By Simon Isham–
How can a person encourage the arts, help those in need and make a profit at the same time? Brooke Mullen, a native of Lincoln, Neb., found the answer to this question in 2010 when she launched Sapahn, an entrepreneurial venture that sells handmade Thai clothing and accessories. Sapahn is Thai for ‘bridge,’ and that’s exactly what the project has become—a bridge for Thai artisanal goods to American consumers.
It started during the course of the master’s degree Mullen received in Human Rights and Social Development from Mahidol University in Thailand. During her travels in Burma, a country adjacent to Thailand, she met a young woman who dreamed of a university education, but because of financial problems and an ailing mother, could not make her dream come true. The young woman’s intelligence and humility so impressed Mullen that she offered her $10,000 out-of-pocket – enough to cover the full tuition for a 4-year undergraduate degree at a Thai university.
Launching Sapahn was Mullen’s way of recouping the money she put up for the scholarship fund. Now entering its third year, Sapahn has completely recovered its initial cost and begun making a profit. Mullen said she hopes to begin to offer more scholarships in the future – no longer full-rides, but in increments of about $2,000 to multiple individuals – as her business continues to grow.
Mullen isn’t the first to attempt to bring Thai handicraft to the masses, but she may be the most effective. In 1975, Queen Sirikit Kitiyakara started the Foundation for the Promotion of Supplementary Occupations and Related Techniques, commonly called SUPPORT. At the end of each year, the Queen offers to purchase the unsold goods made by Thai artisans in the rural south. The goods are sold at a gift shop inside the Grand Palace in Bangkok, but are also redistributed amongst the people; trading goods that are scarce in one region for goods that are plentiful in another.
The problem is that “this money can take months to receive from the Queen,” said Kristin Lucas, who teaches in the management department at U of L’s College of Business and is a regular Sapahn customer. Lucas spent a month in Thailand with Mullen, logging over 3,500 miles as they traveled cross-country to various villages to build stock.
“They love when Brooke comes,” said Lucas. “She doesn’t haggle: she just sees something she likes and hands them what they were asking for it. Sometimes she’ll see something – maybe a purse – and she’ll say, ‘I like this. I want 20 of them, but I know you don’t have them right now.’ And then she’ll pay them half up front so they can buy the materials, and she’ll come back in a couple of months to pay them the rest.”
Lucas is not the only Cardinal who has been impressed by Mullen’s initiative, however. Weston Hagan, a senior marketing major and entrepreneurship minor at U of L, has been working with Mullen for about two months, having heard about the opportunity from Lucas. Hagan has never met Mullen in person – they usually talk over Skype, even though the 12-hour time zone difference when Mullen is in Thailand makes communication all the more difficult. As part of his minor, Hagan receives course credit and field experience by preparing business models and marketing schemes for Mullen’s review.
“But Brooke is business savvy. She gets it … She minored in business in Nebraska. She would always go to Thailand and her friends would ask her to bring things back for them. She did that for a while and then thought, ‘Hey, I could turn this into a business.’”
Mullen did, and her brand shows no signs of slowing down. Because of the rate of current demand, only about ten percent of Sapahn’s inventory – and thus about ten percent of their sales – can be posted on their website; turnover is simply too high. The other 90 percent of Sapahn’s revenue comes from their operations at trunk shows all over the U.S., but this may change soon, as Sapahn is in the preliminary stages of negotiations to put the brand in specialty boutiques, as well as to open a flagship store in Lincoln.
Until then, Sapahn promises to continue to build the bridges and fill the gaps between craftsperson and consumer; urban and rural; wealthy and wanting; country and country; and Cardinal and Cardinal.
Photos: Tricia Stern/The Louisville Cardinal