Milam clothing store in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region （COURTESY PHOTO)
Near the Ramoche Temple in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, one of the most important Buddhist shrines in the city, there is a more modern attraction as well. It's called Milam, which means "dream" in the Tibetan language. It's a boutique selling clothes and accessories such as T-shirts, sweaters, belts and wallets, and customers flock in despite the modest exterior, drawn by the distinctive designs and affordable prices.
The products designed by Tsering Tashi, the owner of the boutique, and his team, while different from traditional Tibetan clothes, still feature elements of Tibetan culture.
Though only in his 20s, Tsering Tashi had tried his hand at various things before deciding to start afresh with Milam. Prior to that he worked as a teacher in Lhasa after graduating from Shanghai Normal University. In 2014, he founded a cultural communication company. Finally, he started Milam Clothing Co. Ltd. in 2015 as in his view, clothing is the most basic and most visible carrier of Tibetan culture.
Now the company has stores not only in cities in Tibet including Xigaze and Nagqu, but also in neighboring Qinghai and Sichuan provinces. The monthly sales at the Lhasa store alone are around 300,000 yuan ($46,693). The company has 36 employees, including 24 college graduates. Tsering Tashi has also developed an individual children's clothing brand, OLOLO.
In 2018, he expanded his business, setting up a tea company, followed by an extracurricular education company this year. He won an award for outstanding young Chinese entrepreneurs in 2019.
"Although entrepreneurship carries more unpredictability, I like this kind of life. Since clothes are a basic carrier of culture, I want to make some contribution to promoting Tibetan culture and characters through our products," he told Beijing Review.
Learning from experience
Tsering Tashi developed an interest in garment designing and business as a college student. While majoring in education technology in Shanghai Normal University, he chose to focus on designing. While studying, he also wanted to do something to earn money. Following the example of street vendors near his school, he started to sell caterpillar fungus or Cordyceps sinensis, a herb believed to have invigorating properties. He sold the fungus on e-commerce platform Taobao and the experience sowed the seeds of his current career.
After graduation, he worked as a computer and English teacher, saved money and thought about starting his own business. One year later, when he resigned from the teaching job to start his own company,
he had around 20,000 yuan ($3,106) to invest, partly saved from his job and partly loaned by friends. He was also able to get a loan of 100,000 yuan ($15,565) from the People's Government of Lhasa.
While the capital was secured, he faced difficulties in production. Many factories refused to work with him due to the low output of the fledgling business, and even after he found one factory, problems such as delayed production and low quality of products kept cropping up. To improve the quality of the clothes, he finally started a factory in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, where there were more skilled workers.
In the beginning, he was the designer but as the company expanded, he hired professional designers and shifted to operations. It usually takes around a month to design the items, choose the materials and produce them. Each year, the company produces about 200 newly designed articles.
In addition to designing clothing, he and his partners have also developed the first Tibetan language artistic typeface input method, meant to type the language on computers. The Milam Tibetan language input method has created 15 fonts, enhancing the database of Tibetan fonts.
"I have liked Tibetan calligraphy since I was a child. When I started my clothing venture, I found a lack of artistic Tibetan typefaces and decided to design them on our own. We have a workshop focusing on that and plan to introduce 12 new typefaces this year," he said.
Tsering Tashi (sixth from right) receives an award for outstanding young Chinese entrepreneurs in 2019 （COURTESY PHOTO)
The steady economic growth of Tibet is nurturing more and more young entrepreneurs like Tsering Tashi. According to the regional government, Tibet's GDP grew 7.8 percent in 2020, the highest in China.
The improved business environment and supporting policies have boosted the confidence of local entrepreneurs. Data from the regional financial department showed that it had given subsidies worth 5.43 million yuan ($765,300) to over 90 innovative companies by March last year. The subsidies are part of the region's efforts started in March 2019 to drive innovation and entrepreneurship and are given to startups, small and medium-sized enterprises and incubators. Technology-oriented enterprises can apply for up to 100,000 yuan ($15,563) every year, while startup teams can get up to 50,000 yuan ($7,782) per year.
The regional government also issued a development plan in September 2019 to introduce new employment concepts for Tibetans aged between 14 and 35 and further support innovation and entrepreneurship among them. Besides, the government cut taxes and fees and provided various kinds of training to encourage entrepreneurship.
While the business environment has improved, Tsering Tashi said young people still have a conventional mindset about employment, with many preferring to work in government departments for job security. This poses a challenge for the development of his company as talented people are hard to find and retain.
"Young and pioneering entrepreneurs are still lacking in Tibet. To develop a business, an entrepreneur needs to build a strong team, explore diversified demands in the market and utilize modern technology," he said.
In recent years, in addition to training and funds to encourage college graduates to engage in innovation and start businesses, business service centers and incubators have been established to foster innovation and entrepreneurship. Official statistics show that by 2019, 131 innovation and entrepreneurship bases had come up in the region. BR
(Print Edition Title: Alpine Dreams Come True)
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
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