by Sabine Rhyne
A local business, a global reach, and a warm heart. Ongyel Sherpa works at his computer surrounded by handcrafted Nepalese goods in a tiny 400-square-foot space in an industrial park in Burlington, VT. Ongyel is a Nepalese Vermonter who founded U.S. Sherpa International. His journey is an American-dream story with plenty of work and tenacity. He came to Vermont in 1998 at the age of 18, sponsored by an eye doctor, Geoff Tabin, founder of the Himalayan Cataract Project, who had met Ongyel’s uncle in 1988 on a Mount Everest expedition. Through a series of fortuitous events, the subsequent visa opened the possibility of a new life for Ongyel, and he came to Vermont with the full understanding of all of the hard work by both his family and community that had propelled him. He came also with the desire for economic independence. “I was driven to be successful, I wanted to support myself, and ultimately give back to my parents who worked so hard.”
He set about learning the language and the customs in a community that included only one other Nepalese person. After a while, his sponsoring family helped him attend Champlain College, where he majored in business. While there, he noted that some local stores liked Nepalese handicrafts, and he began to formulate what ultimately became a business plan for his business, which he began in 2005.
Ongyel’s father is a guide in Nepal, like many men there. He has been involved with trekking his entire life. Meanwhile, his mother would make handicrafts at home. These handicrafts were available for sale to trekking companies, as the guides and customers would need warm clothes. So, as Ongyel worked up his business plan, he took on both of those aspects: selling handcrafted Nepalese articles, and organizing treks.
He began as a Burlington street vendor, and sold to a few retailers like the Peace and Justice Center fair-trade store. He also made contacts with outing clubs at UVM and climbing stores in Burlington, and began to organize one or two treks a year to Nepal. These treks are still Burlington-based, and the groups “warm up” with Vermont mountain hikes and preparatory talks.
Ongyel and his family are the connectors between the producers in Nepal and the local fair-trade retailers like the Brattleboro Food Co-op. He is deeply committed to the employment and welfare of the artisans. “It is a long-term commitment,” he says quietly. “These producers are very vulnerable. Due to the poverty conditions, they struggle quite a bit, and can even fall prey to human trafficking.” He wishes to increase his sales to be able to give the artisans work throughout the year, and is now hiring a sales representative to do so.
This goal of sustainable economic development is a familiar one in fair-trade discussions. As Ongyel continues to broaden his scope to include more of New England and New York, he will involve his producers in the planning for artisan production. He works with a small group of about eight producers which he visits every year; we met a week after his return from such a trip. “It is important to know the people who are making the products, to know what the working conditions are, and how they are benefiting from the trade,” he says. His producers range from a small factory to cottage-industry individuals. He focuses on products made naturally with certain cultural values, such as prayer flags, or holders made from discarded metals. Some of his products are made from hemp, like the purses, and others from Lokta shrubs, an indigenous evergreen with a fibrous inner bark. His incense is purchased directly from the local Buddhist nunnery. His personally driven commitment to the economy and welfare of his producers, the distribution of earth-friendly products, and the ultimate affordability of those products suggest a successful future. Even though it is now the warm season here in Vermont, U.S. Sherpa’s silk scarves, prayer flags, and hemp purses attract us. And when we are finally ready to welcome winter again, which we will surely be someday, those hats and gloves will look mighty useful. So, in this case, we can act locally and globally all at once!
Visit the Co-op on Thursday, May 8, from 11am-1pm, and meet Ongyel of US Sherpa!