Doing Well By Doing Good

At the Heart of Tufenkian - By Michael Mckenzie

Kathmandu, Nepal, Spring 1986. It began with a pair of promises entwined by a shared commitment and sealed with a handshake. James Tufenkian, a recent graduate of NYU Law School who had been struck by the raw beauty and hand-created charm of Tibetan weaving, dreamt that his vision of design would find its perfect mate in the ancient, Zen-like allure of Tibetan Carpets. Starting the company was a defining moment in my life," Tufenkian remembered, "that lightning flash of clarity of when your heart, body, mind and spirit are in sync saying something like, 'Do this!" 

Tufenkian's dream found it's weaver in Tsetan Gyurman, a master craftsman exiled from Tibet who had created a small atelier that produced some of the finest and most respected carpets in Nepal. "I was impressed by the care that Tsetan gave to the art of his rugs," James Tufenkian recalled. "I half expected him to turn down my request to change his focus radically. The challenge was to structure a large enterprise that could respond to the needs of the market without sacrificing the integrity of a small crafts workshop." As it turned out, Gyurman had already worked on creating a method of increasing his output without compromising the quality, his idea being to bring the best of Tibetan weaving to a global audience. The mirrored dreams of the two men, on the wings of a handshake, created Tufenkian Carpets.

As James and Tsetan formed a partnership and a friendship, they learned that they were both adamant about ethics and social reform, and that, although separated by oceans and continents, the thread of '60s social idealism connected them. "I never saw allocating money to the social aspects - building a medical facility for instance - as deterrent to the business plan," Tufenkian told me. "In fact, the social consciousness of the venture has been a key factor for driving our success."

From the outset, both men agreed that the commitment to honor their spiritual and ideological beliefs would predicate the business plan, that true success was only achieved if it included the human exchange of caring for their workers, their communities and the environment. James and Tsetan shared a vision of creating a large international company where the welfare of each member was as important a yardstick for measuring success as the financial achievements of the firm. With ideologies addressed, Tufenkian and Gyurman promised to grow the production as needed without ever compromising its quality and character.

There is something fitting about the honesty and simplicity of the handshake that marked the beginning of Tufenkian Carpets and relationship that has flourished for more than seventeen years. In that time, Tufenkian has succeeded in creating, defining, and leading the category of Tibetan carpets while revolutionizing the handmade carpet industry itself. Pairing his unique design vision with a modern organization that markets his company's products and administers its worldwide activities, James Tufenkian has confounded stereotypes of the backward oriental rug company and awakened the most traditional of industries to a new vision of it's future. "One of the things I have discovered while designing exclusively for handmade products," James explained, "is that their place is easy to overlook, but nearly impossible to replace. The infusion of handmade beauty brings a sense of calm and the human spirit to our fast paced, computer run world. I find this just as important as bringing science and technology to lands of isolation. It's about balance. It's about exchange."

Necessary Ethical Economic Development

Tufenkian has made a commitment to further social justice through its work, including schooling, shelter and health care for its employees,their families and the community. As part of this commitment, Tufenkian created a working model he had dubbed “Necessarily Ethical Economic Development,” or N.E.E.D.

“My model is based on capitalism,” says Tufenkian. “The principal is to motivate my employees to create the best product possible and have high quality drive the market demand. It isn’t about handouts, it’s about profit sharing, better work conditions, better product and abetter environment.”

N.E.E.D has expanded its activities to include the mountainous Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabagh. Here the main focus has been on post-war resettlement: providing housing for needy or displaced families, building infrastructure—roads, flour mills, health-care facilities—in border zones where populations are especially vulnerable.
Several highlights from the efforts there include:

  • Armenian Forests NGO which increased the area of healthy forest coverage in Armenia to 25% and developed models of local reforestation and stewardship.
  • Soldier’s Mother which organizes free classes for the children of fallen or wounded veterans of the Karabakh War.
  • Vanadzor Orphanage consists of major construction and restoration to this orphanage for 120 children and included new bedrooms, bathrooms, a cafeteria and kitchen.

The following are some of the many other projects sponsored by the Tufenkian Foundation through N.E.E.D. in Nepal and Armenia.

  • Sponsor 50 children in Nepal for a full academic year
  • Clothes for Gavar Orphanage
  • Christmas Gifts for Armenian Children
  • Aid Distribution to Flood Victims in Karmir Village
  • Mattress and Blanket Production and Distribution throughout Armenia
  • Consumer Rights Advocacy in Armenia
  • Senior Citizen Center and Activities in Yerevan
  • Annual Arts Festival in Shushi
  • The Tree Project of Armenia
  • Vem Radio Project
  • Armenian Reforestation Project
  • Preparatory Classes for the Children of Fallen Soldiers
  • Armenian Volunteers Corps
  • Sheep Farm Establishments in Villages

Click here To learn more about the work of the Tufenkian foundation.

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