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Do not underestimate the power of your network

N’GO Social Sneaker promoting the Vietnamese traditional craft

Why don’t you briefly introduce yourself and Startup Ngo Shoe to our readers?

My name is Ronan, and I am co-founder of N’go, a social-responsible French brand. In a fair partnership with groups of female artisans from Vietnam, N’go integrates traditional craft responsibility in lifestyle products and builds elementary schools in the most remote provinces of Vietnam every year.

Why did you decide to start a business?

We got the idea to start a social business with Kevin when he came back to France from his holiday in Mexico and I finished my experience working with a Spanish NGOs in Vietnam. Kevin wanted to change his life routine working as an accountant and I was looking for a new opportunity in the development/humanitarian sector. But we realized that if we combine our skills & experience, we could create by our own a business model in creating a product (shoes, bags, interior decoration, T-shirt etc.), involving local people in need during the production and then donate part of the profit to a non-governmental organization. 

Vietnam was the perfect start for our journey: I spent already 1,5 year in this South-East Asian country, I had knowledge that there were a lot of ethnic minorities excluded of the society and there were many social projects to support (education, environment, gender equality, human trafficking etc.). Also, Vietnam has a very high expertise in textile and footwear. 

What is the vision behind Ngo Shoe?

At N’go, we share a global and long-term vision with all our partners: transparency, social, economic & environment development are our main concern since 2017.

First, N’go is providing fair and stable incomes to Vietnamese ethnic minorities women living in the most remote provinces of Northern Vietnam. After doing research, we realized those craftswomen had ancestral skills to make by hand their craft but they did not have access to the local & international market to sell it. Then we came to their villages and we explained to them we were looking for a partnership to do Fairtrade with them. In this way, they can keep their lifestyle in their villages instead of going to the biggest cities to get a job and they can improve their livelihoods. Increasing their monthly incomes enables them to send their children at school for example, build and/or renovate their house, water treatment system, toilets etc. Also, they can access the Information. Buying a radio, a TV and traveling around Vietnam are ways to learn and know better the World.

Second, N’go wants to prove it is possible to make fashion products in Vietnam in a fair and transparent way.

We are all used to hear negative comments about Asian & Vietnamese working conditions but, in the field, it is not what I have seen of my little 5 years’ experience over there. If you choose correctly your textile partners, if you work directly with them, without using intermediaries then you can do it well! Today, we have created strong relationships with our suppliers where trust & transparency are not questionable. But we always can do better and improve our work.

For example, we pushed our assembly factory to get the social compliance certification in 2020. At first, they did not see the interest of being certified but we told them it was to guarantee good working conditions and employee safety, fair remuneration and decent working hours. Plus, this certification could attract more customers for them. This was a great satisfaction for N’go, the same way we accompany them to prioritize the use of local and sustainable materials!

Third, N’go donates 2% of its annual revenue to Sao Bien, a non-profit organization building schools in the most remote provinces of Vietnam.

Many provinces & districts of Vietnam are lacking school infrastructures to welcome pupils to study. Then it our priority sending to elementary school all kids aged from 6 to 11 years old. Why did we choose to invest in education? Because it is the first area where you should invest if you want to improve life conditions, poverty, healthcare, gender equality & environmental issues. All is related to education and anyone should access to it. 

Fourth, N’go always integrated in its product development the wish to use sustainable materials. In 2017, Kevin and I wished to make 100% handmade and sustainable shoes, but we quickly realized that it was not that easy, and it would take some time before reaching this goal! Then we did a lot of research & development, we had long discussions with our suppliers to convince them it was urgent to change the fashion industry to become sustainable. Step by step, we included locally sourced materials, recycled materials such as PET, cork and sawdust materials. The path is still long, and we can progress but we are working on it. In 2021, we published a study about our Carbon footprint in 2019. Then we noticed that 58% of our CO2 consumption is coming from the raw materials whereas the transportation of our goods from Vietnam to France represents only 5%. 

From the idea to the launch, what have been the biggest challenges so far and how did you finance yourself?

One of our biggest challenges was to sell the product. None of us had experience in marketing, communication and sales. Kevin worked very hard to develop different sales channels and to learn tricks of his new job. Even with a good storytelling and the good product, it is not easy to enter into the market when you are unknown, and you affirm to be a new social-responsible brand making products in Asia. Fortunately, our network & historical partners supported us from the start. I could never thank them enough…all the work we have done, we did it together!

Looking for Vietnamese suppliers has not been easy neither. The culture and working methods are totally different. Then you need to listen and adapt a lot. But again, the network does everything. Thanks of my Vietnamese & expats friends, I met a lot of people working in the footwear industry or with ethnic minorities. I learnt their language and spent a lot of time with our suppliers to establish a trustful relationship. About the social partner Sao Bien, it was easier as I already had a foot inside the international cooperation. 

How did we finance ourselves?

With Kevin, we both continued working when N’go was still a baby (until 2018-2019). Kevin was accompanying enterprises to grow as an accountant, and I found a job as an English teacher in kindergarten in Vietnam. It was the best way to have monthly incomes and enough time to invest for N’go. When you create a new business, the most important thing is having this financial security aside. Then it makes you more confident and it is stressless.

In order to finance N’go, we started with EUR 3,000 each to invest in product development, in our website, in the establishment of our company etc. And then we made a crowdfunding campaign with our 6 first styles of Mekong collection in April 2017. This campaign was successful and we used this money to buy our first shoe production, invest in marketing and continue the product development in Vietnam. Step by step, we started selling on our website, we got partnerships with retailers and later on big department stores came to us such as Galeries Lafayette in France.

Who is the target group of Ngo Shoe?

I would say that each customer buying N’go is different from another because we met teenagers, students, workers but also grandparents. I think our target group is all people who believe in our storytelling, people who want to change the fashion industry, people who are looking for more transparency and fair fashion. Also, we have a big community of people who loves traveling, going on adventure and discover new cultures & handcrafts. We also try to offer a product at a reasonable price because we consider that ethical fashion should not be a question of money but convictions. Therefore, it is accessible for more people.

What is special about the Sneakern? What are the advantages? And what differentiates you from other providers?

N’go Social Sneaker puts social fairness towards all participants in the entire production chain of the shoe first. The goal, or brand essence, is to provide visible, active support for education in Vietnam and to strengthen the weavers within their social structures by providing them with a permanent, regional job. The high esteem in which weaving is held, the craft (in Germany, the profession of weaving is only accepted and trained in one place) and the desire to carry this profession through a future that is always based on technology strengthens our actions and our cooperation with the cooperatives in Vietnam. Social responsibility is firmly anchored in our brand philosophy and not just a marketing thesis.

Ngo Shoe, where is it going? Where do you see yourself in five years?

N’go is growing slowly but surely. We do not want to rush and have uncontrollable growth. As long as we keep this mindset, I’d have no reason to leave N’go.

What we want is expanding our network of Women weavers in Vietnam, continue to work hand by hand with our Vietnamese and International partners in a transparent and fair way. We are aware of the negative impact that the Fashion industry have on our planet and then we want to neutralize our CO2 consumption in the future and most important, find ways of polluting less. Today, we have already built 4 elementary schools but we do not want to stop. In 2022 we plan to build a school for the workers’ children making our shoes in the factory. They are always more people working over there and then we want to give them a hand.

In 2017, N’go was sold in France but now we have retailers, sales agents & distributors in more than 10 countries in Europe, America, Middle-East and Asia. Then N’go is becoming more international, and we wish the world would hear soon about N’go and its French-Vietnamese know-how. We also want to extend our product collections in designing new sneakers models, new styles and developing our range of backpacks & accessories. 

In conclusion: What 3 tips would you give to aspiring founders?

Starting N’go was the best idea I made in my life. And it has not always been easy; it is a lot of sacrifices but it worth it. It takes some courage to get out of your comfort zone, but you will grow as a person in all aspects!

Do not underestimate the power of your network. It is important to establish your network of people around you and “maintain” it. Meeting one person can give you new ideas, knowledge, contacts, feedback & opportunities. And you never know, maybe the person you met today will be important for you 5, 10 or 20 years later.

Each problem has its solution. Sometimes we can be very stressed and anxious about a situation, but this is how we learn and life continues anyway. We will always face problems and I believe we will always find a way to solve them!

Thank you Ronan for the Interview

Statements of the author and the interviewee do not necessarily represent the editors and the publisher opinion again.

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