In Spring 05 I decided to return to Laos to see what had kept my thoughts there. I had spent some time tracking down Sombath through various aid organizations, and received an invitation from him to see what might turn up for me if I decided to go. He asked me to teach the instructors at the school. I’ve been running a branding/design company for many years so felt that I might be able get away with teaching sustainable small business development as well as marketing practices.
I eventually found out how hard it was to be a good teacher, and with my short stays, could see that the information would be well received, but not really implemented. I had an idea that the classroom should be a business, and that it could be part of the school program. Sombath and Phetsamay, his partner had already begun organizing a few weaving villages but they needed to develop some channels for revenue and a business structure.
Here’s the plan and how things ended up.
Orijyn would become the retail outlet in the US and Canada featuring the Lao handcrafts from village artisans. I went about starting and branding the US-based business and developing the website as a storefront. We started with the silver jewelry as the first product line. The product was available and with slight modifications, ready for Western tastes. I had researched the best silversmiths to work with on previous teaching trips and we were able to launch in early 2008.
Orijyn will soon carry silk weaving products from the women weavers in villages from provinces around Vientiane. These weaving communities had been displaced from the North during the war and are considered the best weavers in Laos. They still weave their cloths and extra pieces to sell in the market, but have no options outside of their local communities to create needed revenue for their family’s education and healthcare.
PADETC the school, would start their business “Saoban,” meaning village in Laos. Together we would work on developing the products, branding, customer fulfillment structure, outlets and a marketing strategy. They would open and manage a store in Vientiane to carry the products and train staff in the art of retail. I provided all the brand development, marketing and point of sale materials for the store along with some environmental graphics. We also helped set up some basic technology for communication within the group and with wholesale customers that will be purchasing weaving products from Saoban.
PADECT and Saoban are also providing a business education and leadership training to the various villages. Co-ops are being set up and accounting practices taught. The village artisans are seeing their value to the community increase with the strength of the group. Communities can now pool their money and bring in new weavers and materials to keep the craft alive, and their culture intact.
It’s always a work in progress with these things. So far, it has taken us 2 years of serious effort to get to this point and there is still so much more to do. We don’t know where it will lead us yet, but we’re seeing many good developments in the school and villages as new opportunities and empowerment are implemented for the women and silversmiths that are part of our group.
With patience and persistence the doors will keep opening.