Two friends bring together creativity, fashion and social impact
At a glance, Pradhima Shyamsunder and Kuppal Palaniappan are the most unlikely of best friends. If Kuppal is 5ft 10 inch tall, Pradhima barely touches 4ft and 12 inches. But these two childhood buddies have come together to find a solution to what has been the bane of their life – finding the right shoe size. In the process they have helped many other women facing the same predicament.
“For many years, I struggled to find my shoe size – a size 11. Sometimes I would buy a size 10 and squash my feet in, much to my pain and discomfort! I would then visit specific shoe stores that catered for people with large feet. But either the style of shoe was outdated or meant for an older clientele. So I would end up in Target because they had my size but the only problem was they weren’t built to last and I would have to replace them every few months,” rues Kuppal.
Similarly Pradhima struggled to find shoes for herself. “It would take days of unsuccessful trips to shoe shops to find work shoes. I would then find something, pay too much for it and then a couple months later it would stretch and not fit. It was painful.”
Kuppal was about 18 and Pradhima 21 when they both sowed the seeds of starting a shoe business in their minds. “It felt like a no-brainer and yet still nerve-wracking,” says Kuppal. But both felt they were too young then to take a risk with starting a venture. However the shoe problem endured. So did their realisation that there’s no solution for women with big or small feet.
When Pradhima completed her Chartered Accountancy degree, she found the time to research and registered her business. But soon she gave it up because none of the Australian companies were open to the idea. Seven years later, she went back to the idea more determined than ever. The result: she launched teacup shoes successfully and had a lot of support from the petite-footed community. “I really saw that there was a need out there and learnt so much from the experience.” But again after two years of running it, she stopped taking action around the business. “I realised that I was not inspired by simply selling shoes. The real issue for me at this time was my vision. It didn’t align with what I’m about.”
Meanwhile Kuppal was still stalling her idea of starting her shoe business as she felt it would come in the way of her career which was to work in the social impact and international development space. “I felt that the social impact space in Australia was small and I wasn’t able to find the right opportunity. So I chose to head to San Francisco to network with like-minded people who were passionate and working in the social impact space. I met a gentleman who had previously worked at google.org and I asked him for advice about the types of qualities, characteristics and experience I would need to get a job in social impact, his reply changed my life. He responded with “Yes – do! The space needs doers. People who jump with both feet in and just make stuff happen. Don’t wait to find “the job” – that’s not how stuff happens in this space. You do and make things happen – then the right job will present itself to you. Note that this is a calling, not a job”. This was the catalyst for wanting to start a shoe business that promoted inclusion in the shoe industry whilst having a social purpose. At the same time, it propelled me to focus on working collaboratively with many organisations in the social sector through Deloitte.”
So, the time seemed right when Kuppal and Pradhima finally got together last year. The two friends who had known each other since the age of ten when they first met at their Bharatnatyam dance school launched Soleful Shoes to cater for both sides of the market – big feet and small feet.
“The great thing about working at a startup is that you learn to adapt to uncertainty and ambiguity. I took on learning about things like design thinking and how we could use that as a tool to tell our stories, creating websites and social media but, most importantly, about shoe design and manufacturing. These were all areas I had no idea about and I’m still learning,” says Kuppal, who after completing her Bachelor of Business major in Economics and Bachelor of Computing, works with Deloitte Consulting.
Initially both had their concerns though they had sizeable investment upfront to get this business off the ground. For Kuppal it was about “what if we made a loss? What if we weren’t able to succeed? What if the money we put in wasn’t enough?” Thankfully both realised that sustainable businesses make a profit and it’s a very important part of a business.
“However for us, even though it’s an important goal, purely making money did not inspire us. Because of this we were not interested in starting a business with the sole purpose of making money. After various conversations about what’s important to us and aligning on what would truly inspire us to run a business, we created Soleful Shoes to have a social element to it which is when you buy shoes from us you can donate your used shoes at the same time. These shoes are then sent to one of our impact partners, Dress for Success. Once this all came together, the brand come together beautifully and we were really proud of the end result. The most important thing to us is that the brand truly reflect who were are and the values of our business,” says Pradhima
This April, Soleful Shoes organised a clothes and shoe drive at Bicentennial Park, Sydney Olympic Park. The ‘Donate Your Soles’ event was flagged off as a fun affair, the proceeds of which went to Dress for Success and associated non-profit organisation Dress for Work, which provides similar services to men looking for work.
Going forward, Kuppal sees Soleful Shoes continuing to be an online shoe store with an expanded line of shoe styles and sizes. “We would be known as a business that solved the problem that many women with small and large feet face in finding shoes. Much like the plus size fashion industry has taken off, we would have successfully proven to shoe retailers that these sizes are needed and Soleful Shoes would remain as a key supplier of these sizes globally.” As a company only six months old, they would rather not comment on sales volume and profit.
These young entrepreneurs have had the support of their family in their venture though they realise that in the South Asian community they belong to being an entrepreneur is not very highly regarded compared to other professions. “Times are changing and there is a lot of understanding around this topic area but it’s still a young concept in Australia. Our parents are supportive of the idea however both of us having full time job is key. If we were to leave our jobs and pursue this full time one day, I’m sure there’d be an uproar. However our parents know how passionate we are and it’s infectious. They tell their friends and they are very proud of us,” reflects Pradhima, who works at Social Ventures Australia as a finance manager.
Clearly Pradhima and Kuppal who migrated very young in their lives from India and Sri Lanka respectively, realise that being brought up in Australia they are very lucky to be able to make the most of life. “This is one of the ways we contribute towards our community to make a difference. We feel that young people should pursue their passions whatever it be. It doesn’t have to be starting your own business, it could be being an intra-preneur inside their existing business. There are so many alternatives that people can do before they make the big jump! It comes down to how much you’re willing to risk and put yourself out there. Being friends and doing this together for us makes it much more fun and comfortable. We love working with each other and sometime it really is challenging.”
Success, they both, exemplify is doing something they truly love with integrity and passion and at the same time having a fulfilling life in every other way – marriage, family, well-being, fun et al.
By Indira Laisram