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In the company of Women of the World: Meet Lisa van Roode, founder of Yoshiko; home ware products made from natural materials in a fair way

After working for years in the Fashion industry and traveling all over the world, it became clear to Lisa van Roode (52) that there still was and is so much wrongdoing in the world. Through her work and travel she saw abuse, exploitation and immoral working conditions in factories and workplaces. As she drove through the streets of Dhaka and past the slums and garbage dumps where street children hoped for a better life, this feeling of injustice gnawed at her. She needed a change!

That was two years ago…

Read how Lisa managed to start her own social enterprise Yoshiko and how she now sells her label all over the world to support communities in Bangladesh, Thailand, India and Indonesia. 

It’s still pitch dark in New York where I live when I call Lisa on a beautiful morning in Phuket, Thailand. I hear the birds singing in the garden of her dream house. The same house she and her husband build themselves several years ago. From this little paradise in the sun Lisa works day in day out with great energy and passion on her designers label Yoshiko .

‘What’s your story?’, I ask her.

I was born and raised in Lisse, amid the flower bulbs and endless fields full of colorful tulips. My father owned a company trading in flowers and plants. From the age of 11 I went with my father to the Keukenhof and sold plants and flowers to clients in my best English, French and German. It thought me on a young age what hard work meant. It was my parents intention that I would earn a living after my education at the Dutch Fashion institute. But I was more ambitious and wanted to continue studying. And so I went to the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague where I was definitely the least commercial student in class… But the idea of an artist’s life without money and resources was the ‘trigger’ to choose the commercial direction anyway. After my graduation I was soon able to work for a large textile company. Ten days into my job, my boss send me to Hong Kong. He couldn’t make me more happy and exited since it was always my dream to travel the world and get to know other cultures!

Did your love for Asia started back then?

Hell yes! I was thrown into the deep in Hong Kong. What would originally be a few days, became six weeks. I assembled the sample collection on my own and had so many new experiences in Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea. It smelled funny and everything looked different. So inspiring! But after a while I began to question some things. We held charity events for orphanage-homes in India but in the meantime we also flew businessclass, we slept in the nicest hotels. And we sat at the biggest and most expensive banquets to raise money for the underprivileged. Very luxurious indeed but there was something about it that bothered me…

Why did you leave the Netherlands?

China was ‘booming’ in 2005 and I wanted to experience that from up close. After a year my boyfriend, now husband, came over and we made a living for ourselves in Shanghai. Everything seemed wonderful until the crisis of 2008. The market collapsed and the fashion Industry suffered. That was the moment I started my own company. Unfortunately, after three good years, things went wrong because my business partners were on the verge of bankruptcy. I pulled the plug in advance and left Shanghai for Bangladesh, the second largest textile country in the region, to start a business of my own. Unfortunately and sadly enough, the Tazreen Fashion Factory fire broke out in 2012 and Rana Plaza collapsed in 2013 with all the terrible consequences that came with it.

But how did you end up starting your own label in such difficult times?

The only social ‘hub’ for Dutchies in Dhaka is the Dutch club where you either work in the Textile Industry or for a NGO. In my time this two worlds didn’t mix at all. Nevertheless, I managed to talk with the ‘other group’ about food shortage, pregnant women and child prostitution. But when I was told that even NGO’s only serve good causes that give them the most exposure, I thought: ‘I can’t believe it! Even this is politics…’ I wanted to do things completely different. I wanted to start a social enterprise!

My idea for Yoshiko continued to take shape when, at a Christmas fair in Dhaka, I saw Western women in Bangladeshi outfits, selling Christmas goods for charity. Stuff my grandmother would not even buy years ago! I thought: ‘Well, if you deal with all these problems in this clumsy way, it will never work’. From that moment my idea was to start a brand in beautiful handycraft products, made from natural materials that don’t burden the earth. My brand had to be honest and fair so that people really could make a better life for themselves.

How was the situation in the Dhaka factories at that moment?

After Rana Plaza the alliance agreement for textile companies was drawn up. Companies, producing in Bangladesh that signed the alliance felt they couldn’t be blamed anymore. But do you actually think that the kids that once worked in the factories are now in school? Okay, there is no child labor in the factories anymore but the same boys sit at the age of 13 behind the wheel of the bus that transports the workers from the villages to the factories. And the girls who used to sit behind the sewing machines, went probably into prostitution. The problem simply shifts to another place.

But how do you secure your impact then?

Our goods are made of natural materials and produced in a fair and honest way but unfortunately it still is shipped out on an oil-boat. When I travel though, I choose a flight-company with a ‘young fleet’ that pollutes less. All the boxes in which our items are packed and send to our customers are the boxes in which we also receive the goods. We use as little plastic as possible and I always keep wondering if our process can be even more sustainable, efficient and more fair.

How do we see this impact in Yoshiko’s collection?

The workshop where 80% of our products are being made, is owned by a man (his name is Motalieb) who learned his life in the textile industry in a hard way. So his employees work in a new building full of light and with good air quality. He pays social taxes and pays 30% more in wages than other workshops. He even uses a system for profit sharing since he saw his boss getting richer and the workers remaining poor. I love that in him!

And I work with Lisa van Gerven who grew up in the Netherlands but is originally from Bangladesh. Ten years ago she decided to return to her own country, founded the Vialisa foundation and started her company Benglish Crafts. In the biggest slum of Dakha, Korail, she founded a school for girls. Girls often have to take care of their siblings, can’t have any education and often end up in textile or prostitution. Lisa van Gerven wants them to be able to stand on their own feet and have a better future through education and training. In a brand new building she teaches the girls how to read and write, the social skills the need and some computer knowledge. Next to their education they spend one hour a day on handycraft to contribute to the family income. Meanwhile, the siblings stay at the nursery next to the school. These girls make the labels for Yoshiko’s products.

Do they inspire you and do you inspire them?

When I see those beautiful girls in their beautiful colorful clothes with their big black eyes, they absolutely inspire me. And when I come in I see them thinking: ‘That’s the Dutch woman from the lotus flower label!’ Not long ago they saw our Instagram account and found out where their products end up. From America to Australia! They were so incredibly proud. The fact that they are considered worthy and contribute worldwide is such an accomplishment!

I think social entrepreneurship fits with the Zeitgeist. Especially Millennials think about beautiful sustainable goods that benefit the world and the people who live in it. I find it most wonderful and inspiring to work with these young people.

What does your future bring?

I don’t smoke and drink, live healthy, but I’m always traveling in dangerous traffic of Bangladesh. It can be over in a split second! I feel so privileged when I walk my dogs on a beautiful tropical beach and would love to share that feeling. 1 in 3 people in the Netherlands suffers from stress and even 1 in 7 has a burn-out. How cool would it be to stay in a comfortable and peaceful place in Phuket where you can overcome your stress and work on yourself?

With my current business partners, I bought a plot next to my house. We made a plan for a high-end retreat where you can have an all-senses experience. A place where you can inspire each other, follow a course but also sail with a boat to an uninhabited island, doing yoga or take part in volunteering, wash elephants, do Thai boxing or meditate at dawn. A nice place where you eat tasty and healthy and where you can swim under the Thai starry sky…My dream is to host as many people as possible and let them have a good time so that they can become their better selves. And for Yoshiko I hope to share our story as quickly and as often as possible. The more we sell, the more artisans will feel the impact of our efforts and get a better life.

Finally, do you have a motto in life? 

DO WHAT YOU LOVE, LOVE WHAT YOU DO and share as much as possible. It’s good for your karma. I am genuinely happy when I give things away. There is so much happiness in my life. I have a loving husband, a nice car, a beautiful house and adopted two street dogs. What else do I need? My health, love, the sun and a handful of rice … That’s it!

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