James Tufenkian realized early on that his family’s survival of the Armenian Genocide was a gift not to be taken for granted. With a heart to help — and heal — the world, he founded a business that not only gave him and others purpose, he invented an entirely new market, breaking barriers in more ways than one.
“I was raised in a Christian family in which I was taught that Christians are called to follow Jesus’ example and to serve others with their lives and work,” says Tufenkian, founder of the luxury fashion carpetmaker Tufenkian Artisan Carpets.
As a 14-year-old, he knew clearly his life plan — “get a great education, make a lot of money as fast as possible, and then use that money and the rest of my life to make the world better.”
While a grand vision may have been set, the details of the journey would take unexpected twists and turns. On course to be a civil rights or poverty law attorney, Tufenkian took a step few do until it’s too late. “Midway through my second year, I looked myself in the mirror and said, ‘In one and a half years, you will go out into the world pretending that you are competent to handle the big problems of real people when all you have done your whole life was study,” he says. “You can’t take yourself seriously as a lawyer and trusted adviser until you get some real world experience.”
So he graduated from New York University School of Law, but with one caveat — he wouldn’t become a lawyer, at least not right away. At the time, he was paying for law school by buying and selling Persian rugs, a trade he’d learned earlier working in the San Francisco warehouse of a rug importer, where he’d fallen in love with the beauty of traditional carpets. “The individual points of colour, each of which was meaningless, but when taken together, were amazing works of art, embedded with many thousands of hours of human labour,” he says.
His new plan? “Spend a few years travelling the world, buying and selling rugs to make money, and experience the world through business in “strange” places before returning to the law later,” he says. As fate would have it, the inspiration he received on his sabbatical would propel him to do something no one had even conceived of yet.
In the early ’80s, the rug industry was dominated by Iranian carpets, with no high-end niche tailored for fashion. Although the world leader, Iran had lost its respect for traditional craftsmanship and quality, “caring little about the yarn and dyes that were the building blocks of the carpets — the focus was instead on knots per inch,” says Tufenkian. The carpets looked as though they were machine-made, and “lifeless.” He says, “My vision was to bring back the lost virtues of antique carpets and the ‘feel of the hand,’ which made them so endearing.”
Tufenkian was determined to pioneer the industry, marrying traditional materials and craftsmanship with fresh designs that architects and interior designers would love. But to bring his new vision to life, he needed a production partner who shared his same standard for quality, where he could also control design. “Finally one day I was introduced to a Tibetan refugee who had a small production of the finest carpets in Nepal,” says the entrepreneur. “I told him about my vision for developing and dominating the U.S. market, and asked him if he would partner with me.” After a simple handshake in 1986, Tufenkian Artisan Carpets was born, along with the high-end fashion carpet industry. “That simple agreement and the intellectual and emotional commitment that stood behind it lasted for 25 years.”
But the 5,000 employees in its Nepalese factories and 150 distributors around the world only illustrate part of Tufenkian Artisan Carpets’ success today.
“What is the point of making money? What is the point of a life?” Tufenkian asks rhetorically. “The more important question was how would I feel on my deathbed, looking back on my life, and asking how I had spent this one chance on earth. My upbringing and beliefs convinced me that I had to live for others.”
While Tufenkian’s heart was in the right place, his idea of a fast exit selling his carpet business to then dedicate his life to philanthropy wasn’t looking realistic. So, he flipped the model of “giving back later” and decided to just start making a difference right away — with a lasting impact that trumps that of even much larger companies. “
Inspired by the example of my Tibetan partner, who had started several micro projects in Nepal to help the needy, I decided that I should make the business serve some social purpose besides just providing honest work to the poor of Nepal,” he says. “So together we set out to provide health care facilities, a school, and environmental protections for our thousands of workers, their families, and the communities in which we worked. I started to sleep a little better.”
Always looking to do more — for others and in business — Tufenkian came across a rare opportunity in the early ’90s, with the fall of the Soviet Union.
“Immediately after declaring independence, Armenia found itself blockaded on two sides, its people cold and hungry with no energy and freezing winters, and at war with neighbouring Azerbaijan,” the founder says. “I had to do something.” Tufenkian then started a new segment of his business, manufacturing luxury handmade Armenian carpets designed with their own authentic, local flavour. “Armenia to me is all about the ruggedness of the mountains, the life and landscape, the ruggedness of historic materials of stone, wood and metal, which were the basic components of craft, without trying to make them overly refined,” he says.
With the success of his Armenian branch of luxury rugs came much more opportunity to develop his ancestral homeland, such as building hotels and establishing the Tufenkian Foundation, which tackles more than 25 sustainable charitable projects in Armenia and Nepal. His work there only further proves that his philosophy is as alive today as ever — “working in business to serve the twin goals of making money, and making the work itself improve lives and alleviate suffering, and committing to measure how well you are doing by the degree to which you accomplish both.”
Chinese Text by Zhao Wen English Text by Lindsay Wallace