Since taking her post, Yao Yang has helped Hmong businesses navigate coronavirus relief funding and rebuilding after the spring's unrest. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Older, male and patriarchal. Although the Minnesota Hmong Chamber of Commerce has tried in recent years to bury that reputation and catch up to changes in a rapidly diversifying Hmong business community, women in particular still say they often aren’t taken seriously.

Yao Yang is out to change that. It would be a big job for anyone — but especially for a 28-year-old woman. 

Yao, who works full-time for the St. Paul chamber, took on a second job, as part-time executive director of MHC last December. Since then, she has tried to better address the needs of a business community that is blossoming from its earlier focus on food and farming into areas such as insurance, real estate, health care and information technology. 

She is seeking to expand its membership, search for partnerships and advocate for public resources.

But in the midst of her first year on the job, the chamber also was confronted with a couple of unexpected and extraordinary challenges. It is helping funnel resources such as CARES act relief funding to businesses struggling to survive during the pandemic. In addition, businesses located along University Avenue were damaged in the unrest following the police killing of George Floyd. 

New generation MHC members such as MANYC Technology and Pure Growth, a web development firm and digital marketing agency, don’t need the traditional business assistance and immigration services older businesses needed. Increasingly, they need to know about regulatory issues that they’re too busy to track, Yao said.

“They’re not always going to be on top of policy issues that happen at the city, county and state level,” Yao said. “Who’s going to be on the lookout for them? Chambers are.”

Pang Vang, who owns Rainbow Health Kare, a home health care business located in St. Paul, said now is the time to have a woman at the helm of the Hmong chamber of commerce. She acknowledged that there will always be biases, and that some other business owners have doubts that it will be hard for Yao to connect with the older generation. But Pang, who has been in business for 20 years, said it’s time to push against gender biases in the Hmong community and close the generation gap. 

Yao, a St. Paul native, had managed the 47-member MHC account at the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. The two chambers have had a working relationship for more than five years, but formalized their ties in the past two years. Yao said she had plenty of doubts about taking on a new role at the Minnesota Hmong Chamber of Commerce.

“I thought I was inexperienced for the job,” Yao said, but colleagues at the St. Paul chamber encouraged her to go for it. “They said ‘no you should do it, we can help you.’” 

As the director of strategic initiatives for the SPACC, Kim O’Brien works alongside Yao and other account managers in helping access the St. Paul chamber’s resources. “We see it as a win-win,” Kim said about the partnership between the chambers. “It was an excellent opportunity to expand our network, where we gain cultural competence and greater understanding within our business community.”

‘If you’re going to be the chamber, you need to know who your members are’

When she started in her new job, Yao surveyed current members about their views on the chamber. She found that many business owners shared the same complaints about the MHC. There was too much overturn, the services were inconsistent, and there were persistent problems with misplaced records and membership information.  

‘If you’re going to be the chamber, you need to know who your members are’

“That’s embarrassing. If you’re going to be the chamber, you need to know who your members are,” Yao said. 

While interviewing members, Yao also found many of the businesses, particularly those owned by older members, were looking for business advising and worker training. She directs them to  other organizations like Hmong American Partnership.

Many of the newer businesses are subject to regulation and industry standards. Yao sees the MHC’s role as helping shepherd business owners through the legal obstacles and find access to resources. 

Even those business owners who don’t need help accessing resources for themselves should join the chamber, she said, because they can partner with other businesses and establish relationships. 

Yao aims to help concentrate Hmong purchasing power—which amounted to some $615 million in 2016—inside the community. “There’s a lot of exciting things happening in our community and there’s a lot of untapped potential,” she said. 

The patriarchal nature of the chamber is another big problem, in Yao’s view.  The chamber seemed tailored for the men in the community. Women who took part in board meetings felt “disregarded and dismissed.” 

Other women agree.“I definitely felt the tension,” said Lisa Xiong, a business consultant and the owner of Youvana Wellness. She served as interim director of the MHC in 2017 and 2018. The board approached her about taking the position with the intent of making the chamber more inclusive, but the “unspoken gender roles” factored into her quitting after six months.

Lisa said the board that elected her continually undermined her leadership. While she scouted for more partnerships, coordinated efforts with the SPACC and sought out more government programs for the members, the board pushed for fundraiser events with “no clear goal in place.” 

Although Lisa has left her leadership role at the chamber, she continues to work with businesses. She works directly with business owners as a consultant, but stresses the importance of Yao’s role in what she calls the chamber’s patriarchal environment. 

“I really want to encourage Yao as another Hmong woman,” she said. “I want to say kudos to her. I’m very proud of her taking this role.”

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Abdirahman Mohamed

Abdirahman Mohamed is a contributing reporter for Sahan Journal. Raised in Saint Paul, Abdirahman was born in Mombasa, Kenya as his family fled as refugees from Somalia. He’s currently a senior at the...