What a long, strange and rewarding trip it’s been! But thirty five years is long enough, at least for me so it’s time to pass the torch, to hand over the keys to the executive washroom, to let someone younger if not wiser, someone who has the youthful energy and enthusiasm for fair-trade and Nepal take over my place in Ganesh Himal Trading. But before I introduce Austin a quick historical rundown is in order.
The year 1984, Denise and I take an extended trip to Asia and the S. Pacific. Nepal was our first port of call and after two months we totally fell in love with the country the people and the sweaters, not to mention the myriad other handcrafts. Our sweaters, provided by a Tibetan refugee couple, proved to be our introduction to the business end of Nepal. After a month trekking we returned to Kathmandu enamored with our purchases and were persuaded to set up shop in the states selling Lobsang and Dolkar’s sweaters. Bare in mind this was before the advent of fleece. The sweaters were beautiful and well made, the perfect winter item for the Northwest.
As one thing leads to another, one trip to Nepal lead to more trips to Nepal, more great treks, more great products and more great people. We met Nhucche who being quite the Newari entrepreneur fronted us 100 sweaters on consignment. We paid when we sold them and returned to Nepal. How’s that for trust! Today we work with Nhucche’s son Amit. We met Meera Bhattari, who was starting the Association of Craft Producers,”Dhukuti”, which is a skills development and income earning project for low income women. Many of you know we still work closely with Meera and ACP and now the Conscious Connections Foundation provides support for the education of the children of the producers. We started working with Tibetan carpet weavers and although we not longer sell carpets this was a further introduction into Tibetan culture. Which lead us indirectly to finding our late friend Namygal and his wife Pemala. A couple that turned out to be crucial to both ending our shipping nightmares and to supplying us with consistent well made products. We still work closely with Pemela and her daughter Kesang. Kesang has helped set up a workshop on the border of India which provides income for women who are in danger of being trafficked, have lost husbands or have been abused. She also is a driving force in helping CCF with the menstrual pad project.
As our business grew, we realized that in order to provide consistent quality in the handcrafts and close relationships with the producers we needed someone to essentially manage the day to day operations in Nepal, to field questions about products to insure labels are correct, to make sure the products are finished and shipped on time and to keep everybody happy. Then by both a fortunate and unfortunate turn of events Chunta came into our lives. Chunta is Pemala’s younger sister who with her family had fled Tibet in the early seventies leaving everything behind. The fortunate part is obvious, we could not do what we do today without Chunta. She is respected by all the producers, speaks numerous languages and is so hard working, diligent and creative that it puts me to shame. The unfortunate part is that we actually came to know Chunta because Denise’s mother broke her leg while on a trip to Nepal with us. Chunta was the one who really provided Joy with care and companionship during her convalescence in Nepal, and later as Joy brought her to the states to help out and repay her kindness.
Of course we put Chunta to work while she was in Spokane, helping us with sales at fairs and festivals. Which leads me to the next part of this narrative. That of how we managed to sell all the sweaters and other products and really establish our business. When we got back to the States after 7 or 8 months of traveling our little box of Nepali handcrafts was waiting for us, much to our surprise. Denise’s Mom and Dad set up a show for us at a local theatre where we did a slide show of our trip and displayed what the items we’d send back. By the end of the evening we’d sold almost everything and our fate was sealed. We borrowed a little money, I went back to Nepal, Denise when to law school and we embarked on the journey. During the three years Denise was in school I spent my time plying the college campus’s doing what we termed “guerrilla vending“ and on the weekends we’d set up our booth selling at various random festivals, actually anywhere they would have us. Which, by the way took us to some very colorful events, everything from Trout Creek Montana Huckleberry Festival, to the Folk Life Festival in Seattle with a hundred thousand people.
By the time Denise finished law school Ganesh Himal Trekking and Trading was taking off. One or both of us had gone back and forth to Nepal numerous times and had great contacts with the producer groups and a market. The market however demanded that we be on the road some 200 days a year hauling 50 pound bags of sweaters in and out of various events. But it was a good time and allowed us to talk about the producers in Nepal and how we based our business on an equitable partnership, a model that we learned later was the core of Fair Trade.
In hindsight the next progression seems fairly obvious but at the time I thought it was both a stroke of brilliance and a more than a bit of luck. The luck part was the formation of the Fair Trade Federation, which Denise tuned into right from the beginning. We participated in some of the first Fair Trade Federation conferences which gave us the opportunity to network with retail stores which were members of the FTF. The obvious part was our slow transition from retail to wholesale. I mean how long could our bodies hold up hauling sweaters around plus wholesale gave us the opportunity to provide more work and support to the producers in Nepal. Also shortly after this our son Cameron Norbu was born. He was immediately indoctrinated into Nepali culture and fair trade by taking his first trip to Nepal at the tender age of five months. He subsequently has spend much of his young life going back and forth to Nepal and not only helped form CCF but spent most of a gap year in Nepal after the 2015 earthquake leading projects that CCF was involved in.
Which leads me back to where this all started, with my retirement and the introduction of Austin as Denise’s partner. The transition from retail to wholesale required that we find employees to work with us since it rapidly became more than the two of us good handle. Denise and I would still be on the road throughout the Northwest showing and selling products to fair trade stores. Cameron would be packed in with the goods. At home however Cameron was in need of someone to hang with him sometimes during the day. So enter Austin at age 14. In a way Austin was also indoctrinated into fair trade at a young age. She slowly began doing projects for the business during her summer breaks and when she was home from college. She actually helped us collate our first paper catalog which was a demanding job at the time. It was obvious from the beginning that Austin paid a great deal of attention to detail. Denise could give her a task and it would be done and done well. So after Austin finished college and spend a couple years playing professional volleyball in Europe she returned to Spokane, contacted us and asked if we had any work she could do. Again the timing was perfect, our customer base was growing our products were increasing and the opportunity to have Austin even part time was too good to pass up.
I remember Denise asking Austin what she wanted to do after returning to Spokane, she replied that she really wanted to work in fair trade. OK, how’s that for fate! I’m not sure we thought about it at the time, but Austin’s enthusiasm and commitment to Ganesh Himal, which included a self funded trip to Nepal, proved to be the perfect transitional opportunity for both of us.
As long winded as this narrative is it but a brief encapsulation of thirty plus years of working with wonderful and amazing people both in Nepal and across the US. We’ve gone from selling sweaters out of the back of our truck to selling to some four hundred stores around the country. Granted it’s been a fair bit of work, pun intended, but we could not have done it without everyone involved, the producers in Nepal, the stores committed to fair trade and of course our terrific staff. So I feel grateful to have had the opportunity to make this work my life and I now feel grateful to have the pleasure to past this legacy onto Austin. Namaste, Ric