Roland Kamara, Member Relations Associate, OFN
Maysee Herr, CEO of OFN member Hmong Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce, talks about wealth gap in Asian communities and building trust with small business clients
To celebrate Asian American Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, OFN is highlighting one of OFN’s Asian-led members, Hmong Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce (HWCC).
HWCC was founded in the early 2000s by a group of Hmong community members, many of whom were business owners who believed that they did not have a place or space to come together to discuss how to grow their businesses and create wealth in the community.
Led today by CEO Maysee Y. Herr, Ph.D., HWCC provides financial resources and consultation to support business and community development activities that improve economic opportunities in both Asian and non-Asian low-income and underserved communities.
Maysee Herr recently spoke with OFN about HWCC, their community, and more:
What’s the biggest opportunity Hmong Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce is considering to create even greater impact?
Growing our physical presence across Wisconsin, targeting areas with the largest vulnerable Asian communities. One of the biggest lessons we took away from the COVID-19 pandemic is that there is no replacing in-person, face-to-face contact with our target community when it comes to building trust and understanding – especially as it relates to discussing their finances and business needs. HWCC staff is equipped to tackle cultural and linguistic barriers that our clients face. And because many [clients] still have limited knowledge and access to technology, we aim to serve them in person.
As we meet with clients and community members, we have learned that an increasing number of them need spaces to create their products. Yes, there may be locations that already provide this type of service – commercial kitchens, incubator spaces – but what we are hearing is that our Asian-owned businesses and entrepreneurs are most comfortable with us. They trust us, and therefore they want to come to us for the services they need, and we want to provide these services to help them start and grow their businesses.
What is one thing about your CDFI or community that we should know?
We are one of less than a handful of Asian-led CDFIs in the Midwest. The Asian community is incredibly diverse. Most of our Asian clients/members are from some of the most vulnerable communities, socially, economically, and educationally – Hmong, Burmese, and Laotian, just to name a few. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center report, Asians in the U.S. have the greatest wealth gap of any ethnic group; the top 10% of income distribution earn almost 11 times as much as those at the bottom. Many of those at the bottom are from the Asian subethnic groups I just named and that HWCC serves.
Something we, as an Asian-led and focused CDFI, deal with every day is having to prove the need of the Asian business community we serve. It can be quite exhausting. Many in the larger community, even several of those that we have talked with in our CDFI world, are unaware of these [wealth] discrepancies [among Asian subethnic groups]. There are definite needs in our Asian business community in Wisconsin, especially when it comes to technical assistance and business financing, given that the majority of Asians in the state are Hmong.
What is the biggest challenge facing Hmong Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce?
Many times, private, public, and corporate funders that provide funds to underserved, underinvested communities only fund Black, Latino, sometimes Native, and women-focused business communities. These opportunities rarely include those in Asian communities.
Another challenge we face as a CDFI is that we are still a growing, smaller CDFI, and yet we serve statewide. Our staff is often stretched thin, doing whatever we can to provide the help our small businesses need. We tend to have more inquiries than we can get to at one time. Some would say these are good problems to have, and they are, but more resources are always welcomed.
What would you want a newcomer to the industry to know about CDFIs?
Once you have entered the CDFI world, you will feel the passion of the people doing the work and the rewards that completely outweigh the disappointments.
How do you describe OFN to people who don’t know about us?
OFN has a large network of CDFIs that we can learn from and call upon for assistance. It has the best national conference we’ve ever been to. Even though the conference participation is huge, it still feels like a place with something for everyone. The learning at the conference is constant. OFN listens to its members, and it is apparent that its staff does whatever it can to ensure that its members get what they need from each other and from OFN.
If you could describe the CDFI industry in one word, what would it be?
We thank Hmong Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce for all the amazing work they do.
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