Lou Thao, a Realtor® of Hmong heritage talks about real estate, success, and the fusion of her Asian and American identities
When Lou Thao’s family arrived in the United States from Laos in 1990, they were part of an exodus that had been going on since 1975. The Hmong, an ethnic people who lived in the mountains of Laos and other nations, had helped the U.S. during the Vietnam War. After the communists came to power in Laos, they were imperiled and began fleeing.
Making their home in Minnesota, Thao’s family joined many other Hmong people who had already settled in the Twin Cities. Only nine years old, Thao adapted rapidly, from learning the language and going to school to becoming accustomed to American culture. And though she strived to fit in, she saw there was a socio-economic gap defined by homeownership.
“Growing up, my non-Asian friends’ families owned their homes, and most of my Asian friends’ families were renters,” recalled Thao, who is a Realtor® with RC Enterprises in St. Paul. “They lived in houses, while we lived in apartments. But as a child, I didn’t know any better. All I knew was, we were poor.”
Eventually Thao learned that homeownership was much more than having a property title. It was central to how American families build stable and secure lives and create wealth and opportunity for generations. That’s why when Thao became a Realtor® in 2014, she made it her mission to help struggling families find a path to buying homes of their own.
“Looking back, if my parents and others like them had been educated or provided the resources available to them, perhaps they could have purchased homes sooner rather than later,” Thao observed.
Because knowledge is such a critical resource for first-time homebuyers, education is central to Thao’s suite of services. Dedicated to serving the Asian American community, she has helped hundreds of clients move beyond doubt and uncertainty and into homes of their own.
“The most satisfying thing about being a Realtor® is that I get to serve the Asian community, and help people realize their homeownership dreams. We are alike, so there’s some level of trust there for them to use me.”
Although she takes pride and satisfaction in playing such an important role, she acknowledges encountering barriers when she tries to build a client base among St. Paul’s broader population.
“Trying to get business from the mainstream community is hard because I don’t look like them, so there’s no level of trust,” Thao said. “I think a lot of the time, Asian Realtors® are questioned if they know what they’re doing. For example, if a non-Asian person can’t pronounce our name, they’re not going to call us. They’re going to call Jane Smith. My friends and I have joked about changing our names to more traditional mainstream names to overcome this challenge.”
Joking aside, Thao does not plan to change her name any time soon. In fact, she is working hard to help people change their minds, making misconceptions and degrading stereotypes a thing of the past.
“There’s so much work, so much,” said Thao, “Education and tolerance are key in creating a more equitable community for us; however, we can’t do it all, and certainly not alone. I do my part through real estate, making sure that there are opportunities for Asians and People of Color to become homeowners.”
Proud of her Hmong heritage and committed to preserving it for future generations, she is also eager to share it with the broader Minnesota community. Recently, she served as the event producer for the History of Hmong Clothes, an exhibit in St. Paul that displayed garments worn by people in China, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and the United States. Ranging from the early 1900s to contemporary times, the styles are linked by a common design for shirts, pants, and skirts. Building on these simple forms, the clothing expresses a wide range of fabric, color, creativity, and cultural identity.
“A lot of the designs and symbols represent elements and daily lives of Hmong from previous generations and other lands and regions throughout the world,” Thao explained. “For example, the mountain symbol of connecting triangles is used a lot because historically, Hmong people lived in the highland and mountain regions of whatever country they inhabited.”
Thao stresses that Hmong clothing designs are not relics of a forgotten past. They continue to influence and inspire new generations:
“Hmong clothing and cultural jewelry pieces are being integrated into contemporary fashions; traditionally stitched designs are now printed on fabric that is comfortable for everyday wear. The big heavy silver necklaces are popular print designs on t-shirts.”
In this way, Hmong culture is woven into the fabric of their newer identity as Americans. Noting that there can be hardship and discrimination wherever one lives, Thao believes that the United States provides more opportunities for a better life than almost anywhere in the world.
“My Asian heritage means that I come from a specific culture of people. But what matters is that I’m a good person and do good by others. I know about my heritage and appreciate all the beauty it holds, but I am American and Minnesotan first, and Asian-Hmong second. The U.S. is my home,” Thao said.