Pitch contest helps former refugee sharpen idea for Hmong-inspired fashion line

A love for the Hmong culture led to a business idea and people’s choice award for Ka Vang, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

a woman smiling for the camera: Ka Vang

© Courtesy of Ka Vang
Ka Vang

Vang, who entered the Fall 2020 UWGB Student Business Idea Virtual Pitch Contest, created a business model for Ntxhais Hmoob, a modern Hmong-inspired fashion line for everyday wear. The 2008 Green Bay West High School graduate and current Appleton resident was born in a refugee camp in Thailand.

“It was a difficult situation; just like many other Hmong families suffered,” Vang said. “My family moved to the United States in 1994 and we initially migrated to California before moving to Wisconsin several years later.”

Vang’s goal is to be the first in her family of six brothers and two sisters to graduate from college. It has been a long journey; she decided to return to college years after receiving an associate degree as a nursing assistant. Now, the business administration major and potential entrepreneur is poised to receive her diploma in May.

As part of her major, she was introduced to entrepreneurship and latched on to the idea of opening a Hmong fashion store.

“I really love Hmong clothes and after doing a project for class thought I would refresh and improve the idea for the contest,” Vang said. “I interviewed other small businesses who were in the industry I was going into and did a lot of research on Hmong clothes.”

One of those businesses, located in the Long Cheng Marketplace in Appleton, specializes in Hmong clothing, and the owner offered assistance. 

“I thought Hmong clothes were colorful and vibrant, but she explained that there were also differences within the various subcultures that I should be aware of,” Vang said. 

Those variations are defined by subgroup and it is said that a Hmong villager could be instantly recognizable, even from afar, just by the colors and style of clothing. Vang noted that while most of the clothing is very colorful, some tribes have more muted styles. That will need to be addressed when selecting designs. Another major decision will be the mode of production.

In Hmong culture, textiles are considered so important that girls as young as 5 are taught to embroider as an initial step in learning the more complex processes of indigo dying, garment construction and applique.

“It is traditional that everything was handsewn, but it could be manufactured,” she said. “That would make it possible to be mainstream with a line of casual Hmong-influenced fashions that can be worn every day.”

She says that would be important because the traditional designs have many layers and accessories that make them more suited to special events such as Hmong festivals. Her business model would include modernization for a more current look and fit, and a streamlined production process. Going forward, Vang will be spending time to figure out how to do that.   

That was part of the feedback she received from judges and her professor. 

Vang added: “I learned that my idea is not bad and other people can see it has potential to thrive, to come to life. That helped me and motivated me to do more research and work on areas where I can improve.”

That could mean starting small with an e-commerce store and starting to sketch out designs that could be produced on a limited scale. Although she currently interns as a financial services provider, the years to come could mean the realization of her idea.

“I see myself as an entrepreneur,” Vang said. “I love the fact, even knowing that I would need to put many hours in, that I would have flexibility and more of a balance between work and life.”

Ryan Kauth, former entrepreneurship lecturer at UWGB and event coordinator, said contests such as the one Vang participated in are excellent breeding grounds for business startups. One of the biggest roadblocks to participation is fear that ideas will be stolen.

“That reason is ridiculous,” Kauth said. “We cannot patent ideas, so no one can ‘steal’ them. Besides, are you telling me no one else in the world right now has this idea, too? Many people have ideas, but it is the entrepreneur who acts on those ideas. Pitching helps students meet people who can help them with their ideas.”

As Kauth continues to work with UWGB students, now as a volunteer (he also volunteers with the Green Bay SCORE chapter), he says that business pitch contests encourage entrepreneurship. The judges, instead of saying “that won’t work,” provide input that helps participants find a way that it could work.

That will be Vang’s goal going forward. Even if she is unable to make this business a reality, Kauth says it is often the next idea that will come to life. 

Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and past district director for SCORE, Wisconsin.

This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Pitch contest helps former refugee sharpen idea for Hmong-inspired fashion line

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