AUC alumna co-founds social carpet project in Nepal
Upon graduating from AUC, alumna Sophie Lagarrigue (Class of 2015) decided to take a gap-year to not only explore the world, but also help people along the way. Read her story below as she recounts how she went from working on issues of urban sustainability in Bangkok to helping to build a carpet factory in Nepal as part of a social action project.
All text by AUC alumna Sophie Lagarrigue
Gap year to socially responsible entrepreneur
Just like many of my AUC friends, I decided to take a break from studying after graduation. As the courses I followed at AUC were spread over many tracks, I had (and still have) no clue as to which Master’s degree would fulfil all my interests. Instead, I decided to participate in several international projects over the course of the year, and ended up creating a social carpet business with a couple of friends in the mountains of Nepal. I never expected to become an entrepreneur in the carpet industry, but somehow it all just seemed to fall into place.
The start: urban sustainability in Bangkok
At the beginning of 2016, I decided to join a project called the Urban Eco-Design Factory at the Dutch Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand. For three weeks, I worked in a team of student consultants to help Thai companies develop solutions to specific issues related to sustainability. Through this project I learned about consultancy, start-ups, team work and entrepreneurship. The environment reminded me of AUC, as all participants were highly motivated, diverse and worked as hard as they could to reach our goals. It was during this project that I became aware of how important it is to dare to ask for help in order to be successful. I spent entire afternoons calling people working at big companies, municipalities, governments and individuals with my questions, and most of them were happy to answer and help us with our project.
From Bangkok to Nepal
After completing my project in Bangkok, I flew directly to Nepal to visit a friend who was volunteering there. In 2015, when the earthquakes hit Nepal, my friend had just started a trekking journey in the mountains, not far from the epicentre. Together with a group of backpackers, she got stuck in a dangerous valley for almost a week before being rescued. After this experience she decided to devote her time to assist the Nepali people in rebuilding their country. When I arrived in Nepal, she had just finished a project that involved bringing blankets to displaced families in the mountains.
With both of our initial projects finished, we had time to start something new. In a serendipitous moment we met Alisha, a young Nepali woman who was very passionate about helping and volunteering. She discussed how, after the earthquakes, 130 families had moved to Selang camp, an area located on the top of a mountain in the Sindhupalchowk district and equipped with only temporary shelters and little economic opportunity. Multiple NGOs and individuals had arrived to help, bringing food, clothes, blankets, medication and money to help these families survive. Even though these projects are crucial for the immediate survival of these people, what lacked was a long-term solution that involved helping families become financially self-sufficient.
Founding Kusala Carpets in Selang
We therefore started brainstorming to look beyond ‘what do people in Selang need now?’ and instead focus on the question of ‘how can we work together for a better future in Selang?’.
My friends and I therefore went to Selang and discovered that more than 30 people in the camp had the knowledge of how to weave traditional carpets. They only needed the looms and shelter in order to start creating carpets. That’s where we got the idea of starting a social carpet factory which reinvests all profits into new social projects. From then on, we began sharing our idea with everyone we met, while calling and contacting carpet companies abroad, visiting Nepali carpet stores and factories, and asking our networks for assistance.
Within three months we managed to raise enough money, find the appropriate experts and secure the necessary permits to start constructing a temporary building for what would become Kusala Carpets factory. The construction process was achieved together with the local community, for which they received daily salaries. After the building was complete, the looms were brought to the factory and community members began weaving their first carpets, after which the weavers received their first monthly salaries and were able to start taking care of their families by themselves.
What’s next for Kusala?
As of now, 15 people are working in the factory and 21 carpets have been woven and sold. Next month, I will return to Nepal together with my friends and continue working on Kusala Carpets. Our main focus will be on finding solutions for the challenges that come with a start-up, including figuring out how profits can be used to best benefit the community and finding new donors in order to build a permanent factory in Selang. This project has really opened my eyes to the possibilities we have as young people to make a change in the world, and I truly hope that it will inspire others to also bring their good thoughts to action.