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A conversation with ... Kou Vang of JB Realty

Community Dividend speaks with Kou Vang, a Hmong business leader, about credit availability and the economic evolution of the Twin Cities Hmong community.

August 1, 2003

A conversation with ... Kou Vang of JB Realty

The Federal Reserve's recent study of credit access in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Hmong community yielded positive but limited findings. To learn more about the issues that the study explored, Community Dividend spoke with a Hmong business leader whose broad professional background encompasses accounting, lending, community development and entrepreneurship.

Kou Vang was born in Laos and arrived in the U.S. as a small boy, in 1976. His family first settled in the Chicago area and later moved to Appleton, Wisconsin. Vang earned a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked as a comptroller for a small manufacturing firm before moving to the Twin Cities in 1993.

He has since worked in finance- and accounting-related positions at a variety of St. Paul-based organizations including Hmong American Partnership, a Hmong social service agency; and the Neighborhood Development Center, a community development corporation serving inner-city residents. For a time, he owned an import firm specializing in Asian foods. More recently, Vang spent four years as a commercial lender at Western Bank in St. Paul. He joined JB Realty as president in November 2002.

Community Dividend: Your family arrived in the U.S. in the mid-1970s. How much business experience did most Hmong from Laos have at that time?

Kou Vang: We were in the early stages of learning how to retail back then. In any economic model, people first learn how to barter. From there they learn how to retail: to buy and sell goods and run small retail establishments. Then they learn how to wholesale and distribute, then how to manufacture things, and from there they learn how to tell other people how to manufacture things.

In the early and mid-1970s, there was still a barter system in place, but we were in the early stages of buying goods from Chinese, Laotian and Thai merchants in the big cities and selling them in Hmong villages. Coming to the U.S. pushed some of us to venture out and do other things, like insurance and real estate. But in the overall scheme of things, we're still at the retail stage.

CD: How did Hmong entrepreneurs establish themselves when they arrived in the U.S.? Was credit available?

KV: Credit wasn't available at the time, because credit access for the Hmong community has only really happened in the last five or six years. I'd venture to guess that the majority of the loans that Hmong business owners have are only in the third or fourth year of a five- or seven-year repayment term, because the credit openness is so recent.

So where did we get the money? Since we're clan-based, we were able to pool resources together. We'd buy a store and the whole clan would run it, or the whole Hmong community would run it. When there were common issues like that, we worked together.

CD: What barriers prevent Hmong people from approaching banks and accessing credit?

KV: It depends on which credit culture they're part of. There's the traditional Hmong credit culture, made up of people who came here from the old country, and then there's the new credit culture of Hmong people who grew up in the U.S.

Members of the new credit culture are accustomed to the American system, which is more open to filing for bankruptcy and walking away from debt. Most of the Hmong business owners who responded to your study are part of the new culture. They're pretty highly educated, they understand the models used in this country, and they know how to write a business plan.

In the old credit culture, when you borrow money, you have to pay it back completely. Timely payment is not highly valued, but complete payment is. Many members of the old culture have late payments on their credit reports, but they never walk away from their debt. The barrier for them is that they don't know how the game is played in this country, because they have their own model to abide by.

CD: Can lenders do anything to help eliminate that barrier?

KV: It all comes down to understanding different models. If a banker doesn't understand the entrepreneur's credit culture and the entrepreneur doesn't understand the conventional business model that the banker is using, then the banker won't even bring the loan request to the credit committee. I would bet that most of the time, we don't even get into the game, because the majority of loan requests are denied at the lenders' level.

Which brings up an important point: your study only examined existing businesses; it only dealt with people who have already gotten past the gatekeepers. I think it would be interesting to take it one step further and look at those who were stopped at the gate.

In commercial lending, we have to keep all of the files for the loans we deny. Let's take a sample of files from the people who got past the gatekeepers and compare it to a sample from the ones who didn't get through. Is there a 4-to-1 ratio of Hmong businesses to mainstream businesses among the denials? I think if we study the specifics of the denial rate, we might find a disparity.

CD: What can Hmong entrepreneurs do to help bridge the gap between credit cultures? Are there resources available to help them understand the lenders' model?

KV: There is some training and assistance available. The Neighborhood Development Center has had a Hmong class for the last eight years, and the Vang Pao Foundation and Wells Fargo recently put together a program with the University of St. Thomas.

The challenge in teaching these concepts in the Hmong community or other communities of color is to take a pretty complex model and break it down into a language that people can understand. Lenders talk about things like amortization and rates of return, but all the business owners know is that if they buy a cash register for $400, the money's gone. It doesn't really matter to them if we capitalized it or expensed it; it's gone.

CD: What factors have helped Hmong businesses in the Twin Cities obtain bank financing?

KV: For some reason, Minnesota has a lot of community banks. They don't have ivory-tower credit policies that everyone has to follow, so it's easier for their lenders to be flexible. Some of them decided to give Hmong people the benefit of the doubt, and it worked. And since it worked, a comfort level was established and lenders were willing to risk a little bit more. As a result, the credit market for Hmong people is better in the Twin Cities than it is anywhere else.

Getting credit for Hmong businesses in other parts of the country is difficult. Why is that? I don't know. I think we can do studies like this in other places and compare the results. What are we doing here that's working, what are we doing there that's not working? Those are some issues I think we have to look at.

CD: The Hmong business community in the Twin Cities has made impressive strides in a relatively short time. What challenges lie ahead, and how do you see Hmong businesses faring in the future?

KV: I think we'll have more and bigger types of businesses in the future, more distribution and production. Some of the Hmong retail businesses now, like grocery stores, rival mainstream stores in size. Most of the growers at the farmers' markets are Hmong, and I think they'll produce more in the future. We're at the retail stage now, just learning how to do business, but our economic evolution will continue.