Education was Mai Moua’s way out of poverty, and she mentors other Hmong women and girls
“I’m passionate about giving back to Hmong women and girls. … I didn’t grow up with a lot of role models and I wish I had a Hmong woman mentor.”
– Mai Moua
Mai Moua knew her hands weren’t meant for farming. Still, there was little she could do about working from before dawn until long after dark every summer, washing vegetables and tending flowers on her family’s farm in Rosemount, something she’s done since the age of 10.
One night, drained, she looked up at the stars while her hands mindlessly worked and remembers encouraging herself. “One day … if I can get by just one more day,” she remembers thinking. “This isn’t what I was meant to do.”
Driven to succeed
Moua, 30, who is Hmong-American, grew up in a large house in St. Paul with her parents Wang Lee and Lee Moua, who still own the same farm in Rosemount and sell their goods at the farmer’s market in Minneapolis. “My parents said, ‘You don’t have to work this hard if you get an education,'” she said.
In addition to working on the farm, the responsibility of caring for younger siblings fell on her shoulders; Moua is the oldest girl in a family of 10 children. She still plays that role today. Growing up as a woman in a poor refugee community was challenging, she said. Because of that, Moua has always been driven toward success, financial security and being better able to provide for her family.
“A lot of who I am had to do with my upbringing,” she said. “I was raised in poverty, so money is important. Education wasn’t easy to come by, so it’s important. Issues of immigration and refugees … I was a refugee. I’m interested in gender issues, because I’m a woman. Race is an issue, because I’m bicultural.”
In the Hmong community, women are often expected to do much of the household labor. That wasn’t easy for Moua. “I’m not good with my hands,” she said. “I’m good with ideas.”
Education was a haven from a world that required labor-intensive work. “I love to read,” she said. “The library for me is like a safe place. I love being surrounded by books and ideas.”
That love has paid off for Moua: After earning her bachelor’s degree at Brandeis University in Mass., she went on to earn a master’s degree in management from the College of St. Scholastica and, then, a doctorate in leadership studies from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. Today, she is president and CEO of Leadership Paradigms, Inc., a leadership consulting firm in St. Paul.
Her success has pleased her parents, who pushed education because it was limited in Laos and Thailand. “Education was a privilege,” Moua said. “My parents knew in order for families and kids to do well, they had to be educated. So they really emphasized that.” Every week, Moua’s father would gather the kids together for a family meeting. The first topic on the agenda? Education. “I hated those meetings,” she said. “But they’ve influenced who I am.”
Though Moua said she felt constant pressure from her parents and wanted to rebel, she admitted that, “Their dreams were really what I wanted for myself … they were my dreams.”
When she graduated with her doctorate, she joked that her father would get up to accept the honor. “[My parents] wanted it so much more than me,” she said.
Work and play
Moua’s approach to business is a holistic one. When training people, she looks at the essence of being human and her values of integrity and relationships are always in sight, as she tailors her advice to the individual needs of specific companies. She looks at things such as art, science, psychology and sociology when training individuals in leadership.
“Consultant is just a title,” she said. “My calling is to change the way people think about themselves and how that impacts society and the world they live in.” When consulting, she’ll ask questions such as, “How do you relate to other people and what do you need to do to make your relationships grow?”
Travel and culture is not only key in her work and connecting to differences and people, but a favorite personal pastime as well. Recently, she went on a nine-day trip to Australia. The earthiness of the aboriginal culture fascinated her, and while she was there, she went on a walkabout.
For aborigines, a walkabout is an extended stay in the wilderness as a rite of passage for a child, who traces the path of the ceremonial ancestors of their tribe. “It’s a cultural tour,” Moua said, “but also a journey of finding your identity. That’s the nature of my work, so I’m interested in stuff like that.” Moua doesn’t hike much, so climbing rocks, mountains and experiencing nature during the walkabout was intense.
“I learned two things: be present and be playful,” she said. “I had to really focus on being there at that moment, not thinking about what I’m going to eat or projects I had to do. I had to think about where my foot was landing.”
She also learned to just relax and have fun. “We get so bogged down with what we have to do next,” she said. “I felt like I was a kid again …. That playfulness came back.”
When she has time, which isn’t often in her 14-hour workdays, she finds enjoyment in knitting, crocheting and scrapbooking-anything artsy to step back from the rationality of her job.
Traveling has also been a time she can unwind. Once while she was in graduate school, she took a trip to Italy. It charmed her, she said, because everything seemed so slow, the people relaxed. “That’s the way it should be,” she laughed. “If I tell people they should take time for themselves, I should be doing it too. It’s not healthy to work so much.”
‘I know what it’s like’
Still, it’s hard for Moua to slow down, and it’s not just work that keeps her busy. In addition to long days in the office, she is involved in volunteering in her community.
“I’m passionate about giving back to Hmong women and girls,” she said.
That volunteer work currently includes chairing Professional Hmong Women’s Association and she is also active in Hnub Tshiab: Hmong Women Achieving Together and Hmong Women’s Giving Circle. Moua said that growing up in poverty and a bicultural world made her sympathetic to the plight of Hmong women around her. She would like to make it different for younger women. “I know what it’s like,” she said. “I didn’t grow up with a lot of role models and I wish I had a Hmong woman mentor …. Growing up in a refugee community drives a lot of what I do.”
Thirty years ago, simple commodities such as toilets and electricity were new to Hmong immigrants, many of whom had lived in third-world conditions in the mountains of Laos or Thailand, Moua explained. Immigrants didn’t know the system, either, and churches and government had to help in their resettling process. “It was a lot to adjust to,” she said.
The process of assimilation continues today, Moua said. She uses herself as an example: Though she and seven of her 10 siblings still live at home, her parents are becoming more accustomed to the Western idea of individuality and are more comfortable with her moving out. Before, being independent always conflicted with the Hmong sense of family, clan and how a choice impacts the group.
At the same time, she said, “I’m considered a kid until I get married.” It’s a Hmong “cultural thing” to live at home when you’re an adult, she said, but she stays by choice, and is soon planning to buy a house.
An independent woman
She is independent now, a world apart from who she was at 18 when she first left home to attend college at Brandeis University. “My identity was my family’s identity,” she said. “Going east, I became myself. A complete paradigm shift.” Moua explained that she had an identity, but she simply found her voice and individuality when she didn’t have her family to lean on as much.
Becoming an individual has helped in her efforts to make a difference on a larger scale. “Some of the work I do is focused around social change,” Moua said. “When you educate people, they start to think critically and then you get them starting to think about change.”
She likes the example the philosopher Plato gave in his allegory of the cavemen, who were chained to the cave, not knowing anything else. “They didn’t know they could actually leave,” Moua said. “All their lives, all they see is shadows, until one member says, ‘I’m leaving the cave,’ to find out there are actual real things and not just shadows. … Education, I feel, is like opening your eyes. Seeing new ways of doing things.”