Virgin Orbit Celebrates AAPI Heritage Month

For this year’s Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, we’re celebrating the stories of our talented AAPI teammates, each of whom are making invaluable contributions to our rocket program.

Here at Virgin Orbit, we believe wholeheartedly that the unique experiences and perspectives of the individuals on our team is one of our greatest strengths — so we’re very serious about cultivating a diverse, inclusive environment for everyone in our workspace. But we also believe we have a responsibility to effect positive change wherever we can. It’s why we’ve recently donated to and will continue to support organizations like Pacific Asian Counseling Services (PACS) and Stop AAPI Hate, which are working tirelessly to ensure there is a safe space for all in our local community.

This month and year-round, we urge everyone to acknowledge the challenges still faced by the AAPI community, both in the space industry and beyond. Each of us has a role to play in helping to build a culture of inclusion where all people are valued.

Read on to learn more about the AAPI teammates making a difference at Virgin Orbit:

Rajvir Riar, Propulsion Manufacturing Engineer

Rajvir Riar is a propulsion manufacturing engineer responsible for the build and acceptance test of propulsion components on LauncherOne. Primarily, he works on the manufacturing process for hardware that is integrated into the propulsion system, such as feed lines, and also provides engineering support during the fabrication and test process.

Rajvir is a first-generation Indian-American; his parents and sister were born in Punjab and immigrated to California in the ‘90s. “My parents were a big part of the Punjabi community where we grew up in Fresno,” he says, where they participated in local cultural events like festivals and food drives. “I was also part of a Punjabi folk dance group. And that was something my parents did growing up — they were dancers in college. All those experiences shaped who I am now and make me feel proud to represent the Punjabi identity, especially in the aerospace industry, where we are a minority.”

Rajvir recognized from an early age that there weren’t many people who looked like him visibly working in aerospace. “Something that would have helped is if I saw that representation growing up. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re capable of achieving because you don’t see somebody that’s like you in a certain position,” he says.

One message Rajvir wants folks to take away from AAPI Heritage Month this year is to practice “cultural humility.” “Be aware of your own culture, but stay open to other people’s beliefs,” he says. “Expand your understanding and use that knowledge to raise awareness and identify any inequitable systems in the workplace or just in society. It’s a team effort, and people should try to speak up.” 

Patricia Yancey, Accounts Payable Supervisor

Patricia Yancey is the supervisor for Virgin Orbit’s Accounts Payable team, which handles payments for everything (with the exception of payroll) from building rent to utilities to materials on the rocket.

Patricia’s parents emigrated from the Philippines to Canada in 1975, where she was born, before moving again to the U.S. in 1989. She was the second of four children. Her mother was a registered nurse and her father was a stay-at-home dad for a brief period, taking care of her younger brothers while earning his nursing degree in Florida. Patricia says they both worked extremely hard to provide them all with an excellent education.

She says too that her strong work ethic comes from her parents, and that her cultural background and upbringing helped mold her into the effective leader she is today: “Filipinos are really hospitable, kind, and devout people. If you’ve ever had Filipino friends, you know we’re just going to feed you all day long,” she says. “These influences have shaped who I am as a supervisor, because I always approach leadership with kindness and communication.”

For Patricia, AAPI Heritage Month is a time to celebrate the huge variety of cultures that fall under the AAPI umbrella, and to recognize the hurdles the community still faces: “We are made to be the ‘model minority’ that has succeeded in the U.S… but the reality is that not all AAPI people are afforded the same resources or opportunities,” she says. “We need to be seen for the skills and strengths we can bring to the workplace as individuals to overcome unconscious bias.” 

Jonathan Lo, Creative Director

In his role as Creative Director, Jonathan Lo brings a sense of artistry to the world of space by helping build the Virgin Orbit brand through design.

Chinese by heritage but raised in Tokyo, Japan, Jonathan immigrated to the suburbs of Los Angeles at age 8, an experience he described as “very challenging.”

“I remember my first few years here, I didn’t speak any English, so I was often misunderstood.  On one hand I was so excited to be here. On the other hand, it was really difficult to make friends and fit in. I was picked on for eating onigiri (rice balls wrapped in seaweed), for example. In those days, kids thought eating seaweed was so strange. Everyone else had Wonder Bread sandwiches,” he said. “Pretty soon I was asking my mom to make sandwiches so they would leave me alone. Those first few years were really hard learning how to be accepted.”

Eventually, Jonathan found his footing and went to college to pursue a degree in economics — surprisingly enough — with the intent of being an investment banker. “I knew on the first day of work that it wasn’t for me,” he said. “But I did it because I thought making a lot of money would solve all of my problems.”

Fast forward a few years, and Jonathan has been able to pursue his creative passions in a more rewarding career path.

“In a way my life has been a journey to rediscover the sense of self I lost in trying to assimilate. As an Asian-American immigrant, I’ve often felt the pressure to be successful. But what is success? Being accepted? Making a lot of money? For me, I’ve come to believe true success is none of those things — it’s to love my authentic self and have the courage to live a more authentic life.” 

Ashley Chang, Learning & Development Manager

As our Learning & Development Manager, Ashley Chang leads a team that creates programs and courses that expand or reinforce the skillsets of Virgin Orbit teammates across the company. “I think what I get to do really cool,” she says. “Being able to provide different learning opportunities and experiences for my teammates is really rewarding.”

Ashley’s parents emigrated from Taiwan to the U.S. in the 70s and settled in Orange County here in Southern California. Like her father, who earned a Master’s in engineering from Cal State Long Beach, Ashley too earned a degree in engineering, kickstarting her career in aerospace.

“Growing up in Orange County, I was so steeped in trying to mold myself strictly into the American culture,” she says. “It wasn’t until I got into college, where there was so much more diversity, that I started to explore more of my cultural identity. I started to see it as not just something to express at home, but an equal part of who I am.”

For AAPI Heritage Month this year, Ashley hopes to shine a light on the unique experience of Asian-Americans. “I’d like people to stop and really listen to the Asian-American story, because it’s very different from just the ‘American story’ or even the ‘Asian story.’ We have our own culture; we have our own struggles,” she says. “Listen to and lift up those voices around you if you get the opportunity. And take the time to reflect on yourself as well.”

David Yamagata, Launch Software Engineer, Control Systems

Launch software engineer David Yamagata develops the code that supports the graphical user interface (GUI) used by operators in the Mission Control Center to monitor data flowing down from LauncherOne. 

His parents were both born in Japan and met in the U.S. after immigrating, where they settled in Los Angeles to raise a family. That connection to Japan ultimately brought David back across the Pacific later in life to pursue a career in consumer electronics. There, he met the woman who would eventually become his wife.

As for many others, the Covid-19 pandemic proved to be very disruptive for their young family: “My wife went back to Japan in November 2019 to give birth to our daughter and I was planning to visit around the due date in March 2020, but the pandemic hit,” David says. “I wasn’t able to meet the new baby in person until after her first birthday since travel bans and visa restrictions were introduced, making it difficult to enter Japan, which also meant I didn’t get to see my son and wife for over a year.”

David is looking forward to spending some well-deserved quality bonding time with his family when they reunite back here in the U.S. later this year.