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.
My first trip to Laos was in 2001. We chose Laos on a whim. It was 2 weeks after 911, and the dotcom crash was in full bloom. We were running away to tour Vietnam, Cambodia and just threw Laos on the list for the heck of it.
At that time there were few cars; no tourists in hindsight. It was a place that felt untouched, a backwater as it was just opening up to the outside world. There was an immediate impression of a forgotten place and time. The old people spoke French, and there was a shyness and curiousity among the people that seemed to have had little contact with foreigners.
The first sunset sitting in a food stall along the Mekong with a Beer Lao, grilled tilapia, stir-fried morning glory and a watercress salad…and I began my affection and appreciation for where I was. I had stepped out of the world I knew, yet it felt very familiar and comfortable in a way.
The next two weeks felt like discovery. The people were open and warm, as good Buddhists can be. Luang Prabang was a steamy, lost jungle kingdom full of temples and monks. It was romantic and with its past, tragic at the same time. The more I learned about the recent history of Laos mixed with our involvement and experience with the people and culture, the more I appreciated what survivors and optimists they were. I learned from them that the problems we were currently facing were in fact, survivable. You can live through things with grace…without ever losing yourself.
I met Sombath on this trip. He told me of his work to shape the future of the country through education of the youth. I was moved and felt a connection with him, but didn’t really grasp the concept at that time.
It would be 5 years before I returned. But I kept a piece of the place within me, and it would crop up in random thoughts. I sensed there was something there for me that could fill a void, if I only had the courage to embrace it.