Tony Innouvong calls being fired from a job he didn't love shortly after finishing graduate school with an MBA a "terrible and beautiful blessing."
The move forced him to focus on making something of his own. When he came across a pile of old fabric, he decided to repurpose it into something he could wear. That grew into a business making custom menswear accessories using traditional Lao fabric called sinh.
"[Being let go] helped me to jump-start my business, because it forced me to create something," he told NBC News. "I wanted to create a product that was unique, and that would allow me to teach people about my culture."
"The ties [I make] are created from fabrics owned by a refugee, made by the son of refugees, and purchased by people who come from families of refugees," Innouvong added.
Driven to represent and the story of his Lao heritage, Innouvong's accessories combine old and new worlds much like Innouvong's Asian-American upbringing, he noted.
Innouvong, who was raised in Seattle, comes from a refugee family that resettled in the United States after receiving sponsorship from a family who belonged to the Church of Latter Day Saints. He spent much of his upbringing between his Lao household and that of their sponsors.
He grew up in a white neighborhood, attended a Mormon church, and was assimilated in that community, he said. It was this experience that led to his search for identity in college, where he attended a private Jesuit school in Seattle.
There, he met his mentor, who led him to an opportunity to pursue his MBA at Alcorn State University, a historically black institution in Southwest Mississippi. As one of the few Asian Americans on campus, Innouvong said this period was "life-changing" and "identity-building."
"In graduate school, I would be the first Asian friend that a lot of people ever had," he said. "No one knew about Laos; I was the 'Chinese' kid. There was a time when people would call me names — Jet Li, Jackie Chan — because that's all they knew."
"As far as Asian-Americans went, [the students] only knew what they saw in media," he added. "I took those learning opportunities as a way to bridge relationships with people I came across with. It was a pivotal moment for me in terms of what it meant to build a deeper connection with my own identity."
Understanding his role as an "ambassador" of Lao culture, Innouvong wanted to contribute to his community on a deeper level, he said.
Despite having no formal training, Innouvong designs and produces each piece himself. Much of his material comes from donated fabric from Lao community members, most notably from a woman named Bounheng Inversin.
"I met Mrs. Inversin for the first time last year, and I gave her two of my ties, which were then given to her son. She shared a lot of great insight with me, including the fact that the fabric is often passed for mother to daughter." Innouvong said. "For families without daughters, where do fabrics go? By creating ties out of the fabrics, she was able to pass it on to her son, and continue legacy that way."
This season, Innouvong has been traveling across the East Coast to share his ties at pop-up shops at events. This month, he will travel to Philadelphia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.
"I created this business in the spirit of freedom to create and express myself, while educating others about my culture," Innouvong said. "I want to create a legacy for myself and my family, to offer up something that we could leave the world with."