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From high-flying corporate world to a bamboo startup

WHEN husband-and-wife team Rachel Speth and Jeff Delkin launched their own brand of environmentally friendly bamboo homeware products, they drew on experience from the careers designing and marketing some of the world's biggest brands.

The American couple moved to Asia more than 14 years ago and left their high-flying jobs in 2003 to put the nest egg on the line to start Bambu - their brand of contemporary kitchen and home products made from renewable materials.

Speth spent 12 years at Nike designing products for the sportswear giant, while Delkin had two decades in advertising, formulating the marketing strategy for big international brands.

While Speth designs Bambu's products that range from baskets to salad bowls, plates and cutlery, Delkin deals with distributors and marketing and communication.

"We have very defined roles but we do collaborate all the time," Speth says.

"How do we work together: with respect and admiration," adds Delkin who spent 20 years in adverting, first in Ogilvy & Mather as accounts manager for a range of brands.

Chatting about the business over coffee, their enthusiasm for the entrepreneurial tangent their life took more than five years ago is clearly evident.

Speth quit Nike in 2000 to focus on the couple's burgeoning business dreams.

They regularly finish each other's sentences and are passionate about environmental issues, a passion that goes back to their roots in Portland, Oregon, on the US West Coast.

"It's a very clean, green area, with tall trees and a great respect for nature and everything related to it," Delkin says.

Many of their products are made from organic, sustainably grown and harvested bamboo from Vietnam and China and are sold in more than 1,000 retail outlets in US, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and Europe.

With some of America's grandest natural landscapes as their backdrop, the couple says they always had an appreciation for the environment that is an essential element of their business and products.

The couple arrived in Shanghai in 2003 and have a retail outlet on Taikang Road. The couple has seen their global business more than triple during that time.

It has involved the massive task of developing and nurturing environmentally friendly and sustainable suppliers, developing global distribution and sales networks, accompanied with a tireless drive to educate the public about their products.

"The beauty of being an entrepreneur is that you haven't done it yet and you don't know what is ahead," Speth says. "If we had the opportunity to know what was ahead of us, we would never have done it, we would have been insane."

"We put literally everything we had into it, we just couldn't let it fail," adds Delkin.

The couple first moved to Asia in 1994 when Speth was posted to Taiwan. Delkin gave up his US career in advertising to follow his wife. "I was a pioneer for male trailing spouses," he wryly admits.

They moved to the Chinese mainland, spending four years - from 1996 to 2000 - in what they describe as the "wild, wild west days of Guangzhou" (Guangdong Province).

An opportunity to head up a regional CSR program saw the couple move to Bangkok. She then quit her job to pursue the couple's business dreams.

"I just felt like there were things I wanted to do that are not so easy to do in large corporations, it felt like the right time," Speth says.

After she resigned, Speth undertook post-graduate studies at the Asian Institute of Technology, looking at greener methods of production.

"I was just itching to apply my knowledge and bamboo seemed to be one of the most accessible, viable, versatile and flexible materials that fit that criteria," she says.

"We were noticing its application in almost every conceivable aspect of everyday life wherever we traveled in Asia," adds Delkin.

Inspired by the potential for bamboo, Speth spent two years studying every aspect of bamboo.

"We really wanted to turn other people on to this great material and renewable materials in general," Delkin says.

The functionality, everyday utility and durability made homewares the ideal products to showcase bamboo's unique qualities, says Speth.

During the couple's five years in Shanghai they have also helped encourage a growing awareness in a green lifestyle, contributing to a range of events and talks focused on environmental education.

They donate 1 percent of net sales to nonprofit environmental organizations and also volunteer for the Grameen Foundation that uses microfinance to help the poor set up their own businesses.

"Shanghai is home and I often say we are living in the center of the universe," Delkin says.

"China is a very exciting place to be right now and years from now we will look back and say, 'Wow, that was really something.' Our time here is not with a multinational," Speth adds. "It is just us."

Rachel Speth and Jeff Delkin

Nationality: American

Age: 40s

Profession: Entrepreneurs


Description of self:

Rachel - Intuitive, idealistic, pragmatic; Jeff - Curious, charming, "un-uptight."

Favorite place: Top of Lupu Bridge on a clear day.

Strangest sight:

Santa Claus on a crucifix.

Worse experience: Haven't had one yet.

Motto for life: Rachel - Wear sunscreen; Jeff - Smile more.

Motto for life: "As you live your days, so you craft your life" (R. Sharma).

How to improve Shanghai:

A more pedestrian-friendly environment. More green spaces. More blue-sky days.

Advice to newcomers:

Rachel - Be patient; Jeff - Make no assumptions.


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