How Mongolian Goat Herders Inspired a New York Cashmere Startup

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Naadam founder Matthew Scanlan with one of the herders he met in Mongolia / Courtesy of Naadam

When Matthew Scanlan, 30, embarked on a backpacking trip to Mongolia in 2013 when he was in his early twenties, he never imagined he’d return with two million dollars worth of raw cashmere and nomadic herder friends who felt more like family. He’s still baffled that he makes sweaters for a living.

Scanlan is the co-founder and CEO of Naadam, a truly ethical cashmere sweater company. After meeting some guys in a local Mongolian bar on a trip to “find himself at a moon festival,” he recalls, Scanlan and his friend-turned-business-partner Diederik Rijsemus accidentally got into a car headed 20 hours into the absolute middle of nowhere in the Gobi Desert. (If you asked them today, they wouldn’t be able to pinpoint the original location on a map.)

The pair ended up spending a month living with a nomadic herding family in the desert, drinking goat’s milk and living off the land with their new friends from a bar. The witnessed the existing supply chain—favoring the trader, not the herder—and wanted to do something to help. With a personal loan, Scanlan and Rijsemus purchased 60 tons of cashmere with two million dollars in plastic baggies, that’s 65 pounds of cold, hard cash. Their acquisition was driven in 20 tractor trailers for 36 hours to the nearest city.

Entrepreneurship comes in unexpected ways.

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Naadam founder Matthew Scanlan does quality control on the raw material / Courtesy of Naadam

We meet Scanlan in New York City at Naadam’s Prince Street location, home of the highly-lauded $75 cashmere sweater. The brand specializes in luxury cashmere fashion at accessible prices, with men’s and women’s styles, accessories, robes, socks and more. He speaks of meeting Bodio and Ishe—those OG nomadic herders—with utter joy. They’re the catalyst goat-keepers who sparked Naadam’s ultimately millennial, cashmere supply chain. These two sparked the idea to give back to the community in a real way. Bodio and Ishe were able to convey their herding plights. Before Naadam, traders from nearby cities acted as middlemen, paying the herders a pittance for raw materials. The traders would take a huge margin for transporting the materials, driving Bodio and Ishe’s paycheck way down.

Scanlan wanted to shake up the status quo. “At the base of our species, we survive by helping each other and fostering community,” he says. So, with zero prior experience in fashion or any desire, really, to make sweaters, he set out to formulate a plan to utilize the raw materials from these folks and help their community.

Personally, Scanlon’s educational journey mirrors ONE37pm’s founder Gary Vaynerchuk. “I was never very good at listening”, he says. “I was thrown out of a couple boarding schools, thrown out of college. I was never good at sitting still in class and listening. A traditional career path wasn’t going to work.” But his ingenuity and eye for an opportunity (ie: traveling on a fun, backpacking trip with your friend, only to discover a centuries-long cashmere trading business and turning it into a successful brand) landed Naadam a $16 million series A funding round in 2018.

If you’re curious about the cute little goats’ happiness and the current PETA campaign to ban wool, fear not. For centuries, the art and practice of goat herding for materials (milk, hair and livestock) have been handed down generationally. In the Gobi Desert, the animals are hand-combed to extract the material. Think about it—there aren’t shearers lying around with available plug points of electricity. Innately, this practice is cruelty-free. Some cashmere is bad, but Naadam stands by the reverberating cultural benefits of their business model.

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Naadam founder Matthew Scanlan in a field of goats / Courtesy of Naadam

Today, Naadam invests in veterinary care for goats all throughout the countryside of Mongolia, both for the success of their company’s supply chain and for the well-being of their herder families. They’ve constructed an irrigated park—dubbed Naadam Park—with 2,000 trees and the only grass soccer field for 500 miles. And, the company has taken significant measures to combat desertification by fencing off areas for fresh pastures to grow. Of course, they practice table stakes of sustainability, like minimizing pollution and cutting down on toxic chemicals. Yes, these practices benefit Naadam’s future success, but in turn, hundreds of families’ lives in the Gobi Desert are improved. This is the true definition of sustainability and ethical business practice. In Scanlon’s words, “Don’t screw everybody.”

Through the experience of setting up a business, Scanlan has discovered how simple and universal being a person is. “I know that sounds kind of stupid, but it’s true,” he says. “Sustainability has to be thoughtful, direct and, most importantly, real.” There are no perfect solutions to discern what cashmere is truly sustainable and eco-friendly in the consumer marketplace. You can be sure that a $20 “cashmere” sweater from a fast-fashion mega-retailer is harming people like Bodio and Ishe. But beyond that, the waters are murky. “There is no blanket solution, there just isn’t.”

Read More: StockX CEO Josh Luber Explains How a Passion Project Became the Stock Market of Sneakers

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