This week, Little Laos on the Prairie had a chance to talk with Lao American entrepreneur and community builder Alex Hanesakda from across the border in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. With roots in Champasak, he is the 32-year old founder of Mama’s Egg Rolls. He is also dedicating his time to his family and his non-profit work assisting at risk youth.
We wanted to know a little more about his journey and his secrets to finding success in life.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and your family? When did you all make it to the United States?
My American name is Alex Hanesakda, while my Lao name AE Hanesakda, and my Lao nickname given to me by the elders which I’ve been called my whole life is “Hum Noi” I’m 32 years old. I have a manufacturing business called “Mamma’s Eggrolls” There we sell E-ma’s delicious eggrolls regionally. I am also the director of a non-profit which uses hip hop culture as an empowering tool to give youth a positive vehicle to progress and grow through break-dancing to adapt to the real world.
My family arrived here in 1982. After the secret war in Laos my parents fled to Thailand and lived in a refugee camp for 2 years. That’s where I was conceived. Like many other Lao families at that time we where sponsored by a church in the United states and our journey to the new land began.
What are some of your favorite things about being a part of the Lao community?
If it’s one thing that I enjoy most of being Lao or part of the Lao community is the solidarity, and being treated by complete Lao strangers as if I were family just because I’m a fellow Lao countryman. I also enjoy the level of respect, from calling all elders mom or dad or aunt or uncle, the level of respect for parents. For example, we don’t ship our parents away to a nursing home! Something that is common in American culture but not Lao culture. We take care of our parents until the end. Everything is so simple and logical. Oh, and Yes! Can’t forget about the food!!!!!
What was your favorite subject in school? What was the most challenging for you?
To be honest, I didn’t do very well in school. I don’t know if it was the transitioning, the language barrier with my parents that made it hard to get help with school, or something like that. But we had to adapt and adapt fast. So there where several holes in my academics. Not that I didn’t try to apply myself, or my parents weren’t helping. It’s just the unfortunate realities of being a first generation refugee! Note REFUGEE not IMMIGRANT. BIG DIFFERENCE. But if was one thing I did enjoy in school it had to do with art. Whether that was reading Mark Twain Novels, Chorus, or even art class. Those always sparked imagination for me and I was always intrigued by what my teacher and classmates brought to the conversation. I became an eccentric dreamer with no plans for the corporate future, if you will.
What inspires you?
As a kid what really inspired me was martial arts and the simplicity of Lao culture.
Even though it was always drilled into me to become successful financially, I was always off day-dreaming about totally unrelated things. Like nature, animals, and other unrelated things.
As I’ve gotten older though, the number one thing that motivates me is first is my newborn son, and second, the sacrifice and struggles my parents went through to bring us here and raise us in a new land. I mean, they STRUGGLED! No time to go to school! They worked the lowest paying and hardest laboring jobs, they couldn’t communicate with our neighbors, the list could go on and on. But yeah, being able to understand the hardships my parents went through to provide for me and my siblings is without a doubt one of my biggest sources of inspiration and motivation.
What’s you favorite Lao dish?
Favorite Lao Dish? Is this a serious question?? There is way too many! But if I had to narrow it down to what I ask my mom to make the most? It involves papaya, carrot, long bean salad with sticky rice and jao on the side and grilled chicken! This is a trick question! But I’ll leave it at that.
What do you see as your next big project for yourself?
My next big project/goal is two things. For Mamma’s Eggrolls, my business goal is to get these going nationally and all over the country. For now we are only regional, but we’ll get there in the future.
For the non-profit program I’m director of, we also plan to go national if not International by having a yearly competition for all kids that are in our program, and for kids from all over that have similar programs all over the world. I hope to have it manifest one time of year in one location: A b-boy competition for youth 11-years and younger.
What advice do you have for young Lao who want to be successful?
My advice for the younger generation is to follow the golden rules of the elders. With all of those tools put to use, you can’t go wrong. Know your history, know why you are here in the states, question everything. Success is a pretty vague word. But in terms of financial success? Have a plan, work hard, work hard, work hard.
Do not rely on anyone else to do anything for you. Let your ancestors struggle/rich culture be the motivation.
How do you do that?? Go to the temple, read about your history, spend time with some elders, go fishing, see how happy they can be with very little.
I guess that last sentence is part of my explanation of the other form of success. Can you be happy without money and materialistic things? YES YOU CAN. If you want to go that route, practice Buddhism, Lao culture is all about buddhism. I wont get into it anymore here as I’m sure Siddhartha can explain it much better. But in the end, don’t be afraid to look for the best in our community. What you find can surprise and inspire you!
You can visit Mamma’s Eggrolls online on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Mammas-Eggrolls/254876017522 At press-time their main website was not online but is normally located at: http://www.mammaseggrolls.com
~Bryan Thao Worra