Shokay - Style with a Touch of Humanity

The Tibetan Plateau in remote Western China is one of the poorest regions in the country but is home to 80% of the world’s yaks, a natural resource with tremendous potential for generating sustainable income. Each family has on average 30 yaks. However, local communities do not know the market value of yaks and are unable to connect to international markets.

Shokay revolutionizes the yak fiber industry by connecting local communities in the Qinghai Province to brands and retail customers through Shokay's supply chain. Tibetan women are able to sell both their fibers and handspun yarns. By introducing luxury yak down to the global market, Shokay helps provide long-term employment and greater sustainable income for these communities.

About You

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About You

First Name

Carol

Last Name

Chyau

About Your Organization

Organization Name

Shokay

Organization Website

Organization Country

China, 8

Country where this project is creating social impact

China, 27

Is your organization a

For‐profit

How long has your organization been operating?

1‐5 years

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Innovation

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Entry Form title

Shokay - Style with a Touch of Humanity

What change do you want to bring to the world?

The Tibetan Plateau in remote Western China is one of the poorest regions in the country but is home to 80% of the world’s yaks, a natural resource with tremendous potential for generating sustainable income. Each family has on average 30 yaks. However, local communities do not know the market value of yaks and are unable to connect to international markets.
Shokay revolutionizes the yak fiber industry by connecting local communities in the Qinghai Province to brands and retail customers through Shokay's supply chain. Tibetan women are able to sell both their fibers and handspun yarns. By introducing luxury yak down to the global market, Shokay helps provide long-term employment and greater sustainable income for these communities.

What are the primary activities of your project?

Shokay’s market-based approach utilizes natural resources to provide an avenue towards achieving sustainable development. Shokay sources fiber and hand-spun yarn materials from HeiMaHe Township in Qinghai and also operates a hand-knitting facility that produces finished products on Chong Ming Island near Shanghai. It then markets and sells these products, generating stable revenue for the people who created them.

Shokay has revolutionized the yak fiber industry by dramatically increasing the quality and value of yak fiber products. Before Shokay’s programs began, the yak fiber industry was operating at less than 10% capacity, and yak fiber products were unknown and poorly made. Although yak fiber has comparable, if not superior, quality as luxury fibers such as cashmere, the price of yak fiber was low because consumers did not appreciate it as a luxury. Through our sourcing, production, design methods, and marketing efforts, we are revolutionizing the yak fiber industry into a higher-end industry to enable the people at the beginning of the supply chain, the Tibetans, to earn greater income for a resource they already have. This way, poor communities in Qinghai can reach their potential to supply 85% of China’s yak fiber tonnage and 73% of the world supply and earn the full worth of their product.

What is innovative about your initiative? How is it a new contribution to the field?

Many organizations are working toward poverty alleviation in China, but few have the power to provide sustainable solutions that reach rural China.

The Chinese government has allocated $42 billion for poverty alleviation, but little of that will trickle down to local communities. Similarly, many non-profits are working on smaller income generation projects, but because they are less market-based, they too find it difficult to sustain and scale their efforts.

The key to Shokay’s success lies in its innovative approach – revolutionizing an entire industry to reach its full potential and generate increased income for those at the beginning of the supply chain. Shokay connects an existing resource – yaks – to a rapidly growing market opportunity – luxury knits. With Shokay’s technical support and marketing efforts to create its luxury brand name, nomadic towns have produced high quality, exotic, and socially conscious products that have won the loyalty of consumers around the world.

Shokay’s success as a sustainable and high-impact social enterprise has inspired similar enterprises such as Norlha and Khunu to enter the yak industry, thus laying the foundation for further expansion of the industry and development of social enterprise as a means of poverty alleviation in the Greater China region.In the future, Shokay will begin working with established designers and small-scale production groups around the world to incorporate our fibers into their products, thus expanding awareness and demand for products whose profits are returned to their source.

What stage is your project in?

Operating for 1‐5 years

Tell us about the community that you engage? eg. economic conditions, political structures, norms and values, demographic trends, history, and experience with engagement efforts.

Shokay primarily works with two communities – the herding and spinning community in HeiMaHe Township in Qinghai and the knitting community in Chong Ming Island near Shanghai.In each of the communities, Shokay has local staff from those regions to work directly with them on a daily basis.

HeMaHei Township in Qinghai province lies in remote and rural Western China. Shokay has an established position in this community, as it houses permanent staff there who are native to the area and are familiar with local culture and needs. 5000 of the 5500 families that reside in HeiMaHe are Tibetan nomads that struggle to survive with annual per capita incomes of only RMB 2100 and very limited access to decent education (nearly 85% of the population have never attended school), infrastructure, and healthcare. Women, especially, have limited livelihood opportunities comprised of ad hoc and seasonal work such as digging caterpillar fungus and doing construction work in neighboring towns. The township is pastoral, and because of its high altitude, it cannot successfully grow many crops for most of the year. Instead, livelihoods are heavily dependent on sheep and yaks. Families’ main cash income comes from digging caterpillar fungus, selling their livestock, and producing dairy products. The township owns 8040 yaks, which translates to about 30-40 yaks per family. Yaks are an integral part of Tibetan culture, and for centuries, nomads have used yak materials to make a wide variety of products for their own consumption. The combination of cultural emphasis on depending on yak resources and long history of women’s traditional weaving represent a very promising catalyst for development.

The yak fibers and yarns produced in Qinghai are then sent to a group of 50+ knitters on Chong Ming Island who create beautiful hand-knits. Knitting provides women in this agricultural area the opportunity to earn additional income with flexible work hours so they can still attend to their household responsibilities.

Share the story of the founder and what inspired the founder to start this project

We, Carol Chyau and Marie So, met when we were classmates at the Harvard Kennedy School’s MPA/ID program. Carol, from Taiwan, and Marie, from Hong Kong, saw in each other the passion and perseverance to promote the “social enterprise” concept in the Greater China region. After almost a year of researching and brainstorming, we decided that the best way to help catalyze the growth of social enterprise in China was to start one ourselves.

In January 2006, we visited Yunnan, where we saw a need for poverty alleviation. However, there we also saw abundant resources – yaks! The seeds of Shokay were planted.

Together with a few friends, we entered the Harvard Business Plan Competition, Social Enterprise Track, and placed first. With the prize money, our team trekked all over China following the footprints of yaks. In the beginning, we knew very little about yak fiber or of the textiles industry. We searched everywhere for experts to help, from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, yak experts all over China, to the Esquel Group, one of the largest cotton manufacturers in the world.
By November 2006, Shokay was formally founded.

Social Impact

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Please describe how your project has been successful and how that success is measured

Shokay has already provided sustainable employment and increased opportunity to 2600 people from the HeiMaHe township of Qinghai Province and 50+ hand knitters in Chong Ming Island as well as their communities. Our development impact is four-fold:

1) Direct Income Generation: The HeiMaHe community earns 20-30% greater income when Shokay sources the raw yak fiber directly from the nomadic herders and 100% greater income when Shokay sources hand-spun fibers directly from the spinners. Shokay also provides long term employment and income generation to the team of hand-knitters who create our finished products.

2) Preserve Local Culture: By increasing the economic value of yak rearing, a traditional skill, local communities will face less pressure to migrate into the cities in search of greater employment opportunities. This provides them with the choice of preserving their traditional way of life and instills a pride in their own culture, which is particularly important for marginalized ethnic communities.

3) Promote Sustainable Usage of the Environment: Purchasing raw fiber causes no pollution and will help prevent problems such as overgrazing. The raw fiber is naturally shed once a year, preserving the yaks indigenous to the Himalayan region.

4) Community Development Work: We have conducted a series of in-depth household surveys to better identify the areas of greatest need in the various villages where we work. As Shokay grows, profits will be reinvested back into these communities (such as through our women's health programs) to aid in the areas identified.

How many people have been impacted by your project?

1,001- 10,000

How many people could be impacted by your project in the next three years?

More than 10,000

How will your project evolve over the next three years?

Shokay’s growth strategy over the next 3 years is to focus on encouraging other retail brands to use yak yarns and produce small collections with our hand spinning and hand weaving cooperatives. The ingredient branding concept is similar to a Columbia jacket using Goretex material or a Dell computer using an Intel chip. Shokay would evolve from a retail to brand to an ingredient brand that represents high quality yak fiber sourced in a socially responsible manner. This strategy enables us to scale up our sourcing base and introduce the fiber to a broader set of consumers. Additionally, by partnering with other small-scale production groups around the world, Shokay will contribute valuable design and marketing ideas to strengthen the global network of socially responsible manufacturing.

Sustainability

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What barriers might hinder the success of your project and how do you plan to overcome them?

Shokay depends on herders and knitters to provide the materials for its finished products and relies on consumers’ purchases to generate revenues for the herders and knitters. Thus, we must sustain strong participation in local communities and strong consumer interest in Shokay products. To keep up strong market response to Shokay products, we leverage Shokay’s existing network and brand name. We devote time to conduct careful market research so that we can forecast trends and continue strong product development that reflects these trends. Thus, by maintaining strong sales, we have been able to keep our production facilities busy and ensure that herders’ and knitters’ employment income is worth their time. This creates greater interest in participating in Shokay’s work.

Additionally, we are working to reduce inefficiency and waste in the production process by making it more standardized. To do this, we draw on the expertise of our partner organizations who introduce new technologies and production methods. We are also working to centralize our production into larger groups so that each family uses a more standardized production method and generates a larger, higher quality yield.

Tell us about your partnerships

Shokay is currently developing 4 major partnerships:

1) Shokay is partnering with Nuomi, a socially responsible for-profit clothing brand based in Shanghai, to help manage its retail operations in Shanghai. This partnership has increased awareness of Shokay’s work, as Nuomi customers are now exposed to Shokay products in the combined Shokay/Nuomi retail stores in Shanghai.

2) Shokay is partnering with Esquel, a for-profit manufacturing company, to increase its technical expertise in the processing of raw yak fiber. The partnership will allow Shokay to introduce more standardized methods to process the yak fiber, thus raising the quality and quantity of the harvest and providing greater returns to the nomads. Furthermore, Esquel will help to expand Shokay’s consumer base through association of Shokay with the Esquel brand.

3) Shokay is partnering with Donghua University, an institution renowned as the cradle for textile professionals. Donghua University conducts cutting-edge yak fiber research and development to increase the efficiency and quality of Shokay’s harvests.

4) Shokay is partnering with Taiyuan Sun God, a famous cashmere brand in China that will help Shokay learn some best practices and expand its consumer base.

Current annual budget of project, in US dollars

$250,001‐500,000

Explain your selections

Shokay’s revenues are generated through its high product sales, making it nearly self-sufficient. We sell a variety of timeless luxury yak down products, ranging from yarns for knitters to finished products like cardigans, scarves, accessories, and children’s toys, among others. Our products are sold in 100 stores in 10 countries (China, Japan, Australia, US, Germany, UK, Switzerland, Finland, the Netherlands, and France). In addition to our direct retail channels, we also conduct wholesale.

Shokay is truly market based as it must keep up closely with market trends in order to collect revenue. Over the past 4 years we have been able to generate $150,000 for the nomads and knitters who created our products. The fact that Shokay is self-sufficient allows us to spend time developing better products rather than constantly searching for funding. This is one key reason Shokay has been and will continue to be both high-impact and sustainable.

How do you plan to strengthen your project in the next three years?

In the next three years, Shokay will strive to further improve the quality and yield of its yak fibers by standardizing and centralizing the production process. To do this, it is partnering with key technical support and research institutions, Esquel and Donghua University. More technologically advanced production methods will allow for greater efficiency and less waste as well as a higher quality product. Additionally, Shokay will work toward bringing spinners to communal facilities so they can learn these new methods.

Shokay will also continue to build its brand. Being an independent company has helped Shokay build up its own name to sell its products in its first years, but we will turn our focus to branding the luxury yak down ingredient because this will help the industry grow as a whole and will have the biggest impact on the supply chain. We will continue to educate the consumer on the outstanding qualities of our luxury yak down and continue to offer our modern and timeless designs. We will also expand our product line by partnering with similar small-scale producers around the world to build a more global socially-responsible brand. By sharing our design and marketing strategies, we can make it easier for similar production groups to access the world market. These partnerships will also dramatically expand Shokay's consumer base. Additionally, as sales increase, we will dedicate more funds to community development through our women’s health programs.

Challenges

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Which barriers to employment does your innovation address?
Please select up to three in order of relevancy to your project.

PRIMARY

Restricted access to new markets

SECONDARY

Lack of access to information and networks

TERTIARY

Lack of skills/training

Please describe how your innovation specifically tackles the barriers listed above.

Shokay’s work is self-sustaining because it relies on resources that already exist but are much underutilized. Yaks are an integral and abundant part of Tibetan communities, as they provide fiber, milk, meat, transportation, and much more. Until now, however, these communities have made yak products solely for their own consumption rather than to generate income from outside their communities. Shokay has introduced the outside world to high-quality luxury yak down and taught the local communities how to produce these items for the world market. By providing skills training to herders, spinners, and knitters and leveraging our brand name, we guide the creation of finished yak down products are more readily received in the global market.

Are you trying to scale your organization or initiative?
If yes, please check up to three potential pathways in order of relevancy to you.

PRIMARY

Enhanced existing impact through addition of complementary services

SECONDARY

Grown geographic reach: Within host country

TERTIARY

Leveraged technology

Please describe which of your growth activities are current or planned for the immediate future.

Shokay is preparing to launch a new line of handspun yarns, an initiative that takes advantage of another promising market opportunity. For every dollar invested in this project, Shokay expects to generate three dollars of revenue for the local communities. We will also continue to develop partnerships that will increase the strength of our brand name around the world. By marketing Shokay as a yak ingredient brand and partnering with organizations that use Shokay ingredients in their products, we will be able to increase our reach around the world. Lastly, we will strengthen our global reach by incorporating more small-scale production artisan groups to the Shokay supply chain, connecting them to markets that we have already reached.

Do you collaborate with any of the following: (Check all that apply)

Technology providers, For profit companies, Academia/universities.

If yes, how have these collaborations helped your innovation to succeed?

Shokay’s partnerships with technology providers and academia have helped it succeed in establishing a sustainable and effective manufacturing process. At first, the Shokay founders knew little about yak fiber manufacturing, but with the help of technical experts on the field, we have developed our expertise. Additionally, Shokay’s partnerships with for-profits around the world have helped dramatically expand our consumer base and allowed us to achieve sustainability. In the future, we will expand our collaborations to achieve more efficient production and to develop the luxury yak brand and grow the entire industry.

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163 weeks ago Carol Chyau updated this Competition Entry.
163 weeks ago Carol Chyau updated this Competition Entry.
163 weeks ago Carol Chyau updated this Competition Entry.
163 weeks ago Carol Chyau updated this Competition Entry.
163 weeks ago Carol Chyau updated this Competition Entry.
163 weeks ago Carol Chyau updated this Competition Entry.
164 weeks ago Carol Chyau updated this Competition Entry.
164 weeks ago Carol Chyau updated this Competition Entry.
164 weeks ago Carol Chyau submitted this idea.