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Start-Up Profile: Mantra

Mantra is a new social enterprise based in Beijing, and their vision is to create the most exciting fast-fashion eyewear brand in China.

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Name: Mantra

Founders: Sam Waldo and Andrew Shirman

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Hi! Can you tell us a bit about your respective backgrounds and how you two ended up in Beijing?

Andrew: My first chance to experience China was in high school, when my humanities teacher offered a spring vacation trip to see Beijing, Xi’an, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. What I saw there fascinated me. While the big sites like the Great Wall, Terra Cotta Warriors, and the Bund took my breath away, it was the everyday life I saw exploring the streets and hutongs of China that drew me in.

I jumped into studying Mandarin at Boston College, and also took classes in Chinese history and culture. In 2010, after spending a semester studying at Beijing University and graduating with a degree in philosophy, I looked for the next opportunity that would take me to China.

Sam: I got really interested in China during college. I started studying Chinese my first year at university in New York and really took to the language – it was the most challenging subject I’d ever picked up, but made such a fun puzzle. Figuring out how to even study Chinese properly took a couple of years, and I was hooked by the challenge of the language. I did study abroad in 2008 during the Olympics and was enchanted by the energy in the air – so much important change happening here, and when I left, I knew I had to get back. I ended up coming out to China again with the same volunteer teaching program as Andrew, though we didn’t know each other beforehand. That was after graduation in 2010 – I think Andrew will elaborate on that a bit.

Andrew: What I found was more amazing than I had hoped, and it gave me the chance to help close the education gap in China by working as a teacher in rural Yunnan for two years, in a school that lacked the resources of those in Chinese cities. I taught my middle school and elementary school students day after day, and was able to see all the obstacles they faced because of their condition and their lack of resources.

What surprised me most, though, was how so many of my students suffered from poor vision, and how so few of them had the eyeglasses they needed to see clearly.

After one of my students dropped out of school at age 13 because of problems that started with poor vision and led to a loss of that young man’s faith in his own ability to learn, I started a program with some of my teammates to deliver eye exams and eyeglasses directly to students inside the classroom, and to remove all the barriers between these rural students and the clear vision they need to succeed in school.

The program went incredibly well, and, seeing impact it made on students, I worked with my teammates to start the non-profit organization Education In Sight, or EIS, to ensure that every low-income student who suffers from poor vision has access to the eyeglasses they need.

Sam: After two years teaching in rural China, Andrew went back to the US and I came here to Beijing. We kept working on EIS in a part-time, volunteer capacity, but it eventually picked up momentum. We both knew it was a mission worth accomplishing, so Andrew quit his job in Boston, I quit my job in Beijing, and we started working on EIS full-time.

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Can you explain the concept behind Mantra?

Sam: Mantra is related but to but separate from Education In Sight – it has grown out of our work at EIS. As I mentioned, Andrew and I came on full time at EIS a little over a year ago. We knew that growing a non-profit to scale would be difficult, especially from the funding side, but even we were surprised at just how challenging it was. We have managed to grow EIS over the past year, and we are very grateful to our traditional non-profit supporters, but at the same time, we began searching for more scalable and sustainable solutions. How do we get to more schools? How do we help more students? How do we actually solve this problem in Yunnan and throughout China, then take our solution around the world?

This was the inception for our social enterprise – Mantra. Mantra is a fashion eyewear brand, where, for every pair of glasses we sell, we donate a pair through our non-profit, EIS. We envisioned a social enterprise, founded in China and designed for a Chinese audience, where we take the story of EIS and share it with a wider audience. Instead of limiting our support to direct donations, we can now engage with a much wider supporter-base in a more meaningful and interactive way. It’s a for-profit company, separate from EIS, but founded and run in order to bring about a social benefit. Our first line of sunglasses will be available soon.

The inspiration for our design came from our time in Yunnan – it’s where Andrew and I first started working on EIS, where we really got to understand life in China, and we agree that Yunnan is the most gorgeous and wonderful place, full of natural beauty, bright colours, and unique patterns, such as ethnic minority fabrics. We’re working with local artists in Yunnan for our first line.

Mantra is about optimism and individuality, and it’s about building a community around the work we do, whether it is fashion or charity. At Mantra we often refer back to a very simple core concept – “Look good, do good.” Why have one when you can have both? Fashion doesn’t have to be hollow, it doesn’t have to be superficial; a pair of sunglasses can reflect something deeper in the wearer, we think.

From a fashion perspective, we help our customers to express their individuality in their style (hence “look good”) and optimistic in their actions (“do good”). What does this mean? First, we are giving them the chance to wear something unique, something that can stand out and let them show their own personality, beliefs and tastes. Our designs are truly special, and many of our glasses will be sold in small limited-edition batches. When you put on a pair of Mantra sunglasses, you’re really wearing a piece of art, something conceptualized and crafted by an artist who believes in the work that we are doing together. So it is empowering from a fashion perspective – a unique design, a design with a story, which means our customers can really stand out. They are, first and foremost, good-looking glasses, with premium lenses, and with frames crafted from wonderfully durable and high-quality materials.

Andrew: Just as important is the way we empower customers to “do good” by donating a pair of glasses with each purchase. This isn’t something we’re just tacking on to make ourselves feel good – this act of charity is actually the core concept of our brand, the reason we exist. And we don’t just give some money to another organization to go do something charitable on our behalf – we’re going to these schools ourselves, and 100% of the money that goes to EIS from Mantra is directly used to get glasses for needy students. Also, we don’t just <tell> our customers we are donating a pair of glasses on their behalf. Rather, we invite them to join in this mission together with us. This is where other social enterprises maybe fall short – we are totally transparent, we tell our customers where their money went and how it was spent, what student received glasses and when. When possible, we bring our customers further into our social mission and find ways for them to participate, whether its as simple as sharing our latest video, or more complicated, like taking a group of customers down to Yunnan to get hands-on with the work at EIS.

Sam: We’re also creating this together with our local designers, bringing unique local colours, patterns and art to the fore of our design. When we set out to design our eyewear, we knew we didn’t want to make something that looked like everything already out there. There are so many glasses brands – we have to stand out! What better way to do this than by taking design inspiration from one of the most beautiful and diverse regions of China, where our own story begins, in Yunnan. So we’re working with local artists, artisans and designers to create an aesthetic that is uniquely our own. And it’s mutually beneficial, both for Mantra and the artists that participate.

Andrew: And, perhaps most important, is the benefit we bring to those students in rural China who receive glasses through EIS and Mantra. The kids are the reason we started EIS and Mantra, and it’s so thrilling for us to see the impact that we get to make every day on the lives of these students. Imagine needing glasses your whole life but not even knowing it, or knowing that you need glasses but not being able to afford a pair, or living too far away from an eye doctor to even get an exam. Now imagine going from blurry classroom you can’t see to a clear world where you can learn and play and explore in ways never before possible. This is the magic at the heart of what we’re doing – the effect we have on our beneficiaries in Yunnan. And the data itself is just as compelling as the anecdotal evidence. Glasses have been proven to effect educational outcomes more than family income or parental education. And in the long term, glasses increase monthly incomes by 20%. That’s huge!

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What are the main social, environmental and economic challenges and opportunities in your company?

Sam: The idea that we are on to with Mantra that makes us most excited is still contentious here in China. Often people tell us that young Chinese people don’t care about a social mission or helping someone else. But we know that isn’t true, because we talk to young people in China who do care about social causes and making their country a better place – we talk to them every day. A recent Pew Research poll in the US revealed that 93% of millenials care whether or not a brand has a positive social mission. The trend isn’t as well-documented in China, but we see a similar wave coming. So we know this idea can get people’s attention, and we know that our cause is worthy to get people on board.

Economically, we’ve had to work hard to convince consumers that a business model where we give away a chunk of our profits with every sale is the way to go. People tell us we’re crazy and just making a difficult business even more difficult, but we probably don’t want to work with those kinds of people. The investors and supporters we’re looking for are the ones who understand that the “donate one” aspect of Mantra is just as important as the “buy one” – our social mission is our brand DNA, without it we’re no different from so many other brands vying for our customers’ attention. The donation part of our business is our brand’s story, its personality, and convincing some more traditional investors of this, well, sometimes they just don’t see it that way and that’s fine.

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What do you consider the most significant accomplishment since opening Mantra?

Andrew: Without a doubt the most significant accomplishment we’ve made recently is developing EIS to where it is now. Frankly, Sam and my most significant accomplishment is probably convincing our outstanding team and partners to work with us – we’ve been able to hire some amazing people, like our Director of Programming Yang Jin, and a lot of the credit for EIS’ success belongs with them.

But we have made some major strides this year in conjunction with our partners in the local government and the support of organizations such as the Essilor Foundation. We’re going to roll out EIS’ program at every single school in Shangri-La County, Yunnan. That’s 21 schools and 17,000 students getting professional medical screenings, vision education and, when necessary, free professional eyewear. Think about that for a moment – that means if you travel to Shangri-La and see a young child with glasses, odds are that those glasses were provided by our program. I have to admit, that makes me proud.

What do you find most challenging about working in China? What is the most rewarding?

Sam: I’ve got my favorite China quote ready to go. I heard this from a talk some months back, I remember the quote but forget the speaker I’m afraid. It’s pretty simple but, I think, profound – “In China, everything is possible, but nothing is easy”. It’s true! We face this every day, whether it’s for the small stuff or the big stuff. “Nothing is easy” – it means getting your visa renewed or going to the post office is going to be a big hassle. We struggle with this minutia constantly. But “everything is possible” – it means that if you persist, if you think creatively enough and you speak to enough people, eventually there is a way. So there are no limits, but there are also limits everywhere. The door is never easy to get through, but it’s never fully closed, either. Navigating in this environment is always a challenge, but things are never boring. And you can accomplish some truly amazing stuff – EIS has donated over 7,000 pairs of glasses to students in rural Yunnan! That such a small team could accomplish so much with so few resources truly speaks to how exciting the possibilities of being here.

 

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