Champions of Change in Minnesota: Yao Yaj

Heading up the Minnesota Hmong Chamber of Commerce, Yaj is keeping Hmong businesses in the conversation
Yao Yaj, Executive Director of the Minnesota Hmong Chamber of Commerce
Yao Yaj, Executive Director of the Minnesota Hmong Chamber of Commerce

TINTYPE BY CARLA ALEXANDRA RODRIGUEZ/BLKK HAND

“I want this on the record,” Yao Yaj tells me over Zoom, from her office in St. Paul: “I’ve been wearing my mask since January!”

By then, the 28-year-old was a month into her role as executive director of the Minnesota Hmong Chamber of Commerce (while also working for the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce). The job had a six-month turnover rate and a reputation for bureaucratic inefficiency, she says. But with a new board, Yaj began jump-starting relationships.

Today, she alerts Hmong businesses and farmers to policies that could sideline them, to grant deadlines, to organizations prime for partnership. Not even counting the pandemic, she’s put up with a lot in one year: PR lip service to Hmong suppliers, without follow-through; doubts surrounding her youth; and patriarchy still under deconstruction by Hmong women in leadership.

Yaj hadn’t built the network to spread pandemic warnings by January, but as soon as it hit, she says, “my immediate response was: make a list.” She called Hmong restaurants and grocers, and she says the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul later tapped her online takeout resource. As one of few advocates for Hmong businesses in the Twin Cities (and soon, she hopes, the whole state), “I’m grateful for the person that I just am,” she says. “I think I can tolerate a lot of bullshit. That’s the reason I just keep going.”

Editor’s note: Representing the Minnesota Hmong Chamber of Commerce, Yaj uses the Hmong spelling of her last name, to identify her cultural heritage. Elsewhere, her name appears as Yao Yang.

You took environmental studies at the College of St. Benedict. How did you end up in business?

The reason for my passion for environmental studies is that I love food. I love agriculture, I love systems, how agriculture plays into the economy. When I took a step back to understand my roots—my ancestors are farmers, my parents grew up as farmers, and I’m first generation, so I’m not too far removed from the bloodline of being farmers.

I started my first job at the Hmong American Farmers Association, and it really got me frustrated. I was there for about four years, and I got to the point where I felt that everything I was doing to support these Hmong farmers was going nowhere. I was helping them access different markets—I was literally the middle person. I would be the ambassador for the farmers, because they didn’t have the technical language skills to actually talk to buyers—to Lunds, to the Minneapolis Public Schools, to Whole Foods. And I just kept running into the same dead end, and it was policy. It always came back to policy.

In order to work with a big company, you have to have liability insurance of $3 million, or something like that. Or you have to have a clean refrigerated truck. And if you are a small business owner and you want to work with Lunds, how are you supposed to get liability insurance for $3 million? How are you supposed to have the capital investment to purchase a refrigerated truck?

I was thinking, “How can I possibly be a farmer one day if they can’t even build wealth right now?” And I knew I had to leave. I knew I was stuck. And I got really interested in how businesses work. That’s how I started: Who gets to make those changes? Who are the stake holders? When I came across chambers, I was completely blown away that this even existed.

What does chamber work look like in action?

It’s really relationships. That’s essentially what a chamber is, because business does have emotional ties. I hate to say this, but it’s true: If you have a good experience with a company or business, you want to go back to it because of how it made you feel, right? A chamber is an organization that helps elevate those relationships, business to business. Businesses, they want to grow together—they really do. So, how do we continue to empower each other? When you connect with me, how can I stick out my neck for you?

In your work, are you more focused on changing culture, or changing policies?

Working in a chamber, to a certain degree, you don’t want things to be mandated. To a certain degree, you don’t want policies; you want less government involved. You want more power to businesses, to make their own authorities. So, to a certain degree, I hope this is more of a culture change than government policies. This can be company policies, right? So, it should be driven by companies, from within themselves, to make those changes.

Do you feel empowered to change that culture in your day-to-day work?

Yes, I do. For me, I’m a very vocal person about this. I’m very passionate about this. And when I think about how I’m going to do this, I keep reminding myself, “Who else can do it?” I know I’m not the best at it, but I look in the mirror and am like, “Well, who else is doing it?” I’m one of the few who is doing it. So, I feel like I’ve taken this task upon myself, and I have to continue charging, because why give up now, when I’ve come so far?

I really do believe that the work that I’m doing is building generational wealth. I really do believe that this is how I build equity in my community. And that’s the main reason why I do this, because I see the power in the organizational work that I’m doing, and the people that I get to champion, as well, because when people meet me, I know that they leave the conversation feeling more energized, and feeling more passionate about the work that we’re doing together, or on their own. They feel that they want to be part of my life. And I think that’s really rewarding and very flattering to me, because I do want them to continue being in my life, and we want to achieve this goal together.

How has George Floyd’s killing impacted your work?

I’m definitely someone who is completely frustrated with how George died, but the after-events of it—it really hurts that this is how people react to this, right? And it’s hurting us. For some businesses, they can never recover from [the civil unrest]. For my community, I hate to say this, but it just made things really awkward. With the pandemic on top of that, Asians just felt like they were neglected. They felt like their voice, their narrative, didn’t matter to the social justice movement.

At this rate, people are already hating on Asians, because they think that they have the virus, or that they may have a relative in China, or something. And then, when Asians were coming out to support the social justice movement, it looked like they were just doing it for publicity. To some people, they’re like, ‘They don’t [support Black Lives Matter]; they’re just painting that on their storefronts to get away with rioters.’ Well, why can’t they?! Of course! They don’t want to be the next building that gets burned! But then again, they also get backlash for doing that. So, there’s not enough press around these kinds of stories.

How are you preparing businesses for a tough winter?

As much as a home-cooked meal would be great, how do we invest dollars into our businesses that have been impacted this past year? We’re going to do a campaign to help local restaurants do catering, and then also connect our businesses with marketing, or technical services they can use.

Read about all 22 Champions of Change featured in our Jan/Feb 2021 issue.

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