Women Who Launch: Shokay


Not too long ago I chanced upon the inspiring story of Shokay.

It is about two friends, Carol Chyau and Marie So, who met at Harvard Kennedy School while doing their Master in Public Administration in International Development. They both shared a passion for social enterprise and wanted to find a way to promote the concept in the Greater China region.

This led to a trip in Yunnan where they saw a need for poverty alleviation and became convinced that something had to be done. While there, they also discovered a lot of – yaks. Out of 14 million yaks in the world, 13 million are found in China.

A woman and her yak at Qinghai Lake

A yak is long-haired bovine, heavily-built with a sturdy frame, short legs, and rounded cloven hooves. Their long shaggy hair has a dense woolly undercoat to insulate them from the cold. Especially in the males, this may form a long “skirt” that can reach the ground. It is this undercoat, or ‘down’, that is often compared and said to be finer, softer and more durable than cashmere.

Despite its shagginess, yaks and their manure have little to no detectable odor. Hence, yak wool is naturally odor resistant.


10 days old baby yak

When the girls returned back to school, they rounded up a few friends and entered the Harvard Business Plan competition, Social Enterprise Track. And won first prize. With the prize money, they went back again to China to follow the footprints of yaks.

This led them to the Tibetian Plateau in remote Western China – one of the country’s poorest regions but home to over 80% of the world’s yaks. A natural resource with tremendous potential for generating sustainable income. Each family in the village owned an average of 30-40 yaks. Being so remote, the families and local community did not know the market value of yaks and were unable to connect to international markets. This became the perfect opportunity to setup a social enterprise.

With little knowledge of yak, yak fiber and the textile industry, they searched all over the world and consulted experts to help. And this was how, in late November 2006, Shokay was born.

Shokay yak wool

Creating income-generating opportunities for Tibetan women to sell both their fibers and handspun yarns and introducing luxury yak down to the global market, Shokay has helped to provide long-term employment and greater sustainable income for these communities.

They work with a network of Tibetan herders from the villages in China to hand comb the fibers from their yaks and earn direct income. They also employ a network of female knitters from rural areas of China who can benefit from fair, steady income through knitting the products. Shokay takes it a step further to improve the lives of the villagers with plans to reinvest profits in areas that need development.

Shokay, Tibetian for “yak down”,  has revolutionizes the yak fiber industry. Today, Shokay sources yak fiber from over 800 families, and uses approximately 2000 tons of yak fiber to create a lifestyle brand of products available in over 100 stores in 10 countries. Unfortunately, Shokay is not available in Singapore yet. But you can visit their online shop at Shokay Online.


Shokay’s network of Tibetian village women


How She Did It?

Interview quotes by Carol Chyau, co-founder of Shokay

On starting a social enterprise. Starting a social enterprise isn’t an easy task. Combine passion and perseverance. Keep trying and don’t give up. I think our business model is challenging, but it’s not impossible. Article from Agenda, issue 68, Dec 2-15, 2010
On challenges doing business in China. It’s very hard to work with manufacturers in China. Because China is good at mass production, there is a high minimum requirement to order from factories. The second thing is it’s hard to find good, ethical local partners who can deliver on international standards. A lot of them don’t know what it means to deliver on time, or sometimes they lack quality control. You have to go there yourself and monitor. Article in Knowledge@Wharton: Innovation & Entrepreneurship, August 5, 2009

On setup challenges. Branding has been very tricky for us, as has product development. On the branding side of it, we began this as a social business and social venture and a lot of our clients really support that, but at the end of the day people are buying the products because they are fashionable. So the big question has always been: to what extent do we include the social aspect of our products as part of the lifestyle brand? 
There are definitely two audiences and if we focus purely on the social side of it, we may end up alienating people that are just interested in the products for the fashion. It’s been tricky to walk the line of branding ourselves as a social enterprise and a fashion brand, and ultimately, we’d like to stay in the middle as we develop into a more mainstream brand.Article from Agenda, issue 68, Dec 2-15, 2010

On women starting social enterprises. Some people have asked me what’s the difference between male and female entrepreneurs? According to some survey results, for men, the driving force to start a business is power and money. Women care more about meaning. Social enterprise fits women well because it has meaning and it’s still good business. More and more well educated women do not prefer traditional philanthropic activities, such as just donating money. They would like to get involved by contributing their professional knowledge. Article in Knowledge@Wharton: Innovation & Entrepreneurship, August 5, 2009 

On what motivates her. I’m not doing this because I am more philanthropic than other people out there, nor because I’m particularly altruistic. For me, it’s about a sense of responsibility. I just believe that as lucky as we are to have so much, we should give back even more. Article on sgentrepreneurs.com, January 1, 2012, by Joyce Huang


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