As Mother Teresa once said, “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at one I will”, Allison Sapkota, the cofounder at Aasha Wears, believes that if she had sought to change the whole of Nepal then she would’ve been overwhelmed and probably never taken the first step. Rather she looked at people around her and decided to aware them, one person at a time because big things always start small.
A company that started amid the lockdown, Aasha Wears is run by Allison Sapkota who, in her own words, was “born in Nepal but was brought up pretty much everywhere around the world”. After spending 6 years in the U.S. and getting a Law and Psychology degree, Allison decided to return back to Nepal.
Read all about how and why she decided to take this step and the story behind Aasha Wears.
1. Let’s start with the backstory of Aasha Wears. Can you tell us how did it start and what motivated you to initiate this venture?
The story behind how Aasha Wears started is very interesting and interconnected with a lot of other things. About 12-13 years ago, my parents started an anti-human trafficking organization called Our Daughters International in Nepal and expanded it to India. Currently, it’s an INGO that is based in the U.S. So, going back again, as our organization grew, our vision started to shift to not only rescuing but also on transforming and empowering the rescued girls. The only question was how. After discussing and researching, we figured we could provide them vocational training and a small loan that they can use to go back to their community and start their own small business.
Fortunately, this idea got really successful as we saw our daughters start their own businesses. This also inspired us to make our own organization self sustained. So that’s when we decided to start our factory. But when we did so, we promised ourselves that we wouldn’t focus on making profits but on becoming a model of how sustainable and ethical a workplace can be in Nepal. Accordingly, all the seamstresses in the factory are our daughters who graduated from our rehabilitation and training centers. So far we’ve been able to provide them with a good salary, Citizen investment trust, medical insurance and safe and ethical working environment. Even now, during the lockdown, they’re receiving their full salary with all benefits because not doing so goes against our purpose.
Now shifting the focus to Aasha Wears. While I was focused on studying and making a career abroad, I was clueless about what was happening in Nepal. So last year, I decided to return from the states and use my learning to do something worthwhile here. I took a whole year to understand the market here and ideate on how I can make a difference. Then I figured that I could use the same concept we’ve been using abroad of providing good quality clothes that also had a story behind them. Since the idea of sustainability had also been getting attention in Nepal, I decided to introduce a brand that focuses completely on sustainability and ethical wear which is comfortable and isn’t ridiculously expensive either. That’s pretty much how Aasha Wears was conceptualized.
All of our designs are from New York and we get all our patterns and designs internationally and we manufacture all of them in Lalitpur. We go a step further in ethical wear in Nepal by using the scrap fabric to create limited pieces. So that is our model for sustainability and ethical wear.
2. How did the international market respond to your products?
It wasn’t all easy when we started out. I would say we struggled for a good 5 years while launching this venture. The international market was skeptical about sustainable and ethical fashion, which has changed now all for good reasons and movements such as the fashion revolution. People have now started to question where their clothes come from and how the makers of their products are treated. So, it has been a couple of years that this venture has taken momentum. Nevertheless, we have been in a partnership with big companies in the US the past five years and more are approaching too.
3. What’s the story behind the name Aasha? I also noticed that all of your designs have a Nepali name. Are they named after the seamstresses?
Here’s a backstory again. We were in plans of starting Aasha Wears around Jan/Feb but we weren’t sure about how and when. During this time, the Corona situation got worse and our international orders were halted. Our factory stopped operations entirely and there was no revenue generation as such. So, I’d say the idea about starting Aasha Wears came as a hope for all of us and hence the inspiration for the name.
Regarding the name of the designs, some are named after the people who make them but most are given the names of our rescued daughters. If you’d like to know their stories, then you can check out Instagram highlights where we’ve added the stories of our daughters along with the dresses that are named after them.
4. Have you made sales as of now?
Yes! We made 150 sales in the first 1.5 months since we started which is significantly better than nothing. We have been in contact with different stores in Nepal that want to showcase Nepali products and artisans. For now we have been taking online orders and doing delivery.
5. How many people are there in the Aasha Wears team?
Right now, we have 4 seamstresses within our factory working exclusively for Aasha Wears. I’d say we are a team of around 7 people handling Aasha Wears’ operations.
6. What do you think are the challenges for Aasha Wears?
I think the major challenge for us would be to operate amidst the mindset that Nepali products should be cheap.Now I’m not saying that we’re super expensive; we’re actually a very affordable brand given our quality and purpose. Our products range from Rs. 800- 3000. This mindset is actually an ingrained concept that was fed to us by mass manufacturers from two biggest economies in the world, also our neighbors- India and China. We’re so used to getting things at a cheaper price that we never question why they’re so cheap and how much does the makers actually earn from their work.
Someone once asked me if I’m buying something for $5 then how much do I think is the person making it getting from the purchase.That actually really hit me and I realized that understanding sustainable and ethical fashion is about having empathy with the people who make our clothes.
In short, changing people’s buying behavior and the notion that local products should be cheap are major challenges for us.
7. What factors do you think, if improved and made efficient in Nepal, could make it easy for entrepreneurs to run their business smoothly here?
No corruption, good management and women empowerment!
When I decided to come back here, I had a major step back. I wanted to start a section of my own so I had to register my company and do all other related things myself. I went to Tripureshwor to do that but the moment I went in, I just stood still because nothing was in place. I couldn’t make out where I can start the process from as there were no proper signs or an inquiry desk.
The really sad aspect of it was that a lot of brokers used to be outside who used to tell me that they’ll do the work for me with a certain service charge. They would also tell me that some amount will have to be bribed to get the work done faster. That was very depressing for me, especially as a social entrepreneur who was trying to do the right thing for the country. It took me roughly 4 and half months to start my own company which could’ve been done in a week.
8. How did a day in your life look like before lockdown happened? How does it look now?
Before the lockdown, I would say life was pretty hectic! I am an early bird and am always up by 5 AM. I used to start the day by doing some gardening as I love spending time in the garden followed by a workout and breakfast before heading for work at the factory. It was never the same work actually; sometimes I had more work at the factory while other times I used to have meetings with government officials or get caught up with other work related to our organization. All of this used to end around 4-5 PM and I used to head home after that, chill a bit, play with my dogs and prepare for the next day. You could say I was kind of a workaholic too. All to blame the high pressure environment I was exposed to in the U.S. and my dad, who is equally as workaholic as me.
Ironic but life during the lockdown was pretty much stressful for me because I’ve always had so much work to do and suddenly I was limited to my home with little or no work at all. Nevertheless, after starting out Aasha Wears, I feel like I’m back in the game.
9. What do you think is the key to running a business with a social motive?
I would say consistency is the key, as is with everything else. Especially for entrepreneurs, it’s so important to not give up on their dreams and to constantly keep working to make them come true. There’ll definitely be hurdles and one or two days will be more depressing than the other. But the mantra is to keep going and keep getting better. When we started Aasha Wears on Instagram, we were coming from a blank slate. We’d get around 2-3 followers and then get no flow around 5. We didn’t get discouraged though and now we are growing.
10. Is there anything you’d like to add?
Support your local economy and question every action that you’ve been doing out of habit. There’s this anecdote about Japan that I’d really like to share. We all know how self sustained Japan’s economy is but it didn’t happen overnight. Once the people there realized the importance of supporting local companies, they stopped using imported goods. They’d buy Japanese pencils even though they were flimsy and weak over high quality, cheap American pencils. They did the same things for all other goods too. Eventually the economy boomed and now they’re the leaders in technology of all other things. So, support local businesses!
At first the products or services might not be up to mark but if you don’t give them a chance then they’ll never grow. Everything starts small after all.
Check out the Aasha wears on instagram here
For more information about Aasha wears, please connect with Allison at email@example.com
Interviewed and article by Yangzum Lama.