reprinted from The Globe and Mail
During a trip to China’s Yunnan province, Carol Chyau and her business partner, Marie So, had a small epiphany: “80 % of the world’s yak population is in Western China and its wool is comparable to cashmere,” Chyau says. “If it’s comparable to cashmere, why isn’t it in retail stores?”
When Chyau and So (from Taiwan and Hong Kong, respectively) met at Harvard, they challenged themselves to form a socially conscious business in China—a country where the economy rarely slows to consider things like the environment or people’s livelihoods. The pair founded Shokay, with a plan to make high-fashion goods from rural yaks’ wool in megalopolitan Shanghai.
Armed with almost US $100,000 in grants and business-plan competition winnings, they visited local farmers and artisans to see whether it was even feasible. Factories in Shanghai hadn’t handled yak wool since the 1990s. “We had to put together a supply chain that didn’t really exist,” says the 30-year-old Chyau. Last year, the company sourced 20 tons of yak down and exported finished goods to 10 countries. Moreover, Shokay claims to have raised its yak farmers’ annual incomes by 20% to 30%.
In hyper-commercial Shanghai, awash in luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Shokay’s retail store offers a radically different brand message to its well-heeled denizens. “It’s that personal connection,” Chyau says, pointing out that many items carry the name of the woman who hand-knit the product.