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Uncovering the experiences of Hmong entrepreneurs

On the Spot Q&A with Assistant Professor Kao Nou Moua

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Augsburg Assistant Professor of Social Work Kao Nou Moua (Photo by Courtney Perry)

For Kao Nou Moua, research is about storytelling. The Augsburg assistant professor of social work spent a year gathering stories from Hmong business owners and entrepreneurs to find trends in their experiences and to help public and financial agencies better serve the Hmong business community. After presenting this research at the first-ever national HMong Economic Advancement, Research, and Equity (HERE) Conference late last year, Moua reflects on what she’s learned and what she’s planning to study next.

Q: Tell us about your latest research, the HMong Economic Advancement and Capacity Building Research Project.
A: For that particular project, I worked with a national organization based in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, called HMong American Leadership and Economic Development (HALED). While working at a different institution, I had started to build relationships with people in Eau Claire, particularly in the Hmong community there. They were really interested in looking at economic development among Hmong Americans and trying to understand the barriers to becoming a business owner based on the different organizations, agencies, and financial institutions that were supporting entrepreneurs.

Kao Nou Moua teaches her social work class. (Photo by Courtney Perry)

We had all of these anecdotal stories about Hmong business owners not being able to access services, but there wasn’t really any research. Being in the world that we are in, in terms of needing research or data to support these stories, we wanted to be really mindful of being able to go to lawmakers and policymakers and say, “These are the barriers that people are experiencing, and these are the actual numbers of people who are experiencing these things.” And so, that’s what we did. My research partners and I secured a grant from the state of Wisconsin to do this economic project. By that time, I had transitioned to Augsburg, so I hired a social work student to work with me, to mentor them in the social work research process. I was working with students at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire as well.

We interviewed about 20 Hmong entrepreneurs in Minnesota and Wisconsin. We did focus groups with Hmong farmers, women entrepreneurs, and young people who were interested in entrepreneurship. It was a wide range. And the thing is, I’m not a businessperson. I’m a social worker. So, it was really kind of a leap for me to put my mind in this world of economic development. But my particular lens as a social worker was: “What are the barriers in organizations?” It’s always been my work to think about how we can build culturally grounded services—in this case, working with banks and state agencies and organizations.

Q: What were the results of this research?
A: The yearlong project of data collection culminated in the HERE Conference in Eau Claire last September. It was a national conference, the first of its kind, to bring together Hmong entrepreneurs, lawmakers, other business owners, and financial institutions to really think about and look at the data.

There were a couple of important findings. One was that Hmong women entrepreneurs have a very different experience than what we think of when we think about entrepreneurship. Even within the Hmong community, there are cultural barriers that exist for Hmong women entrepreneurs. That’s something we want to explore a little bit more.

Another important finding was that it wasn’t so much about having translated materials or things like that; it really was a need for a sense of belonging in those institutions so people could feel like they were welcomed. Some of the most heartbreaking stories that we heard were people sharing about how they’ve been denied multiple times (for loans) from financial institutions, but once they were able to have a white colleague come and vouch for them, then people at the bank were like, “Okay, I can trust this person because they had a white person vouch for them.” Those were some of the really hard stories.

Kao Nou Moua presents her research findings at the 2022 HERE Conference in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. (Photo by HALED)

Q: While you were conducting this research, was there anything that surprised you?
A: One thing that did surprise me, especially when we did the focus group with young people, was that they all talked about the idea of financial literacy. In high school, they learn how to balance a checkbook, but they’re like 15—they don’t have a checkbook. But now, here they are as college students, and they’re like, “I would like to learn that now.” And we had older adults who would say, “I want to learn more about investments or the stock market.” So, we learned that financial literacy is something that needs to happen multigenerationally or intergenerationally. It is something that needs to happen over time.

That was really important learning for the organization that I was working with. HALED was able to shift their programming to be multigenerational. And the great thing was that also aligned with Hmong cultural values. A lot of the community celebrations are also multigenerational. So, this programming became culturally grounded all of a sudden because we centered Hmong values in terms of learning about economic development.

Kao Nou Moua speaks with city of Eau Claire policymakers at the 2022 HERE Conference. (Photo by HALED)

Q: What comes next?
A: We got a really great response from the HERE Conference. Many lawmakers or policymakers were super interested in us coming into their individual agencies to present our data. The next phase is to continue to get more funding so that we can do more. Always in research, there’s more research to be done, and part of that is to continue to really focus on some of our key findings and really expand on them. The other part of it, for me as a social work professor, is to always think about opportunities to mentor student researchers.

And then, we did talk quite a bit about this idea that Hmong have a very entrepreneurial spirit. Because of their experience of being persecuted and having to move from country to country and having to adapt, Hmong people have learned how to be entrepreneurs and business owners. You can go to China and find Hmong people, you can go to Laos and Thailand and Vietnam, and you can go here in St. Paul. Hmong have always figured out ways to be entrepreneurs. So, I think that’s the other line of research that we want to explore—what does a history of trauma and war do to a people? How do they adapt in new spaces? Entrepreneurship is one of those ways that they’ve learned how to make sense of their lives.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Top image: Kao Nou Moua speaks with students during her social work class. (Photo by Courtney Perry)

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