The Teacher: Annie Vang
Annie Vang created the HmongPhrases app to help preserve her endangered language and it also earned her the only U.S. spot in Apple’s eCamp for Female Founders and Developers in July 2021.
When 45-year-old Annie Vang was growing up as a child of Hmong immigrants to Wisconsin, she was certain she wanted to work with computers — but what did that mean? Who was responsible for creating those games and programs that captivated her? There wasn’t even a phrase for “computer developer” in the Hmong language, says Vang, who’d taught herself English by watching Sesame Street and other kids’ shows. So she asked her teacher.
“She said, ‘You have to be a boy and you have to be a genius,’ ” Vang recalls. “My heart was crushed. … I was like, OK, this means zero chance.”
There still aren’t Hmong words to describe what Vang, now a grandmother of four, does for a living. But that hasn’t stopped her from developing the HmongPhrases app. Not only does the app help preserve her endangered language, it also earned her the only U.S. spot in Apple’s eCamp for Female Founders and Developers in July 2021. What if that teacher could see her now?
“I still have respect for her. … Maybe she said that because of the barriers she felt herself in that space. … In the tech world, women don’t really have representation,” Vang says. “In my culture, I feel that the barriers have been double.”
Vang grew up smart but shy, an immigrant with an accent — above all, a girl. Her family was loving and supportive but expectations within her Hmong culture dictated that she start a family young. If she was to pursue a career, it would likely be in nursing. And so Vang married at 16 and already had a child by the time she began nursing school at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. But her heart still wasn’t in it and she dropped out.
In her 20s, she began soul-searching. Like many of her Hmong peers, she felt caught between two worlds; her parents insisted she assimilate, but she worried about losing the connection to her culture. She admired language learning apps like Rosetta Stone, but they never offered Hmong.
“Even myself growing up, I didn’t know how to read and write Hmong, I could only speak it,” says Vang, who worked briefly for a company that allowed her to dabble in some web development. Her manager noted that she had a knack for it and encouraged her to go back to school. “It had never really dawned on me that I could do it,” says Vang. She was 26.
In 2002, she quit her job and enrolled full time as a returning adult at Madison College to pursue a two-year web-development program. She joined the student senate, served two terms and was elected its president. Five years later, she went back for a certificate in advanced iOS application development. Then Gov. Jim Doyle appointed her to the Wisconsin Technical College Systems state board.
In 2011, she built the original version of the HmongPhrases app — today, after a 2021 redesign and the confidence and tools she gleaned from Apple’s eCamp, it has 4,000 paid downloads. Next she hopes to build generators for baby names and elder names, both of which represent Hmong rites of passage. She also plans to upgrade the app with better usability, improved flashcards, quizzes and learning guides. Vang has also developed a Hmong cookbook app; her YouTube cooking channel has 67,000 subscribers and one how-to dish has 2 million views. All of these things allow her to teach simply by sharing who she is and what she loves, despite what the world told her was possible — things Amy Gannon would have celebrated.
“It’s a great field and I’m so blessed to be able to provide for my family, based on where I came from,” says Vang, who has also worked at American Family Insurance for 15 years. It’s a tough path, but the gratitude expressed by her fellow Hmong Americans continues to encourage her forward. “I guess I live for that warm and fuzzy feedback, just knowing that I’m contributing and doing something for the larger community.”
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