Burning Questions for Ethnotek? Check out this Q&A with Founder Jake Orak.
Join Anywhere But Home's "Nomad" Naomi as she chats with Founder Jake and asks the tough questions. From Naomi:
Ever wanted to get under Ethnotek’s hood? I have. The first time that I heard about Ethnotek, it caught my eye for a number of reasons: a company that supports local artisans? Intrepid travellers running the show? A mission to ‘keep culture alive’? Yes please. As a lover of travel and of the web of artistic heritage from around the world, I was intrigued and wanted to get in on spreading the word about its mission. But first, I had to do my homework - Ethnotek’s ideals might be there, but is the reality?
Saigon Buddies: Jake, Cori (Jake's wife) and Naomi
To get to the heart of the matter, I met up with Ethnotek founder Jake Orak and his wife Cori in Saigon to ask the questions I hadn’t seen answered in articles: for one, how was Ethnotek staying fair-trade? How did they find & select artisans they worked with? How do they pursue people-to-people business with all those language barriers? And though the THREADS come from small-scale artisans, what about the actual bag bodies? Nylon from China?
It was time to get down to brass tacks.
Jake and Cori have been living in Saigon for the past few years, so they seem to know all the hidden spots. We cab it to a restaurant out by the Saigon River, where we can see the sun coming down low over the water just next door. As we sit down to beer, I start our chat by asking about where the idea for Ethnotek came from.
Back in his past life, Jake had been a bag designer for a larger company which incorporated mass-manufactured fabrics into their products. But during a trip into the tribal regions of northern Vietnam, he began seeing small-scale artisans who were creating quality, hand-made textiles at their backyard looms. It was an industry that was ancient, and endangered.
Hani, at the Cham village in Vietnam
“I knew this was a cultural tradition that certainly not a lot of people see anymore,” he says, “and I knew that the demand was diminishing because of the cost and the time it takes to create these textiles. The textiles and the culture surrounding them just inspired me – how can I do something about raising awareness and demand for these textiles so that they don't become extinct?”
At first, his thoughts went to starting a tour agency or a garment company, but then he (wisely) decided to stick to what he knew best: bags. However, it wouldn't be enough to simply buy up fabrics and make product – he wanted to make a business that was sustainable, not wasteful.
“It was kind of that Eureka moment,” Jake explains as he came up with the idea for Ethnotek's changeable front-panels. “People could continue to support the artisans while owning only one bag. The one core body provides all the functionality, but they could continue to purchase textiles – THREADS – from each of the villages to continue on with the preservation, and keep demand up.”
Bhuj, Gujarat, India Master Weaver Vankar Shamji and his father Vishram Valji.
Sustainability is also why the bag is made from a durable, 840-denier water resistant ballistic nylon. Made in the local Saigon workshop of Jake’s old coworker, Mr. Ai, the bags come from his family business that produces the entire nylon body from start to finish - no mass production from China here. And though nylon isn’t a natural material, it's extraordinarily durable – so much so, that Ethnotek is changing its 5 year warrantee to a lifetime warrantee.
“That's part of the sustainable mission,” says Jake, “making something that lasts as long as possible, and isn't just a throw-away.”
Alright, so I was feeling the idea of a quality product made from sustainable materials for the benefit of small communities and heritage art forms. But there was a new slant to Jake’s business model that, for me, set it apart: the question of respect.
As Jake stresses, Ethnotek doesn’t dictate the designs that its partner villages make. The artisans, instead, are asked which are the most traditional or which are their favourite.
“We don't wanna go in and say, 'We're doing this!'” Jake says with a laugh.
One the ground partnerships (L to R) Hani, Head Artisan, Hani's son Jaka,
Ethnotek Founder Jake, Packaging Developer Bao, and Head Bag Developer Ai.
But respect runs deeper than just guaranteeing artistic freedom. Most importantly, it lies in the quality that makes Ethnotek so often called “fair-trade,” and what Jake refers to as the “Village Sourcing Guide.” This guide is a list of questions that Ethnotek asks its partner villages in order to ensure that a long-lasting business relationship can be made. After all, helping these villages revive their dying textile traditions isn’t just about increasing demand: it’s about ensuring that an increased demand lasts.
“We just have to ask the right questions, like 'Who here speaks English? Do you guys e-mail? Are you familiar with shipping via DHL or Fedex? Can we wire money directly to you? Who's going to be our main contact?'” Jake explains, “All the logistics that are tied to 'Can this actually be a business to business relationship?' Because that's the best way that we can help preserve their own culture.”
Partnering Artisans Dying Fabric in Indonesia
I don’t know why this consideration and professionalism surprises me. I suppose I’m used to seeing products similar to Ethnotek run under a ‘rich uncle’ model - Western company sees dying traditional art form, swoops in and starts throwing money around - but what Jake’s describing is built on respect. It’s an attitude of approaching all artisans as equal partners, meeting eye-to-eye, and aiming to create a mutually beneficial relationship.
It isn’t patronising or charity - it’s empowerment.
And I can respect that.
The afternoon rainstorm is just starting outside restaurant’s windows, and we can see freighters heading down the Saigon River towards the South China Sea. It puts me in mind to think about the origins of all those wares inside, so I turn the conversation to how Ethnotek does its in-person sourcing. Currently, Ethnotek fabrics come from five countries: Vietnam, India, Indonesia, Guatemala, and Ghana. Fabric from the latter two countries come from, respectively, an NGO from Colorado and a fair-trade certified trader from California which Jake has personal contacts with. But Indonesia, Vietnam and India are where Ethnotek's business partnerships get down to trade in its simplest form: just dropping in.
Or, as Jake puts it, “seat-of-the-pants sourcing.”
A People to People Business: Jake and Master Weaver Vankar Shamji
It was this element of Jake’s business model that really intrigued me, because the idea of rocking up to a remote village and diving right into the culture and lifestyle is something that adventurous travellers often dream about.
“When you go to these villages to set up relationships yourself,” I have to ask, “how do you deal with the language barrier, to start? I mean, how do you get an insight into the village?”
Jake laughs and says, “It really is just like parachuting in and hoping for the best.”
To do this type of on-the-ground sourcing, he starts as every backpacker does: arrives in a village, and finds a place to spend the night. From there, action mode begins. Usually with the help of the guesthouse or homestay, he’s got to find someone with enough English to understand what he’s looking for.
“Usually it's tricky at first, because they'll just escort me to the nearest souvenir shop, like, 'Here you go – textiles!' And I say, 'No, I don't want to just buy once and then go home, I want to go behind the shop to see where it's made, meet the family and set up a long-term relationship.’”
And so these business relationships begin - seat-of-the-pant sourcing, indeed. But the benefits of connecting with a community at the ground level are apparent. In the case of Ethnotek’s partner village in India, Jakes has been able to see how the artisan Shamji has had to expand his workshop to keep up with the demands of Ethnotek’s customers - newly involving more family members and neighbours in the business.
“That was total proof of concept for us that the mission is happening on its own volition. It's just evolving as it should.”
So with the new year, what’s next for Ethnotek? The answer actually surprises me. Outside of experimental new products - you’ll have to check back here to see them unveiled! - Ethnotek has a bigger mission: involve more of the Tribe.
In one of our last e-mails, Jake mentioned trying to open up possibilities for travellers to collect fabric on their own travels and have a THREAD made upon visiting the Saigon workshop. I ask how that’s coming along.
Jake immediately gets animated. “That's something that we really, really, really wanna make happen so badly,” - his emphasis is unavoidable - “because that's the ultimate closing of the loop in the mission. The whole idea is to reduce the distance between the customer and the artisan, to increase more transparency – that's the ultimate awareness of celebrating and promoting and keeping culture alive.”
Jake's Wife Cori with a Limited Edition Ghana Raja Pack
The way Jake sees it, actually getting Ethnotek customers to visit the villages and artisans making these fabrics, to learn about those cultures directly, would be the ultimate benefit. Though it’s just a seed of an idea, there might be a day when Ethnotek can help customers and travellers visit its partner villages themselves.
Jake sees these village visits as a type of scavenger hunt: “Maybe just give out a cool, fun info dump of what to look for, who to meet, who you can stay with, and exciting things to see - but the rest is just like any backpacker would want, just kinda up in the air, just make your own adventure.”
That, I know, was exactly what caught my eye about Ethnotek in the first place - its spirit of adventure. This company was created by, and for, people with insatiable curiosity, who reach out with open arms to the diversity of the planet, who feel energized by possibility and thrilled by new experiences. It doesn’t matter if you’re hitting the streets of a city or the trails of a mountain: Ethnotek was designed to bring the world to travellers whereever they are.
And, most importantly, to carry adventure with them.
A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE GUEST TRIBE WRITER, NAOMI (in her words):
I'm Naomi, an occasional expat and permanent nomad celebrating an infatuation with the whole wide world!
In 2010, I left home to pursue travel as a full-time lifestyle...and haven't looked back since... (check out her blog)