In May 1975, the United States Congress passed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, eliminating barriers to the tra- ditional immigration process for refugees from the Vietnam War.
Hmong throughout Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and other locations in Southeast Asia were recruited to support U.S. military efforts during the Vietnam War and utilized this Act to immigrate to the United States.
Many Hmong settled in Wisconsin and by 2000 the population was 33,791 or 0.6 percent of Wisconsin’s population. More than 4,000 Hmong live in Marathon County alone and now permeate every aspect of the community. The Hmong Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce (HWCC), founded in Milwaukee in 2003, has a mission to, “provide financial resources and technical assistance to business and community development activities that improve economic opportunities in low- income and underserved communities.” In other words, their mission is to help the Hmong, Southeast Asian, and other under-served communities in Wisconsin reach economic prosperity.
After operating statewide for more than a decade solely out of their Milwaukee location, traveling wherever needed throughout the state to provide economic development assistance, they frequently found themselves in Wausau. “At one point, we asked ourselves, ‘do we need to have a greater presence here?’ and quickly decided we did,” May yer Thao, HWCC executive director said.
In June 2017, they opened a satellite office in Wausau at 1109 6th Street in Wausau, on the upper level of the Hmong American Center. Together with the Milwaukee location, the Hmong Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce has quickly become a leading model for other Hmong Chambers across the United States.
“The central Wisconsin community has warmly welcomed us and laid the groundwork to be successful,” Thao said, citing the support they received from the Wausau Chamber of Commerce, Marathon County Development
Corporation (MCDEVCO), and other local economic development organization.
“We’re different from a traditional Chamber of Commerce with an economic development focus, so it has been extremely important for us to build those relationships from the start,” Thao said.
“We have our own internal loan review committee,” she said, her passion showing through as she discussed their mission, “so we can support high-risk clients that other lenders could overlook. This committee is made up of CPAs, business owners, bankers, lawyers, and other community members where credit is only part of the decision. We’re more of a mission- based, character-based lending service.”
Hmong/Chamber aims to break down barriersHmong
“We provide what I like to call the wraparound service,” Thao said. “That means capital, technical assistance, whatever business owners need at each phase, whether that is marketing, analyzing competition, social media to market products, or a variety of education centered around business development. Our entrepreneurs need to have the proper resources to be successful and our community generally has less knowledge and resourcesthan they need to be successful. We’re here to bridge that gap providing one-on-one support and putting in the extra hours to make them successful.”Hmong/Chamber aims to break down barriers
Initially, the barrier to business development information was primarily language and cultural for first-generation Hmong refugees, but now it tends to be the lack of connection with the mainstream business community.
“I would say that has been our greatest impact — breaking down those barriers,” Thao said. “Advocacy is ”also another one of our focus areas. We advocate for more data, better support, and understanding the needs within the community.”
"We provide what I like to call the wrap-around service. That means capital, technical assistance, whatever business owners need at each phase ..."
— May yer Thao,
Chamber of Commerce
Their role is much more than just business development. They also work with several local companies to address the regional work- force shortage by getting more members of the Hmong community employed.
“We work with local companies to ensure they have the proper workforce alignment pro- grams and career paths for our community to be successful,” she said “Sometimes, we have to say no. We’re not looking for temporary opportunities. Our ultimate goal is to see more wealth and financial resources for our community.”
In that effort, they’ve launched several educational programs designed to teach people how to build wealth, manage money, and obtain assets. “These circle back to businesses because we see the same struggles with busi- nesses,” Thao said. “If these educational pro- grams help individuals achieve more wealth and financial independence, we’ll see businesses that better understand business development and how to financially manage businesses.”
They have several successful projects including the popular Wausau World Market. “That was our biggest project in Wausau so far, and we tapped into an ecosystem of resources to help them reduce their risk,” Thao said.
Newch’s Bahn Mi was a popular eatery off Fulton Street in Wausau that they’ve worked with to reduce overhead costs and now they are operating as a food truck.
Sometimes, their assistance takes on a dif- ferent role. Elder Sanctuary is a funeral home that has operated in the Wausau community for many years. After getting interest from the Milwaukee area for a similar service, the HWCC helped make the connections, and the Good Hope Center was launched in Milwaukee. Still under local ownership in Wausau, it helps bring additional resources to the area and contributes to HWCC’s ultimate goals.
Xiong Ginseng is another huge success. Developed by the airport outside of Antigo, they were awarded the Business of the Year by the Wausau Hmong Chamber last year.
L. Jay Inc., a shoe manufacturing factory, was founded in 1989, long before the Wausau office was opened, by Jay Lee to help Hmong refugees gain employment. They have a unique relationship with Weinbrenner Shoes, provid- ing high-quality, custom shoes and boots as a subcontractor.
“They’ve been very successful,” Thao said, “so we used them as an example and help pro- mote their visibility in the community. That’s another thing that we do for our businesses. We help elevate their visibility and expand markets since many of them don’t like to toot their own horns.”
Faithful Consulting is another example of a successful company. Offering leadership training, coaching, personality assessments, strategic planning, and a host of other services to help businesses grow, Yengyee Lor, has quickly expanded throughout not just the central Wisconsin community, but statewide.
These are no doubt the first of many successful business endeavors for the Hmong community in central Wisconsin, as barriers continue to be broken down and replaced by opportunities.