Categorized | Social Entrepreneur

Social Entpreneur: Joe Demin, Yellow Leaf Hammocks and Mlabri Tribe

Joe Demin traveled to Thailand this spring to visit an old friend. In the midst of a three week zig zag across the country, he visited the island of Ko Lanta, rented a scooter, and took off into the jungle in search of a storied souvenir- a map of the island created by ex-pats, detailing the secret must-see views of the locale.

As it turned out, his journey to track down the map was merely the first step on a much more exciting quest.

The thatched shop that distributed the maps also sold the most amazing hammocks Joe had ever seen. The array of brilliant colors, the intricate workmanship and the supreme comfort of their cocoon immediately convinced him that he needed to buy one, although he lived in an apartment in the city with no place to hang a hammock.

When he heard the story of the people who created the hammocks, he knew that he wanted to go further than simply bringing a Mlabri hammock back to Boston. The story of the Mlabri people inspired his conviction to create the Yellow Leaf Hammock brand and create positive social change through sales of conscious products. Seeing an amazing, high-quality product, created in a sustainable setting, justified his belief that a profitable company could succeed by benefiting the greater good.

The Mlabri people have a mysterious and complicated history. Traditionally a nomadic hunter-gatherer tribe with no concept of land ownership or relationship with the outside world, the Mlabri people were also known as the “The People of the Yellow Leaves.” They were named for huts they covered with interwoven banana leaves, then abandoned as the leaves dried up and changed color. Their way of life was devastated as the lands around them were claimed and deforested. By 2009, their numbers had dwindled to just 300 and they were listed on the Endangered Languages list. Without the benefit of land or education, they were in dire straits. Impoverished and forced to work in slavelike conditions or faux “tourist shows” that charged visitors for a chance to view their “primitive ways”, the future appeared bleak for the Mlabri.

A series of serendipitous events over the course of several years changed this trajectory and enabled the Mlabri to fight their way out of poverty. They were discovered by a missionary and a Swiss textile engineer who taught them basic business savvy and helped them adapt their natural weaving skills into specially designed hammock weaves. The beauty and comfort of the Mlabri Hammocks caught the eye of various visitors over the years, establishing a consumer following and several sales outposts in Asia. With the proceeds from their craft, the Mlabri weavers established a village school and a community center, as well as one of the first unemployment funds in Thailand. Creating and selling these high quality hammocks has proven the Mlabri’s key to establishing financial independence and freeing them from degrading servitude. With the economic footing that hammocks have provided, they have successfully fought to receive Thai citizenship (previously denied them) and civil rights. They have even begun to train and employ members of surrounding villages, paying forward the benevolence that liberated them and creating a ripple effect in the regional economy.

The story of the Mlabri resonated with Joe- he heard his own story echoed in their tale. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, his family emigrated to America carrying the proverbial two suitcases when he was just four years old. As refugees, his parents left behind careers, family and friends to build a new life in America from the bottom up.

Joe seized every opportunity he could to create the future he envisioned for himself. From childhood, he worked in jobs ranging from dishwasher to camp counselor to dj. He sought admission to a top public high school and spent hours commuting between school, work and home by bus to ensure access to the best education. When he was accepted to DePaul University, he literally packed two suitcases and jumped on a train from Boston to Chicago. Financing his own education every step of the way, he found a passion for real estate. Before graduating from DePaul, Joe co-founded DePaul University’s Real Estate Alumni Alliance (DREAA) and secured a position with a top Chicago real estate investment firm. After transitioning through various specialties, Joe found himself working in a more rigid corporate environment. By the time he took his trip to Thailand, work had led him back to Boston and he had begun to feel that petty office politics and the economic downturn were sapping his passion for corporate life.

There in the shop, the story of the Mlabri and the beauty of their intricate workmanship ignited Joe’s inspiration. He altered his Thai itinerary to include a visit to the Mlabri village. Meeting the Mlabri weavers, he was struck by the progress they had made in transforming their condition and their bright plans for the future. On his 6 hour drive back from the village, Joe began to make his plans for Yellow Leaf Hammocks.

In the weeks since he arrived back in the States, he has laid the foundation for a socially conscious brand. When he began building Yellow Leaf, he reached out to his network and was amazed by the reaction he received. Friends, acquaintances and family stepped in, offering encouragement, advice and more contacts to help him move forward. He seized opportunities to talk to strangers whose businesses he admired and learned quickly as he enlisted the help of the talented professionals who offered their pro bono services.

For Joe, the reactions he received when he told the story of the Mlabri and Yellow Leaf offered daily encouragement. Concept meetings and business plans energized him and helped him continue his forward momentum. His initial vision was clarified and hammered out into the core messages that would help focus the brand. “Do Good, Relax.” and the Thai phrase “Sabai, Sabai” (translated roughly: No Worries!) were the key phrases Yellow Leaf would live by.

In a matter of weeks, he taught himself how to build and design a website and built www.yellowleafhammocks.com. He filled the site with photos and stories that would make Yellow Leaf come alive and help him share his dream across the country. He uses Facebook and Twitter to interact with hammock lovers everywhere. He is also working with a producer to create Yellow Leaf videos and is working to document the positive impact that hammocks have on the Mlabri and surrounding villages.

He’s received considerable press attention in the weeks since the site went live. Publications with a focus on fair trade, eco-friendly products and social consciousness will be sharing the Yellow Lead story with their readers this summer and fall.

To continue building his grass-roots exposure, Joe has also begun spreading the word at New England’s summer festivals and markets. He designed his traveling display to emulate the hammock shop in Ko Lanta that first drew him in- colorful hammocks lining the walls, an oriental rug on the floor, and photos from his trip to the Mlabri Village. He’s been energized by the face to face interaction with customers and loves to see people fall in love with the hammocks and the story behind their creation. People have bought Yellow Leaf Hammocks for themselves and for their family all over the U.S. after meeting Joe.

Through it all, he’s continued to seek out the knowledge he needs to help Yellow Leaf grow. He is learning about international trade and studying supply chain management. He’s researched and analyzed his competition, helping him focus on becoming the best hammock brand in the US market. He’s taking his time to grow organically while he works through kinks, tests his production capacity and prepares to scale up as the business grows in the coming year. He is focusing on developing a strong community of Yellow Leaf hammockers as he sells his first thousand hammocks, at which point he will begin to implement more broad-scale initiatives. He has also begun to reach out to establish key alliances and sponsorship opportunities for the long term. He’s building a board of advisors to round out his expertise in international trade, legal matters and humanitarian work.

While any young entrepreneur faces stumbling blocks, Joe spends most days feeling as though he’s found an opportunity that’s almost too good to be true. He says that he almost feels guilty about how much he enjoys working to build Yellow Leaf and helping the Mlabri people. In these early stages, his passion for the people and the learning experience have been their own reward.

In his own words:Like any traveler, I had high hopes that my trip to Thailand would be life-altering. I would never have guessed that Yellow Leaf would be the result of my journey. For me, seeing firsthand the impact these hammocks have had on the community, on the Mlabri Tribe, provided a call to action. Realizing that an opportunity like this couldn’t be planned for and couldn’t be ignored, I followed my gut. From the first step, I set out to design a company that would create what I call Double Wellness.

To be honest, I’m confident that these hammocks would be a popular product based on their intrinsic merit, without the benefit of a socially driven mission. They are meticulously crafted, durable and beautiful. But I also think that this opportunity to make a difference in the lives of a deserving set of people is one that my customers honor and appreciate.

This reciprocal relationship is what I set out to create with Double Wellness: positive social change for the manufacturer and a positive impact on the consumer’s psyche. Yellow Leaf Hammock owners are not only providing for their own wellness , but the well-being of the weavers and their community who, in turn, have been provided with a chance to secure their own future.

The gravity of this vision truly began to sink in when I was back in America, making plans for the future and researching the socially conscious brands I hoped to emulate (Toms Shoes, FeelGoodz, Whole Foods). I realized the obstacles and the rewards that lay ahead, and what I was setting out to do- which fueled my determination to succeed. Seeing our mission in action as I talk to people in markets and share our story with journalists, I am constantly thrilled and reinvigorated! All this passion and excitement running through my veins has led to great plans and aspirations for Yellow Leaf.

Admittedly, it took time to find balance and take things in stride. Building a business, there are factors that are out of your control. That’s just reality. But as an entrepreneur, I think it is important to always push further. You have to push the envelope, because after all, you are creating something from scratch and that is much harder than one realizes.

One thing I’ve learned is that running a company is fun, but running one that has such a positive impact, is unbelievable. It takes entrepreneurship to a whole new level! Just think, a school was created for kids that previously never went to school…from hammocks! Healthcare…from hammocks! A man had a heart bypass surgery, because hammocks allowed him to have the healthcare to do so. Just four years ago, the Mlabri were finally recognized and granted Thai citizenship! The first road to the village was paved! The Mlabri have solar power on their roofs, and satellite TV! I hope one day they can turn on the TV and watch as Yellow Leaf is on CNN! That will make them proud. I want our weavers to know how much we love their craft. I want them to see the smiles they bring to the thousands of people who purchase their hammocks each year.

I will forever remember the people I met in Thailand, the emails I’ve received from customers and my conversations at the markets I work. As hard as it is to launch a global lifestyle brand with such an ambitious mission, it helps to receive messages such as the one I just received while writing this:

“Hi Joe – I met you with my daughter at the SOWA market on Sunday. (daughter, Hannah, very eagerly dove into the hammocks!) Using the website, I just ordered a sitting hammock in 2 shades of blue. We can’t wait to get it! … It was nice to meet you and we are really happy to be purchasing this hammock from Yellow Leaf and supporting the Mlabri Tribe.”

Rachel L. Connors
Yellow Leaf Hammocks

Be Sociable, Share!

2 Responses to “Social Entpreneur: Joe Demin, Yellow Leaf Hammocks and Mlabri Tribe”

  1. Jude Stukes says:

    Well I definitely enjoyed reading it. This article offered by you is very helpful for proper planning.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] And the story of the Mlabri people intensified Joe’s resolve. A nomadic hunter-gatherer tribe with no concept of land ownership or relationship with the outside world, the Mlabri were known as the “The People of the Yellow Leaves” after their simple huts covered with interwoven banana leaves that dry and change to a bright yellow color. Their way of life was devastated as the lands around them were claimed and deforested. By 2009, their numbers had dwindled to just 300 and they were listed on the Endangered Languages list. Without the benefit of land or education, they were in dire straits. Impoverished and forced to work in slave-like conditions or faux “tourist shows” that charged visitors for a chance to view their “primitive ways”, the future appeared bleak for the Mlabri. Then, they were discovered by a missionary and a Swiss textile engineer who taught them basic business savvy and helped them adapt their natural weaving skills into specially designed hammock weaves. The beauty and comfort of the Mlabri Hammocks caught the eye of various visitors over the years, establishing a consumer following and several sales outposts in Asia. To read more about the Mlabri Tribe and their inspiring story of survival and recovery, please see the article on ShoestringVentures. [...]


Leave a Reply

Shoestring Book Reviews

Shoestring Venture Reviews
Richard Hooker on Jim Blasingame

Shoestring Fans and Followers


Categories

Archives

Business Book: How to Start a Business

Shoestring Book

Shoestring Venture in iTunes Store

Shoestring Venture - Steve Monas & Richard Hooker

Shoestring Kindle Version # 1 for e-Commerce, # 1 for Small Business, # 1 for Startup 99 cents

Business Book – Shoestring Venture: The Startup Bible

Shoestring Book Reviews

Shoestring Venture Reviews

Invesp landing page optimization
Powered By Invesp
Wikio - Top Blogs - Business

YouWish Wishlist Builder for Android