When she wanted to open her restaurant, the Thai Café, six years ago, Yuwadee Poophakumpanart did it all on her own. She went without bank loans, community networks or business training workshops.
"When it comes to restaurants," she said, "we might have similar names, but we all cook differently. I opened my place to see if people would like my style."
She is an ethnic Hmong, despite her Thai name. Her small restaurant does a modest business at University and Western, minutes from downtown St. Paul. She has a simple Facebook page for the restaurant, with several hundred likes.
It's businesses like hers that the Hmong Chamber of Commerce hopes to help support and grow.
The Minnesota Hmong Chamber of Commerce was founded nearly two decades ago, but since that time, it hasn't been very active in the Twin Cities. Some of its co-founders are looking to re-invigorate the group to help support Hmong-owned businesses and grow new ones.
On a recent Saturday morning, more than 100 Hmong entrepreneurs gathered at a North St. Paul restaurant called Hmong House. State and local officeholders were also in attendance.
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Michael Cherwayia Thao, a co-founder of the Minnesota Hmong Chamber of Commerce, reviewed of the state of Hmong businesses. Not long ago, Thao said, the Hmong lived in the highlands of Southeast Asia, in bamboo huts with dirt floors. Few went to school. Today, Hmong in Minnesota own law practices, medical centers, and nonprofits. More Hmong-Americans are graduating from college. But they still have the highest rate of poverty among Asian-Americans.
Nearly 700 Hmong-Americans hold Ph.Ds, Thao said, a remarkable number for a population that only a few generations ago was struggling to learn English and adjust to a new homeland.
More than 66,000 Hmong live in Minnesota. Their buying power is estimated at about $615 million. Of all the Hmong communities in the United States, the Hmong in Minnesota are the most accomplished and progressive, said Bao Vang, president and CEO of the St. Paul non-profit Hmong American Partnership.
"We have lived in America now for 40 years," Vang said. "How far have we come? Do we have the heart and dedication to see the importance of a group such as this Hmong Chamber of Commerce, which has the potential to lift us into greater successes?"
The Minnesota Hmong Chamber of Commerce has just a few dozen members. It's hoping to fundraise and recruit enough new members this summer to hire a dedicated full-time staffer. The chamber's secretary, Kabo Yang, is a volunteer.
"We have culture that plays into it, we have spirituality that plays into it, we have multi-generations of immigrants, of families living together," Yang said. "The way that we spend our money, the way we share our money, it's a very unique culture that plays into how we run our businesses and how we view our business leaders."
Participants talked about the value of business mentorships, the need to build trust among entrepreneurs and the dangers of predatory lending. They also discussed the challenges of charging membership dues.
Dues are $120 a year, but one new member donated $2,000 to help kick-start the membership drive. The chamber hopes others will do the same.