When a young artist works hard and rides his talent to a top spot in his industry, it’s a beautiful thing to watch. When he uses his position and influence to make space for aspiring young artists behind him, that reveals his true colors, vibrant hues of generosity, compassion, and love for his professional community. Rich Tu is an award-winning designer and artist, and a first-generation Filipino-American.
Currently, he is Group Creative Director at Jones Knowles Ritchie in New York City – having recently stepped away from his role at MTV Entertainment Group as digital design lead, and before that Nike Inc.
Tu’s experience growing up in a modest suburb of New Jersey, looking and feeling different from his peers (a common feeling within the AAPI community), undoubtedly impacted the calling he has to blaze a trail for others who have been underserved and overlooked in educational and professional circles. “I wasn’t the best athlete or the coolest kid,” says Tu. “I was definitely the nerd – I’m still a nerd! My elementary school was in East Orange, and my friend circle was predominantly black, so I stood out a little bit. During the weekdays, I was the only Asian kid in a class of 40 black and brown kids, and when I got home I would watch anime and the Fresh Prince, while eating Filipino food. This blending of culture influences me to this day, and my creativity is better for it.”
Unfortunately, the creative industry has a lot of invisible barriers and unseen gatekeepers. There are too few people of color holding high positions in media and creative agencies. That number is even less when you cross reference it with LGBTQ+ and female leaders. This sad fact is not lost on Rich Tu.
“The glass ceiling has a lot of different names, but they all reference the same thing – the invisible barriers that prevent talented people from underserved communities from achieving their potential,” states Tu.
Now that he’s in a position to help, he is working to make a difference in the lives of creatives of color. He partnered with the iconic “One Club for Creativity” to co-found a program called “Colorful,” a first-of-its-kind awards and grants program. “Colorful” breaks down financial barriers for early-stage creatives under 30 and members of the BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color, including Asian and Latinx) communities.
Mindful of how expensive it can be to apply for industry awards, he wanted this program to be accessible to those who can’t afford burdensome application fees. Tu and the “One Club” created the “Colorful Grant” and made it free to enter.
“I always feel we can do more to change this industry for the better, challenge pre-existing norms, and provide inclusive spaces for BIPOC representation,” states Tu. “I wanted to put my money where my mouth is and build upon the great work we did last year. That’s why we do this, to send a signal to the industry that we’re here too and that we won’t go away.”
In “Colorful’s” first year, the winner, filmmaker-Sean Wang, received an obligation-free $3,000 without any stipulation about how it should be spent. “I was somewhat inspired by reality show social experiments, but I wanted only the good parts without the toxicity,” says Tu.
“We are doing it again this year, and we brought in more money,” he continues. “The first place winner will receive $3,000, second place will receive $2,000, and two third-place winners will receive $1,000 each. And the best part is that it’s still free to enter for creators under 30. This is wide open for directors, designers, artists, photographers and a whole slew of disciplines.
Through “One Club” and the “Colorful Grant”, Tu and his partners are making a groundbreaking difference. Their vision for the creative community as a whole is to make it easier for students and early-stage creatives to participate in a safe space – and provide genuine financial opportunities.
When asked why he involved himself in this project, Tu explains he hopes to normalize, and not stigmatize, young creatives of color. He hopes to inspire and empower a new generation of “decision-makers with intent” and set a new standard for the industry. “It’s my goal for new stories to be shared and to reach new audiences that will feel seen,” says Tu. “We want these kids to see themselves on the page, in front of and behind the camera, in the boardroom, wherever they want to be seen. I want to empower them across different spectrums.”
His public immersion into this social impact lifestyle dates back in 2016, when Tu launched the podcast, “First Generation Burden,” which focuses on the intersection of immigrants and the creative community through longform interviews.
Tu has hosted some heavy-hitters in the art community on his podcast, some of whom are close friends. His first two episodes featured photographer Ahmed Klink and designer Juan Carlos Pagon, co-founders of Sunday Afternoon “an artist management agency and multidisciplinary creative studio representing some of the best talent working today.”
And, the hits just keep on coming as he’s since interviewed top leaders from brands like Airbnb, Spotify, and Nike. More recently, he’s talked to the likes of Melody Ehsani, an acclaimed fashion designer and the first female creative director for Foot Locker, and the streetwear leaders Ben & Bobby Hundreds, co-founders of The Hundreds.
When asked what his biggest challenge was in creating “First Generation Burden,” Tu explains that it was mainly getting over his doubts about whether people would even care about what he had to say. He started recording, and his following quickly grew. He got answers – his inbox and DMs became flooded with support from similar, like-minded folks.
His ambitions for equity even stretch into the fabric of our digital future. When asked how he feels about Web3, Tu reports that even the future of inclusivity lies in the metaverse. “It’s a brand new space and a new horizon,” says Tu. “In a space where you get to be completely yourself, it’s almost like a community acknowledgment of your identity. It’s like a reset button on how you let the world perceive you. You can hang out with your friends, be a stormtrooper, or build your own world. All the things you have no control over in the real world can be gone – or even amplified – in the metaverse.”
DEI – diversity, equity, and inclusion are a theme song in Tu’s life. It’s woven into his beliefs, thoughts, work, and play. He is on a mission to leave the world better than he found it and uses his voice and art to open doors for those who have not yet experienced his level of success and good fortune.
The opportunity to visit with Rich Tu is timely in more ways than one – May is AAPI Heritage month. He is an ally and advocate for fellow artists and humans of every race, color, and creed. As a thought leader, speaking out for fairness and inclusivity through his words, actions, and art, his purpose-driven life has become as bold, colorful, and beautiful as the art he so masterfully creates.