“Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller

And thus opened the panel discussion on what makes successful partnerships at the Asian Women Social Entrepreneurs Network Conference in Bangkok.

There were 30 (or so) of us women in attendance representing a diversity of industries but unified by one philosophy: social enterprise.

Social enterprise has different implications to different people. What it means here at Ock Pop Tok is that we use commercial strategies as a means to address social issues and create positive community change. We are driven by our mission.

Back at the conference, Ms. Ildiko Modla-Szalai, founder of NeeDeed, had my full attention. The quote she opened with resonates with me deeply as it’s this exact idea that drove me to start Ock Pop Tok with Veo ….15 years ago (um urr…omg is it really that long already..sheeesh!!).

We started as a weaving collective in 2000 and are now a fully fledged social enterprise. Together at OPT, we have achieved so much — largely due to the incredible partnerships we have had with staff, non governmental organisations, volunteers and local government. And just as important: relationships with our friends, customers, families and OPT visitors who have all made a contribution.

So what’s the basis of a good partnership? As Ildiko so acutely nailed it, three things:

  • Mutual interest
  • An environment of trust
  • Clear expectations for this partnership

Keep checking and rechecking that there are always overlapping mutual interests. With these elements in place a partnership can thrive.

At Ock Pop Tok we spend a lot of time and energy investing in our partnerships. I always ask a new colleague, “what’s your dream?” I do this for three reasons:

  1.  I am trying to establish what the area of mutual interest is in this future partnership.
  2.  I’m genuinely curious in other’s dreams.
  3.  I always believed — and it’s part of the reason I moved to Laos in the first place — that Laos is a place where dreams can come true. It’s worked for me!

Now I want to help pay it forward: one of my goals for OPT is that it enables other people’s dreams to come true.

Generally speaking, most of my Lao colleagues say their dream is to travel. And I am proud to write that we have had the opportunity to send members of the team to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Japan, China, USA, UK, Singapore, Burma, Peru (for 24 minutes – that’s a story for another blog!). And we are just back from bi-annual weavers holiday — see pictures of the 16 of us in Thailand.

One of the most important partnerships we have is with our vocational trainers Suzy Young and Michael Sebastian. Both work part-time at OPT giving our team the language skills and confidence to best do their jobs. This onsite training is an invaluable part of our staff’s professional development. To learn more about Michael Sebastian’s work in Luang Prabang please visit

Turning back to the conference — Veo and I met remarkable, humble people and got inspired. I would like to list a few of the movers and shakers we met:

  • Pamela Chng of Singapore, who is changing lives through coffee. She’s an educator and her company is based on the idea of transferring knowledge as tool to empower youngsters to help themselves. She chose the art of coffee Barista as her vehicle.
  • Ayaka Yamashita of Japan, who is working in remote Philippine communities developing traditional bamboo handicrafts.

We encourage you to peruse their sites and make your own connections with them in an effort to support social enterprises throughout the world doing great things.


Posted by Jo Smith

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