Yangon Restaurant, Indianapolis, 2023, {Photo Credit: Author [Lian Hnin]}

Burmese American Entrepreneurship: Bolstering Economic and Cultural Impact in Southport, Indiana


In the heart of the American Midwest, a remarkable narrative of entrepreneurship is unfolding as the Burmese American community emerges as a significant economic and cultural force in Southport, Indiana. The city's streets, from Madison Avenue to Stop 11 Road and from Banta Road to McFarland Road, are abuzz with activity of approximately 100 Burmese-owned businesses.

Contributing substantially to the local economy, these businesses span an array of sectors, including grocery stores, restaurants as well as professional services such as finance, insurance, media production, telecommunications, postal services, real estate.

"Indiana, specifically Southport, has become our home," shares Rome Thalop, who's part of the 35,000-strong Burmese Hoosier community, the largest of any U.S. state. "We've started businesses ranging from grocery stores to restaurants, and even professional services. It's our way of contributing to this wonderful community."

Rome, a successful young entrepreneur and managing partner and chairman of a private equity firm, learned resilience from his early business failures, leading to a philosophy of self-belief and risk-taking. He's a proactive member of the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, using his connections to aid his community and advocate for representation. Motivated by his humble beginnings, he started a foundation to help Burmese refugees in Mizoram, India. He frequently reminds others, "the best investment is in oneself."

Another shining example is Peter Thawng Hmung. "I arrived in the U.S. when I was just 15," Peter reminisces. Peter settled in Battle Creek, Michigan and after years of volunteering for the Burmese community in Indiana he started his own business. "Building on my background in food engineering, I started Yo-Health, which now includes a bakery, a sushi outlet, and a cafe that operated in three locations in Indiana employing dozens of Indiana residents. We are planning to expand and go public soon"

Left: Than Hre, the owner of Chin Brothers Restaurant and Grocery. Right, the author after a conversation with Than Hre.

{Photo Credit: Author [Lian Hnin]} Left: Than Hre, the owner of Chin Brothers Restaurant and Grocery. Right, the author after a conversation with Than Hre.

In Southport, stories of resilience are not hard to find. Imagine starting a restaurant during the Great Recession, as businesses were closing all around. That is exactly what the owner of Chin Brothers Restaurant and Grocery, Than Hre, hailing from the Chin ethnic group in Burma (Myanmar), did in 2009. "It was 2009, the height of the Great Recession, and I decided to buy a restaurant that was closing," he recalls. "I faced many challenges. The language barrier was one. Business skills? I had none. But I had to forge ahead." His restaurant, named after the Chin ethnic group, thrived.

"We employ a dozen people, serve about 100 customers daily, and are a testament to the resilience of our community." But he is not stopping there. "Our goal is to expand our business, serve more customers, and contribute more to Southport's local economy," says Than.

Echoing this determination is Patrick Thang, the owner of Yangon Restaurant. "A local restaurant was closing," Patrick recalls, "I saw an opportunity, despite having no background in restaurant management. It was a bit daunting; I admit."

With his wife by his side, Patrick's venture not only took off but became a beacon of resilience and inspiration for his community. "We've become an example for others in our community to start their own businesses," he shares with evident pride.

Named after the commercial capital city of Burma (Myanmar), Yangon Restaurant now offers a medley of Burmese and Southeast Asian dishes, serving around 50 customers every day from all walks of life. "We take great pleasure in serving diverse cuisines to our diverse clientele," Patrick says, "It's what makes every day worthwhile."

But these Burmese-owned enterprises are not just businesses and dining destinations. They are enriching Hoosier’s cultural identity. "Our businesses are not just about the money," reflected Than and Patrick. "They're places where our community and locals can come together, foster unity, share experiences, and appreciate the cultural diversity of Indiana."

Lian Thawng Hnin is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. He is a graduate student at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, focusing on international security and trade relations with a regional focus on Southeast Asia.