This month, as part of our Women That Inspire Us series, we caught up with Sophie Garnier, the talented designer behind ethical homeware brand Kalinko, which produces wonderfully rustic pieces from pillows to lampshades – all handmade by artisans in Burma. We were intrigued to hear her fascinating story and how a trip to the country back in 2013 led to her moving to Burma and setting up a business there. Named after the ka-lin-kaw tribe of the north west of the country – known for their generous hospitality, lack of class and gender discrimination and their unrivalled weaving skills – Kalinko works with talented, independent artisans to support their craft and enable them to make a sustainable living from their craft.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to live in Burma?
I sort of ended up here by mistake! I had visited in 2013 for a month on my own and I fell in love with the place. The following year, I sent my husband to Burma to go trekking and to have a brainwave about his next career move… he came back with a job! Not quite what I’d had in mind, but it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to us. We’ve now been in Burma for four years and love it more every day.
What inspired you to launch Kalinko?
We spent the first year after we moved to Burma working during the week and travelling around the country at weekends. After each adventure, our return journeys to Yangon would involve checking in giant spears, bamboo stools or baskets the size of tractor wheels! We couldn’t stop buying amazing things from all over the country that were being made by people in tiny villages. Sadly though, cheap, factory-made imports flooding over the border from China make these handmade products too expensive for the local market, so the craftsmen struggle to find buyers. This means that these skilled craftsmen end up farming to supplement their incomes, spending less and less time working with their skills – it’s such a waste.
So about a year after we arrived, I decided to try and take these beautiful items to international markets, where people value the treasures that these guys make. It took six months to fill the first container, then in November 2016 our first batch of goodies arrived at our warehouse in deepest Wales and Kalinko was born. Now over two years on, we have shipped lots of containers, tons more products and are now working with groups of skilled crafters from all over the country.
What do you love about having your own business?
Oh wow – so many things. You learn a thousand things every day. You get to be involved in every part of the business, from product development, to sales and marketing, to accounting to…choosing which coffee to have in the office. So you’re never bored!
It’s incredibly satisfying seeing something grow from an idea to reality, particularly when you’re working somewhere where it’s really hard to get anything done! It’s also such a treat to work with such talented people from the incredible crafters who make the products to the girls who run the warehouse with the same care that they run their own homes with, to the digital guys who know the ins and outs of RFM analysis and CRO (things I previously assumed belonged in science labs or algebra textbooks). It’s basically really fun, and super rewarding.
What are the biggest challenges that you face running your business from Burma with your customer base in the UK?
Hmm good question. You do always feel like you’re slightly in the wrong place. When you’re in Burma, you feel like you’re missing out on opportunities in the UK, and when you’re in the UK, you feel like you’re neglecting everything going on in Burma. But I imagine that’s the case in any business – you can’t do everything all the time. It just feels more extreme when there are 6,000 miles between the two places! It’s also tricky to dive in and help when something goes wrong on the other side of the world. Luckily, with a stellar team, a laptop and the internet, it works well enough!
Can you describe your daily routine?
We live in a house in a quiet, leafy part of town, which is mostly surrounded by monasteries, so – apologies for being a bit Eat Pray Love…! – we wake up to the sound of birds and Buddhist chanting, under our big mosquito net, which wafts around in the morning breeze. It really is totally magical, it’s my favourite part of the day. We eat mangoes (…and imported cereal!) for breakfast, then Peter, our friendly taxi driver, takes me to work (Peter is half English and his daughter is a teacher in Lewisham… couldn’t make it up!). The morning is usually spent with the team in the office chasing product samples, planning trips to see the makers, and sorting out shipments.
At midday, we all eat lunch around the table together made by Nwe Nwe, our office “mum”. Then the UK wakes up and I spend the afternoon and evening focussing on the sales and marketing side of the business. I try and fit in some form of exercise at some point, but usually fail.
There are tons of fun restaurants in Yangon, and lots of friends to play with after work. So evenings are not that different to those spent in the UK really, except for the temperature and the food… and the fact that Yangon is totally bonkers!
How do you love to spend your days away from work?
Exploring! There is so much to see here. There are 135 ethnic groups in Burma, which means so many customs and cuisines and characters to learn about. We’re also only a short flight away from the whole of South East Asia, India, China… Japan and Korea are even ‘weekendable’ (just!). Terrible for the bank balance but amazing for the mind!
What advice would you give those looking to setup their own business?
If you’re starting a business on your own try and find somebody to bounce ideas off – ideally somebody who knows what they’re talking about! It can be a bit lonely at times, and sometimes you just don’t know the answer, so it helps to have somebody to talk it through with. My husband is super gimpy on the numbers, and very rational, so he’s a massive support (…if a bit harsh!).
I’d also say you’d be amazed how many answers you’ll find on the internet. Unless you’re doing something seriously new age, chances are loads of other people are asking themselves the same questions you are, and with some digging you’ll usually find the answer online.
Finally, you absolutely have to ask for help when you need it. I’m terrible at this, but people are so kind and will more often than not be thrilled to help you if you ask. But you do have to ask!
Oh, and probably the most important thing: you have to be totally, 100 million percent in love with what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. On the difficult days, that’s what gets you out of bed.
What is your favourite piece of Davina Come jewellery?
My beloved Gold Knot Bracelet. My hens gave it to me on the morning of our wedding and I’ve worn it every day since. It’s so lovely having the girls on my wrist when I live so far away from them!
I’ve also got my eyes on the Gold Palermo Hoops. I love that they’re a little bit chunky but small enough to wear every day.