John Yang, left, is board chair of the Minnesota Hmong Chamber of Commerce (MHCC). Yao Yaj, right, is group's executive director. The chamber is leading an Asian American Pacific Islander small business expo on May 14 to help businesses rebound from COVID and a rise in anti-Asian hate crime. Credit: Photos courtesy of the Minnesota Hmong Chamber of Commerce

Small businesses run by members of Minnesota’s Asian American and Pacific Islander community took a massive hit in recent years because of the pandemic and the rise of anti-Asian hate crime, scarring many and forcing some to close permanently. 

An event on May 14 is aimed at trying to reverse some of that damage. 

The first AAPI Small Business Expo will bring together small-business owners to learn from one another and offer them resources in hopes of fostering economic prosperity in the community. 

This event, which occurs during AAPI Heritage Month, is led by the Minnesota Hmong Chamber of Commerce (MHCC) and will be held at the Metropolitan State University from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. More than 30 exhibitors will offer information about resources, and take survey information to learn more about the AAPI communities and expand their AAPI network. 

There will also be workshops, panel speakers, and networking opportunities.

John Yang is the MHCC board chair as well as CEO and owner of Vizion SEO, a digital marketing and SEO Company. He said he has been to many similar expos in the past, but didn’t realize that there had never been one for the AAPI community in Minnesota. 

“So, with all the growing businesses in Minnesota, especially the Hmong businesses, we figured, ‘Hey, maybe let’s do something like that,’ ” he said.

Other community partners of the expo include the federal government’s Small Business Administration (SBA), Chinese American Chamber of Commerce, and Asian Media Access.

We’re a voice for just not the Hmong community, and we also collaborate with a lot of the other chambers in the state of Minnesota.”  

John Yang, board chair of the minnesota hmong chamber of commerce

Yao Yaj, MHCC’s executive director, and Yang said that during the pandemic they saw an increase in small business owners in the AAPI community seeking financial and networking help.

“We’ve gone beyond the Hmong community, too,” Yang said. Many in the AAPI community don’t have their own chamber of commerce. “They come to us for help as well. So, we’re a voice for just not the Hmong community, and we also collaborate with a lot of the other chambers in the state of Minnesota.” 

 Asian-led businesses saw disproportionate drop

Revenue of Asian-led small businesses fell by 27 percent during the pandemic–more than any other demographic, according to the Digitally Driven 2021 report, which shows how digital tools enabled small businesses to survive and recover from the pandemic.   

Some AAPI small business owners expressed a need to learn about increasing security because of fear or damage resulting from anti-Asian hate crimes that spread across the nation in 2020. The crimes were sparked by racist rhetoric about the origin of the coronavirus.

In addition, many small business owners rely on foot-traffic for their business, but the pandemic deterred people from going to markets, like Hmong Village, in person. 

Yang added that older-generation AAPI small business owners struggled because many had no social media experience or platforms to market their businesses. 

According to a March 2021 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and AARP, business owners of nearly all races and ethnicities dipped into personal funds to pay business expenses, including 70 percent of Black business owners age 45 and older, and 60 percent of Asian business owners in that age bracket. 

Yaj said many MHCC’s efforts to address these requests and support businesses during this time happened in isolation. 

“We’ve been working in silos and isolated for so long that they don’t know each other or they just didn’t have the opportunity,” Yaj said. “So making this an exclusive in-person event, you have that opportunity to give something really meaningful.”

According to the Pew Research Center, Asian Americans are 6 percent of the U.S. population, but they run 10 percent of all businesses and 16 percent of businesses in higher-risk industries likely to be affected more deeply by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In addition, Mckinsey & Co published an August 2020 report, stating that 2 million small businesses owned by Asian Americans generate $700 billion in annual GDP and employ 3.5 million people. 

SBA’s Great Lakes Regional Administrator Geri Aglipay will be the event’s keynote speaker, and will discuss the agency’s products and resources. 

“We, as a federal agency, are there to make sure that we meet people where they’re at, from the bottom up to the middle out, and it’s an open door, no heavy door, to where the free resources are to grow their businesses,” Aglipay said. 

Workshops at the expo will cover topics including how to start a business, intellectual property, and applying for grants. Some of the facilitators will come from state agencies and nonprofit organizations. There will also be prize giveaways. The expo is free for students.

We’re not a nuisance. We matter. We contribute to the success of this country.”

Poh lin khoo, owner of khoo consulting

Poh Lin Khoo is owner of Khoo Consulting, a multicultural communications and marketing company with over 25 years of experience. Khoo is an expo volunteer and will facilitate two workshops. 

Khoo said the rise of anti-Asian sentiment, including hate crimes, and the challenges of the pandemic compounded problems for AAPI small-business owners. 

“Whether we personally have experienced it or not … it still affects us,” Khoo said. “So, it’s really important to see the government, businesses and community leaders coming and speaking up and showing up on behalf of the AAPI community in our local community … speaking out against anti-Asian sentiment.” 

Organizers said a major part of the expo is to highlight the contributions of AAPI small-businesses to the nation’s economy and to recognize the community’s resilience. 

“We bring value,” Khoo said. “We’re not a nuisance. We matter. We contribute to the success of this country.”

Katelyn Vue is the housing reporter for Sahan Journal. She graduated in May 2022 from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Prior to joining Sahan Journal, she was a metro reporting intern at the Star...