Setting up a business in Vietnam is no daunting prospect to Saskia de Knegt. A seasoned hand in Southeast Asia with tremendous local experience, she knows how to establish contacts, motivate people and see connections. She is also the lady behind Worlds of Opportunities (WOO), a brand that combines corporate social responsibility with luxury products. According to Saskia, “It’s the retail countries, where things are much more complicated.”
With a bona fide concept store opening in December 2013 in Amsterdam’s upscale Van Baerlestraat, WOO took off to a stronger start than some brands. “I teamed up with a number of partners,” explains Saskia, “and we invested a lot of time in WOO. We manufacture fabulous luxury lifestyle and beauty products in Vietnam, and we have a strong, compelling story. With that said, however, I have personally seen many good, sustainable initiatives fail. If you want to compete with traditional manufacturers and subsidized products, you’ve got to produce a sexy brand that far outshines the others in quality. That’s how you develop your own market.”
In 2015, the WOO store will move to Antwerp and WOO will continue doing business in the Netherlands online and in shop-in-shop retail.
Umbrella for sustainable luxury
WOO’s first products were produced in Vietnam in a collaborative venture with farming cooperatives and people who are normally excluded from the labour market. That made headlines in various Dutch newspapers and magazines.
“We chose the bottle candle for WOO’s grand opening,” Saskia points out. “This was partly because of the unusual chain behind that product, and the impact we expected it to have. It really caught on with a group I call ‘international luxury consumers.’ Now, I’m known as the candle lady. But that’s only half the story. WOO is a global concept, an umbrella that we’ll soon use for other sustainable luxury products. We’ve teamed up with some interesting people to explore various other materials and products in Southeast Asian and other countries that we can bring to the market. Establishing this brand and introducing luxury, hand-crafted candles was WOO’s proof of concept. Our success in this area shows potential partners what we’re capable of achieving. I can honestly say that WOO is a vehicle for global change.”
Everyone has something to offer
WOO thinks in terms of value chains. Every step in the production process, such as that of the bottle candle, serves – literally and figuratively – to add value to the product. Beverage bottles are collected off the streets and turned in for money. The glass is sandblasted, custom-cut and then filled with locally produced beeswax and handmade cotton wicks.
Saskia: “WOO works with the local farmers who supply the highest quality beeswax. We’re always seeking out, cultivating and deploying capable partners – even if that means funding training courses and workshops. The people we work worth include farmers, women, human trafficking victims, disabled people and minorities with no job prospects. What they contribute is valuable, and we want to build long-term relationships with them. It’s my conviction that everyone has something to offer. Obviously, we also work with the corporate sector, NGOs and, of course, consumers. After all, they also want to help make the world a little better.”
Vietnam among the top economic risers
When Saskia first started World of Opportunities in 2009, she had no background whatsoever in retail. “My team and I work really hard and cut our budget to the bone,” she explains proudly. “We don’t have time for complicated requests and spectacular proposals. The help we get from the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO.nl) is practical and effective. The DHK subsidy programme for proof-of-concept projects, feasibility studies and research (in Dutch) in rising markets has enabled us to do strategic market research and improve our position.”
In terms of timing and location, WOO could not have made better choices for its first project. Vietnam is in ABN Amro Bank’s “Top 16” list of economically rising countries with interesting prospects for Dutch small and middle-sized businesses.
Bridge between trade and aid
When asked how she envisioned that a luxury lifestyle brand could bring about global change, Saskia smiles. “I know it sounds strange. But I believe we’re building a bridge between the rich and the poor, the corporate world and development aid. I’m not the only one with this vision. We’re getting requests from entrepreneurs in California, Jamaica, South Africa, Bangladesh and Uganda, who want to join our efforts. WOO is booming.”