Startup Diaries: From Charity Worker to Business Owner

Startup Diaries: The 7 C’s of being an entrepreneur
22nd August 2016
Startup Diaries: Building A Business That Fills A Gap
23rd August 2016

Nancy Johnston, Founder of Tengri gives us her three top tips on starting your own luxury fashion brand.

Ever since I was a kid, I have always lived a life motivated by social contribution, outdoor pursuits and adventure packed travel to rural and remote places. I studied social work and worked for 20 years in the non-profit health and social care sector before being made redundant.

So how does one go from being a tomboy, adrenaline junkie, world traveler and charity  worker to founder and CEO of a luxury fashion brand? Isn’t that for designers and people in fashion to do?

Step 1: Start with a dream and discover your higher purpose.

I founded Tengri when I was finally brave enough to travel to Mongolia; a lifelong dream I carried with me for 20 years. I saw my first yak and immediately fell in love with the creature, the nomadic herder way of life and their delicate existence living off the land and animals.

While staying with yak herder families in the Khangai Mountains, I met a woman herder who said that in the countryside, you don’t need money to live, you just need the land and animals. But the irony was, she was working for money and that money (and everything that her and her husband were working hard for) was to save for their young daughter’s future education.

I had a lump in my throat when she told me this, because I know what I paid for my top notch education in the west (a degree in social work which would never earn me millions), but I still had a deep sinking feeling that what she saved would never be enough to buy the same education I bought for myself, nor would she be offered the same opportunities simply because she lived in Mongolia.

This encounter plagued me. I felt that surely with my social work education I could do something to create social good and fight this injustice for that little girl and her family. My western education and currency could surely do something.

Once my trip was over I continued to be fascinated by the Mongolian nomadic way of life and found it to be now at threat as a result of increasing land degradation and rapid industrialization as a result of our
consumer choices in fashion.

Increases in cashmere demand is causing land-erosion and leaving behind a trail of destruction for the nomadic way of life and other wild animals.

I also found out that the wool being combed by the yak herder families was being sold at rock bottom prices to the fashion industry, and to luxury fashion labels charging customers at an exorbitant figure for organic, hand-combed and luxury ‘fairtrade’ wool. So I started subscribing to articles and reading about what it means to be ‘fairtrade’ in a business. I felt I needed to do something to add value to yak wool, a special fiber that is as soft as cashmere and warmer than merino wool, highly breathable and hypo-allergenic.

From that moment, I knew I had to launch Tengri, a British knitwear label.


Step 2: Get a brand name that means something

The next step after having an idea and going into it with passion and purpose, was that I knew I needed a brand name. I came across the word ‘Tengri’ which means ‘high heavens’ or ‘sky gods’ – a pantheon of gods associated with aspects of human existence and natural phenomena governing all existence on earth.

The words ‘Tengri’ and ‘Sky’ were synonymous to the ancient Mongols and Turks. The physical appearance of Tengri was unknown and considered to be timeless and infinite, like a blue sky. These qualities and the spirit of Mongolian people and culture inspired me. Tengri was also the name of my friend’s little Mongolian cat. I liked it so much I decided to borrow her name and its meaning, registered the company with Companies House and bought the UK domain.


Step 3: Find some awesome designers.

So I had a purpose, a brand name but no identity or product. I needed to bring to life what a fashion brand with purpose would look like. I needed a brand logo; an identity, and I needed some clothes that would be nicely designed, with an edge, particularly in a competitive fashion industry.

I knew I was up against it in many respects because I didn’t have money and also because as a start-up, the chance of failure was high. Luckily, my involvement in sports paid off and I met two designers through my community of rock climbing friends.

My friend Winnie Lee agreed to be Tengri’s Director of Brand & Art and co-founder. She designed our brand logo, and within weeks of its design, it won a global design award for its ingenuity. I was then introduced to Carlo Volpi, an award-winning Italian knitwear designer who lives in London and who agreed to be Tengri’s Director of Design and co-founder. He designed our debut ‘Warrior’ collection. With their support, creativity and our collective effort, we were able to launch a fashion brand together as a team. To be continued…

Nancy Johnson lives in North London with her husband. She launched her sustainable, eco-friendly luxury knitwear brand Tengri in June 2014, specialising in made-to-order garments made up of 100% natural, undyed hand-combed Mongolian yak wool – a fabric that is eco-friendly, as soft as cashmere, and warmer than merino wool. Nancy works alongside the Mongolian yak herders to help empower their communities and support them to earn a fair wage for farming, while retaining the natural landscape and beauty of their homeland. Tengri’s ‘Warrior’ collection launched on 20 September 2014.

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