Meet Susanne Rabens, Tengri’s very first customer, and discover why she came to be our first investor.
A couple of years ago, I decided to open a store that only sold products that were eco-friendly, sustainable, ethically made, and of course, beautiful and appealing to the higher-end customer I was targeting. The tagline for the store was, “Shop Well. Do Good.” It was my attempt to start a business that allowed me to do what I loved, to make money to provide for myself and my family, and to share the profits with everyone involved.
Searching for the truth behind ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ labels
I searched for goods and had some success in finding products that were ethically made with the people involved being paid a fair wage for their labour, but that was only half the story. The reality is that the raw materials used were quite often not only unsustainable, but in fact, were very harmful to people, the land, the animals, or all three.
Starting out, I had no idea that something as common as cotton has devastating effects on the land and the people who grow it, and worse, there was no way to determine if those people were being paid a fair wage, as if there is a fair wage for people exposed to pesticides that hurt them and led to birth defects in their children. The same is true of many fabrics commonly used, so my quest to find goods that met my standards was not as easy as I had hoped.
The lack of supply chain transparency
My research for products and companies became routine and quite simple. I would go to the website of the company purporting to be selling sustainable and ethically made clothing, look at the fashion, and if I thought the clothes would appeal to my potential customers living in the New York City area, I read the “About” page to determine if the company’s ethics were in line with my own.
It was rare for me to get to the “About” page, and even when I did and admired the company’s ethics and efforts, further research into the products often showed a glaring lack of ethics and/or sustainability with regards to the raw materials used, never mind that I was completely unable to trace the entire supply chain.
The magic of social media
A twitter recommendation on who to follow led me to Tengri, and the moment I saw the clothes, I got excited. I continued and after learning about the company, their products, and the founder, Nancy Johnston, I knew that although my store had little chance of coming to fruition due to lack of supply (and no wholesale option from Tengri at the time), I had found something special. Tengri has a 100% traceable, sustainable, ethical, eco- and animal-friendly supply chain, and the Mongolian yak herders were the biggest beneficiaries of Nancy’s endeavour. In all my research, I had found no other company like this one, and I quickly fell in love with the company’s mission and came to admire a woman I had yet to meet.
Fate sent me an email
As fate would have it, I stumbled upon Tengri just as the website was in beta mode for ordering. I understood I couldn’t actually get what I ordered, but in an effort to help them test their system, I happily placed one anyway. Little did I know then that the site had literally just gone live and a few people in London looked at the order coming through and wondered how the heck some woman from New Jersey had become their first unofficial customer. Soon afterwards, I received an email from Nancy basically asking that question, and after a few email exchanges, we spoke on the phone. The conversation left me quite impressed with Nancy, who was making new rules and breaking new ground. I quickly realized that the company is much more than a fashion brand, and Nancy is much more than your ordinary entrepreneur. She has a vision that goes well beyond succeeding as a company.
Becoming Tengri’s first customer
Soon after my first conversation with Nancy, the site went live, and I officially became the first customer, buying a beautiful and unique coat for myself. I then supported her crowdfunding efforts with a contribution that led to me owning a pair of pants in the lightest, and least-available colour of all. As luck would have it, Nancy was coming to The Parson School of Design in New York, and it was there that I met her in person for the first time. She hand-delivered my clothes, which were beautiful, fitted perfectly and were softer, lighter, and warmer than I had imagined. As a bonus, I was able to buy a second coat that Nancy had designed and made for herself which was indicative of her generous spirit. Most impressive of all was Nancy herself, and we not only formed a friendship, but I took a more serious interest in her company.
Why I became Tengri’s first investor
I spoke regularly with Nancy and our conversations were always filled with good news on top of good news, new connections, new outlets and new potential for her products. I really wanted to get involved and to help her in any way that I could. There was not much I could do from New Jersey, but the opportunity presented itself for me to offer a convertible business loan with 5% interest or conversion to equity in Tengri as an investor. Running a young company creating new products never seen before on the market, Nancy needed help to fund a second purchase of yak fibres, processing costs, as well as costs that come with trying to launch a new brand.
Soon afterwards, we decided it would be a great idea for me to visit the UK to gain further insight into the business and to meet the people who were behind Tengri. The trip to London included a few days in the Scottish Borders to see the raw materials, the factories where the fibres become yarn, then fabric and/or knitwear, as well as a day at Heriot-Watt University to learn more about textile designs and the role technology can play in the designs and enhancing the yarns.
It was a whirlwind trip, and never in my life have I seen so much or met so many people over the course of seven days, nor have I ever been as impressed. Our conversations had led me to believe the company had an almost unlimited potential for growth, and my trip confirmed that belief. My convictions only grew as I spoke with the people working for her and with her. Every one of them, successful in their own fields, having met Nancy and understood her vision, is as passionate as I am about helping her in any way possible. Nancy and her ideas clearly inspire not just me, but everyone she meets.
Part of me worried that I would need back the money I used to help finance Tengri. I have one child heading to college this year and another two years behind (and as of now I have no store to bring income my way.) But, then I thought, I’ll kick myself when Tengri is the new Apple, and not having shares in the company in its infancy.
I decided to go with my gut and be Tengri’s first investor. I have no doubt it is the smartest financial decision I have ever made. My dream to open a store that sold only sustainable, environmentally friendly, ethically made, beautiful clothing from start to finish was almost impossible. I had all but given up hope and then I came across Tengri.
Shaping my future
I have no doubt that down the road, I’ll have my dream store, because the day will come when I can fill it with Tengri products, and it won’t be limited to clothing, because Nancy has a vision for the fibres that other companies write off as waste. Best of all, it will fulfil my bigger dream of helping others and being a part of a larger social movement, which is at the heart of what Tengri is all about. My investment is not just in Nancy. It is an investment in our collective future, spearheaded by an amazing woman.
I’m proud to be part of Tengri’s history by being its first customer and now investor, and invite many others to join me by becoming a customer or an investor – or, as in my case, both! I may not spend any more time on Twitter, but thank you Twitter for your life-changing suggestion.