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Social Enterprise 101: Five lessons from an experienced social entrepreneur

Carol hails from Taiwan(left) while Maria (right) is from Hong Kong.

Carol Chyau and Maria So started social enterprise Shokay long before the term became a buzzword in recent years.

Shokay, which is the Tibetan word for yak, is a lifestyle brand that designs stylish products made from soft yak down. By sourcing from Tibetan herders in Qinghai and employing women in rural areas, it helps promote sustainable income in rural China.

Shokay’s work allows indigenous herders to generate more direct income, preserve local culture, promote sustainable usage of the environment and promote community development work.

Carol was in Singapore the past November for TEDxKRP to share her experience.

From inspiration to execution

While doing their Masters in Public Administration at Harvard, the duo decided to put the business concepts they learnt into action. The pair went seeking for inspiration on two weeklong trips in Yunnan, China in January 2006.

While there, they saw a need for poverty alleviation and stumbled upon an opportunity. China has an abundance in yak fiber, which is highly comparable to cashmere. Yet, because of its inaccessibility and lack of visibility in the fashion industry, its great potential was left untapped.

With an idea in mind, Carol and Maria went back to Harvard and entered the Harvard Business Plan Competition with a few friends, coming in first under the Social Enterprise Track. With the money they won, they returned to China and set their hearts on following the Yaks.

Items from Shokay

Right from the start, the cofounders had little knowledge about yak fiber and the textiles industry. Undeterred, they kept going to experts for help and formally founded Shokay in November 2006. Today, the social enterprise has come a long way with over 100 stores in ten countries.

Carol shared with us a few important stories on how her team got the business going with little prior industry and product knowledge.

1) Be a sponge and absorb as much as possible

While they knew that they were risking it with zero industry experience and had no background in fashion or textiles, Carol and Maria never gave up. Instead, they went out of their way to visit a lot to factories and gathered feedback from professionals. They weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty doing research and talked to as many industry experts as possible.

2) Be a detective

Carol likens this process to solving a mystery. “Sometimes all you have are clues. When you don’t understand something you have to ask why. For us, we managed to gather useful information about yak fiber by reading up on Google. For example, while yak fiber is comparable to cashmere, few people know about it.” This market gap was their opportunity.

3) Be an inventor

Carol and Maria spent the last five years experimenting with several business models, figuring out the best way to create their product and bring value to the market. They initially sold only knitting yarns, but decided to move on to the bigger market of scarfs and shawls. They’re continuing to innovate and re-invent their model. “We’re shifting from being a fashion label to ultimately being an ingredient brand. Kind of how the Intel chip is an integral part to a Lenovo laptop,” she explained.

4) Have a perspective of an eagle

Social entrepreneurs have to think about two bottom lines. Sometimes you might get lost along the way, but it’s important for an entrepreneur to have the perspective of an eagle. “When you find yourself misaligned with your original goal, it’s important to recollect your thoughts,” she says.

5) Be yourself

After all the hard work, you have to figure out how to pull everything together and make it work. You have to believe and love what you do.

As Carol puts it, “I’m not doing this because I am more philanthropic than other people out there, nor because I’m particularly altruistic. For me, it’s about a sense of responsibility. I just believe that as lucky as we are to have so much, we should give back even more.”

Closing thoughts

Carol and Maria’s philosophy and sheer determination have paid off in Shokay’s progress. Now, sourcing yak fiber from more than 800 families and having used approximately 2,000 tonnes of yak fiber, it’s plain to see how privileged ones like us can give back so much more if we just took the first step to try.

By creating a market for luxury yak, they hope to generate income for nomadic herders.


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