Within the Tianzifang arts district of Shanghai is a little shop called SHOKAY. I admit it, SHOKAY is one of the social venture businesses that I have a huge crush on. It is a luxury boutique specializing in yak cashmere fashion. Moreso, its purpose is to bring economic growth to traditional herding communities in Tibet and Western China leveraging design, supply chain and education innovations.
Co-founders Carol Chyau and Marie So had met and developed the idea while at the Kennedy School at Harvard. Carol and I were introduced through a mutual Wharton alum while in China. I was immediately drawn to the holistic total-system planning that makes SHOKAY a best-in-class social entrepreneurship business model.
During a visit to Western China with a team of other Harvard students, Carol discovered that while local Tibetans only had on average $350 in annual income, they had 30-40 yaks in assets. Yaks are a traditional livestock for Tibetan herding communities, who use all parts of the animal for food and create products which help earn a subsistence. One of the things the founders noticed while researching Western China was that yak hair was noted for its softness. However, herders were getting very little income from it.
Since its inception in 2006, SHOKAY has trained thousands of Tibetan herdsmen on how to care for the animal’s hair and carefully cull and card the precious yak down. Due to the increased quality, previously cheap yak hair now yields much higher value as a luxury material. It helps produce a sustainable income for these herdsmen, who SHOKAY pay directly. Afterwards, SHOKAY manufacturers spin it into luxurious yak cashmere yarn. A portion of the yarn is sold and the rest is handed to a group of women in rural Chong Ming Island to hand knit. These highly unique pieces and inspiring stories find their way into fashion boutiques all the way from Japan to Germany.
I love the Shokay model of using fashion and design to drastically improve incomes of Tibetan communities. It also helps them preserve their cultural herding heritage. But as with all business, great ideas must come with great execution. SHOKAY products can only help bring prosperity if they are highly desirable. And that means it’s gotta look good.
To this end, the SHOKAY Design and Research Center was created last year in 2013. Located in Shanghai’s International Fashion Education Center. The center promotes collaboration and education about yak as a premium material.
The company sells clothing, accessories and gifts. One of my favorite products are their handwarmers, some of which are designed drawing inspiration from Qinghai where the super-soft yak down originates from.
What is also interesting is that SHOKAY seems to have taken a page out of the TOMS playbook by offering to open up their world for others to experience. Instead of a shoe-giving trip, you can signup for a bonafide 100% Socient-style vacation with the SHOKAY Qinghai Discovery Expedition to inspire the social entrepreneur in you. According to their website, this is a venture to the heartland of Qinghai Tibet. There you can stay in traditional Tibetan yurts, alongside yak herding communities on the steeps, explore the historic Kumbum monastery, learn how to comb yak down, and be part of a fascinating NGO workshop. There’s even a special photography session. We love the idea, just tell us when to pack our bags and cameras!
For more info on the SHOKAY Qinghai Discovery Expedition, click below: