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From Scarves To Riches

March 17, 2014 , by Sewa Bhattarai, Leave your thoughts
From Scarves To Riches » My Dreams Mag
US Sherpa International is a wholesale business, which exports Nepal-made items like hats, gloves, scarves, socks, purses, bags, etc, to retail stores in Vermont. His family also owns a trekking agency in Nepal, and Ongyel encourages those he meets in the US to come visit Nepal. This is the story of Ongyel’s building blocks of how he went from a struggling student to successful businessperson in the USA. 

 

I am expecting Ongyel Sherpa, owner of US Sherpa International. Somehow I had imagined him to be a middle-aged Nepali man who is the epitome of successful business. In walks Ongyel Sherpa, a young man in a dark suit with a radiant American lady, his wife and business partner, Jessica Maurice. Then began telling the story of their journey together, an unexpected ride that thrilled me with its ups and downs.


I did not expect to meet you, Jessica.

Jessica: Neither did I!


Where are you from?

Jessica: I am from Vermont in the US, which is a little state on the eastern border with Canada. It is famous for farming. I went to Champlain College there. That is where Ongyel and I live now.


How did you end up in Vermont, Ongyel?

Ongyel: My uncle was friends with an American eye-doctor. I met him through my uncle in 1998. My dad asked him if he could help me go to America. The doctor asked me if I could cook. And if I liked kids. I said yes to both. The same day he wrote me a sponsor letter. Within one month, I was in the US. I was barely 18. I then went to high school in America for two years.

ongyel 6


Who supported you then, financially?

Ongyel: I babysat for the doctor when he was away, and also did errands and helped them around the house. The doctor and his family were very good to me.

Jessica: We went to the same high school for a year and never talked to each other.


How did you two get attracted to each other?

Jessica: We ended up in the same college. One day we I saw him, recognized him from school, and went over and talked to him.

Ongyel: But it was quite a while before we started dating. We were just hanging out and getting to know each other for a long time.

Jessica: And then we found out we had an English class together. We ended up sitting in the back next to each other and just talking away.


Was it difficult to connect to Ongyel, because he comes from such a different culture?

Jessica: I was actually very interested in him, his origins, where he came from. On our first dinner date he took me to India House.

Ongyel: There was no Nepali restaurant then. So that was how I could introduce her to food from my culture.


Tell us a little about your business US Sherpa International.

Ongyel: It is a wholesale business of Nepali products. Wool hats, gloves, cotton scarves, etc. All made in Nepal. We have a warehouse with an office in Vermont. From there we distribute to 14-150 retail stores in five states: Vermont, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire.

ongyel 3

 


Are the products influenced by American tastes?

Ongyel: Very much, it makes more sense to focus on products that sell. Like putting a snowflake on a wool hat, or something like that. Over the years there has been a lot of education and exposure, and the makers have a good idea of American tastes.


And how did you get these products to the US?

Ongyel: In the beginning I got them any way I could. Whenever someone came over from Kathmandu, I told them to bring some of the stuff with them.

Jessica: Well now we get them in official shipments for US Sherpa International.

Ongyel: When the first box came in for US Sherpa International, I was ecstatic, like yay, my dream come true.

Jessica: Ongyel has worked really hard to get here. It’s always apprehensive when you start something on your own, it’s taking a risk. But I always believe Ongyel has the true heart and the drive and the will to be a businessman. He stays at work until the job is done.


What motives you, Ongyel?

Ongyel: I come from a family of hard workers. My father has a trekking business in Nepal, where he works really hard to give us the best. Now he also has a trekkers’ dry food business which makes porridge, granola, muesli, and all that stuff. But before that he started as a porter. I guess it’s in my blood to work hard.

Jessica: In the beginning Ongyel was running his business from his apartment.

Ongyel: Indeed. By day I was going to school, babysitting the kids, and on free time I was out on the streets, showing people my products.

Jessica: Telling them about these beautiful little trinkets, asking them to come over and look at them in his apartment. That was the seed that became his whole business later.

Ongyel: I officially started my business only in 2005. The capital for the first investment came from my savings over the years from selling out of my apartment.

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How are you involved in the business, Jessica?

Jessica: I have a full time job at a bank. But I help out with the operations side. Counting products, labelling and tagging them with custom-made tags, keeping an inventory. A lot of it is on the computer.

Ongyel: She is very good with computers.

Jessica: Recently I made a spreadsheet which keeps track of transactions that are complete, partially complete, or overdue. And it’s all colour coded, all Ongyel has to do is look at it and he gets the entire information at a glance.

Ongyel: I am so glad to have her around. Sometimes handling a business gets stressful. Right now I am working with a large customer in Vermont, something like Bhatbhateni here, and it can get overwhelming. And Jessica is always there to give me advice. Whenever I face something tough, she and I meet early in the morning and talk about it. I know her strengths, so that helps. A different perspective is refreshing.

Jessica: Sometimes I pick up products from Ongyel and drop it off to shipping, do other such errands that pop up.


Does work become dinner table conversation?

Jessica: It definitely creeps up. But I don’t always consider it a bad thing, it’s bringing such wonderful things into our lives.

ongyel 4

 


How do you separate personal and professional lives?

Jessica: That was more of a problem when the business was starting out.

Ongyel: Right when I was in college, in the third or fourth year, I became serious about the business.

Jessica: Around 2005 when we got married, Ongyel had a full time job at a company, and he would come home and work on his business. And I felt like I wanted more private time.


Does it get stressful?

Jessica: We kind of have a rapport now, about leaving work at workplace and carving out some private time when we are with each other. Now that Ongyel has just one full-time job, it is not so hectic any more.

Ongyel: Sometimes we get out of the co-workers role and get into husband-wife mode at work.

Jessica: But the flip side is that since we have such a close relationship, we can make work fun for each other.


What kind of challenges did you face in going from a door to door salesman to a full-fledged businessperson?

Ongyel: I continued my door-to-door style, going to store owners, pitching my stuff, asking them to put my products in their stores. It was hard work! But I am a positive person, so I kept on.


How about language and culture barriers?

Ongyel: Plenty! To give just an example, when I came over for the first time and went to the grocery story with the doctor and his family, they piled box after box into the cart, and I wondered, is all that for us?

Jessica: (Big laugh)

Ongyel: Language is definitely a challenge every day. They speak so fast, their accents are so different, it was a struggle to understand even little things they said in the beginning. But I learnt to put these problems aside and focus on my work.

ongyel 5

 


How about unresponsive store owners?

Ongyel: Don’t ask! One time, I tried to talk to this owner of a ski-shop. The assistant wouldn’t even let me talk to the owner, and told me to try again in a week. I did, and they told me to try back in six months. I did that, again, and they kept me hanging like this for two years! And finally, one day at a trade fair, this lady walks in and examines my products, and tells me, these are beautiful, I just have to have them in my store!! I couldn’t tell her I had been trying to meet her for the last two years and nobody even gave me a chance! Guess what? Next week I was in a meeting with her!


Two years!

Jessica: Yea, he doesn’t give up!

Ongyel: When you want something really bad, you get it. But actually, all these problems are minor. The real problem today is product quality. Timely delivery is another challenge. All my products are shipped from Nepal. And it is so hard to communicate from over there. If I ask for 500 red caps, they will send me 300 red, and a hundred pink, and a hundred orange.


Is that why you are here, to check on product quality?

Ongyel: That is one of the reasons. My sister actually is in charge of it, she is the productions manager. I come here every year, and also bring tourists in from the US. I feel like with my family being here in Nepal and operating a trekking business, there is a lot I can offer. I am thinking of making the trip twice a year from now on.

Jessica: I’ve been thinking of coming more often too. This is just my second trip to Nepal, but I love it here.


How important is it to give back to the original makers of these products?

Ongyel: Very important. My trade is fair-trade certified, we pay fair wages, and our products are natural and sustainable.


What are the keys to a successful business?

Ongyel: Having a business mindset is very important. For example, whenever I met people during my struggling phase, I would ask for their business cards. It’s a way of making contacts.

Good relation with the community is another important thing. The first store that I sold in really supported ethnic products from all around the world, and I have been selling to them for fourteen years now.


What are your future plans?

Ongyel: Since we have grown, we have three sales staff now. And I also organize fairs, around six times a year, go to trade shows, promote Nepal and encourage tourists and trekkers to come here. I know how important every dollar is to the Nepali economy. When I was in college I used to think how to connect Nepal and Vermont, and this is the way. This year my goal is to double the sales from last year, and continue the good work I am doing.

**

With a story of success built up from his own efforts, Ongyel is the epitome of a successful entrepreneur. He proves that to be a successful businessperson, you do not need a large investment or grand plans. You can be successful if you have the right vision, work hard to make your base strong, and are determined to make the best of the opportunities you get.

To find out more about US Sherpa, their Facebook Page

Ongyal Sherpa

 

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In Conversation With: Sewa Bhattarai

Please send us your comments/feedbacks at: feedback@mydreamsmag.com

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