Even before audience members could take their seats, Emory students were already shaking with excitement. One girl said she caught a glimpse of the iconic dyed hair: proof that her favorite BuzzFeed personality had been standing beside her.
In an event organized by the Emory Asian Student Organization, former executive producer at Buzzfeed and co-founder of Watcher Steven Lim spoke about his journey as an Asian American in the media entertainment industry. 200 undergraduate students attended the panel, which took place on Feb. 24 in a multipurpose room at the Emory Student Center (ESC) – $5 for general admission or $15 for a meet and greet following the event.
Lim, who started his career in the media entertainment industry in 2013, is best known for the popular Buzzfeed YouTube series “Worth It,” in which he travels the world comparing dishes at three drastically different price points.
After leaving BuzzFeed as a salaried employee in December 2019, Lim launched Watcher Entertainment in January. The production studio focuses on “creating television-caliber, unscripted series in the digital space,” according to the YouTube channel page. At the time of publication, Watcher has reached over 386,000 subscribers. Lim will continue with “Worth It” until his contract expires.
“Worth It,” which wrapped up its sixth season in July 2019, was one of Lim’s own contributions to BuzzFeed. Initially, BuzzFeed had only planned to let Lim write the script with two other white BuzzFeed colleagues hosting the show. Lim said he did not hold any resentment towards BuzzFeed due to this though.
“I remember initially being furious at Buzzfeed for suggesting that in the first place,” Lim said. “I understood that it would be simpler to do it with well-known, popular celebrities … [but] luckily, they agreed that I could [host the show].”
Lim did not reveal any details on how and when he plans to end “Worth It,” and he said that Watcher’s newest production, “Homemade,” aims to explore family culinary traditions across different cultures in the United States.
Lim noted that he aims to honor his Asian American heritage and represent his upbringing through his filmmaking. Being the only Asian American in middle school left a deep impression on Lim. He recalled how, at first, he enjoyed being called “the Asian kid” because it gave him a sense of identity. But as he worked to launch his career as a YouTube personality, such comments motivated him to bridge the gap between cultures.
Grace Shen (21C), a Chinese international student who attended a majority-white high school in Vermont, said she could relate to Lim’s experience of feeling isolated as an Asian.
“Seeing an Asian American in the media and then hearing [his] experience growing up meant a lot to me,” Shen said. “It told me that I’m not alone. It gave me confidence that everything is going to be okay… just to be confident and to be myself.”
Crowd member Emily Ng (21C) also expressed appreciation for Lim’s inclusion of his Asian American heritage in his online storytelling.
“I liked that he talked about Asian American representation because I did not know that really mattered to him so much,” Ng said. “He seems very down to earth … and talked to us like we were his peers or friends that he knew.”
At the beginning of his career, Lim said his video content garnered little attention on YouTube and he considered returning to his previous job as a research and design engineer for Tide Pods at Procter & Gamble. The choice of committing to YouTube filmmaking, he said, has come with a fair amount of struggle and uncertainty.
“I could have given up when someone broke into my car and stole my personal journal, which had ideas about upcoming YouTube sketches,” Lim said.
Many students said they were impressed by Lim’s candor in discussing how personal failures and struggles became learning moments.
“I think it was inspiring for me because he said you can do what you want if you try hard enough,” Brett Landau (21C) said.“He went all in, quit his job and then did YouTube, which is definitely an interesting thing to hear about. He definitely took a huge risk there.”
Lim said his channel went viral after producing “Asian Parents React to I Love You,” a compilation of young Asian Americans working up the courage to say “I love you” to their parents. A week after publication, the video eclipsed 100,000 views — an achievement milestone that Lim said he expected would be his success story.
“For quite some time after, things went back to normal … until I received a phone call from BuzzFeed saying they loved the video and wanted to hire me,” Lim said.
Lim said he owes much of his success to the presence of Asian YouTube personalities such as Ryan Higa and KevJumba. He later collaborated with Jason Lee of Jubilee Media, a video platform aiming to “make thought-provoking, real and empathetic videos to create movement for human good.”
“I think it’s so important to see success in people that look like you,” said Office of Undergraduate Education Advisor for International Students Frank Gaertner. “He talked about how important it was to watch YouTube channels back in high school. … For him it was inspiring to say, ‘I can do this for a living.’”
During the question & answer portion of the evening, Lim was asked to reflect on his favorite “Worth It” episode. He chose the time he traveled to Japan in September 2018 to eat expensive sushi. Lim’s primary concern was that plenty of other YouTubers had already produced videos about their experiences eating sushi in Japan.
“I remember being scared because I was not sure whether [the video] would be able to add to the content out there already,” Lim said. “The sushi place usually does not allow foreign press inside, but the owner was willing to give me a shot.”
Though Lim said his time working with Tide Pods was not the most enjoyable, he learned an important lesson from a co-worker who celebrated 25 years at the company.
“I wanted the passion that he had for soap in my life,” Lim said. “I am a believer that you should do what you love and find most enjoyable. All the times you are struggling through the highs and lows, I really believe things will work [themselves] out.”
Disclaimer: Grace Shen (21C) is a staff photographer for the Emory Wheel.
Correction (02/26/20 at 12:32 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that 80 undergraduate students attended the panel. In fact, 200 undergraduate students attended the panel.