Taking the Next Steps: Networking, education uplifts the next generation of Hmong leaders

Lauren Fisher, photos by Andrea Paulseth |

Networking events can be “transactional,” according to Mai Xiong. There are unspoken rules and expectations, and one must understand what they are in order to make connections with others. It can be a very high-pressure environment, especially for people who are new to the area or those who come from cultures that have only been in the United States for one or two generations, Xiong said.

Xiong is the president of Hmong American Leadership & Economic Development, an organization that aims to promote economic prosperity for Hmong Americans through education, networking, and elevating social equity.

“It’s who you know and your initiative to really talk to people,” Xiong said. “It’s really challenging because in marginalized communities and communities like ours where networking is so new – it’s 40 years new to us … It’s very intimidating.”

"It’s really challenging because in marginalized communities and communities like ours where networking is so new – it’s 40 years new to us – it’s very intimidating." – Mai Xiong, president of Hmong American Leadership & Economic Development

The organization, known as HALED, is in its early stages. Presently, it is focusing on providing structured, fun, and diverse networking opportunities in the Eau Claire area. Events are free to attend, breaking down one potential economic barrier, and feature icebreaking activities to ease attendees into their new relationships.

“The main purpose of why we do these is so that we can help folks expand their networks beyond their current circles and really take the initiative to learn about other folks, other communities, cultures, and all that good stuff,” Xiong said.

In the coming months, HALED will begin to offer low-cost or free classes and workshops in financial literacy. Offerings will focus on taxes, business lending, savings, homeownership, retirement, investment, and more, and will do so in a way that relates the skills and practices necessary for success in the Midwest to cultural practices and values of Hmong people.

Not every approach to financial growth works for every person, Xiong said, so HALED’s classes will help find approaches that function for Hmong people.Classes will be open to anyone, providing the general Eau Claire population to learn financial literacy skills while developing awareness of other cultures and communities in the area.

All of these efforts are designed to address what Xiong and the organization’s treasurer, Mai Houa Moua, have identified as an increasing number of young Hmong college graduates leaving the Eau Claire area because of a lack of opportunity. Many Hmong, Xiong said, find it difficult to transition from a manufacturing or front-of-house role into a supervisory position or higher, and providing resources to develop networking and financial skills will help bridge the gap.

HALED is in the process of developing a membership program with an annual donation in order to fund its efforts. It complements the efforts of the Eau Claire Area Hmong Mutual Assistance Association, Xiong said. While the association provides support for Hmong residents to meet their essential needs, HALED focuses on promoting prosperity among them.

“Essentially this is the foundation for our newer generation,” Moua said.

“We want to be able to help elevate our past, which is our parents, continue to grow our present, and then support the future, which is our kids, to be able to thrive and be great citizens,” Xiong concluded.

Hmong American Leadership and Economic Development is on Facebook @HmongAmericanLED. Check in for event announcements and updates from the organization.