Receiving a doctorate degree is a notable achievement in any light, but for MayKao Hang, Doctorate of Public Administration ’14, it signified much more than her own success. It was breakthrough from the thousands of years of oppression that has haunted the Hmong people.
“When I graduated, I cried,” Hang said. “Because I realized it wasn’t just my journey. It was a 2,000-year journey of a lack of education. I think about that a lot for people who are denied education, because it matters. Education is a basic right.”
Hang’s family fled Laos when she was very young, landing in Minnesota when she was four. Her father was one of very few Hmong people in the community who could speak English and used that skill to help others. Their family spent years taking in newly arrived refugee families, sometimes up to ten families at one time.
Hang often went with her father to community meetings, and she grew up with an understanding of the disadvantages refugees faced and a strong belief in public service. This belief manifested itself in multiple ways: though Hang only spoke English at school and had learned a majority of it through Sesame Street, she tutored the other children in the community in English and even acted as an interpreter in health clinics.
“These roles gave me great exposure to what needed to be fixed,” Hang said. “Loving the people I was around and knowing that, through no fault of their own, they had so much need and couldn’t even express themselves and get the basic tasks of life done—it shaped my understanding of the world and what was possible.”
Hang’s childhood greatly impacted one of her core values: that every person matters and deserves respect and dignity. This principle has been prominent in her public service career.
After working for the government for eight years, Hang decided to go back to school to pursue her doctorate in order to achieve a deeper understanding of the politics of nonprofit work and improve her understanding of the public sector. She had always focused on working with vulnerable and disenfranchised population segments, so she eagerly took a position at the Wilder Foundation, thinking that it would fulfill her passion for public service and allow more time for her to pursue her doctorate.
It did not quite work out as she thought, however. Instead of staying in a small role at Wilder, Hang ended up accepting the position as president—at only 37 years old.
As president, Hang is able to actively model her personal definition of leadership by enabling others to make the changes they are passionate about. One such change that Wilder is focused on is “building the path to power,” which is being done through the Community Equity Pipeline (CEP), a means for community leaders of communities of color to gain the knowledge necessary to get involved with the state legislative process. Another change, modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, is focused on carving out 250 blocks in the city of Saint Paul and making sure that the children living there are successful from birth to career.
“When the organization and community are successful and when we can jumpstart amazing programs and when we’re able to build opportunities for a more sustained prosperity, that’s when I feel I’ve fulfilled my role,” Hang said.
And Wilder has certainly had major successes since Hang was appointed president. When she started out, diversifying the company was an ideal. Now, with 41 percent employees of color, Wilder can act as a model for other companies. Along with that, instead of bringing in translators, Wilder has devoted itself to helping people already from specific cultures get licensed in various social work roles.
As Hang said, “The lottery of luck in life shouldn’t determine your destiny.”
The impact that Hang has made at Wilder has not gone unnoticed. Her office is lined with awards, and in 2014 she was even awarded her own day. The award that affected her the most personally, though, goes back to her heritage. On the fortieth anniversary of the Southeast Asian refugee crises, Hang was awarded the Community Champion 40 and Forward Award, given by the DC-based Southeast Asian Resource Action Center.
“It was extremely meaningful to me, because they know best the journey and how long it takes,” Hang said.
Hang serves in a variety of volunteer positions—including that of the chair of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve—and takes an active role in Wilder’s research branch, which puts out over 150 research articles per year. Because of these myriad responsibilities, Hang said that receiving her doctorate was even more beneficial.
“The doctorate has given me more credibility at different decisions-making tables,” she said. “It’s allowed me access into an academic world I wouldn’t otherwise have access to.”
Though pursuing her Doctorate of Public Administration while raising four children and transitioning into the position of president was challenging, Hang fully believes in the benefits of her doing so.
“Every challenge is worth doing,” she said. “It’s a rigorous program, but if you have commitment and perseverance, you will prevail. And it’s a really important thing to do, to gain the knowledge and opportunities that come with it.”
Hang also believes that she chose well by going to Hamline: “I had a great experience at Hamline. It was really fun and I learned so much from my colleagues and the program itself. The quality of people in my cohort was amazing; I loved learning from them as much as from my professors. It was enriching and transformative in terms of learning different aspects of public administration and leadership.”
To learn more about Hamline’s Doctorate of Public Administration program, visit the School of Business website or contact Graduate Admission.
Hang's story and achievements were also recently featured in a story in the Twin Cities Business Journal in an article titled "Wilder Foundation CEO MayKao Hang's long journey: As social worker or Federal Reserve director, MayKao Hang’s influence stretches across cultures and industries."