American diplomats meet interesting people every day. It's one of the things that make our careers so exciting. I've met presidents, Olympic gold medalists, and civic activists. In Montreal, Stevie Wonder told me I was cool. And, in Vientiane, I met a beauty pageant winner who helped American public diplomacy efforts in Laos.
This past January, as part of an economic diplomacy initiative, our embassy organized a campaign designed to deepen U.S.-Lao business ties and promote the newly-established Lao chapter of the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham). The economy of Laos has emerged as an attractive investment opportunity for American businesses. A number of U.S. companies have already entered the Lao market, but unfortunately operate under structural and cultural disadvantages compared with companies from the region.
We, however, have an unexpected advocate for U.S. business in Laos: Nitaya Panemalaythong, Miss Minnesota USA 2012. Nitaya is Lao-American, and her beauty pageant win was widely celebrated by Lao people around the world. When we asked Nitaya to come to Laos, we knew she would help draw attention to American businesses. Her enthusiasm and charm never flagged through a jam-packed schedule of business meetings and public appearances. Our economic diplomacy campaign culminated in a trade fair and fashion show organized by AmCham. With trade booths for more than 15 U.S. companies, the event attracted almost 150 guests, including leading business members and senior Lao government officials.
Beyond her liaison work with the business community, Nitaya was a wonderful representative of the United States. She spoke -- in Lao and English -- at Embassy American Corners and she participated in numerous youth outreach events. She was indefatigable.
Nitaya took a journey on the embassy-supported "Book Boat" --a mobile library that delivers books to children in otherwise inaccessible parts of rural Luang Prabang Province. In Ban Sing Village, we watched as Nitaya spent the morning reading to nearly 100 children. The smiles all around were amazing. Her visits in Vientiane and Luang Prabang helped raise awareness of U.S. government-backed efforts to promote literacy, to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS, to clean up deadly unexploded ordnance, and to support the empowerment of women and girls. She also visited the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE), a USAID-funded organization which provides assistance to victims of unexploded ordnance, as well as a vocational training center for victims of human trafficking.
Unsurprisingly, Nitaya's visit was met enthusiastically by the people of Laos. The embassy posted updates and a series of video diaries on our Facebook page, and some postings reached a quarter of all Facebook users in the country. The most-liked Facebook post in the embassy's history was one featuring a picture of Nitaya and Miss Laos 2012 at the AmCham fashion show. These online postings captured some of the best moments of the visit, and weeks later, we still feel the good will.