Stern Alumni Find Inspiration – and Opportunity – in Fold-Up Flats
Love is always on the minds of Stern full-time MBA alumni Taffi Ayodele (‘13) and J.G. Ayodele (’12). Love for each other. Love for Africa. Love for life. Love for their customers. And love for Thando’s, their startup that focuses on bringing limited edition, vibrant foldable ballerina flats to market. Thando’s, which derives its meaning from “love” in Xhosa (a native South African language) is changing the fashion industry one pair of shoes at a time. The company provides a business platform that integrates fashion, social responsibility, and community-building.
Thando’s produces foldable ballerina flats made from fabric designed and crowd-sourced from African artists through design competitions inspired by causes in Africa. A portion of the company’s proceeds goes to both the designer and African NGOs (or charities); it is used to address the causes that plague African communities.
“We want to empower African artists by helping them to achieve a global reach as well as use their skills to interpret (via their art) the issues that African communities face,” J.G. stated. “Thus, art acts in a way that is very much like a sounding board for local communities.”
Taffi became a member of the Stern in Africa club. After joining, she worked with the club’s Executive Vice President J.G. to plan and host the club’s first ever Africa Economic Forum. The forum was a success with over 200 people in attendance. For Taffi, it was an eye-opening experience being that she never lived in or even visited the African continent. While the forum came and went, it left Taffi with the desire to see Africa firsthand.
Taffi, who specialized in international business and entrepreneurship, discussed her pursuit of an internship in Africa with J.G. He advised Taffi that South Africa may be the country to go to in part because it had the largest African economy at the time.
“I felt that South Africa would also be an easier country for Taffi to adjust to given its economic development,” J.G. said. He provided more than advice: he introduced Taffi to Swaady Martin-Leke, a Stern TRIUM alumna. At the time, Swaady was starting her own gourmet tea business YSWARA and was looking for help (i.e. unpaid interns). Taffi was on board.
While Taffi’s internship did not pay in dollars, it did pay her in the form of an idea. Before leaving the U.S., Taffi packed a $10 pair of Dr. Scholl’s Fast Flats. Taffi figured that they would be a comfortable alternative to wearing heels to and from her internship. Taffi’s Fast Flats drew much attention from her boss and new South African friends. However, it wasn’t until she experienced two events that the lightbulb went off in her head. First, as Swaady’s birthday approached toward the end of her internship, Taffi wanted to surprise her with a pair of foldable flats. To her dismay, she couldn’t find any in Johannesburg. Taffi asked for J.G.’s help in researching the shoes availability in Nigeria. He encountered a similar challenge. Taffi realized that there was demand, but no supply. Second, when Taffi went out dancing with friends to celebrate her birthday, she found that a number of her friends wanted a pair of foldable flats. One friend made an offer: $100 for a $10 pair!
While at Stern, J.G. studied different retail models launched by startups. He was a member of the entrepreneurship club and worked as a consultant for two startups. At the time, different businesses began using crowdsourcing techniques as part of their design process. One in particular that caught J.G.’s attention was Threadless.
When Taffi mentioned her business idea, J.G. immediately thought about integrating a crowdsourcing model with the products. Both J.G. and Taffi also wanted to incorporate “Africa” into their ballerina flats. They did this by giving African artists and influencers a platform to submit designs for the flats and allowed the community of fans and followers to vote on their favorite. Through such crowdsourcing efforts, they would select the flats that would be included in their next collection.
Bringing Thando’s to Market
Launching Thando’s was not an easy feat; it was essentially a second round of business school for Taffi and J.G. It took them two years to bring their flats to market. The first step was to find a designer to create a prototype for the shoe. J.G. tapped into his network.
“One of my best friends had a friend who designed high heels,” J.G. explained. “That friend-of-a-friend connected us with our designer, who had designed flats for Lucky Brand and Ralph Lauren.” The designer was thinking about branching out on his own and decided to help Taffi and J.G.
The second step was to find fabric for Thando’s first pair of shoes. J.G. went to the popular and also chaotic Balogun Market in Lagos. The market is huge and has a wide variety of fabric vendors.
“It can be really intimidating. Luckily, I found our print within 10 minutes’ time at the market,” J.G. said. “I saw this yellow fabric with a design that looked like lips. I felt it was calling out to me.” He asked the vendor what the name of the print was and the vendor responded, “chin chin, lips, kiss kiss.” Taffi approved of the print and J.G. bought enough yards to make 200 pairs. They decided to name their shoe design that utilized this print, “The First Kiss.”
Next up was to find a factory to produce their shoe. According to J.G. and Taffi, this leg of the journey was challenging. Supplier power is very real. Their designer had some connections to factories, but they were used to producing very large quantities for well-known name brands like JCREW and Ralph Lauren. They tried finding a supplier through Alibaba.com. Those suppliers produced a product that was of poor quality. For Taffi and J.G., it was very important that they produce a product of high quality and comfort. It was also important that the factory was woman-owned and engaged in ethical practices.
During this search process, J.G. decided to move back to Nigeria to take a full time job with Viacom in Business Development as a way to fund their early R&D costs. Taffi graduated and joined J.G. in Nigeria. Taffi was working full-time on Thando’s, while J.G. worked for Viacom’s Nigerian office. On a random day, luck struck while Taffi was working at a popular Café in Lagos.
“It was there that I met another woman who was a University of Pennsylvania Wharton alum,” Taffi said. “We got to talking and I mentioned to her some of my challenges in finding a factory. We connected with her contact and she recommended a woman-owned factory in China.”
The factory owner was willing to contract for a fair minimum quantity of 200 pairs per style – a steal compared to the 10,000 pairs per style other factories were mandating. The last factor that helped Taffi and J.G. decide to partner with the factory was that they were open to setting up operations in Africa. This aligned with Thando’s goals.
Even though Thando’s had found a factory, there was another challenge on the horizon – distribution. Taffi and J.G. planned to have their shoes shipped to Nigeria in time for the holiday season, a time when retailers sell up to 80% of their product. What they didn’t account for the ensuing port workers’ strike. While their shoes arrived in Nigeria in November, Taffi and J.G. couldn’t retrieve their inventory until January. They still refer to this period as “the strike that stole Christmas.”
Once they received their inventory, Taffi and J.G. went into hustle mode. “We sold to friends and family, brick and mortar stores, schools, teachers etc.,” J.G. explained. “We jumped at any opportunity to sell Thando’s shoes (like pop up shops, music festivals, peoples’ homes and offices).”
The hustle hasn’t stopped for Taffi and J.G.; Thando’s is expanding. They introduced the brand to the U.S. last summer, and it continues to be well received. Taffi and J.G. have traveled across the United States to host pop-up shops (including a stop at Facebook’s HQ, where they were invited for a private showcase with Facebook employees). Plans are also underway for Thando’s to expand to South Africa, Kenya, and to the broader U.S. market. Thando’s also has seen material growth from its website (www.thandos.com).
Thando’s is a company dedicated to their mission: to create innovative African designed products for the world, while positively impacting the communities supplying the designs. Thando’s hopes to provide customers with a little more love for their “soles.”
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