Photo credit to Sinap Nguyen, courtesy of Koua Franz
For Koua Jacklyn Franz, building and leading communities toward sustainable futures has almost always been at the heart of her work. After working in the nonprofit sector for several years for both Hmong groups and otherwise, Franz co-founded John Gooder LLC with her husband in 2014. Together, they provide pointed consultation, professional and organizational guidance and event management services to clients. But Franz says she wants to be known as more than just a Hmong entrepreneur. Read on to find out who Franz is in her entirety, how journeys can translate into success and her thoughts on the future of the Hmong community.
Let’s let our readers know about you. How would you describe yourself as a person and an entrepreneur?
I am a mother of three beautiful young ladies, I am a wife, I am a daughter and I am a sister to 11 wonderful siblings. I consider myself as Hmong American. I came to the United States when I was two as a Hmong refugee.
Currently, I am the co-owner of John Gooder LLC. I was previously the director of communications and learning at the Stuart Foundation, which works in the field of education philanthropy. Prior to Stuart, I was the chief of staff to the superintendent of the Sacramento Unified School District. There, I also served as their chief family and community engagement officer. Prior to going into public education, I was the executive director for the nonprofit Hmong Women Heritage Association. Prior to that, I was doing a lot of social science research in San Joaquin County as the planning and evaluation director for the Community Partnership for Families. They ran family resource centers that provided direct services and navigation for underserved populations. I have 13 years of leadership experience and in supporting, consulting and developing strong teams. I have done numerous workshops around creating capacity growth in both leaders and everyday managers and team members. I have a Master’s in public administration (from National University) and a Bachelor’s in psychology (from University of the Pacific). For me, I am a strong system thinker. I believe it is important to understand how things are interconnected and interrelated so that we are mindful of the types of people who want to be in this world.
Regarding your career in the nonprofit sector, what would you say was your proudest moment?
When I went into nonprofit, I actually didn’t know there was a field in nonprofit. Growing up, I always thought you would become a teacher, doctor or a lawyer, or you go to work for the state. I didn’t know that you could work for an organization where everybody was working toward something meaningful in the world and that people can actually have a career in that. I didn’t know that until I went away to college and I was working as a researcher. I had an opportunity to work with nonprofits to create evaluation systems where they can report back their outcome to their funders. Ever since then I thought how great (it would be) if one day I could become an executive director. Then in 2005, when the last refugee wave of Hmong came into the country, I was at a point where I really wanted to do something for my people and I was trying to look for something with my passion for working with the Hmong community and my passion and personal desire and ambition to become an executive director. I found those two meet in the position of being the executive director for Hmong Women Heritage Association. I would say that one of my proudest moments was when I heard them say they wanted me for this position. They had a lot of more qualified individuals for this position, but I felt proud because I felt like they bought my vision of where I wanted to take the organization and the community.
What inspired you to leave the foundation world and focus on John Gooder LLC?
John Gooder has always been a secondary source of income for my family. It was something that I have done ever since college. Every time that I received an off-job offer while I was working, I would consult or I took it as a contracted opportunity. It wasn’t until 2014 that my husband and I decided to really incorporate it into a limited liability company (LLC). That was right when I just got the job for Stuart Foundation. The foundation was going through a learning journey and I was going to have an opportunity to work with Daniel Kim, the protege of Peter Senge (founder of Society of Organizational Learning and a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). I had the chance to build my skills around building people’s capacity, looking at organizations and making sure that we are being strategic about our impact. That landed me to a point where I really wanted to do teaching, continuing growth and improvement. Another reason was I got to work with a previous leader that I was working with so usually you get to a point where you want to work with good people and you want good people working with you. You want people who believe in you as well, so you can do your best. For me, when the president of the foundation transitioned as well, I came to the point where I thought about what I could do with all the learning I had done with the foundation. It became a time to put together all these ideas of growing and creating John Gooder.
Considering a lot of the work that you do is rooted in Hmong community, what do you think about bridging the Hmong community and the work of a social capital venture?
Social capital venture is all about a business venture that prioritizes social goods with business success. I always felt that the work that I was doing with the Hmong community encompasses a lot of that. There are a lot of types of social capital ventures. There are nonprofits that have fees for services where they still do their work but they have a part where they charge for their service. There are the for-profit companies where they have a social good mission. That is what John Gooder is about. We are a for-profit company, yet we have that very particular mission and really focus on developing community, especially Hmong community, and to really work with them to implement different projects and different ideas. (Doing) it in a way where they can grow as people and do it at a scale where it is not just for the Hmong community but for the community at large. A third type of social venture company is when people pull in resources, invest them into supporting for-profits and nonprofits and do great things in developing the community. That is where I eventually want to take John Gooder—to be a true social capital company where we have investors with money who want to support the community, and at the same time, also get a return on their investment, whether it is a social or monetary return.
What I want to get the Hmong community to understand is that if we want our community to grow in wealth, we need to understand how money works, and money works when you invest in something that can get you a strong return on your investment. I think there are concepts in the Hmong community that we can invest in like, for example, in the arts and entertainment. That is something we are already doing, but in this current socioeconomic system we could reinvent it to make profit. I don’t think we have come together to design some sort of economic engine where the supply and demand continues to happen in the Hmong community so that there is a pipeline for our artists, performers, artisans and fashion designers within the community, and they have a strong support so they could penetrate into the mainstream markets.
Have you done work around the arts?
That is mainly our passion project that through John Gooder, is one of our social good ventures that we want to do. It is this notion of creating a series of festivals and events where artists can display arts and create a space for them to showcase and connect what they are doing. It is about creating the type of quality support that we want to give our artists. For example, we have great artists working on their crafts, and a lot of time they don’t have enough quality venues to showcase their work. When that happens, it kind of undervalues the art and the artist’s time. We want to not become artists ourselves but be more about creating and providing a quality space for artists to be appreciated and valued how they should be.
As an entrepreneur, what would you consider as the most challenging aspect and what fears do you have?
I see myself as just an entrepreneur and my most challenging aspect and my fear is that I don’t want people to see me as just a Hmong entrepreneur because it narrows the focus and not the impact that I can do. I know I do a lot of Hmong work and a lot of Hmong support and events, but it is only because right now that is my focus. How do we bridge our community and bridge them with the creative quality that is happening around them? I want to make sure that our folks are at the table, but by doing that my fear is that people, whether within my community or outside of my community, start to see me as just a Hmong entrepreneur. I don’t see myself that way.
“I really wanted to do something for my people and I was trying to look for something with my passion for working with the Hmong community.”
Who are your role models and how have they inspired you to do the work that you do and have they inspired you to build a company for yourself?
I am a big book reader, so for me role models come in the way that people write and also the ways in which they share their stories. Role models came in different times in my career, so early on a really big influential person that I can think of is, when I was executive director for Hmong Women Heritage, Doua Thor, who was the executive director of the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center (SEARAC) at that time. I had never seen a Hmong woman executive director before at that time. I remember seeing her at a collaborative meeting and I saw that she was so intelligent and so kind and I was thinking to myself, “This is what a Hmong executive director looks like.” I always tell her that she was a big inspiration for me because I saw in her the type of person I wanted to be. She was influential in inspiring me to build myself as a leader. From there, in every position, it was really hard to find Hmong women or even Hmong people in those positions to understand what it is and how this role looks like. A lot of times these positions are held by white men and women and you sit there and you think, “Can I really do that? Can I be assertive? Can I speak my mind about certain things? Am I really that smart?”
A lot of my inspiration of how you can inspire yourself to be a good leader or to create for yourself or to help others came in the form of books. My first book was “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell. That book changed my life; it taught me about how influence works and how quickly things can catch on and how to make that wildfire and make it happen. The same with “Tribal Leadership” by David Logan and John King. It is about leveraging natural groups to build a thriving organization. It came at a time when I was with Hmong Women Heritage and it really taught how to build a tribe and understand where people are in a group and how to build them up so that they feel seen and heard and valued. “The Art of War for Executives” by Donald G. Krause taught me how to be patient, how timing works, how to build good allies and when people are against you, how do you work against them. As I went into my growth moment at the Stuart Foundation, I read “The Path of Least Resistance” by Robert Fritz. That book changed the way in which I think about where I want to place myself in life so I can create my own vision and my own path, and that I didn’t have to belong in an organization or be working for someone, that I can actually create my own team. After reading this book I thought, “I am going to do a night market!” and have a place where artists and craft makers can come and showcase and sell their work.
I am a big anime fan so when I think about role models and struggling about people and talents in front of me, one anime that kind of helped me through some of these things is “One Piece.” I think the author who wrote it put a lot of thought into how to create a strong team to achieve your passion without diminishing those around you and how everyone can have different outcomes and goals, but if you can include them into your own vision, then they will actually help you get there. All of this got me to think about my ambition and what I want to create. At the end of the day, it is about growing people and growing community.