Fashion Spotlight: Q&A with Nancy Johnson, Founder of Tengri

10.10.14

Tengri
For Nancy Johnston visiting Mongolia and living with nomadic families in a remote and rugged part of the world was a lifelong dream. Aged 16 whilst browsing through a volunteering brochure, she discovered Mongolia and the opportunity to sign up for community based project work in the region. At the time she was too young to sign up, but that early dream has since evolved 20 years later into Tengri, an eco-friendly fashion brand with a mission to challenge businesses to become fairshare, and ulti-mately empower the people of Mongolia to invest business profits where they need it most. 

Tengri, which officially launched on 18th June this year, is a luxury fashion brand that specialises in garments made up of 100% natural, undyed, hand-combed Mongolian yak wool, a fabric that is eco-friendly and sustainable - as soft as cashmere and warmer than merino wool. Tengri is on a mission to redefine knitwear as contemporary and edgy. 

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Even in my mother’s womb, I was in a world of conflict – I was the first in my family born outside Asia as a result of the Vietnam war. I was raised in a poor immigrant family where we slept off a wooden floor for the first three years of my life because we couldn’t afford furniture. As part of a minority family living in a deprived Los Angeles neighbourhood full of violence, we were victims of regular bullying and racism. My parents, siblings and extended family didn’t speak any English until I started going to school. So I’ve had to continuously rise to take on new challenges to become the person I am today.

During these formative years I sought to understand more – I wanted solutions to create a better world. Rather than be hardened as a victim of circumstance, or to grow up with anger and hate in my heart, I chose to be soft and seek to understand and exercise compassion. I studied social work and wanted to help people and communities improve their circumstances and situations.

It was also during these early years that I developed a love of sports and ran my first marathon. My passion for endurance sports led to outdoor hobbies such as rock climbing, mountaineering and cycling. I cycled the length of Vietnam through some challenging mountains, covering 1,900km in just 17 days. My personal circumstances, formative years of character-building and love of outdoor endurance sports gave me the courage to travel to Mongolia and the tenacity and strength to start Tengri and be the type of person who can fearless tackle an issue with endurance and perseverance, while also being sensitive and considerate of other cultures and the environment around me.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure as the founder of Tengri? 
Working in the non-profit and health and social care sector for more than 15 years has taught me it’s possible to translate values and purpose – and use that to power an organisation. It’s given me the right experience to use my own passions to fuel the set-up of a socially minded business and collective movement.

Social contribution has always been my guiding compass to most of my decisions in employment and the experiences I’ve had. These experiences have been invaluable in setting up Tengri as more than just a fashion label. As a collective, it’s a planet-, animal- and people-centric business, powered by passion and collaborative working. Our purpose is to preserve the Mongolian landscape and support the nomadic herders’ way of life, which is threatened by rapid industrialisation and land degradation.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Tengri?
The key highlights have always involved the people I’ve met, the people with whom I work, and building enduring relationships. Everyone who has been a part of Tengri is inspiring and amazingly talented and it’s a privilege to work with a great team of people. The travel and experiences that come with it are a bonus.

There are many challenges. Every step in setting up a business, particularly one that is built on relying on dialogue and collaboration with nomadic Mongolian yak herders, is just the start of that challenge, given the language, technological, cultural and time differences. Also, I have no formal business or fashion training. Every day is a steep learning curve and I feel pretty crazy for launching a fashion label that’s also a collective movement.

Why do you think eco fashion is so important?
Fashion shouldn’t cost the earth – people and animals should not be harmed in the making of it. We believe being eco-friendly goes beyond minimizing any adverse effects on the environment. It’s about working with suppliers to improve the entire ecosystem and educating customers so they can make better choices based on alternative options.

In Mongolia, the intensive grazing of cashmere goats has degraded much of the pastures, threatening the long-term livelihoods of nomadic herders as well as the landscape. Our concept of eco-friendliness involves long-term thinking about the ecology, economy, and people of Mongolia. We want to improve the wider ecosystem through a sustainable, virtuous and socially minded business model while also producing beautifully designed garments made with quality British craftsmanship.  We want to make it as easy as possible for consumers to use their purchasing power to do good and show other businesses that eco fashion should be the norm, not an alternative option.

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business? 
Go into it with conviction and just do it, no matter how big or small that first step.  Starting a business takes a lot of hard work, sheer grit and long hours. You need to have the confidence and conviction that this is what you ‘need’ to do and ‘want’ to do – just to take that first step.  Where there is a will, there is a way.

How do you maintain a work/life balance? 
I’m really lucky that my life has created and dictated my work, so I don’t struggle too much with work/life balance because the two are quite integrated. In reality and in practice, it is difficult to separate the two, so I don’t try to fight it, but I do take time for myself and the ones I care for.

My work involves travel, which I love. I also love to socialise and catch up with people over a good meal. My business is powered by an extended network of trusted and reliable friends and colleagues. We conduct a lot of business over brunch, lunch or dinner with our partners and other friends. My personal interests and passions are the things that have fuelled Tengri from day one, so I am not planning on changing that. I find balance in my day-to-day life by taking time for me, such as regular yoga sessions and catching up with friends and family.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace? 
I think the biggest issue is leadership. There are not enough people in leadership roles who exercise that power to create a culture within the organisation that encourages professional growth for women. I think women are still hitting a glass ceiling, but I also think they are also hitting brick walls – barriers that stop them making lateral progress.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I’ve had many mentors in various guises throughout my life. Having a mentor in my personal and professional life has allowed me to recognise things I didn’t know I had in me personally, nurture them and open doors to opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be made available to me professionally. My mentors have pointed me in the right direction, and in some cases, given me the know-how to fulfil and achieve my goals and ambitions. I would highly recommend mentorship when starting a business. A good mentor provides invaluable support and advice, and be someone to lean on emotionally – starting a business can be an isolating experience.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why? 
Aung San Suu Kyi, for never compromising and not being afraid to fight for what is right.
Rosa Parks, for not giving up her seat on the bus.
Angelina Jolie, for her humanitarian efforts and challenging the status quo of what celebrity Hollywood status can do and achieve.
Karren Brady, for being the ‘first lady’ in football, very much a male-dominated sport and business.

What do you want Tengri to accomplish in the next year?
The aspiration is for Tengri to have a healthy online presence, generating global sales directly with people who want to purchase beautifully designed, all-natural and undyed Mongolian yak wool clothing made from the best of British craftsmanship.  We also hope to work with a few online retailers and stockists for Tengri products.

By the end of next year, I’d like to have both a UK and Mongolian workforce that’s supported by the consumer purchasing power, and ultimately preserve the Mongolian nomadic way of life.

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