finances, but how it looks today. We’ve taken a city that was in financial trouble and turned it around. Cranston was named (three years in a row) as one of the best cities to live in America by 24/7 Wall Street. So seeing that transformation is something I am really proud of and something I’m never going to forget.

SZ: You have had a long career in politics but you’ve always been a good friend, you haven’t changed one bit at all, still exactly the same guy.

Allan, let’s switch to the topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). We’ve been having conversations in our firm on how to advance our interests on these goals. In recent weeks and months, members of the Asian American communities across the country have experienced significant racially motivated violence and harassment. Our firm stands in solidarity with our friends and colleagues in the Asian American community. What has your experience been on that issue and what have you done?

AF: Well, first of all Steve, thanks for doing that. Because it means a lot to all of us in the Asian community. It’s been some crazy times recently. But, it’s not just recently, Chinese Americans, Asian Americans have historically, for centuries, experienced a lot of racial hatred throughout our lives. It’s something that is coming more to light now, with the anti-Asian violence that we are seeing across the country. It’s really been bad and is still continuing. So having friends like yourself but also individuals all across the country recognizing what’s going on is important.

This is the kind of subject that I felt compelled to write an editorial about in the Boston Globe. DEI is something that really many businesses should embrace more, many individuals should have an opportunity to learn about their neighbors’ cultures, backgrounds, heritages.

SZ: Do you have some specific ideas, things that law firms or other businesses could do to advance that?

AF: Absolutely. You know, in my Globe article, I talk about how here in Rhode Island, you also see this a lot of times across the country, Asians are overlooked because of our nature. We tend to be very personal, very private, not speak up a lot. In management positions, a lot of us are overlooked. We’re successful, we value education, always doing well in school, and are able to get into many companies, many firms, or start our own businesses. But, we also hit what we call the proverbial bamboo ceiling, where at a certain point we are not included as part of firms’ or companies’ management or diversity programs because they think we are already all set. And, some don’t even consider us at all in my eyes.

That’s what compelled me to write that editorial for the Globe, because when I read that Eugene Chung, a first-round draft pick for the New England Patriots and former NFL assistant coach, interviewed for a job, and his interviewer looked at him and said, “Well, you are not a minority.” Which caused him to pause and double down, saying, “Well, you are not the right minority.” Come on, in this day and age, we have to do a better job of internally recognizing minorities—the strengths we bring, the talent we bring—and helping all of us move on to that next level.

That’s why mentorships are also critically important as a second component. We really should, if we can, partner and mentor a lot of people in the law firm, mentor them so that they can get to that next stage of partnership level.

SZ: Those are great suggestions.

So you had a 16-year career in politics, which is a long time, and I just wanted to share that you came through without anybody ever saying a bad word about your integrity, your motives, or your intentions, which is another thing that I’m really proud you were able to do.

Going to the rapid fire questions What was your first job?

AF: Working in the restaurant. And I never forgot it, it probably violated a few federal laws there, but I still remember to this day, eight-years old, my parents had me washing dishes, passing tables. And you know what’s so cool about it? Probably about a year ago, I was in my mom’s basement, just helping her clean stuff out. I found that milk crate I used to stand on when I was washing dishes. I just pulled it up, saying, “Hey, that’s it!” That was my first job, helping out in the restaurant. It taught me the value of hard work and how difficult it is just to earn a dollar.

SZ: If you weren’t a lawyer, what a profession would you like to be engaged in?

AF: NFL commissioner.

SZ: Good for you. For me it was chief of basketball operations for the Celtics, but Danny Ainge finally gave up the job, but they gave it to Brad Stevens. He is probably more qualified than me, so I think I’m out.

What’s something that you miss and that you want to do post pandemic?

AF: My wife and I love to travel, we are trying to book a trip right now to England. In fact, she had just turned 40 back in December, but, because of COVID-19, our trip got cancelled. So, I’m looking to try later on in the fall, take her maybe to England and really get a chance to enjoy the sights of London, maybe catch a football game if we are so fortunate to get tickets.

SZ: Allan, thanks for sharing all of your wisdom, we enjoyed it.

AF: Thanks a lot, Steve.

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Stephen D. Zubiago


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