Every year since our founding in 2015, we have recognized Wisconsin’s most influential Black and Latino leaders, and we were very proud in 2020 to also begin to recognize Indigenous and Asian American leaders. It’s become the most anticipated thing we do. Every year, I’ve intended these lists to highlight the beauty of the diversity across our state. I want kids here in Wisconsin to see role models of people who are succeeding, to know that it’s possible for people of color to achieve great things here.
This week we shine a statewide spotlight on the dedicated leaders of Wisconsin’s Hmong, Chinese-American, Japanese-American, Pacific Islander, South Asian, and other communities. These are richly diverse communities with roots that represent a massive geographic area. The people we highlight this week are elected leaders, business leaders and community leaders, doing difficult, important work, often in the face of discrimination and literally generations of oppression.
We are also aware that this list, like every other, is not comprehensive. There are, without a doubt, more than 34 influential Asian American leaders doing good work in Wisconsin. We hope you will let us know about people in your community who we can include on future lists. For now, though, we just want to introduce you to a few of the people doing the work, often behind the scenes and without the accolades, across Wisconsin.
You might know a few of these names, but there’s a good chance that most of them will be new to you. I urge you to get to know them. Reach out to those living and working in your communities. Learn from them, network, create partnerships. And spread the word — let others in your network know that we have people of all ethnicities living and working across Wisconsin to make this state a good and prosperous place for all.
Henry Sanders, Jr
CEO, 365 Media Foundation
Publisher, Madison365 and FoxValley365
Jackie Krutz works for the Green Bay Packers as residential property and programming manager for Titletown, the team’s new 45-acre mixed-use development just west of Lambeau Field. It was developed with the intent of giving back to the community and offering guests 365 days of fun activities. Jackie oversees more than 35 daily programs and 35 major annual events on the property as well as the process for sales of new homes, steering business strategies and more. She has worked in real estate development in Massachusetts and California over her 20-year career. She is also a co-founder of the Northeast Wisconsin APIDA Professionals Organization.
Malika Siker, MD is Associate Dean for Student Inclusion and Diversity and an Associate Professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology at Medical College of Wisconsin. In her administrative role, she directs initiatives focusing on cultivating a culture of inclusion for learners and increasing student diversity through pathway programs for learners interested in health science careers. Her patient care emphases are blood, brain, pediatric, and prostate cancers. She has published multiple peer-reviewed manuscripts, essays, and book chapters and is a passionate advocate for health equity.
Jay Patel is an investment portfolio manager at American Family Insurance. He helped found the company’s social impact venture capital unit. As a Founding Curator in the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community, Jay attended the Climate Reality Leadership Corps training program led by Al Gore and a team of world-renowned scientists, activists, and innovators. Jay serves on the board of directors for Sustain Dane, a Dane County-based organization with a mission to inspire, connect, and support people to accelerate equity and sustainable actions for community wellbeing.
Jian-Guo Sun is president of the Wisconsin International Academy, a residential school for international students preparing to enter their undergraduate or graduate study at American universities. By partnering with local universities and high schools, WIA provides “Total-Care Program” services for students to develop their English skills and to learn about American culture through both classroom learning and interactive extra-curricular activities. The school has recently expanded to open the Greater Chicago International Academy. Jian-Guo is also a member of the Elmbrook School District Board of Education.
Syed Abbas is president of the Madison Common Council. First elected to represent the 12th district on Madison’s East Side in 2019, he served as vice president in 2020. Professionally he is an energy efficiency manager and business development manager for Slipstream. He also serves on the board of directors of the United States Green Building Council.
Pauleen Le is a six-time Emmy-nominated journalist who serves as a morning anchor at CBS 58 in Milwaukee. She produced the acclaimed “Asian in Wisconsin: Battling Bias in the Badger State” news special earlier this year. She began her journey at CBS 58 as a weekend anchor/reporter in October of 2018 after starting her career at WKBT News 8 in La Crosse and WLUK FOX 11 in Green Bay. She comes to Milwaukee most recently from Fort Wayne, Indiana where she helped launch and anchor the morning show at Fort Wayne’s NBC affiliate. Her career has taken her on special assignments to Los Angeles where she followed local contestants during their journey on NBC’s The Voice. She also traveled down to Moore Oklahoma, to cover the Coulee region’s efforts to help tornado victims recover. Originally from Eagan, Minnesota, she graduated from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Barbara Koldos is the Vice President, Business Development at New North Inc., the regional marketing and economic development organization for the 18 counties of Northeast Wisconsin. She has held the position since April 2021. She leads the organization’s regional site-selection process, develops and markets Opportunity Zones, directs the Gold Shovel site-certification initiative, guides Global New North efforts around Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and export activity, represents the region at trade shows and site selector events, and engages with real estate professionals to proactively identify and market sites/buildings in the New North region. Barbara has extensive experience within architecture, engineering and construction firms, in addition to a history of developing client relationships. Koldos also has held community-based positions with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Wisconsin and as a business relations specialist for the Howard-Suamico School District. She has also served the community through a wide range of volunteer efforts, including participation on the Women’s Fund of Greater Green Bay Advisory Board since 2016. Koldos also is a member of the economic development committees of the Greater Green Bay Chamber and the De Pere Area Chamber. She additionally is a frequent presenter in the region on real-estate market trends. She is also a co-founder of the Northeast Wisconsin APIDA Professionals Organization.
Suzanne Wittman is director of the Women’s Empowerment Center at the YWCA of Green Bay. Suzanne has worked for both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. Her passion for diversity, equity, and inclusion has led her to work closely with Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the Fox Cities, Green Bay, Madison, and Milwaukee. She has a BS in Retail Merchandising and Management with a minor in Business Administration from the University of Wisconsin – Stout. Her background includes marketing, graphic design, community outreach, and business development. She is a former Learn to Skate and figure skating coach for the United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA), a mom to three kids, and helps her husband flip houses on the side.
Romke de Haan of Milwaukee is a principal consultant for GuidePoint Security and is the founder of Ekmor Holdings. He is a graduate of and former creative director for Homeboyz Interactive, an organization that taps the latent talents of gang members, redirecting their energy from violent activity to website development. As a founding board member of True Skool, Romke further channeled his passion for music and youth empowerment. Later he went on to act as president for Spreenkler, a strategic planning and technology communications firm. In 2015, Romke put his talents to work on the national level as the director of business development for 18F, an office within the General Services Administration.
Sandy Xiong is the strategic planning and engagement manager for the City of Sun Prairie, where she has worked her way up over the past three years. She began in 2018 as the communications and diversity coordinator before being promoted to assistant to the city manager in 2019 and to her current role last year. She also serves on the board of directors of the East Madison Community Center.
Awais Khaleel is a Dane County prosecutor and chair of the Wisconsin Ethics Commission, overseeing campaign finance, lobbying and other important functions of government accountability. He is a founding director of the Wisconsin Muslim Civic Alliance, the first and only Muslim American organization committed to furthering the public interests of Muslim Wisconsinites through political education and social advocacy. He is also on the board of directors of the Wisconsin Association of State Prosecutors. Awais earned his law degree from Howard University in 2013.
Tammie Xiong currently serves as the Executive Director for the Hmong American Women’s Association (HAWA), in Milwaukee, a grassroots social justice organization led by Southeast Asian women and queer fem women dedicated to ending gender-based violence against Southeast Asian women, girls, and LGBTQ folks. Tammie’s current leadership roles include serving on the WI Governor’s Council on Domestic Abuse and as a Commissioner for the City of Milwaukee Commission for Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. She holds a Bachelors of Arts in English/Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a Masters of Science in Administrative Leadership with Emphasis in Adult Education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Angelito Tenorio is engagement and development manager at Wisconsin Conservation Voters and a member of the West Allis City Council. He’s held a variety of positions within Democratic state politics and has co-chaired the party’s AAPI caucus and is currently running for State Treasurer.
Dr. Pao Lor is the chair of the UW- Green Bay Department of Applied Leadership for Teaching & Learning. He is the author of the memoir “Modern Jungles: A Hmong Refugee’s Childhood Story of Survival,” published earlier this year by the Wisconsin Historical Society. He’s been a teacher and assistant principal in several schools in Northeast Wisconsin, as well as a head soccer coach at West De Pere High and UW-Fox Valley.
Emma Daisy Gertel is a Milwaukee-based visual artist and muralist, known for her vibrant use of color to paint plants and girls. Much of Daisy’s current work is an ongoing narrative exploring the in-between spaces of identity, acceptance and belonging, influenced by her experience growing up a Korean adoptee. Her work also draws from her experience and education in fashion design, community arts, and cultural development. For over a decade, Daisy served as an arts facilitator, creative director and co-executive director for a Milwaukee youth arts nonprofit organization, Express Yourself Milwaukee. Her organizational work has received several accolades and awards. Daisy maintains a studio practice in Milwaukee as a resident at Var West Gallery and shows work locally, nationally and internationally. Her murals can be found everywhere from street art tourist destinations to schools, local businesses, shopping malls and private residences. Daisy aims to create public works that are a reflection of beauty, inspire possibility, and serve as a reminder of our connections to one another.
Abby Ngampongsai is Vice President of Technical Service and Support at Exact Sciences in Madison, a role she’s held since 2019. Abby oversees teams of dedicated technical professionals who provide service and support and who collaborate with partners in Research and Development, Manufacturing Operations, and the Exact Sciences Laboratory. Her department includes multiple functions such as Laboratory System Development and Automation, Technical Services-Automation and Application, Lab Service Engineers and Metrology. She joined the cancer screening giant in 2015 as director of service and support before being promoted to senior director of instrument services and technical support in 2017. Abby holds a master’s degree in engineering management from Walden University and an engineering degree from the University of Chicago.
Al Liu is vice president of coffee at Milwaukee-based Colectivo Coffee Roasters, overseeing the sourcing, roasting and distribution of coffee to Colectivo’s 20 cafes in the Milwaukee area, Madison and Chicago, as well as hundreds of retail outlets. Prior to joining Colectivo in 2016, Al was a trader for Atlas Coffee Importers in Seattle for eight years and director of culture and communications at Alterra Coffee Roasters in Milwaukee for seven years. He is a 1995 graduate of Georgetown University with a degree in international politics and earned his master’s in urban and environmental policy from Tufts.
Ann Vang was elected to the Stevens Point school board in 2019. A 2003 graduate of Stevens Point Area Senior High School, she serves as Hmong Family Strengthening Coordinator at CAP Services.
Isabella Hong is Community Impact Director for Health & Education Initiatives at the United Way of the Greater Chippewa Valley, a role she took on one year ago. She comes to Wisconsin from the University of Texas at Arlington, where she obtained her Masters of Social Work with a concentration in Community and Administrative Practice. During her education, she completed her field placements in administration at the University of Texas at Arlington School of Social Work and youth housing with CitySquare. Prior to this, she served as an AmeriCorps member with the CitySquare Transitional Resource Action Center (TRAC)—a foster youth transition center.
Mary Thao is a former member of both the Wausau School Board and Wausau City Council, and remains a considerable force in local politics of Central Wisconsin. She led the charge to defeat a referendum that would have consolidated two elementary schools last year. Professionally she is an IT consultant who’s held a variety of positions in information technology over the past 20 years. She holds an MBA from Hamline University.
Raphael Ramos serves as the Director of Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Eviction Defense Project, which utilizes pro bono volunteers to exponentially increase the availability of representation to low-income tenants. Raphael helped to launch the Project in January 2017, and established it as an exemplary pro bono delivery service model. He has testified before Congress on the importance of legal aid in eviction. Prior to joining Legal Action of Wisconsin, Raphael was in-house with GE Healthcare and in private practice with Quarles & Brady LLP. He also serves as a volunteer attorney with the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic and a board member for the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
Bongia Huguet is board chair of the United Hmong American Association, the 2021 Wisconsin Leadership Community Choice winner for Nonprofit Organization of the Year. The all-volunteer organization supports the education of Hmong youth in the Fox Valley area through scholarships, career exploration, financial literacy and more. Professionally, Bongia is an agent with Wisconsin Advantage Insurance.
Jamie Kuhn is outreach director for Governor Tony Evers. She previously worked on Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin’s public affairs team and was chief of staff to State Senator Mark Miller. She has also twice served on the Dane County Board of Supervisors, once from 1998-2000 and again from 2017-2020.
Sumathi Thiyagarajan was just this month named vice president for strategy and analytics for the world champion Milwaukee Bucks, where she will lead a business analytics team tasked with harnessing the power of data, applied analytics, and technology to drive results. She will have her hands in everything from parking revenue to improving the fan experience to data visualization. Prior to joining the Bucks, she was senior director of strategy and operations at Marquette University, leading an office she helped create. She serves on the board of directors of REDGen, a nonprofit organization dedicated to youth mental health.
Mee Yang is president of the Hmong Service Center in Oshkosh, a position to which she was elected in 2016. Founded in 1984, the Center was able to move into its own space for the first time last year under Mee’s leadership.
Dr Kaying Xiong Vue is Director of Student Services for the Eau Claire school district. She’s held that role for six years, but has been part of the Eau Claire school community for much longer. She was a student there from the time her family arrived in the United States when she was just six years old, and went on to earn a degree in elementary education from UW-Eau Claire. She began her career teaching first grade and then English as a Second Language in Eau Claire. In 2001, she became the first-ever Hmong principal in Wisconsin when she took the helm at Locust Lane Elementary School. She holds a master’s degree from UW-Superior and a doctorate from Hamline University.
Duy Nguyen is Assistant State Superintendent for the Division for Academic Excellence at the Department of Public Instruction. He served for more than 17 years in schools as a kindergarten, first- and second-grade teacher, learning coordinator, and an elementary school principal. Duy also spent several summers teaching middle and high school students in Nanjing, China. He was a librarian in Quito, Ecuador before heading to New York City to study at Teachers College-Columbia University. Duy started the first laboratory school in Wisconsin and is the first Southeast Asian state assistant superintendent in Wisconsin history. Duy earned his bachelor’s degree from UW-Madison and master’s degrees in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from Teachers College-Columbia University and UW-Madison.
Lori M. Lee is the author of speculative young adult novels and short stories. Her seven published novels include this year’s release PAHUA AND THE SOUL STEALER (Disney/Rick Riordan Presents), FOREST OF SOULS and the sequel BROKEN WEB (Page Street), and more. She’s also a contributor to the anthologies A THOUSAND BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS and COLOR OUTSIDE THE LINES. A native of Oshkosh, considers herself a unicorn fan, enjoys marathoning TV shows, and loves to write about magic, manipulation, and family.
Dang Yang is the Director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. In this role, he leads the OMA team in providing direct services for students of color, supporting university-wide efforts in equity and inclusion, and collaborates with stakeholders in strategic initiatives to foster a welcoming climate across the campus. Prior to joining UWEC, Yang served as the Diversity Manager at Chippewa Valley Technical College, where he supported multicultural students, students with disabilities, international students, and nontraditional occupation students. In addition, Yang also spent a number of years serving as the Multicultural Recruitment & Retention Coordinator for the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, where he served as the Director of the TEACH Support Network, a program providing comprehensive support for traditionally underrepresented pre-service teachers in training. His academic background includes a B.A. in Communications from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and an M.A. in Multicultural College Teaching & Learning from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.
Bruce Yang, Kao Shoua Yang and Tara Yang are the family behind Main Oriental Market, which has become a cultural hub of Green Bay’s Hmong community. Especially since the Hmong Center of Green Bay closed down in 2016, Hmong folks from the area have come to rely on the store for everything from help getting driver licenses to translating letters. The family also stepped up in the early days of the pandemic, making and donating authentic Hmong meals to health care workers. Bruce and Kao Shua opened the store in 2005 and Tara acts as manager. She is also a member of the Green Bay Civil Rights Commission.
Dr. Wujie Zhang is an associate professor in Milwaukee School of Engineering’s Physics and Chemistry Department, where he has led several senior projects based on a biomaterial known as pectin that have focused on drug delivery for cancer treatment, 3D printing for tissue engineering, and engineering artificial red blood cells. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering and food science from the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology and a doctoral degree in biomedical engineering from the University of South Carolina in 2011. Among many awards and accolades, Dr Zhang was named one of Milwaukee Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 in 2019 and honored with the MSOE Student Life Department’s Diversity and Inclusion Advocate Award in 2020.
Dr. Vallabh (Samba) Sambamurthy is the Albert O. Nicholas Dean of the Wisconsin School of Business. Prior to his current role, Dr. Sambamurthy served as Eli Broad Professor and associate dean of the MBA and professional master’s programs at the Broad College of Business at Michigan State University. He previously served as the school’s associate dean for outreach and engagement and chair of the accounting department, leading the launch of the top-10 MS program in business analytics. He previously held faculty appointments at the University of Maryland and Florida State University. A leading expert on how businesses compete in the digital economy, Dr. Sambamurthy’s work has been featured in leading academic journals. Several Fortune 500 firms have engaged him as a consultant. Working with executive clients and academic colleagues in China, Taiwan, Singapore, India, and Hong Kong, he has focused on digital business transformations, strategic alignment, governance, and innovation. He has co-authored several books on digital transformation. Dr. Sambamurthy has been recognized for his contributions to teaching, research, outreach, and mentoring. The Association of Information Systems honored him with the LEO Lifetime Achievement award. He was selected as distinguished fellow of the Information Systems Society at INFORMS, and he received the William Beal Distinguished Faculty Award – the highest honor accorded by Michigan State University. Dr. Sambamurthy received his PhD from the University of Minnesota, his MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, and his B.E. from the National Institute of Technology (Tiruchirappalli, India).
Adam Carr is deputy editor for community engagement at Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. He was co-chair of March On Milwaukee 50th, which commemorated Milwaukee’s Open Housing Marches with 200 Nights of Freedom in 2017-2018. In 2016, he authored the children’s book Explore MKE: Your Neighborhood, Our City, working with five 3rd grade classrooms and SHARP Literacy. Sometimes called a “Milwaukeeist,” he regularly gives tours of Milwaukee communities covering a wide variety of topics and has collaborated with filmmaker Wes Tank to produce two short films featured in the Milwaukee Film Festival Carr has collaborated on neighborhood-based public art projects in Milwaukee, including Listening to Mitchell in 2014 with artist Sonja Thomsen and TypeFace in 2013 with artist Reginald Baylor. He was the producer at 88Nine RadioMilwaukee from 2008-2011.
Cheeia Lo is executive director of Golden House, a nonprofit organization in Green Bay whose mission is to provide safety and support for victims of domestic abuse while leading efforts to end domestic violence in the community. A domestic violence survivor herself, she has 12 years of experience in the field of domestic abuse. Her career began as a part-time Hmong youth specialist at the Family Center in Wisconsin Rapids.
Who’d we miss? Give us our suggestions for next year’s list at [email protected]!