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Virginia Miremont (Saechao) an Iu-Mien American CFO on Fortitude & Running a Business

Virginia Miremont (Saechao) is Iu-Mien American and the CFO of Architectural Plastics, Inc (API), a design & fabrication business in Sonoma County making high-end custom products using acrylic. She grew up in the Central Valley and is currently based in Petaluma. During the COVID-19 pandemic, API provided healthcare workers and Iu-Mien community members with acrylic face shields.

Virginia at the Architectural Plastics, Inc facility in Petaluma, CA. She is wearing a traditional Iu-Mien silver necklace called "ja wanh." (Photo by Faye Saechao/SEAT)

Virginia talks to us about growing up as a second generation Iu-Mien American in the Central Valley, forging her way to becoming fully independent at the age of 17, and gives advice to young women on the importance of choosing the right life-partner. Read her story below.

 

I am of Iu Mien descent and just one generation from living as part of a hill tribe in the mountainous region of Laos. I grew up in the Central Valley (Fresno/Visalia) and currently live in Petaluma with my husband, Blake and our 3-year-old daughter. Blake and I run a design and fabrication business together, making high-end custom products using acrylic (e.g., museum cases for all the major museums in SF, custom acrylic wine cellars, closets, furniture and medical instruments).


How do you identify yourself (ethnically or culturally)?


I think ​​ethnicity and culture ​both play a significant role in how we form our identity​ so I wouldn’t negate one over the other, but I’m also not defined by either. I choose to have personal autonomy so I look within. How I view myself is rooted in my personal identity; one that is defined by my values, actions and sense of self––because “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”


When you were growing up what did you want (or still wish) to be?


A dancer! I love ​every form of ​dance and still wish I had acquired the foundational training growing up that would’ve enabled me to pursue it in my youth. Fortunately, there are so many class options available for dance now that there’s nothing to keep me from discovering it in my 40s!

"I choose to have personal autonomy so I look within. How I view myself is rooted in my personal identity; one that is defined by my values, actions and sense of self..."

How challenging is it to be married and run a business together?


First, I’d like to put forward that a good question to ask yourself when choosing your life partner is, “Would I start a business with this person?” Looking past the romance allows for more objective consideration. Like any successful business partnership, marriage requires mutual trust, compatibility and commitment.


Blake and I have faced many difficult challenges as we continually push ourselves in all aspects of our life, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. Being tested and stretching our limits has not only strengthened our relationship, it’s allowed us to see what we’re both made of and achieve more than we would otherwise. He’s my match in both business and life.

However, while we’ve been steadfast in our endeavors, our family and friends don’t always get why we’re doing so much. Especially through COVID when so many people had forced downtime they would ask, “Aren’t you doing well? If you’re successful, why are you guys working so hard?” And I’d tell them that we do it because we’re building the foundation for our life and creating our future.

"The idea of working beyond necessity is something I’d like to instill more into our often lax culture. I think people tend to view financial freedom or retirement as a chance for permanent vacation; I see it as a chance to finally do the things that really matter."

When you get to a point where you find success and don’t have to work hard (or at all) that’s when the real work and creativity begins.


Speaking of COVID, can you tell us how you came about making face shields and donating them to the Iu Mien Community?


We’d never made face shields before, then the shelter-in-place orders were given last year and suddenly we had to make a sharp pivot with our business to stay open and keep the company alive. The only way to do that was to start making PPE for health workers. It then became our mission to help stem the shortage crisis by making face shields and getting them out to hospitals.


Once we hit our stride in production, I turned to see if there was a need in the Iu Mien Community. (I’d been wanting to reconnect with my roots as I’d drifted over the years and this felt like a chance for me to do that.) I first posted on social media then I reached out to two fantastic organizations who were able to help distribute our face shields to the community: The Iu Mien Community Services (IMCS) in Sacramento and The Lao Iu Mien Culture Association (LIMCA) in Oakland.

"It goes to show that adversity can be a catalyst for positive change and new ideas."

It was incredible to meet such dedicated Iu Mien leaders and I was reminded of how much heart and untapped potential our people have. This compelled me to learn more about these organizations and I became inspired by LIMCA’s amazing story and founding of the King Pan Temple. That’s when I had the idea of offering our capabilities and experience working with museums to help establish a permanent exhibition of Iu Mien cultural heritage objects at the Temple; which I believe we will do in the near future. It goes to show that adversity can be a catalyst for positive change and new ideas.


What social, economic/financial or cultural barriers did you encounter? And how did you overcome them (if at all)?


I'd say all of the above. There was the barrier​ between ​my ​parents and me, being of two generations from two completely different worlds. My parents came to the United States as refugees from Laos in 1979 and had me just 2 years later; so they didn't understand what it was like to grow up in American society and weren’t able to help foster​ my education.


My siblings and I were brought up on welfare in a community of other immigrants and minorities​. This added another barrier by creating a sort of bubble where it​'s the blind leading the blind (being that we were all in the same boat).​ While we made our way in school and ventured out into the world, there was no ​guidance or ​​clear path​ as to ​how one could significantly improve one’s station in life​ and go beyond this reality​. We were the first of our lineage to embark on this journey.

" 'The potential for greatness lives within each of us.' I didn’t have a mentor, role model or financial means, but by staying true to myself, I developed an inner compass that led towards growth. Pursuing growth is important because you can’t expect to get more out of life by staying the same."

That said, I made my way and managed to shape my life to be more than I ever thought possible. I truly believe we’re all capable of doing so. “The potential for greatness lives within each of us.” I didn’t have a mentor, role model or financial means, but by staying true to myself, I developed an inner compass that led towards growth. Pursuing growth is important because you can’t expect to get more out of life by staying the same.


With this in mind, I set out to establish and build my credit as soon as I could, knowing it was necessary to qualify for an apartment​,​​ get a cell phone...all the things you need to be independent​.​ Then at the age of 17, I moved out on my own ​and have supported myself ​since. By 19, I was able to buy myself a new car, then​​ I bought my first house when I was 26.


Without having clear goals at the time, I just focused on doing things that would keep my life going in an upward trajectory, i.e., I followed my mantra to "Be strong but not rigid, flexible but not without purpose."

What resources or role models/ representation did you wish you had growing up?


Access to better schools and better teachers​ would have been impactful for me. But the greatest resource I wish I’d had is today’s technology.


Now, we’re so connected you can choose your role model. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are; you're instantly opened up to so much inspiration, endless possibilities and have more information than you can possibly digest, all right at your fingertips.


I know that would've been a game-changer for me. When you know better, you do better.


What would you say to young girls and women such as yourself that you wish you heard growing up?


I wish I’d heard a lot of things growing up. I think there’s a lot left unsaid in our culture. We're told how we should be a good wife, a good mother and so forth, but we're taught very little (if at all) about how to make smart choices when it comes to dating and choosing a life partner; which I believe to be one of the most important decisions you’ll make in life.


So what I would tell young girls is to spend their time wisely. Don’t date aimlessly. Figure out who you are, what you want and be discerning. I strongly suggest putting as much thought and energy into ​developing ​this part of your life (and this part of yourself) as you ​would any other aspect or pursuit.

"Maybe you don’t go after your dreams for fear of failure, miss out on opportunities for fear of rejection, stay in a job or relationship you don’t want for fear of change...Everyone deals with fear––Don’t let it stop you. "

I’d like to encourage people to shed their fears and pursue greatness. I find fear to be a roadblock to achievement and self-realization. Recognize how fear can play into every important decision we make and sabotage the outcome. Maybe you don’t go after your dreams for fear of failure, miss out on opportunities for fear of rejection, stay in a job or relationship you don’t want for fear of change...Everyone deals with fear––Don’t let it stop you.



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