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Tengri | Nancy Johnston | Interview

The idea behind Tengri was conceived by Nancy Johnston, a social entrepreneur, when she was travelling with friends and staying with herder families in Mongolia. Nancy became fascinated by the delicate and interwoven relationship between people, animals and the land, developing a deeper understanding and respect for the bond between the herder families’ livelihoods, their yaks, and the Mongolian landscape.

This experience inspired Nancy to set up Tengri. Armed with only a pen and a chocolate wrapper, she wrote her first business plan in a dimly lit ger (yurt). Back in London, with modest life savings and the support of an extended network of friends in fashion, design, community development, marketing, business and product development, Tengri was born. We met with i-genius member Nancy Johnston as a follow up to Tengri’s Crowdfunder campaign launch to find out more about Tengri and its beginnings.


i-genius: Why did you start Tengri?
Nancy Johnston: I started Tengri when I was finally brave enough to travel to Mongolia, a lifelong dream I carried with me for 20 years. The delicate relationship between the nomadic people living off the land and animals was mesmerizing. While I was there, I found out that wild animals, the land and the traditional nomadic way of life was at risk and threatened by permanent land erosion because of the unsustainable global demand for cashmere.

i-genius: What does Tengri mean?
Nancy: The word ‘Tengri’ was synonymous with ‘sky’ to the people of ancient Central Asia. It also referred to a pantheon of gods associated with natural phenomena, governing all existence on earth.

i-genius: In what way is Tengri a social enterprise?
Nancy: Tengri was set up as more than just a fashion label. As a social enterprise, we want to revolutionise the fashion and textile industry for the better by helping people look good, feel good and do good while helping to protect people, land and animals in Mongolia. Yak wool is as soft as cashmere, warmer than merino wool, hypoallergenic, environmentally friendly, sustainable and 100% natural and undyed. With time and success, 45% of our profits will go back to support the livelihoods of nomadic herder families who supply our wool.

i-genius: What difficulties did you experience setting up Tengri?
Nancy: Everything! From working with nomadic herder families and cooperatives halfway around the world, differences in language, culture, time zones, sorting international freight, import, customs, manufacturing, marketing, brand, designing packaging, entering the fashion world, building a team and a company, it has all been a steep learning curve.

i-genius: What makes a good candidate for a CEO/Founder of a company?
Nancy: Someone with a mission and vision, the ability to think big, be bold and drive that vision to fruition with relentless conviction, enthusiasm and energy.

i-genius: What are the most crucial things you have done to grow Tengri?
Nancy: Work with relentless optimism, enthusiasm and evangelism, and asking for help every step of the way.

i-genius: Who’s/what’s been your continued source of inspiration?
Nancy: Rock climbing, mountaineering, mountain biking, being challenged by the great outdoors and enjoying our natural world is what infinitely inspires me. I also have great admiration of Yvon Chouinard who is also a rock climber and founder/owner of Patagonia.

i-genius: What’s the worst business advice you’ve ever received?
Any sentence that starts with ‘You can’t….’

i-genius: Tell us more about your latest crowdfunding campaign and why it’s so important?!
Nancy: We are raising £40k of capital to bring yak wool to the forefront of the fashion industry.  We aim to preserve the Mongolian landscape and support the nomadic herders’ way of life, which is threatened by rapid industrialisation and permanent land erosion.  Yak wool is a sustainable alternative to cashmere and deemed by the United Nation’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre as a tool to fight desertification.  Mongolia’s pastures are the backbone of rural economy and food security for the nation! Find out more here: http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/tengri

i-genius: Any exciting projects/initiatives you want to share?
Nancy: We are designing a collection made completely with 3-D knitting technology.  Watch this space!

i-genius: What is your favourite motto in life?
Nancy: You have one life to live.  Live it to the fullest.

i-genius: What advice would you give to those starting up a social business/project?
Nancy: Go into it with a ‘can do’ attitude. With the right mind-set, you can figure out how and find a way to do the rest.

This interview was conducted as part of the i-genius Getting Started interview series. If you would like to learn how to get started in your social business, then why not take our ‘Getting Started – Social Business Start Up’ online course with i-genius Academy. To find out more, click here!


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