Inspirational Woman: Nancy Johnston | CEO & Founder of Tengri

Nancy Johnston_yak farm in Mongolia

For Nancy Johnston visiting Mongolia and living with nomadic families in a remote and rugged part of the world was a lifelong dream. Aged 16 whilst browsing through a volunteering brochure, she discovered Mongolia and the opportunity to sign up for community based project work in the region. At the time she was too young to sign up, but that early dream has since evolved 20 years later into Tengri, an eco-friendly fashion brand with a mission to challenge businesses to become fairshare, and ultimately empower the people of Mongolia to invest business profits where they need it most.

Nancy-Johnston_Tengri-founderTell us a bit about yourself, background and what you do currently

I’m a trained social worker and I’ve worked in the non-profit sector for the past 15 years in the USA and UK. In my spare time, I like to rock-climb, hike up mountains and travel to remote places. It’s nice to be able to now use my professional and personal experiences to become a social entrepreneur and launch TENGRI, a London-based fashion label that aspires to bring Mongolian yak wool to the forefront of the fashion industry through sustainable, eco-friendly and fairtrade business.

if I had to say, I think the biggest personal achievement would be to consistently find the inner strength to be brave enough to step outside my comfort zone and launch myself into unchartered and unfamiliar terrain all the time.

Why did you start your business?

I have lived my life motivated by social causes and chasing outdoor adventures. It naturally made sense for me to launch a business designed to support nomadic herder families living in rural and remote Mongolia. I really like the fact that I’m using business and fashion as a means to be able to help support not just people in Mongolia, but also designers and small businesses involved in the textile and manufacturing industry in the UK as well.

You are launching your business as collective movement. Can you explain what this entails?

TENGRI is more than a fashion label. As a company, we are a planet-, animal- and people-centric business powered by passionate people who work as a collective movement to do good. We want to make sure we go one step beyond fairtrade and that the Mongolian yak herders from whom we source our wool get a fair share of the business and profits. We champion and add value to the Mongolian yak wool from which our garments are made. Yak wool is as soft as cashmere, warmer than merino wool, highly breathable and resistant to pulling and fluffing, odour and static electricity. The unique qualities of this very special fibre are under-recognised in the global textile industry.

Who is involved in the TENGRI Collective?

The collective involves a range of designers contributing their time and expertise.

  • Winnie Lee is brand and art director, she designed Tengri’s brand logo, which has won an international brand award for its ingenious design.
  • Carlo Volpi is an award-winning knitwear designer helping to launch Tengri’s debut collection this September.
  • Iona Brown is a London-based designer who works with a focus is on understated detail. She will be designing a range of Tengri accessories, to include clutches and bags.
  • Kashi Shikunova and Liam Clifford of Yam Studios are interior designers, launching Tengri interiors made of yak leathers and woven fabrics.
What appealed to you about setting up your own business?

The one thing that appealed to me about starting my own business was the opportunity to create and design something from scratch, and to work with an extended network of people who are inspiring, dedicated, generous, talented and creative. It’s great to be able to shape a positive environment and work culture we are all proud to be part of, striving to achieve positive outcomes.

What has been your biggest challenge?

Differences in language, culture, time zones and business practices have all been challenges, in addition to the usual start-up challenges such as cost, capacity and resource. It’s quite crazy to think I am working directly with nomadic herder families in Mongolia halfway around the world. At the same time, these are the most rewarding and interesting aspects of my business. And, the biggest challenge is starting a business with no business, design or fashion background, so every day is a steep learning curve!

What’s been your greatest achievement personally?

I’m not too sure if I can say I have a greatest achievement as there are still so many more challenges to face and so much more I have yet to experience. But if I had to say, I think the biggest personal achievement would be to consistently find the inner strength to be brave enough to step outside my comfort zone and launch myself into unchartered and unfamiliar terrain all the time. Living with nomadic herder families, being in unfamiliar terrain, starting a new business and not knowing what each new day holds, what business challenges I have to face, being the boss and not having the safety net of a 9-5 job, is a big scary challenge in itself.

If you weren’t doing what you do, what would you be doing?

I’d probably be planning my next adventure and training either to cycle up or climb a mountain, and would probably still be working for a non-profit organisation or social enterprise.

I really like the fact that I’m using business and fashion as a means to be able to help support not just people in Mongolia, but also designers and small businesses involved in the textile and manufacturing industry in the UK as well.

Who has been your biggest inspiration?

My dad has always been my biggest hero and inspiration. He is the most modest, patient and compassionate person I have the privilege to know. In addition to saving and supporting my immediate and extended family during the Vietnam war, I recently discovered he had helped women escape from violent environments and helped them secure an education, employment and have opportunities to succeed in life. He’s the most generous person I know, willing to help without an agenda or judgement.

What does the future hold for you?

I’m really excited to be launching the debut TENGRI collection on 18th September in London. The garments are beautifully designed by Carlo Volpi and feel absolutely gorgeous. The launch of the collection represents the sheer hard work of the Mongolian herders and the dedication and craftsmanship of British designers and manufacturers who have been such an important part of creating and launching TENGRI.

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