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Chai Lee, Chai’s Cleaning Service

Story by Neil Voss

This story begins in a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand – a small parcel of land littered with makeshift homes and buildings. There is no electricity or plumbing. There are no streets, markets or any signs of logical infrastructure. These impromptu villages are built to serve one purpose: provide the most basic human needs for the shortest amount of time. However, some refugees have been at these camps since 1975 and have given up hope of finding a better life.1

But not Chai Lee and his family. Chai, 24 years old, potentially spent the majority of his life in the camp. He wanted better; he wanted to go to the United States. Finally, in July 2004 , 2004, Chai Lee, his family and 1,200 other Hmong refugees were part of the last group of refugees to leave Thailand and be accepted into the United States as part of a resettlement project.

Escaping the harsh realities of life in a refugee camp was a victory for Chai and his family, but he had to re-build his life. With limited English and a limited skill set, Chai relied on government programs such as welfare, which he supplemented with babysitting and childcare for friends and family. In the long run, Chai did not believe this lifestyle was sustainable for his growing family. He knew that he needed to become self-sufficient and rely less on government assistance. A new life in the United States offered Chai opportunities he never had in refugee camps and he was determined to explore all possibilities.

Chai liked the idea of owning a business. He would be his own boss; he would receive a steady income; and he would be the family breadwinner. Chai had friends that were doing janitorial work and encouraged him to do the same. He found out about a janitorial franchise that was relatively inexpensive and didn’t required advanced skills to run the business. The franchise company also offered support: training on cleaning procedures, equipment purchasing and securing cleaning contracts. He saved money but needed additional funds to cover the total purchase price and working capital.

Chai had no credit history and very little collateral, but wanted to buy the janitorial franchise. He knew that a traditional bank was out of the question. About a year ago, Chai Lee walked into the Fresno Community Development Financial Institution offices because friends and family members told him about its loan fund for refugee clients. The refugee loan program is designed for business-minded refugees, doesn’t require a minimum credit score or credit history, and the collateral requirements are 50% of the loan value. Fresno CDFI approved Chai for an $8,000 loan even though he had no established credit history and a 2000 Toyota Camry was his only collateral.

Getting the loan was only the first step in making the leap from refugee to first-time business owner. Chai had a lot to learn about regulations, permits and basic business management. A precondition to loan approval required Chai to receive business coaching that teaches him how to write a business plan, file for the proper permits, file taxes and track business receipts, expenses and other financials. The staff guided him to create a profit and loss statement, which he used to file his 2010 tax returns. These were issues Chai never considered when he made the decision to own his own business.

Because of our collaboration with him, Chai runs Chai’s Cleaning Service at full capacity and has his legal bases covered. He enjoys his work and considers owning a business one of his greatest personal accomplishments. He finds satisfaction in the fact that he began his life in America with nothing and now he owns a business that enables him to provide for his family.

Chai’s Cleaning Service
chailee87 (at) yahoo (dot) com

1To seek refuge meant risking one’s life. Travelers to the camp risked malnutrition, injury, abandonment, getting lost, or being killed by Vietnamese and Laotian forces, who were the enemies of the U.S. during the Vietnam War. The Hmong people helped U.S forces.

Neil Voss is a Business Development Officer at the Fresno CDFI