As Annie Vang developed her mobile application that helps 4,000-plus users learn Hmong, she drew from her experiences as a child with immigrant parents whose language existed only orally until the last few decades.
Vang, of DeForest, whose app HmongPhrases has recently gained the recognition and support of technology giant Apple, said she was born in a refugee camp on the border of Laos and Thailand in the 1970s. She doesn’t recall much from that time, but does remember the many struggles her family endured upon moving to the U.S. as Hmong people — language barriers, lots of moves and having to survive on a low income.
Now, Vang looks forward to turning what she calls her side hustle into a full-time gig. HmongPhrases started as a class project at Madison Area Technical College in the early 2000s, and now has the potential to reach thousands more users this year as Vang experiments with new app features.
The app, which can be downloaded from Apple iOS for 99 cents, includes sections that allow users to learn Hmong words, sounds and sentences. Flash cards help with memorization, and a recording of Vang’s voice assists with pronunciation. Vang is the CEO and sole employee of HmongPhrases app publisher Golden Fireflies.
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By the end of 2022, Vang plans to have the app include more Hmong phrases and words, as well as baby names and meanings, more flash cards and quizzes. A launch for Android can also be expected, she said, as well as a potential move into a subscription-based business model.
HmongPhrases underwent additional technical improvements last summer when Vang became the only person in the U.S. to attend the 10-day Apple Entrepreneur Camp for Female Founders.
Vang not only received one-on-one code guidance from Apple engineers, but ongoing support from a company developer for at least a year, as well as access to the Apple Entrepreneur Camp alumni network.
“It’s inspiring to watch our community of alumni go on to make transformative apps using cutting-edge technology,” said Latika Kirtane, team lead for Apple’s App Store developer services.
The app’s sole developer and her parents join the 38% of Asians in Wisconsin who are Hmong — a people who according to the state Department of Health fled to the U.S. between 1975 and 1990 after the Vietnam War.
Hmong people were recruited as guerilla solders in the war, facing the constant threat of persecution for fighting as U.S. allies against communist rule.
And because the Hmong language did not exist in written form for many years, many Hmong people who came to the U.S. couldn’t read or write their native tongue — possibly in addition to not knowing English, Vang said. The app is her way of rebuilding that, and preserving a culture that was almost lost.
‘Computers don’t judge you’
The 45-year-old herself had a hard time putting roots down growing up, having been to 12 schools between kindergarten and 12th grade. And her peers made fun of her for being different.
“I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up,” Vang said. “There was a lot of bullying. I didn’t look like everyone. I spent all my time in the library with computers. Computers don’t judge you.”
The coder soon became enamored by all the computer games she would play, as well as the software she would use to create graphics — before Photoshop existed. That love was soon quashed by the cultural expectations of her parents — only boys could play computer games, they told her.
Vang’s parents are now her “gut checkers” for HmongPhrases, especially with language.
In the 1990s, Vang attended UW-Madison as a nursing major for a year.
“I really wasn’t passionate about it,” she said. “I continued learning HTML in secret.”
Then, after taking on various temp and clerical jobs, a 26-year-old Vang decided “I’m not getting any younger” and enrolled in a web analyst program at Madison College in 2002.
Vang’s life now is a far cry from her childhood, and her years as a burgeoning young adult.
In addition to HmongPhrases, Vang developed an app in 2013 called Yumaholic, which she calls a “digital cookbook” for people who enjoy southeast Asian cooking.