Force of Nature - 405 Magazine

Force of Nature

The Asian-owned business community accounts for more than $1 billion in annual sales and about a quarter billion in payroll in Oklahoma.

The Asian-owned business community accounts for more than $1 billion in annual sales and about a quarter billion in payroll in Oklahoma. Now, the newly formed Greater Oklahoma City Asian Chamber represents this group of more than 5,000 businesses that serve as a significant economic driver for Oklahoma’s economy. 

Asian-owned businesses account for more than a half of a billion firms in America.

That’s more than any other minority group.

Growing at more than twice the national rate, generating well more than $500 billion in receipts and employing about 5.2 million people, Asian-owned businesses are an economic force.

Oklahoma’s Asian-owned business community mirrors this power:
Asian-owned businesses number 5,318 in Oklahoma, bringing in $1.25 billion in sales and $203 million in payroll annually.

And now, they are organized.

Asian-business leaders have formed the first-ever-in-Oklahoma Asian-focused chamber, The Greater Oklahoma City Asian Chamber of Commerce, to support the economic growth of OKC’s Asian-owned business community. It’s long overdue, however, as the minority business community is one of the last to have representation.

“Notably, we are like the very last minority chamber to be established,” said Thuan Nguyen, CEO and owner of THN Insurance and advocacy chair for the new Greater Oklahoma City Asian Chamber. “In a recent speech (noting the creation of the chamber), Mayor David Holt asked, ‘Why didn’t this happen sooner?’”


So, why didn’t it happen sooner?

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, and in the subsequent years after, Oklahoma City received a flood of Vietnamese refugees who relocated to the Central Park neighborhood – and throughout the metro – through help from local Christian charities. New Asian-owned businesses sprouted out of this resettlement, numbering hundreds and now thousands. From this initial surge, through the 80s until today, these immigrants first focused on establishing better lives in America, said Jacqueline Sit, Gooden Group senior account executive and OKC Asian Chamber marketing chair.

Jacqueline Sit. Photo by Charlie Neuenschwander.

“I think for so long, our Asian culture has always been taught to keep our heads down, to be quiet, to just work hard and be reserved,” Sit said. “And we did. But this one-and-a half generation here on this board is breaking out of that mold. We’re reinventing ourselves and we understand that diversity is not just obviously a strength – it means more than that. It means more innovations, and it means more creative ideas. It means more different thoughts and minds working together that would probably be different than the rest of the population.”

This one-and-a-half generation, or the children of first-generation immigrants, that Sit refers to are the Oklahoma City business leaders now propelling many Asian-owned businesses forward after their parents immigrated and worked for decades.

“We’re not just entrepreneurs,” Sit said. “We’re innovators. We’re creators. We’re trailblazers. And it’s because our parents had that courage to take the risks to bring us out here.”

And because of the foundation laid by their parents who created businesses to provide a better life in America for their children, those children can now give back by creating the infrastructure needed to support the businesses many of their parents started.

“This is for our children,” said Scarlet Le-Cao, OKC Asian Chamber founding president and Omega Investments chief operating officer. “But this is also for our parents.”

Bridge builders

Nguyen said another role of the chamber is to serve as a bridge that honors the generation before them, educates the generation they are raising and also focuses outward to the broader business community.

“For many years, that generation has led this community,” he said. “It’s almost like a passing of the torch. And this community that we’re building right now, this trailblazer community, we are the bridging gap. We are bridge builders. And we have such a big responsibility as a board and as community leaders and entrepreneurs right now in our stage of our life, because we are not only bridging the gaps between the elderly generation, but we are also having to bridge the younger generation. We’re also building a bridge with the overall community. So, it’s not only inwards, but it’s also outward. So, we have many, many different paths. And so that responsibility is really heavy on us.”

That weight on their shoulders comes with an equally heavy immigration story for many. For Nguyen, his mother scooped him up and immigrated to the United States when he was 4, facing a harrowing journey by boat that wasn’t guaranteed safe passage.

“We took this journey where we didn’t know whether we’re going to live or die,” he said. “We left behind my family, my siblings, my dad, just everything in our way of life. My mom worked three jobs to support me and she saved every penny we had, and we were reunited as a family after 12 years.”

Nguyen went on to establish an insurance agency and is credited for helping create the Asian District Cultural Association, an association promoting Oklahoma City’s Asian District, a grouping of Asian businesses and residents between Northwest 23rd Street and Northwest 30th Street, where many Vietnamese refugees first resettled after the Vietnam War.

“I figured this is the place where we really need community engagement; we need activities to draw people in this area, and to be able to see our businesses thrive,” he said.

Le-Cao came to Oklahoma as an international student to Oklahoma State University through a program with Vietnam National University. She and her husband now run a property management company, managing at least 25 remodeling projects at a time and refurbishing more than 500 properties since forming the company.

“I chose Oklahoma,” she said. “I wanted something different.”

For Sit, who grew up in Hong Kong until she was 9, said her parents wanted to provide more opportunity for her and her sister. So, Sit’s parents bought one-way plane tickets and headed to California to Sit’s grandparents.

“We only had four one-way plane tickets and $60 in our pocket,” she said.

Her parents opened a sunglasses business, despite not speaking English, and Sit and her family sold sunglasses for the next 15 years, prioritizing a private education for Sit and her sibling.

“I will never forget just watching my mom selling sunglasses in the rain,” she said. “She was fierce. And she was just so driven to provide for the family and put food on the table that she could sell sunglasses in the rain. I definitely look up to my parents in terms of sacrificing everything.”
It’s these sacrificial beginnings repeated through multiple one-and-a-half generation board members that helps explain why this Chamber’s drive and focus might be a little different than other chambers. And, Nguyen reminds, the sacrificial beginnings of the Vietnam immigrants from the 1970s mirror the sacrifices made by other Asian immigrants’ decades before that.

“A lot of Chinese immigrants came to Oklahoma to build railroads, but harsh treatment through things like the Chinese Exclusion Act forced Chinese workers to not be out after dark or live above ground,” he said. “The very first Chinese restaurant is in the tunnels in downtown Oklahoma City for this reason.”

The center of Oklahoma City’s Asian community near
NW 24th Street and Classen Avenue in 1993 from the Oklahoma Publishing Company Collection at the Oklahoma Historical Society.

Future goals and current challenges

Le-Cao, Nguyen and Sit, along with other now-board members, started talking and hearing about the need for Oklahoma’s first-ever Asian chamber, and soon knew the momentum existed to proceed towards its creation.

“We all showed such a strong passion and shared vision, which is to promote economic developments for the Asian communities in the Oklahoma City area,” Le-Cao said. “The mission is very simple. And everyone just shares their heart. And I think because all our stories are very similar, and all of us want the community to be better and grow stronger.”

The Chamber officially began in January 2023, and Le-Cao said sponsorships and memberships are growing almost every day.

“Our focus is still to build a very strong foundation for the organizations to sustain over the years,” Le-Cao said. “The first goal is to try to hire an executive director, which we think we can hire during the first year – which is very rare.”

Le-Cao said the chamber has outlined four pillars to focus growth around: No. 1, connect, strengthen and advocate for Asian communities; No. 2., recruit more Asian-owned businesses and Asian talent; No. 3, provide equitable opportunities for Asian communities; and No. 4, provide cultural educational initiatives for Asian communities.

Scarlett Le-Cao. Photo by Charlie Neuenschwander.

“With those four visions, it will help make our communities stronger and better,” she said. “We want to grow our businesses through our different industries like biotech, tourism and venture capital. There’s a lot that we can do. It’s a lot of work ahead of us.”

The one-and-a-half generation is stepping up to not only take over many of the businesses started by their family, but they are working together to bring resources and education to the group as a whole, Nguyen said.

“It’s going to take more than any of us – it’s going to take all of us,” Nguyen said. “It’s going to take all of us to realize that everyone here, we all have a piece of this to do, no matter your color or your race. Knowing that Oklahoma is the melting pot of America, and we have to come to the conclusion that everyone is going to need to work together to move us all forward.”

Samantha Sourignavono and her mother Khamsay stock shelves at their Asian market in 1988. This image is part of the Oklahoma Publishing Company Collection at the Oklahoma Historical Society.

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