Wall Street Journal Expat: Lessons from A Successful Expat
VIENTIANE, LAOS— Lao Textiles is a must-stop for visitors to Vientiane, the lovely, if somewhat sleepy capital of Laos. It offers everything from gorgeous silk weaved scarves to tablecloths and silk tapestries to frame or hang on the wall, and it employs more than 40 local Lao women, who create the exquisite pieces on weaving looms in a workshop at the back of the shop.
This year marks the company’s 25th anniversary. What is unusual about the event is that Lao Textiles was the first American business to set up shop in Laos when the country began encouraging private business back in 1990. It’s run and owned by Connecticut-raised Carol Cassidy, who settled in Southeast Asia in 1989, and who, with her husband Dawit Seyoum, has raised two children there.
She has lived the majority of her life as an expat but she also has kept her connections strong with her home country. She not only sells products to expats and tourists who visit the store, but pieces are also sold at the Guggenheim and the Asia Society in New York and the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. Ms. Cassidy provided the luscious fabric for a Peter Marino-styled sofa that is in the Paris apartment of Valentino co-founder Giancarlo Giammetti; her textiles adorn the lobby of the Park Hyatt in Siem Reap, Cambodia; and her woven textiles have been used by decorators to add panache to furniture and interiors of flagship stores for a number of luxury brands.
She studied weaving in both Norway and at the University of Michigan, and arrived in Laos as part of a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) project as a weaving expert, working with local women who were using imported Swedish looms. “When I was on field visits, I noticed the Laotian loom and what an extraordinary piece of technology it was,” says Ms. Cassidy. “So there was this setup in my mind: indigenous people who had their own traditions and this UNDP program that was there to help provide them a supplementary income and integrate them into the economy. The Laotian loom allowed us to weave very complex brocade, and as a weaver, I thought ‘There are unlimited possibilities of patterning.’ There was this realization that traditional techniques and complex pattern and design could be a foundation for a private business.”
There was, however, no model to follow and the U.S. didn’t even have an embassy there at the time. Despite that, she made an application to the Lao government to establish the first wholly American-owned business in Laos, and Lao Textiles received the full support from the government. “We had a give and take with the government over what it means to define the private sector in Laos,” says Ms. Cassidy, who had already worked for NGOs in countries including Mozambique, Lesotho and Zimbabwe. “From our side, because of our backgrounds, we wanted to make our business sustainable and profitable but also we had to look at the complex factors of social sustainability.” The couple set up a pension plan for their employees, as well as giving three-month paid maternity leave. A number of years later, when the Laos government decided to create a national pension scheme for citizens, they came to the couple for advice.
Laos began opening up to foreign investment in the early 1990s and, especially in their first decade of existence, Lao Textiles became something of a go-to for people and companies interested in setting up business in the country. “People would come to us saying, ‘What is it like to do business in Laos? What accounting system do you use? What about bank accounts?’ We really had established business foundations,” says Ms. Cassidy.
She says that having been an expat in developing countries taught her to have patience: from setting up a company to day-to-day survival. “There was bureaucracy and red tape, though they were always able to accommodate us,” she recalls. “Paperwork was challenging but it was not insurmountable. Like, for example, it took 18 months to get the document for the physical address of the business. But we knew we weren’t going anywhere and they knew we weren’t going anywhere so we had mutual trust. I would say if looking at this as a normal business in a Western time frame, it could be of concern. But we were growing organically, so we did not have a set time frame.”
She said there was also a mindset that had to be developed with her staff as well; women who were used to working from home who now had to be at their looms at 8 a.m. “In the early days, everyone rode bicycles to work so, during rainy season, you would have to bike, say, three kilometers [1.86 miles] in the rain to get to the workshop,” she says with a laugh. “So they would not get in until 9 or 10 in the morning and I would say, ‘Why are you not working now’ and they would say ‘It rained.’ So it was a whole new perspective on what it meant to try and be effective.”
With 25 years under her belt, Ms. Cassidy says that most of her staff have remained the same–“We have had weddings, babies, medical crises”—and plans are to forge ahead with the business. Because she and her husband travel so much, they have also trained their staff to manage everything from the technical and administrative side to marketing and managing. “We are lucky because the staff we have trained in those positions are still with us and still learning,” she says. “Lao Textiles will continue as long as I am able and I think still could be able to continue in another form even if I was not able to be there. It is hard to predict how life is.”