Ngodup Dorjee, a Tibetan immigrant living in Santa Fe, is developing a new business form based on what he calls a spiritual business model. Through persistence, trial and error and hard work, his model, guided by community values rather than individual profit, is succeeding. More than 40 vendors are served through a cooperative structure at Blessings, his business at DeVargas Mall. Here, Dorjee explains the concept, why it works well as social entrepreneurship, and its potential for other businesses in New Mexico.
SG: How did you come to the idea of a spiritual business?
ND: I came from East Tibet to Nepal in 1987 when I was 14 years old, lived in Nepal for 19 years and came to this country in 2006. My family members are shopkeepers, and I learned the trade. When I first came to Santa Fe, I had a little bookstore at the Tibetan Center on Airport Road for five years, but when Amazon and e-books came about, we had to close.
I had a bigger vision to do something for Tibetan art and merchandise. So, in 2011, I moved the business downtown to Galisteo Street but couldn’t make it due to high rent and had to close within a year. I moved to the Tesuque Flea Market and sold on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Then, looking for a job to pay my bills, I applied to a department store as a clerk. The manager said that I didn’t have the references or work experience. The Tibetan way of business doesn’t work in corporate America. I’m a “people person,” so I got the job and worked at the store for three and one-half years.
During that time, I was always thinking of starting a business that would help local artists. I talked with almost 300 people, and everybody had a problem—somebody lost a job or somebody lost a house. In this tough economy, people had no money.
The time had come for me to give back to the community and try a business model away from greed. Two years ago, I went to DeVargas Mall to find a space. The management was hesitant to rent to me for an individual business, but I pointed out that this would be a co-op, and I was able to get the space.
SG: Is the spiritual business model working?
ND: This model works well for the artists, while working for me, since I sell Tibetan inventory. Most stores in Santa Fe take 50 percent commission from the vendors, and sales are slow. My goal was to make things happen while not charging a commission, and to bring local artists’ work to the people. Then the inventory becomes affordable. Local artists dreamed of having a little retail space, but they didn’t have the funds. So, I created this model—like a spiritual co-op—where different artists contribute a small amount monthly ($25 to $650) to pay the rent, and they don’t have to be there. When shoppers come to see one vendor, they see the work of other artists.
I want to share this model, so that Native Americans and Hispanics and other people can find a way to have their own store and promote their businesses, while helping their community and give inspiration—that’s the whole idea. They can contact me, and I can give suggestions and do what I can to help.
SG: How is this business model sustainable?
ND: A spiritual business is based upon community values, with the intention to help the community rather than individual profit. This business is resilient in times of economic fluctuations by sharing the risk of opening a business and pooling resources. The amount of capital to start up is minimal, about $5,000-$6,000 up front to pay rent for the first few months. The vendors provide the inventory, so there is no need to have capital for purchasing inventory.
SG: What is your long-term vision?
ND: I’m looking for one acre of land to build the Dorjee Foundation, a nonprofit enterprise. I envision a design with galleries in the four directions, radiating out, with one direction being a Native American artisan co-op where Native people can have a space for a small contribution to the rent, and we will sell for them without taking a commission—working together like a community.
The second wing will be a New Mexico artisan co-op for people who live in New Mexico—such as Hispanic, Caucasian, Guatemalan or South American. The third will be a House of Tibet, for showing Tibetan culture, art, music, and a Buddhist and Tibetan museum. The Dalai Lama told us not to lose the culture by showing younger people their language, culture and art—keeping their roots. He also told us to give back to the community. The fourth space will be a body/mind/spirit co-op focused on spirituality, with yoga, meditation, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, nutrition, solar energy and environment.
In the center will be a teahouse, a get-together space. The community can gather there and hold a workshop; for example, a yoga class or a talk about Native American art, environmental issues, solar energy, address poverty issues or help the food bank. There will be an interfaith statue, painting and symbols. The teahouse will be open until 10 p.m. Revenues to the foundation will support community programs such as the disabled-veterans’ food bank, homeless shelters, environment and animal-rescue programs and Native American causes. This is my dream project, leaving a legacy for young people.
In the past nine years, New Mexico has given to me everything that I want, and it’s now time to give back. If this Tibetan can do it, other people can do it the same way—helping all the different communities in New Mexico!
Susan Guyette, Ph.D., is of Métis heritage (Micmac Indian/Acadian French) and a planner specializing in cultural tourism, cultural centers, museums and native foods. firstname.lastname@example.org