L. Jay Incorporated was started so that Hmong refugees could get jobs. L. Jay Inc. works partly for a bigger shoe factory called Weinbrenner. Weinbrenner sends designs of shoes to L. Jay and then the people who work there sew different parts of the shoe and then sew all the finished pieces together to make a shoe. One of L. Jay’s biggest customers is Fleet Farm. Kao Lee is the son of the owner of the factory. He also works at a bank to help his family earn a living. Kou’s parents always want to get things done well no matter how long it takes. On the other hand, Kou’s generation wants to get things done as fast as possible...
L. Jay Inc., a shoe factory, was founded in 1989 by Jay Lee. Lee is Hmong and all of the twenty or so workers there are Hmong. The factory gives the Hmong jobs they usually wouldn’t get because they aren’t fluent in English. Mr. Lee created the company with some clan members, but now he owns the whole thing.
L. Jay is a subcontractor to Weinbrenner Shoes. Weinbrenner sends the material to L. Jay, [where it is assembled into shoes]. Each worker sews or glues a different part [of the shoe] together at a different machine. There are about twenty-five machines for different steps and some extras just in case one breaks down. It takes about five minutes to make the upper part of a shoe and about an hour from first step to finish.
Kou said that when his father passes away or gets really sick, he will be the next captain and take charge. He said that his parents aren’t lazy, because they wake up at 5:00 in the morning and stay up until 10:00 p.m. They made this job so Hmong people could sew, because Hmong adults love to sew. One machine makes the shoelace holes. Kou’s brother could make holes in a pair of shoes in five seconds—probably a world record. It looked easy, but in real life it’s real hard. We imagined US doing the job like this: “Tick, tick, tick, Oh! My finger has a hole!”
Clans came together to form L. Jay Inc. in 1989. The factory used to sew clothes and make reindeer out of straws, but now it works for Weinbrenner making mostly outdoor shoes. L. Jay owns the factory. His son Kou Lee goes to the University of Minnesota and comes home on weekends to help. Kou has always been interested in business. He works full-time in a bank doing accounting and tax work. He’s in the Master’s program at the University. When his father dies, he will get the factory.
There are many differences between the [Hmong] generations. The older [generation] is willing to work from 5:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. The younger is only willing to work from 8:00 to 5:00, but has business knowledge and knows English. Also, since older people did sewing by hand in Laos, they had to get used to sewing machines. But after a few weeks they got the hang of it. If you’re Hmong, and you don’t know English, you could have a mighty hard time getting a job. Only half of the workers at the factory know English. But since all the workers are Hmong or Hmong American they can talk in Hmong! Each worker has a different machine for each step of making a shoe. There are twenty to twenty-five machines (including extras in case one breaks down.) It takes around an HOUR to make ONE shoe! That’s how many steps there are! The workers get bonuses if they do their job well—more pay, Christmas gifts, picnics, stuff like that. There must be a lot of bonuses because the workers work so well and fast!
This stop showed more of the modern Hmong in America. It was a heart-stopping experience—it really shows how hard the Hmong work.