Future of the Business World: Tire-Inspired Footwear that Is Helping the Planet and Empowering India’s Small-scale Cobblers

by Diana Drake

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This month’s episode – our 20th — achieves two firsts in the lifetime of our Future of the Business World podcast: a discussion with tomorrow’s leaders about problem-solving for our planet just in time for Earth Day 2022; and hearing from students who are not just from India, but also live, learn and innovate there, as well.  

High school students Divya Sijwali and Parth Puri (see photo above) share the story of Tyron (derived from the British spelling of tyre), a fashion footwear brand that produces quality sandals and slippers out of old, discarded tires. Tyron’s business model is not only ecologically driven, but also economically powerful, with a commitment to pay a fair and consistent wage to the small-scale cobblers who craft their shoes. We connected with Parth and Divya fresh off their April 2022 win of NFTE’s World Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge. 

We welcome you to sit back and enjoy this conversation (click on the link above to listen to the podcast) and discover how two innovative youths are creating tire-inspired fashion to do their part for the planet and their community.

Wharton Global Youth: Welcome to Future of the Business World, the podcast that brings you innovation and inspiration through the stories of teenage entrepreneurs.

I’m Diana Drake of the Wharton Global Youth Program at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Each month on Future of the Business World, we explore all kinds of business and finance themes, from app development in Silicon Valley to microloans in Vietnam. The young entrepreneurs behind these endeavors are commercially creative, sharp, and devoted to social and systemic change.

Today’s guests, joining us for our 20th episode of the show, have a unique perspective on product development and saving our planet…what could be better as we celebrate Earth Day in the U.S?

Divya Sijwali and Parth Puri are the founders of Tyron, an e-commerce business based in India that sells sandals, slippers and flip-flops made from used tires. They say their shoes are “not only comfortable and stylish, but also sustainable and eco-friendly, so you can wear them with a clean conscience while taking an environmentally aware step toward a better future.”

Divya and Parth, It’s great to meet you both!

I logged onto your website a few days ago and in big letters it directed me to Find My Sole S-O-L-E Mate. I’m hooked. Tell me more about Tyron, your fashion footwear brand. How did you come up with this idea and what exactly do you sell?

Divya Sijwali: First of all, we love the fact that you loved our title “Find Your Solemate.” We tried way too hard to get that right.

Tyron is a fashion footwear brand that produces quality footwear out of old and discarded tires. Our mission essentially is to create quality and sustainable products that are fashionable and practical that reduce exploitation of raw materials and at the same time provide employment opportunities for the marginalized sections of society.

Coming to the question of how we came up with the business idea. Here’s the thing. I always wanted to do something in the field of business ever since I was 8 years old. I have grown up watching Shark Tank. On top of it, the pandemic gave me a lot of time to explore my interests and learn more about taking various courses and participating in competitions that are essentially all about business. After coming to high school, I started looking for more business opportunities; something we could catch and then make a business on. Guess what, then the pandemic came to our rescue. The pandemic has made most of us lazy at home. It was during those times that nobody at my home would want to wear something fancy. It was also during the same time when being at home made me realize that I only had sneakers and I did not have any comfortable footwear like slippers to walk around in my home. And boom, there was our business idea – producing attractive and environmentally friendly footwear that was sustainable, fashionable and, most importantly, comfortable.

Wharton Global Youth: I want to break that down and look at some parts of it. First, the fashion. Parth, I’m going to go to you for fashion. Your line features some fun signature sandals, like Black Comet and Night Blossoms. Describe the creative design process; how did you appeal to the fashionistas out there?

Parth Puri: We have a small community of cobblers that we work with. And Divya and the cobblers are involved in the designing process. She works on the designs and sketches and the cobblers help to bring those designs to life. In order to diversify the design range, we also took the help of Acid Attack Survivors from Shiro’s handbags. And in order to appeal to fashionistas, we worked very hard on our website. We have tried to make our website as attractive and eye-catching as possible. And as you mentioned at the start of the conversation, when the term “Find Your Solemate” appears on your screen it is almost impossible to log out of the website without exploring more. I think that has played a crucial role for us to connect with our consumers. Just the essence of a brand to have its own website creates a sense of quality and authenticity in the mind of the consumers.

Wharton Global Youth: Your sweet spot is really technology, right? Has that been your labor of love is making sure the tech looks great?

Parth: I have been involved in the whole designing process of the website. I designed it from the very scratch. I have managed the whole process and automated the backend. So all the shipping that actually happens is completely automated right now. It’s the part of technology that really triggers me and that’s how I’m involved in this business.

“Growing up in Tanzania, I was constantly told one thing: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – Divya Sijwali, Co-founder, Tyron

Wharton Global Youth: Why use discarded tires to make your footwear? What is eco-conscious consumption and why is it important to you? Divya, can you talk about recycling and upcycling and all the terminology?

Divya: The primary reason for using discarded tires was because it was relatively cheaper. We thought that we would be able to accommodate discarded tires into our footwear and we’ll be able to cut down on cost and also bring an angle of sustainability to our product. I’d also like to highlight that we collect most of our tires from different dumpyards. In some dumpyards you have to pay a little; a nominal amount. And in some dumpyards we’re getting [the tires] for free. It made a lot of sense for us to pick tires and make something out of [them]. In hindsight, we have saved a lot of money just by smartly procuring our raw materials.

Coming to the second part of the question, I’d just like to say that upcycing is at the heart of all we do. I’d also like to highlight the difference between upcycling and recycling. Recycling essentially involves the destruction of waste in order to create something new; whereas upcycling takes waste and creates something new from it in its current stage. We upcycle leftover rubbers from old tires, beds and jumbo mats into soles for our shoes without using any chemical treatment. We have dabbled in upcycling cork and we combine it with locally and ethically obtained materials like jute cotton to make extremely comfortable and sustainable footwear.

You also asked about eco-conscious consumption, which is a social movement that is based around increased awareness of the impact of purchasing decisions on the environment and on consumer health and life in general. We have mentioned this word in our website because we strongly believe that there are radicalists out there who believe in the sustainability of all aspects of life and are willing to spend a little extra for the benefit of the environment. There are also people who believe in saving the environment: reducing global warming and their carbon footprints just by spending a little extra. We definitely thought we should target these people and this is why these terminologies are found on our website.

Wharton Global Youth: Is the infrastructure in India supportive of this eco-conscious, recycling, upcycling type of environment?

Divya: I would definitely say it’s supportive. We have received a lot of support from different educational institutions in India. Essentially, whenever we come up with any new footwear, we send it to different educationalists. We remember sending our footwear to one of the schools in Delhi and the principal was amazed by what we were doing. They decided to order 15 slippers in bulk from us. I’d definitely say that the infrastructure is supportive. I think people are becoming conscious these days and they want to do something for the environment. That supportive space is growing, growing every day.

Wharton Global Youth: An important part of your business model is the use of small-scale cobblers to make your products. Who is crafting Tyron’s shoes and is your use of local cobblers related to community economic development and empowerment in India?

Parth: To answer this question, I’d like to highlight that the major force behind Tyron are the cobblers. Cobblers are often exploited by retailers and wholesalers by battling socio-economic realities. Shoemakers are forced into a vicious cycle of debt. And as the pandemic hit, it worsened the situation. It was heartbreaking for us to see the deplorable conditions of people who lost their livelihoods. That’s exactly why we wanted to do something for them and something for society. Thus, at Tyron we made the conscious choice of addressing their issues. And we ensure that the talent of the cobblers and their ingenuity is rewarded so they can become financially capable of establishing a prosperous community of their own.

Wharton Global Youth: So you are making sure that you are paying them a fair wage and that they aren’t being taken advantage of?

Tyron’s Candy Stripes are a team favorite.

Parth: Right. I’d also like to highlight that with the cobblers, we don’t just pay them according to the number of units they produce, but also we have a monthly wage of around 500 Rupees set for them so that they’re always with us and they always have a source to rely on.

Wharton Global Youth: With the use of unconventional materials and small-scale cobblers, how do you ensure that you are getting a quality product?

Parth: I personally believe that for any small business, it’s important for it to stand out of the crowd. This is the ideology we followed with Tyron as well. We wanted to do something out of the way that no other brand was doing and we tried to look for options that could set us apart. We went ahead and tried to use tires, and as the question is posed, it might not be for all businesses, but this new take really worked for us. All of the team here – us designing the slippers, the cobblers, the whole idea of using tires was a new bit to deal with. But after three hideous-looking prototypes, we were finally able to create the footwear we wanted to sell.

Wharton Global Youth: I love the way it looks on the website. The designs are beautiful. Divya, do you have a favorite? Black Comet, Candy Stripes, Night Blossoms. Which one is yours?

Divya: I would say Candy Stripes, because I personally designed those and have a personal bias towards them.

Wharton Global Youth: How about you, Parth? Do you have a favorite?

Parth: I’ll agree with Divya, too, because it was like one of our first footwear that we ever designed and those are made up of a completely different material as such. They are at the top of my list.

Wharton Global Youth: How much do your shoes cost and how did you determine a price point? I’m wondering too if your business is profit-driven, as well as planet-driven?

Divya: Our slippers cost in the range of $9-$12. We determined the price point after taking into consideration the cost of raw materials, the cost of labor, and our share of profit. And, as Parth already spoke about this particular point I’d like to highlight it again, all of our cobblers do get a base salary every month regardless of the number of orders they complete with us. Their base salary essentially comes from the profit.

I definitely say that right now we are more planet-driven. One question that a lot of people have asked us is would we want to switch to automation and our answer has been no. We strongly believe in building a community of cobblers who can have their stable income and stable livelihood. That’s why at this point we’re not even thinking of going to automation. What we’re thinking about is having a successful community of cobblers and enter into bulk production with them. At this moment, it’s definitely planet-driven.

Wharton Global Youth: I’m interested to hear more about each of you and how you divide up your responsibilities with Tyron. Divya, you first. You’re 17 and born in India, though you spent some 10 years in South Africa and Tanzania. You describe yourself as a passionate young activist who believes in bringing change to society. How have your experiences prepared you for entrepreneurial endeavors, and what do you bring to the business?

Divya: Growing up in Tanzania, I was constantly told one thing: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. I’ve also heard this phrase “Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu,” which essentially means that a person is a person because of other people. That’s why collaboration is and will always be one of the most essential principles for me because the aggregate is always greater than the individual. I feel I have learned so much more when I have worked in a group rather than just working alone. That’s why you’ll always find me working in a team, be it for our venture Tyron or our social service project, Project Sehpaathi, where we strive very hard to provide employment opportunities to the Acid Attack Survivors and the members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

[In terms of] what I bring to the business, I’ve always been very proactive in taking part in different business competitions and business hackathons, which have ultimately deepened my interest in this field. So I definitely bring in a lot of passion and the ability to ideate and solve problems. I’ve also realized the importance of networking. Essentially any competition, any forum, any platform, you’ll just find me networking. That has been extremely helpful for our venture, because we do need someone in our court who can help us promote our productions. My networking skills and the people I’ve known through different competitions have definitely helped us, not only by guiding us but also by motivating other people to buy our products and take interest in what Tyron has to do and offer.

Wharton Global Youth:  Parth, you’re 16 and a student at Tagore International School in New Delhi, India. You are deeply interested in science, technology and entrepreneurship. Tell us how you connected with Divya and what you feel you bring to Tyron by way of skills and expertise?

Parth: I’ve actually known Divya for quite some time now. We have been friends since the 6th grade. We’ve spent a lot of time together. The turning point was back in 2020 when we went from being friends to becoming business partners. We started Project Sehpaathi together, where we help students belonging to economically weaker sections of the society to learn soft skills and carry out learning during the pandemic. I think some of my experience at Sehpaathi and my skills of communication, coding, designing and marketing together played a crucial role to build Tyron. As I mentioned before, I designed Tyron’s website from scratch, giving our business an online presence. I automated our shipping process operations. I manage our Instagram page where we connected with most of our initial customers. I feel these add-ons to the business have really helped us sell our product to the people who are looking for it.

Wharton Global Youth: Let’s talk about the broader message here. I talked at the beginning about how you say that your shoes are “not only comfortable and stylish but also sustainable and eco-friendly and help people walk toward a better future.” Why should all of us, and especially other high school students, understand and embrace your business model?

Divya: We strongly believe that the idea of Tyron is feasible and viable in all ways, be it practically, socially and financially. It is cheaper than most fashion footwear brands. It’s environment-friendly, plus it’s comfortable to wear every day. That’s why I think people should embrace our business model.

Parth: I would also like to add on the whole idea of sustainability. As we are moving closer and closer toward a planet that is dying today, we really need to conserve it. As the younger generation, we are in the process of going. We’re seeing the planet die. And therefore, we have the opportunity to inculcate those good habits into our daily lives. We can start small with just buying footwear from Tyron or maybe just starting your own sustainable journey. As we all carry on to do that, we would be able to create a larger impact in the future and also preserve our future generations.

Wharton Global Youth: What’s next for Tyron? What are your aspirations for this eco-friendly business?

Divya: We would love to start working on a unisex footwear and diversify our product [line] to wallets, wall decors and keyrings. Also, we would like to sell our products on e-commerce giants such as Myntra, Amazon and Flipkart. I think I might have already mentioned earlier that we would love to expand our cobbler network and enter bulk production that would help us cut down on our manufacturing costs.

Parth: We would also like to see people inculcate Tyron in their daily lives. And to see Tyron footwear in fashion shows and people embracing sustainable fashion.

Wharton Global Youth: One question I like to ask all my guests on Future of the Business World: If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be? Divya, you want to go first?

Divya: I would love to change the emphasis on book knowledge. At least in the Indian education system, one is good to go as long as they cram some book content. I strongly feel that it’s literally the hands-on experience that matters in life. I would love to change the emphasis on bookish knowledge and traditional teaching.

Parth: I’m in 100% agreement with Divya. This is one thing that impacts every single child in India. The hands-on approach can really help one develop their soft skills; develop their communication skills. [I want them to see] what they can do outside of this textbook world and in the practical world. Most of the experiences I’ve gained are through my hands-on work and every single child should be given the opportunity to do so.

Wharton Global Youth: Let’s wrap up with our lightning round. Answer these questions as quickly as you can:

What is one thing we’d find you doing when you’re not selling tire-inspired shoes?

Divya: Watching Shark Tank episodes and playing tennis.

Parth: Reading and answering questions on Quora or just hanging out on the Github community.

Wharton Global Youth: Something about India that you want everyone to know?

Divya: That about 70% of world spices come from India.

Parth: It’s a hub of culture and diversity. You experience a completely different world here.

Wharton Global Youth: In a few words, how has the pandemic changed you?

Divya: It has made me more self-sufficient and taught me how to hone my time-management skills.

Parth: I’ve explored myself and what dreams I really would like to do and networked with some great people.

Wharton Global Youth: Finish this sentence: In 10 years, our planet will be….

Divya: In a dire and a desperate need for us to stop living in our own selfish ways.

Parth: We’ll be filled with people who desire to change this world.

Wharton Global Youth: If you could invite one businessperson to lunch, who would it be and why?

Divya: I would definitely want to have lunch with Indra Nooyi, the former chairperson and Chief Executive Officer at Pepsico. She is an expert listener. She listened to her peers, her subordinates and the company’s customers. In one of the articles on her LinkedIn she mentioned that there are always people with ideas for how we can do things differently; ideas that we might not want to hear. I definitely want to know if there’s any idea or advice she got from someone that really changed her life.

Parth: I would like to have lunch with Elon Musk, because I feel that I have a lot to learn from his ideas and accomplishments. And I believe in his radicalistic take toward sustainability. And also, who wouldn’t want to rob the richest person in the world of some of his time.

Wharton Global Youth: Divya, Parth, thank you so much for joining us on Future of the Business World.

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