Between enrolling and receiving a degree in business from SJSU last May, Aimi Duong spent 16 months visiting Thailand, Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia. One of her pleasures during that trip was the discovery of beautiful, handcrafted textiles, bold in color and intricate in pattern, made by village artisans. As lovely as they were, those textiles were not garnering a living wage for the women who created them. As artisans, they needed access to new markets. Back in the U.S, Duong set out to provide exactly that, launching Oimei, a fair trade company that sells pillow covers, cosmetic bags and embroidered notebook covers woven by women from seven tribes in northern Thailand. For the artisans, the rewards have been both economic and personal: reliable income and recognition of their artistry worldwide. For Duong? “I wake up everyday with an immense feeling of satisfaction, gratitude and purpose,” she says. She hopes soon to partner with Vietnamese artisans as well.
Read on to learn about Oimei and why Duong chose that particular name for her socially conscious start-up.
When Aimi Duong is inspired, she’s inspired. But traditional business models with their goals of maximizing profits did not galvanize the San José native. Both as a student and a graduate, she longed for a career that paired her business know-how with her passion for philanthropy.
Interning at the Human Development Forum Foundation (HDFF) in Thailand, Duong met village artisans whose beautiful handcrafted textiles, steeped in cultural and historical weaving traditions, captured both her eye and heart.
“I developed a deep appreciation for the artisans and their crafts during my visits to the many villages,” Duong says. “Learning about their lives was a humbling experience.”
Humbling, because the skilled artisans were struggling to make a living. To change that situation, Duong founded Oimei. Duong’s company receives its inventory of pillow covers and other home décor and personal accessories from Thai Tribal Crafts Fair Trade, a cooperative that partners with approximately 1,200 artisans from the Akha, Hmong, Karen, Lahu, Lawa, Lisu and Mien tribes of northern Thailand.
“What I fell in love with from the start was how incredibly charismatic and talented the artisans are. They create beautiful products that are eco friendly and have a meaningful story. I am helping them gain access to a wider market and providing my customers with unique products and stories they otherwise may not know about,” Duong says.
Duong raised seed funds via StartSomeGood.com, an initiative she describes as an “incredibly helpful platform, tool and community that got Oimei off the ground.” Duong’s day-to-day duties include order fulfillment, social media marketing, and vendor cultivation. During the spring and summer months, she also sells Oimei merchandise at craft and arts fairs.
Duong’s next goal is to partner with Vietnamese artisans, because “that is where my roots are,” she explains. Duong’s mother and three of her siblings left Vietnam in the early 1980s and spent almost a year in a refugee camp in Malaysia before settling in San José. “My mother is my hero,” Duong says. “She raised all four of my siblings and me, the first-born American in my family, as a single mother.”
Oimei is Duong’s Chinese name, given to her by her eldest sister, Brenda, who died in 2009.
That loss “opened my eyes to how important it is to live a life I love and am proud of,” Duong says. “It made me realize even more how precious life is—each and everyone’s lives and stories. I learned how to see the beauty in everything that surrounded me. Oi Mei also means Love Beauty in Chinese. Starting this business was my way of sharing a little of my new discoveries and creating a lasting celebration of my sister’s life.”