Entrepreneurs and Leaders

On Entrepreneurs and Leaders

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L. Jay Inc., Shoe Factory

L. Jay Incorporated was started so that Hmong refugees could get jobs. L. Jay Inc. works partly for a bigger shoe factory called Weinbrenner. Weinbrenner sends designs of shoes to L. Jay and then the people who work there sew different parts of the shoe and then sew all the finished pieces together to make a shoe. One of L. Jay’s biggest customers is Fleet Farm. Kao Lee is the son of the owner of the factory. He also works at a bank to help his family earn a living. Kou’s parents always want to get things done well no matter how long it takes. On the other hand, Kou’s generation wants to get things done as fast as possible…


L. Jay Inc., a shoe factory, was founded in 1989 by Jay Lee. Lee is Hmong and all of the twenty or so workers there are Hmong. The factory gives the Hmong jobs they usually wouldn’t get because they aren’t fluent in English. Mr. Lee created the company with some clan members, but now he owns the whole thing.

L. Jay is a subcontractor to Weinbrenner Shoes. Weinbrenner sends the material to L. Jay, [where it is assembled into shoes]. Each worker sews or glues a different part [of the shoe] together at a different machine. There are about twenty-five machines for different steps and some extras just in case one breaks down. It takes about five minutes to make the upper part of a shoe and about an hour from first step to finish.

–Izzy S.

Kou said that when his father passes away or gets really sick, he will be the next captain and take charge. He said that his parents aren’t lazy, because they wake up at 5:00 in the morning and stay up until 10:00 p.m. They made this job so Hmong people could sew, because Hmong adults love to sew. One machine makes the shoelace holes. Kou’s brother could make holes in a pair of shoes in five seconds—probably a world record. It looked easy, but in real life it’s real hard. We imagined US doing the job like this: “Tick, tick, tick, Oh! My finger has a hole!”


Clans came together to form L. Jay Inc. in 1989. The factory used to sew clothes and make reindeer out of straws, but now it works for Weinbrenner making mostly outdoor shoes. L. Jay owns the factory. His son Kou Lee goes to the University of Minnesota and comes home on weekends to help. Kou has always been interested in business. He works full-time in a bank doing accounting and tax work. He’s in the Master’s program at the University. When his father dies, he will get the factory.

There are many differences between the [Hmong] generations. The older [generation] is willing to work from 5:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. The younger is only willing to work from 8:00 to 5:00, but has business knowledge and knows English. Also, since older people did sewing by hand in Laos, they had to get used to sewing machines. But after a few weeks they got the hang of it. If you’re Hmong, and you don’t know English, you could have a mighty hard time getting a job. Only half of the workers at the factory know English. But since all the workers are Hmong or Hmong American they can talk in Hmong! Each worker has a different machine for each step of making a shoe. There are twenty to twenty-five machines (including extras in case one breaks down.) It takes around an HOUR to make ONE shoe! That’s how many steps there are! The workers get bonuses if they do their job well—more pay, Christmas gifts, picnics, stuff like that. There must be a lot of bonuses because the workers work so well and fast!


This stop showed more of the modern Hmong in America. It was a heart-stopping experience—it really shows how hard the Hmong work.


Union Oriental Market

I walked into the Oriental Market and smelled fresh food and rice. I’m telling you they fit more things in that store than in Sentry. There were: drinks, soda, beer, milk, tortillas, Durian fruit, mustard greens, tofu, bean sprouts, coconut, fish, fish sauce, other kinds of sauces, like soy sauce, bamboo, dried mushrooms, rice (lots 25 kinds), drainers, monster pot (5 times as wide as me), flowers on a stick, brooms and Ramen (57 kinds), movies, books, candy, pots and pans, dolls, bell, decorations and chocolate.


Vue has a book printed in Hmong letters about religions. If you fail school, you can’t go to school any more. If you pass school, you can keep on going through all the grades.


It (Union Oriental Market) is mostly for Asian people, but other people come there, too. There is one place with tons of rice, one place with tons of hot sauce and one place with tons of Ramen noodles.


When I first walked in the door of the Union Oriental Market, I thought, “Oriental?” It looked like a normal grocery store to me. Especially when we passed the first food stands, stands with snacks like peanut butter crackers. Then, milk and frozen fruit. Still normal. But a closer look at the frozen fruit showed things not sold at an average store. For example, Durian fruit. You don’t often see that in a store, or maybe it is just me.


Vue says the big pot is for your community and I can even fit in the pot. Vue said when he was a little boy he didn’t have a metal lunch box so he had to use a wooden lunch box that was made with a kind of stick.


His store has everything from baby bananas to Durian fruit, to mustard greens (no fat!), to frozen foods (whole fish included), to Thai foods. Why, even dishes and at least 50 different kinds of Ramen noodles!

I saw some of the most interesting pots and things I have ever seen there. Some pots were made of wood and we saw a HUGE metal pot (about 1/2 a door), and Mr. Yang told us it was for special occasions, and for village meals (definitely not for house use!).


Vue is a big collector of books. He has a huge amount of books about distinctive Hmong culture, from the written language to marriage.

Vue Yang is a very, very nice man who owns an import store that has a lot of the tastes that we don’t have in this country, like a lot of different Ramens, a lot of sodas that we don’t have. But the highlight of his shop is Asian foods, like rice, spring roll sheets, meats and mustard greens.


They have to go to Chicago to get some of the food. But they got some frozen fish from Thailand and Asia. There are kind of bamboo baskets that they use kind of like lunchboxes to carry rice and chicken and other foods.

There is also a steamer and I think it is made out of bamboo and you put a pot of hot water under it and let the steam come up because the stuff is already cooked so you don’t need water. There is also a crusher which is a bowl with a thing that looks like a pounder to crush the things. It is made out of wood.

There are lots of rice bags and one of them weighs 100 pounds and I don’t know how they carry them out.


It was a long ride from Sheboygan to Green Bay. When we all got into the Union Oriental Market there was fresh food everywhere.

Then he pulled out these books that were in Hmong. There was an ABC alphabet in Hmong.


One fruit that was there was a Dorian fruit. It has some sweet flavor to it. There were some “Hmong” vegetables. One of them was called Thai eggplant.

He has handmade brooms used for sweeping the dirt floor back in Laos. The brush part of the broom has hard, non-ground wheat like bristles.

Hmong also like rice. Vue has a selection of rice, but the favorite is one that is medium size rice.


Vue also talked about Hmong marriages and funerals. Vue has a book about dating and marriage. In Hmong culture it’s not just two people. It’s two families, two villages and two clans. In Hmong culture when a woman gets married she loses her clan name and gains her husbands clan name. (unless she wishes to have both).

Now Vue will talk a little about Hmong funerals: Hmong funerals last much longer than American funerals because the Hmong use rituals to send the spirits to the after life which take days to perform.


Frozen fruit from Thailand that had big spikes all around them. All kinds of sausages. I wonder how they tasted.

When you get married if you get divorced you are rejected and you have to go through lots and lots of ceremonies to get divorced.

When we left Vue gave each child a free Ramen,. He had a basket full of treats for each kid to choose from and last of all some Botan Rice candy as we walked out the door.


Vue told us that two people of the same clan cannot marry each other.


When we arrived I saw from the bus window what looked like a very friendly man. He was a friendly man! His name was Vue Yang. Now this name is actually pronounced Vu Ya but that’s NOT what I’m here to talk about.

Someone always had to teach you the Hmong language until they wrote it down on paper. It took a long time but they did it.


There were some things that you wouldn’t see in every grocery store in Madison like a lunch box made of bamboo. “My mom used to throw some rice in there and some chicken and that was my lunch,” Vue said. There was other stuff made from bamboo, such as a rice steamer. “If you steam the rice in a bamboo steamer, it makes it taste better,” commented Vue.

–Izzy S

After the tour Vue talked to us about books and his love of reading. he also explained that the Hmong had no written language until the war.


The Union Oriental Market is just like a market but it has culture mixed together so people can meet each other. That way you don’t have to be lonely.


One food that I saw there that grossed me out was when I was the white and blue bag of lion head in one of the fridge things with lots of meat and other foods that have to be kept cool or even frozen.

While we took notes at the Oriental Market, some kids stood but that was too hard for me so I sat on a BIG bag of rice. It felt like, almost sitting on my sofa in the living room at home while watching my favorite video.


There were objects too. There was a woven bamboo basket that said “Laos” across it in different colors. Vue said that when he had gone to school those were to put your lunch in. His mom had put rice in it mostly, but occasionally she would put a chicken leg in.

There was a thing like a mortar and pestle, used for grinding chili peper and papayas. There was also an enormous pot, used to cook noodles in for big community gatherings.

Vue talked to us about how he plays the qeej at Christian church services. He believes it shouldn’t just be played at funerals and things because it is a happy instrument. He talked about how the Hmong sing. Each different kind of Hmong (Blue Hmong, Black Hmong etc.) has a different way of singing. Hmong call their singing Kwv Txhiaj.

–Izzy L.

There are many different kinds of fish, tiny bananas, a small kind of root, Hmong style baskets, Ramen noodles, ginger root and many, many, many, many other things.


Vue had nineteen years of school work. The school that he went to was somewhere in France.

The Hmong traditional wedding, you’ll have an umbrella, pigs, cows, chicken, and rice. If the girl marries a guy, the girl has to go to the grooms house. To open the umbrella, you’ll have to wait until the wedding is over.


Lemke Cheese

There are about 200 workers at Lemke Cheese, and about eighty of them are Hmong. In 1997 they only had twenty employees. When they hired Hmong people they took a risk of not knowing their culture very well. The toughest thing between the Hmong and Caucasians was the language barrier. There were also some stereotypes against the Hmong people at first.


Chang was hired for the job because they already had some Hmong people working there and they needed to have a person who could speak in at least Hmong and American English. Chang hired more and more Hmong people. A big problem was that the Americans thought that the Hmong were going to take over their jobs. This problem was resolved by Chang playing golf with the Americans and for the American people to understand how nice Chang is and that he wouldn’t take their jobs away.


Why hire Hmong workers? You might think it’s because, well, Chang is Hmong, and he favors Hmong people, so he hires them. If that’s what you thought, you were dead wrong. It’s because they’re good workers A lot of minority groups are good workers. Now, that doesn’t mean that if a Caucasian was a good worker, he wouldn’t hire them. It’s just that a lot of Hmong are good workers. What is a good worker? A good worker is someone who has experience and whose performance is good.


We talked with Chang and Dick Price, the Chief Financial Officer. Dick said that it was important for the company—and cultural diversity—to hire Hmong workers. The Hmong population is also a great resource for employment—in other words, the company wanted Hmong workers.


When Chang Yang came to Lemke, he learned every single job. Once he knew everything, so to speak, he stepped into the role he plays today, official hirer and firer. Even now, he does some work everywhere—from Human Resources Director to a lowly production worker.


The toughest thing between the Hmong and Caucasians was the language barrier. Chang always encourages people to take ESL classes if they don’t speak English. It is still hard to communicate across language barriers.


Many Hmong workers have a childcare problem: in Laos, people wanted as large a family as possible. Many Hmong people still have large amounts of children. Therefore, most of the Hmong women who work at Lemke work second shift, when their husbands aren’t working at other jobs.


Chang Yang said we had to put on hairnets, plastic coats, and for Mr. Wagler a beard net. It’s pretty funny, huh? We had to wear that so we didn’t bring in any germs and get the cheese dirty.

The factory used to make cheese. But they decided to change the company to a packing factory. It packs and labels the cheese. Chang said, “In this factory, we work like family, brothers and sisters.”


In this company they have levels, so if you’re doing great, they move you up to the next level. The levels are production worker, cheese cutter, material handler, team captain, supervisor, and manager. If you’re a manager and still doing good, you get extra money, gifts, and a bonus.


Race doesn’t affect what level a worker is in. It just matters what the worker is good at.


The factory receives 100-pound blocks of cheese. The blocks are cut into pie-slices, blocks, or shreds. The cheese is then packaged, labeled, and sent off to stores to be sold. In every single step, the cheese is checked carefully for germs and bacteria and the room is made as germ-free as possible.


Different cheese-making places send them huge blocks of every kind of cheese. It goes into the big freezer warehouse, basically a giant fridge with lots of shelves piled with chunks of cheese. (Very strong smell.) Then they cut it into the desired shapes (blocks, slices, shredded, etc.) then they wrap them and send them out.


Chang works with all levels and tries to bring the factory together. “Get everybody on the same page,” said his boss. He encourages Hmong workers to take ESL classes, and teaches them more about other cultures. He teaches the non-Hmong about the Hmong, too. Each day the Hmong workers improve their English. The company “acts as a family,” helping each other, getting along nicely.


There is Nothing Like a Cheese Factory
by Nate

The aroma of many cheeses overwhelms our nostrils
Packages of shredded and block cheeses
emerge from the wide-open mouths of machines…
There is nothing like a cheese factory.

Hmong's Golden Eggroll

When I went into the kitchen of the Hmong community center, there were three Hmong women making the food stuff for the inside of the egg rolls.


When we got to the kitchen, I and a group of kids went over to see a woman chopping raw meat into very small pieces. This was for the chicken noodle soup. Strangely, she chopped the bones, also.

–Izzy L.

We got to make egg rolls with a couple of Hmong women. A lot of us had never done egg rolls before so it was a little difficult at first but as you kept going it got easier and easier.


We started out with these packages of spring rolls. They are like tortillas but they are square and not as crunchy and burnt, so someone had to peel them off of each other.


The mixture to put inside of the egg rolls had little noodles, carrots, and some green vegetables. The mixture was really squishy on my fingers, but it felt good to touch the mix. While we made egg rolls the Hmong woman made rice and chicken soup with noodles in it. It didn’t take long for the Hmong women to cook the meal.

I wonder what it would be like having rice every day and having egg rolls a lot.


The stuff to put inside the egg rolls was already made. Our job was to actually get the stuff inside a thin sheet of slightly paper like dough, and roll it the way we were shown.


First, we took all the stuffing and put it on one side of a square tortilla kind of thing. Then we would roll until we got into the middle, tuck in the corners, and keep rolling ‘till there was just a little piece not rolled. We’d then dip our fingers into egg yolk and put the egg yolk on the piece of egg roll that wasn’t yet rolled up. After that we’d roll the rest of the egg roll. The yolk prevented the egg roll from coming unrolled. The egg rolls had to be tight or they would not survive the heat of the [oil].

–Sara K.

First you take some of this egg mixture. I’m not sure what’s in it but I think there is raw beef, cabbage, and an egg white (save the yolk).


We had meat in our [egg rolls], but you can have them without the meat.

–Izzy S.

I love eating egg rolls but most of all I like making them because it’s more fun making than eating them, I say, because you take more time making them, than eating them.


There is a very precise way of wrapping the egg rolls that I cannot put into words. It was fun making them, but it was even better eating them.


We dipped the egg rolls in sweet and sour sauce.


We also had chicken curry soup and sticky rice and regular rice. The difference between sticky rice and rice is you eat rice with chopsticks or forks and you use your hands when you eat sticky rice.


The egg rolls were very delicious. I never had such good egg rolls. I felt like eating more but I had one more thing to eat; the tasty Hmong soup.


The egg rolls were fresh, the soup was cool and umm, umm the sticky rice was good!


But in that time I was there, I had already learned how to make egg rolls. I learned how to roll them up and had gotten ingredients in person from a Hmong lady. I even made egg rolls at home for supper one day this week.


One very traditional thing which Hmong people have kept for many years is cooking, a specialty. They have squash-drinks, sticky rice, egg rolls, regular rice, salads and much more. The names are sometimes strange, but the foods are delicious!

A VERY important rule is that it HAS to be TIGHT! If it isn’t, it won’t taste as good when it’s all done cooking and ready to be eaten.


The Hmong women made spicy Thai soup and rice. I loved every bite of that meal so much. The next day I made egg rolls for dinner!


For a long time, Hmong people have been known to prepare a lot of food for a lot of people in a very short notice. Some Hmong traditional food is sticky rice. Sticky rice is rice in the shape of a hot dog, with no bun that you hold in your hand.


Indochinese Grocery Store

One of our last stops was at the Indochinese Grocery Store. When we walked in, we were greeted by the pungent smell of dried foods and tea. They sell a wide variety of things, from incense to tea to toothpick holders.


The woman who works at the store is Va Xiong. Her husband’s name is Xai Xiong and their daughter owns the store. They have a little kitchen where they sell food. A lot of different kinds of people come to the store, mostly Hmong people. They sell pots, plates, spoons, forks, knives, rice machines, baskets, foods, fruits, drinks, toys, spirit money, sauces, desserts, jewelry, etc…. Down in the basement there were many cloths [fabrics] from many kinds of different Asian cultures. There was Hmong Chinese cloth, Laos cloth, Thailand cloth, Vietnamese cloth, Cambodian cloth, and American cloth. There were a lot of Laos blouses hanging from hangers. The blouses were many colors. There were traditional Hmong hats and clothing…. On the top floor, they sell Hmong videos. A lot of the movies have only people chanting to each other. On a lot of Hmong movies they have the title printed in Hmong letters with English subtitles.


Va Xiong showed us around the grocery store. There were noodles, chickens, fish sauce, fish, spices, rice, incense, Chinese candy and toys and more…. They have their own lunch restaurant with egg rolls, noodles and rice…. Va Xiong is a seamstress who makes Chinese and Hmong clothes. Her workspace is downstairs in a big room with lots of fabric, clothes, shoes and accessories. The fabrics were in bright pink, green, yellow, red, blue, and black bolts.


Upstairs was everything from ginger to soap, toothpick holders, incense and more. There were things from ALL OVER the world! In the corner was a very small lunch bar/deli, and there was also a display of Hmong artifacts. Some were hand-sewn decorations, a Hmong ball made for tossing, purses, and little metal trinkets shaped like elephants and other animals. Downstairs, there were yards of cloth, all with hand-stitched designs. There was also traditional hand-embroidered clothing. Va gets these from Asia when she goes once or twice a year. She sells them [here] to the Hmong. Va also sells a lot of American dresses, shirts, and skirts.

–Izzy S.

One shirt and pants combo might cost $160.00