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Business on the Frontiers: Creating Jobs in Nepal

A landlocked nation hedged in by the Himalayas, Nepal is an isolated frontier. With high shipping costs, an unstable government and corruption cascading from the top down, Nepal presents a challenging climate for incoming foreigners to start a business – to put it mildly. Yet there are huge needs and opportunities. There are deep labour issues, with low minimum wages, a societal caste system that gives little hope for advancement, and 40% of the workforce currently unemployed. Many are vulnerable to the deceptive promises offered by human traffickers, whose main target is children from ages 5 to 14 years. Hundreds of thousands of Nepali migrants are already working as migrant laborers in the Middle East, often in dangerous or abusive situations. There is a great need for employment and job creation in Nepal.

Jimmy and Donna

Donna saw Nepal through the eyes of an 8 to 16 year old as she lived out these formative years in Kathmandu with her missionary parents. Returning to the United states she got her Bachelors degree at the University of Colorado and later took classes at Harvard, with a view to eventually work in the nonprofit world. Jimmy grew up in an Air Force family, attended the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) and went on to graduate school at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Jimmy and Donna met on a spring break mission trip while Jimmy was at USAFA in Colorado. Altogether Jimmy had 7 years of active duty service, including an assignment teaching at the Air Force Academy. During that time, they also volunteered at a Youth With a Mission (YWAM) training center.

Peter and Marit

Peter’s business story begins with chickens. It was the chickens he raised and sold on a farm growing up, to make his own money, that helped develop his mind for business. From those small beginnings, the seed for business grew and after high school Peter ran a small construction company. Marit was a teacher in Sweden, and has a love of textiles, sewing, knitting and the creative process. After Peter met Marit in Texas, he moved to Sweden where they worked with YWAM. They spent 8 years mobilizing mission teams and fulfilling responsibilities at the mission center in accounting, finance and operations, where they developed management skills in a larger context. During this time in Sweden, Peter also studied business and economics.

Two Paths Connect

Around this time, Jimmy and Donna became intrigued by the idea of combating social issues through business. This was a major shift for Donna who had previously imagined doing that through nonprofit work. They had heard about business as mission and Jimmy went to an OPEN Expo conference to learn more. Together he and Donna decided to look for opportunities to do social enterprise. Their time working with YWAM in Colorado overlapped with Peter and Marit, who were there short-term to run a training course. The friends often joked together that perhaps one day they should work together doing something they were all passionate about – empowering exploited people.

New Vision

In 2011, Peter and Marit left Sweden to pursue their vision to fight human-trafficking in the SE Asia region. To discover their next step, they went on a 6 month journey through many SE Asian countries to explore if there was anything God would have for them. They saw clearly the threat of human-trafficking, the need for good jobs, and felt that Nepal was the place they could be most effective. Six months later, with a clear goal to start a business and use as a tool to combat exploitation, Peter and Marit moved their family to Nepal.

Meanwhile, in India, Donna and Jimmy had been working with a social enterprise called d.light. One night they watched a film about Nepali girls being trafficked into sex work in India at ages 7 and 8. Donna was deeply impacted as she connected to the story, identifying with the girls in the film, having known kids just like them when she was growing up.

Starting something in Nepal

While in New Delhi, Jimmy and Donna met another successful, long-term BAMer who asked them to consider opening a garment factory in Nepal to create meaningful work opportunities for trafficking survivors and those at high risk of exploitation. Without previous experience in garments or manufacturing, they nevertheless felt that this was where God was leading them. God spoke to them about using business to improve lives by giving people job opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise have had. Knowing that Marit and Peter had moved to Nepal, they invited the other couple to join them in the venture. Peter and Marit agreed, having already decided that it could be through business – offering jobs, training, and skills development – that many people could find a way out of the cycle of poverty. Between the partners they realised they had a good breadth of skills and experiences, including small business ownership, running social enterprise and social impact programs, management, business operations, textile production, HR, communications and retail. They began their journey in business together.

Tales of provision

In 2013 the company was born, an ethical garment manufacturing business in Kathmandu. The Nepali Government requires foreign-owned businesses to invest a minimum of $50,000 per partner in business startups. To invest their $50,000, both couples opted to involve their wider stakeholder community and raised donations for the startup capital. The donor startup capital approach has given them freedom to take some calculated risks, which has been key in determining the direction they have taken as a company. They have seen it as very beneficial to have had to raise that much capital, as it has allowed them to scale more quickly and do things as a business that most cash-strapped startups are not able to do. They have also noted the freedom they have felt being able to reinvest profits back into the company rather than having to pay back a significant loan in their startup phase.

Not long after they started, the team hired their first employee, a Hindu master tailor. Months before applying, his friend, a Christian pastor, told him that he would work for some “foreigners who were Jesus people in a Jesus company”. A few months after starting work, he was amazed that his friend’s words had come true. He is now making significant steps towards a relationship with Christ.

In a similar story of God’s provision, one day Donna cried out to God about how they would manage the design side of the business. Three days later a short-term mission team visited and on the team was a woman with a strong heart to help the oppressed and who was a recent graduate from fashion school. She had thought that to help exploited people meant she had to give up her love of fashion. At this company she found an opportunity to combine her passion for both, and she moved to Nepal to help them start the design side of the company. She is still with the business today.

People Opportunities

A garment manufacturing business has been a natural solution to meet the goals the team wants to accomplish. They want to be able to give good jobs, with a low threshold for training and a quick onboard process for new hires. As well as those being trained in garment production, they are also providing other jobs that don’t require such a high education level.

With a clear focus on hiring exploited people where they can, the company currently has 24 employees. Their hope for the business is to address the financial, personal, spiritual needs of their employees and the community around them, while diligently protecting the environment. They refer to this as their four-fold bottom line: financial, personal, spiritual, and environmental

There are many opportunities to help people to grow and develop in the day to day context of the business. Discipleship happens, not only through words, but because of the way that they work. Peter and Jimmy have particularly had a an opportunity to model servant leadership to the male employees. In the culture there is the stereotype of the “lazy boss”, and they have tried to be the antithesis of that, doing things like staying late and cleaning bathrooms in the course of getting the business off the ground. That difference is what has propelled so many of the men to want to know more about Jesus.

The team has also had many opportunities to pray for their employees. One woman who had been barren for eight years, wanted to have a baby and asked for prayer. Soon after that she fell pregnant and had a baby girl last year. The woman is convinced that God answered her prayers.

People Challenges

In this unique context there have been some significant challenges with Human Resources. Operating in a country where there is 40% unemployment, the team has come to recognize that almost everyone around them could be labeled “at risk”. They sometimes struggle with who to hire, as Marit shares, “There is an amount of risk, or trust, that you are stepping into when hiring people and bringing them into your team. When it comes to hiring we try to seek God as much as possible, and ask for him to give us discernment. He has shown us things at just the right times for us to know whether or not to hire some people. We can summarize this process as an ‘educated act of obedience’.”

There has also been tensions between workers with different socioeconomic status or caste. Donna relates, “It is very hard, and we have had to fire someone because she could not get over the social and cultural division. We tell everyone when they are hired that this is a level playing field, that there are no castes in the office and that all are equal. The floor will need sweeping, everyone can sweep.”

Hopes for the future

Eighteen months into operation, the business is self-sustainable and able to keep moving towards their growth goals. To finance the next stage of growth, and expand their social impact programs, the partners launched a successful crowdfunding project last year.

The team hopes to grow to 40 employees by September this year, and to double in size each year. They also hope to work more to support other social enterprises, encouraging them to learn from one another and network more.

As they have sought God so far through the launch of the business, so they desire to continue to live in obedience, guided by the Holy Spirit. To them, that looks like stepping forward in faith in their daily work. Marit reflects, “It is in long days and through a lot of hard work that we have come to see that faith is super-practical. When we live out of faith, it affects every aspect of our lives.”

Poppy Jasper serves as the Assistant Editor and writer for the BAM website and has a passion for storytelling and missions.

With Thanks to Peter, Marit, Jimmy and Donna.