An Inclusive Culture
> After a Communist government came to power in Laos in 1975, the U.S. was a safe destination for displaced Lao and Hmong. McRae Footwear helped many refugees start a new life in Mount Gilead, NC.
Welcoming Laos refugees to the McRae workforce
DURING THE VIETNAM WAR, the U.S. secretly recruited thousands of citizens in Southeast Asia, including Laos, to support the war against the Communists and North Vietnamese. In the mid-1970s, when the U.S. pulled out of these countries, many Southeast Asians fled. They led their families on perilous treks to refugee camps in Thailand and other countries. In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, many Lao and Hmong, a mountainous tribe with its own ethnic designation, emigrated to the U.S. to start a new life. They settled mainly in Minnesota, Wisconsin, California, and North Carolina.
"The language barrier at times made training difficult, but the Lao and Hmong had an excellent work ethic and made – and continue to make – a huge contribution to our business."
Supporting the Laotian community with jobs
One prominent Laotian military officer who fought alongside the U.S. armed forces was Geu Vang, an army colonel fluent in seven languages. After settling in Minneapolis, MN, with his family in 1981, he soon assumed a leadership role in helping Lao and Hmong refugees adapt to their new American lives.
“Our people were suffering,” says Geu. “They had lost everything. Many were deeply depressed. I wrote a letter to several organizations in the U.S., seeking job opportunities for refugees so they would not be reliant on public assistance.”
Branson McRae, president and CEO of McRae Industries, received Geu’s correspondence and invited Geu to visit him in Mt. Gilead, NC, in 1987. Looking to add employees to his shoe factory in Wadeville, Branson was drawn to the Lao and Hmong work ethnic and spirited sense of community. Geu saw tremendous opportunity for his people and relocated with some 20 families to Mt. Gilead to start work with McRae. Jobs ranged from sewing to inspecting boots and operating lasting and vulcanizing equipment.
Building a village
Branson owned a tract of land in Wadeville and decide to put it to good use by providing housing for his new employees. He added 20 mobile homes on one-and two-acre lots on a hillside near the plant, offering each Lao and Hmong family a lease-to-own contract. Soon dotted with chicken farms and vegetable gardens, the community was christened Samthong Village. Translation: “Pot of Gold.” The development was within walking distance of the McRae factories and community schools.
Today, Samthong Village is home to 30 Lao and Hmong families. Geu and his wife, MayKao, who have six children and seven grandchildren, continue to be cornerstones of the community. Along with his liaison work, Geu teaches a Laotian Sunday School class at Mt. Gilead First Baptist Church and serves on the Board of Deacons.
Living the good life
Lao and Hmong employees currently make up about 15 percent of McRae’s workforce.
“The company gives its workers many incentives for productivity, ” Geu says. “The more boots produced, the more the take-home pay. McRae also provides generous health insurance and a partial match on a 401K plan. ”
“Branson had a huge vision for our community, and he listened to our needs. He gave us a new start. He helped us to become independent. And he continues to inspire each new generation.”