Meet Mohinders, an amazing ethical slipper(shoe) brand created by a lawyer turned Social Entrepreneur. By partnering with an NGO in a small village in India, Mohinders is able to offer 2nd and 3rd generation artisans an opportunity to break the cycle of poverty while also honoring a traditional design process. The company was inspired by a beautiful handwoven leather shoe that Michael Paratore, Founder of Mohinders bought on the streets of Mumbai.
When Michael returned home to the United States, people on the streets kept walking up to him complimenting him on his shoes. He was blown away by the positive response these random and beautiful shoes were getting that he decided to adventure through India in search of the people who made the shoes.
The search was rewarded when he discovered an artisan collaborative in rural Karnataka that ethically and expertly now makes the companies shoes. Each pair of Mohinders is meticulously handcrafted by the collaborative’s 2nd and 3rd generation master-craftsmen and women out of their own homes. Sourcing from the artisan collaborative ensures that the artisans are paid higher rates for the shoes they make, do not have to borrow from money lenders in order to buy raw materials for production, and are, thus, empowered to break free from the “cycle of poverty.”
Below is a Q&A with Michael Paratore, Founder of Mohinders oh his amazing journey to start his ethical brand.
What was the reason for going to India on that initial trip where you found the shoes? Where and how did you buy them?
My wife, Michelle, was in business school at the time, and some of her classmates led an educational trip to India. Michelle won a lottery and was able to bring her significant other, me, on the trip. It was a great experience—we met several business and political leaders, including the current prime minister, Narendra Modi. The downside: I was the first person on the trip to get incredibly sick. In Mumbai, still recovering, I went on a walk down the Colaba Causeway to get some fresh air. It was on this walk that I came across a shoe stall selling about 100 different styles of handmade leather shoes; a pair of woven leather slides that caught my eye, so I bought them to take home as a souvenir.
When you got back home to the Bay Area people were loving the shoes and always asking about them. What was the time frame from when you got back from India to actually quitting your job to pursue this unlikely dream?
I got back to the Bay Area in April 2012. By July, I had quit my job, and in August I was on a plane back to Mumbai.
When you finally made the decision to quit your job and pursue this, what was the reaction from your family and friends?
Unbelievably positive, which to be honest, is what I expected from them. My wife was more surprised by my decision to go to law school and practice law than she was that I would travel to India in search of a shoe. She was supportive and excited for me that I was following something I was passionate about. The one surprise for me was that even my grandmother, who had always wanted me to become a doctor or a lawyer, understood my choice and thought this new pursuit sounded exciting.
The interesting thing is that you made this huge decision and you still have no clue who makes these shoes and how to find them. Talk about the journey in itself to find the village with the artisans who actually have been making these amazing shoes.
My only real plan for tracking down the shoes was to talk to as many people as possible. While in Mumbai I connected with people working at the hotels where I stayed, people in restaurants, people working stalls selling similar shoes… anyone who would take a moment for a conversation. This meandering approach garnered clues pointing toward Kolhapur, a town famous for handmade leather shoes. I hopped on an overnight train. In Kolhapur, I did more of the same inquiry. The help of countless generous people eventually led me to the village where Mohinders are made.
You make a great point to mention that you didn’t want to take on this endeavor if you could not do it ethically. When you approach trying to create an ethical shoe company what were some of the key points and factors that you wanted to see in your companies eco-system especially with the artisans?
At the beginning, I didn’t know what I specifically meant by “ethical;” my priority was to make sure that artisans weren’t being exploited. I was afraid I would find the norm to be low pay, and unsafe or undesirable working conditions.
Over the years I’ve learned that for me, an ethical shoe company means one that is both socially and environmentally responsible. We are achieving this by working with a non-profit cooperative and doing all we can to choose environmentally friendly materials.
Do you feel like your law background has helped in getting some essential rights and contracts for the artisans in this rural area of India?
Not in this specific area, actually. The cooperative we work with deserves all the credit for implementing the practices necessary to ensure that the artisans can thrive.
How would you answer the question about leather and ethics. Many may say that leather in general is an unethical material, but can you talk about where the leather comes from and what goes into actually making the shoes?
There’s no question that leather can be problematic. While humans have used the material for millenniums, today’s industrial leather production connotes valid concerns with animal welfare, toxic chemicals, and waste water. In light of this, we were intrigued—and relieved—to discover the way our leather is produced. The artisans who craft Mohinders source their leather from nearby tanners, who work on a small scale to tan water buffalo hides, using regionally harvested botanicals; namely, bark from the acacia tree and the myrobalan nut. We believe a smaller scale combined with a traditional, non-industrial method, is a step in the right direction. That said, we still have questions in our supply chain around environmental and social impact of this leather, which we’re investigating them now and will continue on a deeper level on an upcoming trip to India.
Now that the company is up and running what are some of the goals and challenges you now face?
One of our goals is to continue learning about every step of our supply chain, down to each and every material used in our shoes. This is the only way we can be fully comfortable making the claim that we are an ethical shoe company.
10 years ago if someone would have said you are going to quit your job as a corporate lawyer and travel to a rural village in India to start an ethical shoe company what do you think your response would have been?
10 years ago I was 25, living in Milan, working for a startup car company, and making travel videos for Current TV. I was on a trajectory toward doing something out of the ordinary, so I probably would have been more surprised to hear I would become a corporate lawyer than the part about starting an ethical shoe company ten years down the road.