- Associated Press - Sunday, June 15, 2014

STAMFORD, Conn. (AP) - During his six-month stay in Nepal last year, Kevin Lanuk saw a man fatally collapse by the side of the road with an empty water bottle in his hand. It was a moment that would remain lodged in his memory. He felt he had to do something.

Lanuk, who grew up in Stamford and Greenwich, traveled to Nepal on a “shoestring” budget to develop an idea for a social entrepreneurship venture that had been on his mind since 2012. Once established in Kathmandu, the 25-year-old founded Mountkarma, a startup intended to provide a better income for Himalayan women, some of whom live on about $40 a month, Lanuk said. Mountkarma partners with a local non-governmental organization, Folk Nepal, a member of the Social Welfare Organization, Handicraft Association of Nepal and the World Fair Trade Organization.

“They took me under their wing,” Lanuk said.

Working out of Folk Nepal’s small studio in Kathmandu, Mountkarma fashions T-shirts and accessories by recycling the prayer flags found in temples and homes throughout Nepal. The brightly colored squares of fabric represent five elements: earth, sky, wind, fire and water, and are repurposed as pockets on the Mountkarma T-shirts or bands of colorful stripes along the sleeves. To date, Lanuk has produced 30 shirts — 15 for men, 15 for women — as design prototypes, made of materials that include bamboo, hemp and organic cotton. The shirts have been placed for pre-order through the Mountkarma website and through the business’ forthcoming Kickstarter campaign. Lanuk intends to use the crowd-funding site to finance research and development and a return trip to Nepal, to continue working.

“If I can make my project sustainable, I can create more opportunities for these women artisans, so they can give their children better opportunities,” Lanuk said.

Social entrepreneurship comes with challenges that go beyond what a normal startup would face, said David Dey, president of the Institute for Social Entrepreneurship in Rochester, N.Y. For a venture to achieve its goal of impacting a certain community, the social entrepreneur faces what Dey calls a “triple bottom line.”

This includes paying fair wages, spreading awareness of the region through its natural resources, and balancing profits. While a traditional business need only satisfy its investors and consumers, social ventures must weigh profits between the businesses’ support organizations, the people the business is trying to help, and the necessity of setting funds aside to reinvest in the venture.

“The same discipline, the same heart and same tenacity that entrepreneurs have, social entrepreneurs have to have,” Dey said.

Mountkarma has yet to announce pricing for its products, but Dey said to pay workers a fair wage, prices for products must inevitably rise. It’s also where the novelty of bringing an aspect of a country’s culture and natural beauty to the marketplace come into play, he said.

“The challenge is that you have to sell in a marketplace that will pay the higher value because of the origin, the unique aspect and quality and the Fair Trade,” Dey said. “People will pay for quality workmanship.”

Although Mountkarma is a one-man venture, the business forged its way through a series of links.

Lanuk reached out to Folk Nepal to forge the partnership after arriving in Kathmandu, and works with 10 local artisans to craft the T-shirts, using Fair Trade practices.

During his time in the country, he met with Sophie Palmstierna, an international hospitality management student at Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom. Clearly impressed with the idea, Palmstierna then submitted Mountkarma to the Oxford Brookes Social Entrepreneurship Award. Mountkarma won a Try It award, with a funding prize of £500.

“Sophie spoke passionately on the project’s work to provide jobs for Nepali women and, in turn, lead to better education for their children and overall standards of living,” said Roberto Daniele, senior lecturer in entrepreneurship and marketing for hospitality and tourism at Oxford Brookes University. “By developing Mountkarma for the U.K. and U.S. markets, the aim is to create a sustainable improvement for more women and children and create an awareness of how others can benefit through fashion and giving.

“The award funding will go toward researching the U.K. angle for this social enterprise and how U.K. residents can also benefit from giving,” he added.

For Lanuk, much is still to be done.

Once the Kickstarter campaign is underway in the next few months, he wants to focus on cultivating distribution channels and finding a few other “passionate risk-takers” to join the Mountkarma team. The business, he stresses, is not just a social venture, but a way to share some of beauty he has found in the Nepali culture.

When not traveling to Kathmandu, Lanuk splits his time between family in Greenwich and Stamford, planning his — and Mountkarma’s — next move. His ultimate goal is to have Mountkarma known internationally as “the” Himalayan brand, he said.

“You know, if we end up in a rap song, I guess I’ll know we’ve made it,” he joked.


Information from: The Advocate, https://www.stamfordadvocate.com

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