Edited by Dr KK Tse

Marie So (蘇芷君) and Carol Chyau (喬雲珊) are two of the most well-known social entrepreneurs in Greater China. Marie is from Hong Kong and Carol is from Taiwan. Their organization Ventures in Development has been a pioneer in launching social enterprises in western China.

Marie and Carol have just been elected Fellows by Echoing Green, an achievement which is not only an honor for these two young ladies but will be a big boost for their effort in bringing development to poor regions of China through social enterprises.

Echoing Green is a new-style, venture-capital like, organization committed to supporting social entrepreneurs worldwide. It was founded in 1994 by a group of American businesspersons who wanted to promote social entrepreneurship through their wealth and experience. Each year, it awards 20 two-year fellowships to entrepreneurs with bold ideas for social change. Fellows receive up to US$90,000 in funding as well as professional support to turn their ideas into sustainable organizations. Echoing Green specifically seeks out individuals with:

  • innovative solutions to significant social problems
  • strategies to create high-impact, sustainable change in people’s lives
  • the ability to grow and lead a new organization

The Fellowship scheme is open to citizens of all nationalities, working in any country. Since its inception, it has elected more than 450 Fellows.

Ventures in Development

Most people know Marie and Carol by their organization Ventures in Development. But not many people know the passion and aspirations. Their journey to date is an inspiration for anyone interested in pursuing a career in the citizen sector. Let’s recap their vision and mission:

  • Our vision is to solve development challenges through innovative and sustainable business solutions.
  • Our mission is to identify, incubate and implement ideas that have potential to become sustainable and socially responsible ventures.
  • Our aim is to elevate the lives of the poor through the spirit of entrepreneurship.

It is worth pointing out that Marie and Carol are not interested in just setting up social enterprises; their primary objective is to prove that social enterprises can be sustainable and could be a major force in lifting people out of poverty. They will not be content in just running a number of social enterprises as such but are committed to inspiring others to develop and implement ideas that could be turned into viable and sustainable social enterprises. Ultimately, they see Ventures in Development as a venture capital firm with the ability to identify, fund and support budding social ventures. They are themselves gaining experience in setting up and running social enterprises so that they could be more effective in supporting other social enterprises in the future.

How It All Began

Ventures in Development was born at Harvard University. While pursuing their Masters’ degrees at the Kennedy School of Government, classmates Marie and Carol spent two years immersed in the academics of international development, which reinforced their belief in sustainable development. In the process, Carol and Marie began brainstorming ways to utilize their education and talents to build businesses that could impact impoverished regions. Having spent much of their lives in Asia, their sights naturally turned to China, a country with increasingly severe income disparity where many inland regions suffer from poverty and lack of access to markets.

Over their winter break, Carol and Marie traveled to western regions of China to investigate the needs and resources of the indigenous peoples and look for ways to help. They found an abundant resource of yaks and an NGO partner – China Exploration and Research Society. Marie and Carol learned that the hair of yaks can be processed into a cashmere-like textile and their milk can be turned into yogurt, cheese, or even ice cream. With no means to connect to international markets for these exotic products, yaks were merely used for domestic consumption. And here began the concept of yaks as a potential means to generate income for the local communities.

With their degrees complete from Harvard, they embarked on an itinerary that would take them across China, Tibet, and Mongolia for months of laying the groundwork for both the cheese and yak fiber projects. The rest is history. Today, the two flagship projects of Ventures in Development are:

MEI XIANG YAK CHEESE is a for-profit social enterprise bringing yak cheese from Yunnan province in Western China to gourmet cheese consumers, providing a steady source of income to local herding communities. With growing consumer demand, realizable profits can be captured from the high premium price but low production cost. The factory is run by an enterprising Tibetan family who seek to bring development to their village. They have been trained by a U.S. cheese expert from Wisconsin.

SHOKAY, the Tibetan word for yak down, is a for-profit social enterprise that aims to provide a steady source of income to marginalized communities in China by bringing Shokay yarn, and luxury scarves and throws to the international market. Shokay is a yak down fiber recognized by fiber experts to be comparable in softness and warmth to cashmere. The idea is to introduce an exotic, high quality and socially conscious fiber to consumers who value luxury with a story.

See Marie and Carol in Their Own Words.