Oi Mei – Artisan-made Pillows for Peace

Goodlifer: Oi Mei: Artisan-made Pillows for Peace

Sometimes inspiration strikes at the most unexpected moments. For Aimi Duong it happened while in Business School and spending a year abroad. She had visited rural villages in Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia and felt a strong desire to help out. That’s when she had the idea to start a company, Oi Mei, that employs these rural artisans to make fairtrade pillows that promote peace-building initiatives in developing communities.

I had a chance to talk to Duong and ask about her enterprise, the relationship she has with the artisans that produce her pillows, her passion for philanthropy, her inspirations and aspirations.

Aimi Duong, founder of Oi Mei, at left.

Aimi Duong, founder of Oi Mei, at left.

How did you have the idea for this enterprise?
I had the idea to start my first social enterprise during a year studying abroad in Bangkok, Thailand. During this time I had the opportunity to travel throughout Thailand and neighboring countries such as Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia. Traveling though these developing nations, I never forgot the people within the communities. I often observed their primitive lifestyles and found it to be very humbling because these were some of the “poorest” people I have ever seen. Yet, they were full of charisma, compassion, perseverance and heart. It was difficult for me to leave many of these communities each time knowing that as I continue to travel and pursue my day to day activities; they continue to struggle for life’s most basic necessities.

Duong says it was difficult for her to leave the communities she visited, knowing that as she continued to travel and pursue her day to day activities; these people continue to struggle for life's most basic necessities.

Duong says it was difficult for her to leave the communities she visited, knowing that as she continued to travel and pursue her day to day activities; these people continue to struggle for life’s most basic necessities.

I came to the realization that in such developing nations, a very small effort can make a huge difference in the lives of the rural poor. As I kept pushing my boundaries living abroad and staying curious, I began to feel that I was at the right place during the right time in my life to try something different. I enjoy philanthropy, I am fascinated by rich cultural traditions, traveling inspires me immensely and I had just completed my undergraduate degree in Business. As a new college grad who is fascinated with the power of social enterprise, I combined this with my other interests and had the idea to start a small business to support rural artisans while also re-investing a percent of net profits into peace-building initiatives. That’s how my “pillows for peace” initiative began.

Fabric for the pillows being hand-loomed using traditional techniques.

Fabric for the pillows being hand-loomed using traditional techniques.

Beyond wanting to support rural artisans, I had a few reasons for wanting to explore social entrepreneurship — mainly, to raise awareness. I am a 24 year old Vietnamese/Chinese/American girl who grew up below middle class in America with a single immigrant mother who struggled to raise four children and give us a “brighter future.” I was fortunate to have scholarships, governmental assistance and the chance to work toward getting educated. I have seen many youths with similar backgrounds fall into troubled futures possibly because they lack inspiration and positive role models. Though I know that my efforts may be small, my main goal was to set an example of how one can overcome such obstacles and instead seek a positive future while helping others along the way. In today’s fast paced society we are often blinded by our own issues, sometimes forgetting the simple things in life and that there are others who face much difficult predicaments. I wanted to set a small example of how a young person can do good and do well, helping others and living a passionate life.

In starting "Pillows for Peace," Duong wanted to show how a young person could do good and do well, helping others and living a passionate life.

In starting “Pillows for Peace,” Duong wanted to show how a young person could do good and do well, helping others and living a passionate life.

How did you form connections with the artisans who produce your pillows? Have you met them personally?
After visiting many small villages where textiles are being produced, I quickly became intrigued. I’ve always been a fan of ethnic-inspired textiles and saw an opportunity to help rural artisans who are struggling to make a living. I asked questions, researched about fair trade and contacted organizations that were supporting rural artisans. I grasped every opportunity to visit textile producing villages in the North of Thailand and soon realized that by me helping them gain exposure to new markets they are able to work for a fair wage, preserve a traditional craft and be self-sustainable.

Duong took every opportunity to visit textile producing villages in the North of Thailand, and the idea for her social enterprise formed.

Duong took every opportunity to visit textile producing villages in the North of Thailand, and the idea for her social enterprise formed.

My interest in the craft and the artisans increased as I learned more about the trade and developed a deep appreciation for their rich traditions and simple lifestyle. I made a few trips to the hill tribe villages to further conduct interviews, take photographs and video footage because I knew I had to share their lives with the wider world. I want to share their craft by making their products available to the wider world but more so I wanted to share their stories because I find it inspiring.

Duong at work with one of the artisans she employs.

Duong at work with one of the artisans she employs.

That being said, yes, I have personally met the artisans who produce the pillows we will carry.

Did you always have a desire to do good or did you have a particular “aha-moment”?
During college I had many “jobs” ranging from waitressing, retail, sales, administrative, working with handicapped children and interning as a research fellow for an NGO in Thailand. I’ve also dedicated a lot of time volunteering with underprivileged children and families. From my work experience I knew that philanthropy is what I enjoy but as I was studying business for my undergraduate degree I didn’t think I could pursue that passion. In business school we are taught in almost every course that the ultimate mission is to maximize profits using traditional business models, which was quite uninspiring for me. Then, I discovered social enterprise, which has completely changed my future aspirations, empowering me to combine my passion for philanthropy and business knowledge as an entrepreneur.

Duong realized that by helping rural artisans gain exposure to new markets they are able to work for a fair wage, preserve a traditional craft and be self-sustainable.

Duong realized that by helping rural artisans gain exposure to new markets they are able to work for a fair wage, preserve a traditional craft and be self-sustainable.

As she learned more about the trade, Duong developed a deep appreciation for the rich traditions and simple lifestyle of the rural artisans.

As she learned more about the trade, Duong developed a deep appreciation for the rich traditions and simple lifestyle of the rural artisans.

Where do you see Oi Mei and “Pillows for Peace” in five years?
In terms of business, in five years I see Oimei Co. at a point of self sustainability with a broader product range. In terms of social impact; I see Oimei Co. partnering with a much larger number of rural artisans throughout South East Asia and possibly other regions in the world (as textiles are handwoven globally). This means that we will be providing more work and income to more rural artisans. By then we would have re-invested a percent of our net profits into various peace-building projects and partnering with more NGOs to expand the scope and implement more of them.

Duong intends to re-invest profits into various peace-building projects and partner with more NGOs to expand the scope and implement more of them.

Duong intends to re-invest profits into various peace-building projects and partner with more NGOs to expand the scope and implement more of them.

What inspires you?
Mostly? Love. Nothing is more inspiring to me than simple act of compassion and “the little things” in life. These are a MUST to keep me going. I am aware that life and its obstacles can sometimes be daunting but I don’t believe in wasting time dwelling on the bad. I try my best to incorporate these essentials in my everyday life. I seek and embrace beauty in the simplest things and I grasp onto “feel good” moments. It can be a nice conversation had with an old friend, a smile shared with a stranger, witnessing genuine kindness and selflessness, walking through a fresh flower market in Thailand or getting lost alone in Myanmar. Love & Life inspires me.

Oi Mei is still in the start-up stages and are trying to raise money through a campaign on crowd-funding site Start Some Good. Check it out and support them if you can. But hurry, the campaign ends in two days!

About author
A designer by trade, Johanna has always had a passion for storytelling. Born and raised in Sweden, she's lived and worked in Miami, Brooklyn and, currently, Ojai, CA. She started Goodlifer in 2008 to offer a positive outlook for the future and share great stories, discoveries, thoughts, tips and reflections around her idea of the Good Life. Johanna loves kale, wishes she had a greener thumb, and thinks everything is just a tad bit better with champagne (or green juice).
1 comment on this postSubmit yours
  1. A lovely inspiring story.

Submit your comment

Please enter your name

Your name is required

Please enter a valid email address

An email address is required

Please enter your message

About

What constitutes the good life? It’s a question we’ve asked ourselves since the dawn of time and something we all strive for. To us, the good life is not a destination but a journey. We want to see more positivity in the world. Thinking happy thoughts makes for happy people, and happy people are more productive, innovative and at peace with the world. We believe in the transformative power of good news.

Goodlifer © 2019 All Rights Reserved

Designed by WPSHOWER

Powered by WordPress