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Here it is, the first weekly episode of 2021 after launching the first three episodes at the back end of last year.
On this episode, I kick things off with a quick thank you to everyone who listened to the first episodes, especially those of you who left a review or subscribed. It’s been amazing to see such a good response and positive feedback.
With our brand new Combat and Chelsea boots available, it was a perfect segue into the guest of this episode, which is Gabriel Silva - the owner of Ahimsa Footwear, who are the manufacturers of the new Nōskin boots.
The Journey of Ahimsa
Gabriel takes us through a summary of the last 7 years since Ahimsa’s inception. Originally working as part of the family business in leather shoe manufacturing, Gabriel’s transition to a plant based lifestyle caused him to have the internal conflict and the need to move away from the leather business.
Seeing a gap in the market for high quality vegan footwear, Gabriel and his father decided to launch Ahimsa as a brand in July 2013, initially outsourcing their manufacturing to a third party to identify the feasibility of the brand.
Only one year later, Gabriel took the plunge to open his own factory under the Ahimsa brand, the first vegan shoe factory in the world no less, and Ahimsa as a brand and a manufacturer was born.
A change of pace
We take a quick step back in time to Gabriel’s life before the shoe industry where he was an international airline pilot, before being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and being left with no choice but to end his career in aviation.
Facing a dramatic change of career at such a young age, Gabriel had already armed himself with the entrepreneurial spirit, after reading business books whilst flying on autopilot on long international flights.
“The plane would be on autopilot and I’d be sitting at 50,000 feet and I’d read a lot. Ever since I was 16 or 17, I got hooked on business books”
Taking inspiration from everything he’d read, the pieces started to fall into line after Gabriel lost his career. His journey into the shoe industry combined with his transition to vegetarianism meant he could see a path to emulating the entrepreneurs he’d been reading about for years, as Ahimsa came to life.
“I wanted to do something like that. Those guys had an idea, they go for it, they try to prove people wrong and try something new”
Identifying an opportunity in your surroundings
We talk about combining the drive for a successful business with the underlying mission to take leather out of the footwear industry. Not coming from an activist background or being brought up with a focus on animal rights, Gabriel talks about his experience of combining entrepreneurship with his new found desire to make a difference.
“I became a bit more aware and thought more of myself as one of those who takes a leap, puts something on the line and goes after a mission, a vision or a dream.”
Trying not to get too caught up in comparison with others, Gabriel has always acknowledged his surroundings and how he can utilise this. Being raised in the footwear capital of Brazil allowed him to grasp the opportunities that could make a difference in the industry.
Always humbled by the appreciation customers have for the brand, Gabriel talks about the joy he still gets from travelling the world and seeing the shoes that his company have made on the shelves of Australian, American and English stores just to name a few.
Seven years and rapid change
Having been in the industry of vegan footwear for the last 7 years, Gabriel has seen significant changes in the industry.
Gabriel highlights the reality that many people who make conscious decisions often have to sacrifice some of the convenience or quality of the non-ethical counterparts and how this has become an expectation. However, from the beginning they have noticed more and more consumers look to brands like Ahimsa to introduce a more conscious purchase into their lives, where there is no difference to the quality or appearance of what they may otherwise buy, and this is where the growth occurs.
Seeing an evolution in the market, from one or two vegan footwear brands in Brazil when Ahimsa started in 2013, to over 20 at the current time, there is a rapid growth in the market that is available for a business that’s trying to make a positive impact on animals and the environment.
“We are getting more and more questions about how the employees are treated, how the materials are made, how can the footwear be discarded - that has been growing immensely over the last two years”
Incorporating manufacturing into a brand
Starting as Ahimsa footwear and moving into manufacturing and selling their own brand, there is additional complexity incorporated into your business model when you begin to manufacture for other brands.
“In our city, at peak there were over 600 shoe factories. Having the knowledge around you, and having the supply chain around you is very important when starting a manufacturing business.”
“If we were based anywhere else besides this city, I don’t think we’d be able to do what we did”
After a nearby factory closed down, Gabriel was able to capitalise on the opportunity, take over the factory and keep the staff, the knowledge and the machinery, but with the unique shift to make the factory the first of its kind to produce only vegan footwear.
“Here you can go from corner to corner and every other shop is related to footwear where you can source and rent machines. You can place ads for a stitcher and a hundred people will show up the next day”
Aspiring for a small factory to hand-make 20 to 30 pairs a day, over time Gabriel noticed a gap in the market to begin producing footwear for other brands who wanted to ensure an ethical manufacturing process.
With increased risk from making more and more styles only for Ahimsa, Gabriel executed his vision to help other brands in the industry and began to outsource design and production around the world, further growing the vegan shoe market, and the business itself.
Teaming up with Thomas from Avesu to acquire customers for Ahimsa manufacturing, the community helped each other to grow in scale, to grow the industry as a whole.
“Job number 1 is to get leather off of everyone’s feet, regardless if it’s my brand, a neighbours brand or a friends brand, I don’t care”
The challenges of pioneering new technologies
When you’re in one of the world’s most reputable shoe manufacturing hubs, there’s a high standard when it comes to the products that are produced. Gabriel talks about the process to get from textile shoes in the early days of Ahimsa, all the way through to the microfibre PU shoes that Ahimsa create today which are now exceeding the durability and quality of their leather counterparts.
Gabriel reinforces the understanding that it’s not perfect to use petroleum based materials, but stresses that the most important goal is to get leather off of people’s feet, because once the industry grows, there is more propensity for companies like ours to be the ones who then work towards the mainstream sustainable options.
You can read more on Noskin’s view on this on our ‘leaving out leather’ blog post.
Finishing up our conversation about the materials and manufacturing, we talk about the possibilities of new materials such as cactus leather and biodegradable shoes (and the down sides that come with them.) But despite some materials being in their infancy of research and development, it’s clear that the market has embraced leather alternatives and there is still a great deal of growth and innovation to be seen in the coming years.
“The better shoe is the one that doesn’t have to be disposed of”
Final words of advice
As with all of my guests, I wanted to get Gabriel’s parting words of advice for starting a business, especially in a tough climate such as the one we’ve seen over the last 12 months. As a vegan shoe manufacturer in a country that is still in the very early days of adopting the shift away from animal materials, Gabriel’s passion and advice is truly inspiring.
“It’s gonna be tough, it’s gonna get tougher as you go, so if you’re going to do something, pick something you’re passionate about”
Gabriel finishes by reiterating that if you’re going to start an entrepreneurial venture, you need to pick something that you’re passionate about, or you won’t survive.
Acknowledging the shift of ethical consumers, he encourages listeners to think carefully about their mission, so when things get tough, this is always something to fall back on.
“Pick something you’re passionate about, and rely on other people’s experience to help you through the harder times”
Thanks again to Gabriel and his team for all of their hard work over the last 6 months in bringing our designs to life and for putting up with the many rounds of improvements and iterations as we worked towards something that we believe is All Quality, No Sacrifice.