The Hmong American Using Technology to Save Her Endangered Language
In 2021, Annie Vang was the only American woman elected for the coveted Apple Entrepreneur Camp. More specifically, she was the only Hmong American woman in her cohort — and probably in the history of the camp.
An East Asian ethnic group without a country, there's around 327,000 Hmong people in the United States. Many don't speak their language anymore. Vang is trying to change that.
Follow the extraordinary journey of how Vang broke barriers in tech on her mission to save the endangered Hmong language.
A Tumultuous Beginning
Like thousands of Hmong people at the end of the Vietnam War, Vang's family fled to a refugee camp in Thailand to avoid persecution from the communist government in Laos. She was born at the camp and lived there for the first two years of her life, while the family waited to be admitted into the United States on a special visa.
Once they arrived in Wisconsin, things weren't easy for her. They seldom are for immigrant children. She remembers wanting to fit in badly. She was bullied and didn't have many friends. To escape, she turned to computers and video games.
In high school, she took every computer class possible (at the time, many were simply teaching children to type). "I was always fascinated," she recalls, so she asked a computer teacher how she would be able to make games or work with computers.
"She just looked at me and shot my dreams down," telling her there was no way she would be able to do that. Vang remembers being overwhelmed with the "feeling of embarrassment, the feeling of not [being] valued. It really hurt my pride and then I just thought, 'well, she must be right because she's an authority figure and I respect her.'"
Following traditions from what she calls "the old country," Vang married at 16 and had a son at 17. She didn't go to college even though her parents wanted her to because she was expected to put her family first.
But don't mistake this for a tragic part of Vang's story. On the contrary, becoming a mother is what brought her back to her culture. Whereas she'd spent her childhood wishing she was like everyone else, "being a mom changed me into figuring out who I was and my place in the world," she claims. "I wanted my child to know about where he came from and who he is."
It was in her twenties that she had the "courage to just embrace who I am, love myself, love my culture, love that it's OK to be different and just be happy with what I have to bring to the table."
Finding a Future in Tech
While Vang gave up her dreams of working with computers after her teacher discouraged her, she never stopped playing video games or learning about technology. She taught herself everything she could about computers simply because they interested her.
Eventually, her passion for tech came in handy for a job, where she had the skills but not the degree people often confuse for capacity. Luckily, she had a great manager who saw her potential and encouraged her to go back to school for web development.
"I had never had anyone encourage me to move forward with it," she notes. "I was thinking, 'Are you serious?'" Despite a lifetime of negative messages and never seeing a Hmong woman in tech, this is all she needed to make the jump.
She quit her job and went back to school full-time. The decision was terrifying. As the first person in her family to attend college, she had no one to guide her on the path. Plus, her family would now have to survive on one income. Her husband and parents, however, were supportive.
"If I failed, I would go hungry. If I didn't, it would be a great thing" — this is how Vang calculated the risk of her move. But she knew she needed the title to get respect. "I was looking to be a professional in the space instead of just the person who's supporting someone else reach their goals and dreams."
The stakes were high, but her passion drowned out all fears and negativity. "I knew inside that I could do this, even though it was really scary," she says.
From Passion Project to Career Defining Enterprise
Vang's leap of faith proved to be justified. She was able to make a living doing what she loved. But her desire to learn never waned. In 2009, about 10 years after jumping into tech, she enrolled in an advanced certificate course to learn about iPhone app development. This, it turns out, would change her life again.
The final project was to develop an app, something —the instructor advised — that they would be proud of even if they didn't get paid for it. Vang went into the app store and searched for anything related to the Hmong people or language. Since she couldn't find it, she decided to build it.
In the end, she made two apps: English to Hmong and Hmong to English. In 2011, she merged them into HmongPhrases, the app she still proudly runs today. A decade after launching, her app is still the only one in the world that helps people learn Hmong.
"When I started the app," she reveals, "it was more of a study guide and a gift to myself." Like many other Hmong Americans, she could speak the language, "but my reading and writing were not that great. As [the app] evolved, it only helped me get better."
And she isn't the only Hmong who feels this way.
What HmongPhrases Has Done for the Hmong Community
Because of persecution and assimilation, the Hmong language is endangered. This is especially true in the United States, where people have grown up speaking English rather than Hmong.
Vang's skills have helped her contribute to saving her language. The reception in the community has been overwhelmingly positive. First-generation Hmong immigrants like her use it to learn how to read and write the language, while generations born in the United States find it helpful for practicing speaking without being judged or teased.
Many people write to Vang to thank her for making the app and increasing representation. Members of the community especially appreciate that the platform is in both Hmong White and Hmong Green, the two main dialects in the U.S. Most sources — like Google Translate — focus solely on Hmong White. As a native Hmong Green speaker, Vang found it important to have her own dialect included.
And while her users are primarily from the U.S., people from Europe and Southeast Asia have also downloaded the app. In fact, Hmong living in Asia have found an unexpected use for it: learning English.
Vang explains that the Hmong writing system uses the English alphabet. This is because the language was banned from being written for over a century as part of cultural persecution by the Qing Dynasty. Now, people can hear the Hmong word (in the dialect of their choice), then listen to it in English to practice without having to rely on finding a teacher.
In the end, however, Vang adds that "the audience [of HmongPhrases] just spans anyone that wants to learn about who we are as a people."
Entrepreneur Camp: A Life-Changing Opportunity
Another 10 years passed by until Vang's next life-changing moment: being accepted into the competitive Apple Entrepreneur Camp. Vang calls her experience in the 2021 summer program "life-changing."
"For 10 years, I felt like my app was just a little pebble in a huge pond," Vang confesses. "Meeting all these other fantastic, amazing ladies helped solidify my confidence in myself."
She can now remind herself: "Think about what you have done for your community, for your culture and for yourself. You're doing something that nobody else in the world is doing. And that's an amazing thing."
We couldn't agree more.
After the coaching and workshops at the camp, Vang fully rebuilt her app from the ground up, making it better than ever.
In the near future, she's looking to make the app available on Android as well as growing her users to 10,000.
Annie Vang's Advice for Women in Tech
One of the main reasons why the Apple Entrepreneur Camp was so significant for Vang is that she finally felt recognized as a female developer and tech entrepreneur.
According to Vang, "it is still very challenging to be a woman in tech. You still have to fight twice as hard for your seat at the table." But this isn't to discourage anyone. On the contrary, she'd like any young girl and young entrepreneur — or, she points out, older entrepreneurs — to think that "no idea is too small or too big."
Vang firmly believes in uplifting other women developers, sharing knowledge and being encouraging. "It really just takes one person to help encourage you. See how far that encouragement has taken me."