Shoes woven with straw or hemp have been a craft passed from generation to generation in Gangu, a county in Tianshui, in northwest China's Gansu province. Guo Juan, a woman from Central China's Henan province, began developing her interest in the shoes when her boyfriend (now her husband), Niu Junjun, from Gangu, gave her a pair of the shoes when they were college classmates. Today, Guo and Niu have a shoe plant in Gangu. Guo leads women in the county in making a fortune, and in walking in happiness by making and selling the traditional craft shoes.
Surviving hardships, starting a business
Niu met Guo, who was two years younger, when they were in college in 2008. Niu's hometown is Gangu. Once, he returned home during a vacation, and he bought a pair of hemp-woven shoes to give to Guo as a gift. "The shoes looked ordinary, but I felt very comfortable when I was wearing the shoes in summer. I was moved by the gift. Later, I fell in love with Niu, who is my husband now," Guo says.
In 2008, Guo began selling the craft shoes made in Gangu on her online shop. Her best sales income was 2,000 yuan ($286) per day. However, her supplier could not provide enough shoes to keep up with demand. As a result, Guo had to stop selling the shoes. In 2011, Guo and Niu decided to open their own shoe plant, in Gangu.
Guo and Niu endured hardships during the early days of their business. "We borrowed 50,000 yuan and we used the money to rent a house, which we built into a plant. It was not easy to turn an idea into an actual company. There were so many hardships to overcome," Guo says. She invited experienced craftsmakers to teach traditional weaving techniques. She tried on the shoes, and took photos, as a model for her brand.
At first, Guo's company sold only two types of straw- or hemp-woven slippers. As Guo continued to find handy craftsmakers, who explored innovative designs, her company expanded its line of shoes to also include cotton shoes and sandals. By opening both online and offline shops, and by using livestreaming platforms, Guo has expanded her sales channels. Last year, their plant produced more than 80,000 pairs of shoes and the sales reached more than 8 million yuan.
Rural revitalization efforts
Given the success of Guo and Niu's business, Guo has become a well-known person in Gangu. She believes firmly that one should never forget to encourage himself/ herself when going through hardships. She also believes one should never forget to lend a helping hand to others in need after he/she becomes successful. For years, Guo has done her best to receive more and more orders, so women in her plant can have work and earn a stable income.
When Guo participated, as a candidate, in the final round of the China Women's Craft Entrepreneurship and Innovation Contest, held in November last year, she explained her career goal. "Shoes woven with straw or hemp, which represent a craft born in the countryside of Gangu, can also be a component of our efforts to advance rural revitalization. To date, with support from women's federations, at all levels, my company has set up 16 'poverty-alleviation workshops' in places such as Xihe county and Zhangxian county, in Gansu province. In the coming three to five years, I hope the annual production output of my company will reach 200,000 pairs of shoes. I want to help more than 5,000 women in Gansu to find jobs. They can work in their hometowns. They have flexible time to look after the young and old in their families."
Different from normal workshops, the "poverty alleviation workshops" allow employees to work at home. That allows the employees to balance their time spent on making shoes and taking care of their families. More and more women desire to work for these special workshops.
Guo uses three "mores" to describe her plan for the future: "Develop more craft-shoe products, help more women find jobs and help them create more wealth on their search for a happy and prosperous life."