This article was first published in the February 2016 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

The scarf that Quin SQ Thong is wearing is light, colourful and eye-catching. It is the happy result of a venture that had its origins in a casual conversation over lunch in Bhutan that has grown well beyond any expectations she might have had at the time.

Quin is a professional accountant with a history of successful corporate turnarounds, and is now China CFO at Baronsmead, a consultancy practice with headquarters in London.

Back in 2003, as she travelled to Bhutan for the first time for a holiday, she had no plans or thoughts of work on her mind. Outgoing and friendly, she met a Bhutanese called Dorji, but had no idea where their acquaintance would lead. Over the next decade, the two stayed in touch and Dorji often asked for advice on business, but it was not until June 2014 that he convinced her to go back to Bhutan. She agreed, on condition that he arrange for her to teach children about wealth management and meet Bhutanese business leaders to talk about business strategy.

‘Busy as I was when in Bhutan, I made lots of time for Dorji,’ says Quin. ‘He said, “To be honest, I’m still living hand to chin.” I said, “What is hand to chin?” He replied: “You know hand to mouth? It’s the same but not enough to reach the mouth?’”

Quin put on her ‘accounting hat’ and looked into how Dorji managed his expenses and how he could find some supplementary income. But with a job in the government, there was little room for manoeuvre. So Quin zeroed in on Dorji’s wife, Karma Yangchi. An illiterate woman from a tiny remote village in eastern Bhutan, Karma is competent in traditional Bhutanese weaving.

Quin offered Karma US$200 to buy a sewing machine so that she could make items such as bags, mats and cushion covers which could then be sold, but the shy villager refused the gift. Instead, Karma agreed to let Quin sell some scarves online.

‘A couple of days later, she came to my hotel room, with an armful of scarves,’ Quin remembers. She posted photographs of the scarves on social media and invited friends to contribute. ‘To my great surprise, we sold over 40 the same day.

Orders kept coming in, thick and fast,’ she says. ‘And they didn’t even know the colours or the sizes of what they were buying.’

Sales mounted, adding up to much more than the original US$200. When she saw the money, Karma burst into tears. That was the beginning of the Ana by Karma social enterprise, which now uses the skills of more than 70 weavers from across the country.

Quin flew home to Hong Kong with luggage full of colourful scarves. 
Within two weeks, Karma received orders for 100 more scarves. That was when she announced her intention to make 3,650 scarves in five years and asked Quin to sell them on her behalf. That was an enterprise of a different level altogether.

‘I told Karma and Dorji that selling 100 scarves and selling 3,650 are two different things. One is pure luck. The other is a business venture that needs a strategy and an action plan, and lots of discipline,’ Quin says. Keen to help, she developed a business plan that covered everything from production to quality checks, weekly Skype meetings, design and a brand name. ‘Once you have a business plan, things start to happen,’ says Quin. ‘Then you start to get bigger and bigger orders.’

In less than 16 weeks, they had orders for 1,000 scarves and Karma started training other weavers in her community. ‘The profits made from the scarf sale are all ploughed back to benefit the weaving community,’ says Quin.

In January last year, the enterprise sponsored 60 weavers to attend a workshop on business skills and ethics delivered by the Institute for Management Studies Bhutan and a scholarship was given to an orphan via Kidu Foundation, run by the Bhutanese royal family. In November 2015, Quin returned to Bhutan to attend the 60th birthday celebrations for His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth king of Bhutan, with 35 friends from China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Canada, Thailand, Germany and Australia. While there, she also taught photography skills to 20 children.

‘Teaching the kids photography was an idea that sparked when I visited a village in eastern Bhutan in March,’ she says. ‘Kids clamoured to see the photos I took, so I taught them how to use my camera and let them run wild with it.’

Between her visits in March and November, Quin collected second-hand digital cameras for the Kids Photography Program and partnered with Lensational, a social enterprise that exhibits and sells the photographs taken by the Bhutanese children, with half of the sale proceeds going to the weaving community. Three local newspapers covered the event.

‘This social enterprise, like our intricate weave here, is tightly woven with discipline, transparency and ethics. This creates trust. And trust is the world’s strongest currency,’ says Quin.

Alfred Romann, journalist