When it comes to footwear, travel has taught me to be purely practical: it always comes down to comfort and utility. So I was taken by surprise when, roaming around a craft market in San Francisco, I became fixated on a pair of seriously cool woven leather shoes. They looked like the kind of useful and stylish souvenir you’d buy on a life-changing trip. In an unexpected twist, it turns out that’s exactly what they were. In fact, my newfound shoe obsession paled in comparison to that of Michael Paratore, the former lawyer who quit his job to track down and base a company, Mohinders, on this very shoe. I sat down with the self-proclaimed shoe-peddler to get the full story.
In 2012, Paratore bought a pair of shoes from a street vendor in India while on a trip with his wife’s business school class. When he returned home, he didn’t think much of them, but quickly started to realize he was wearing them more and more and really loving them. And so were other people. Strangers would stop him on the street and ask what brand they were, where he bought them and where they could purchase a pair. “I loved them because they were super easy and looked cool, but it was clear that other people thought they had way more than just novelty appeal.”
That’s when he hatched a plan that wound up changing his life. He floated the idea of selling these shoes to a few of his wife's business school associates. It became clear that, before anything else—before even coming up with a business plan—he needed to track down the shoemakers, because these weren’t factory-made shoes. “Something clicked and I remember thinking that I couldn’t believe that this could be life: traveling to India with a pair of shoes that I found there and searching for the people who made them. I couldn’t believe that a life like that could also be work-related. It sounded too amazing to pass up.” Only four months after buying that first pair, Paratore flew back to Mumbai.
It didn’t take him long to track down the vendor who had sold him the original pair, but it then took a few days and several conversations with different vendors to figure out where to go from there. It’s an odd request to make of a street vendor: to meet the source. Most didn't know and just wanted to sell him more shoes. But when pressed, vendors finally pointed him towards Kolhapur, the shoe capital of India best known for producing the Kolhapuri chappal, a minimalist leather sandal that became especially popular in the United States in the '70s.
The problem with trying to track down a specific style of shoe in the Indian epicenter of artisanal shoe-making, as Paratore quickly found, is that it’s a needle-in-a-haystack situation. There may be only one street in Kolhapur with all the shoes, but there are hundreds of shops selling hundreds of styles on that street. In every store, Paratore spent hours sitting, drinking tea, and chatting with shop owners who plied him with shoes that were, in their words, much better, much fancier, than the shoes he was looking for. But Paratore was on a mission. “Taking a trip and having a distinct goal in mind, changes the entire trip. I’ve traveled a lot but this was the most interesting, rewarding, and engaging trip because I had this purpose. It led to me talk with so many people, and to go beyond small talk.”
Eventually, Paratore made his way to a neighborhood on the outskirts of town where everyone was making shoes and he knew he was in the right place. “I went into this one house and started talking with the shoemakers. They pulled one of their kids out of school, this unbelievably cool 16 or 17 year-old, so he could translate and we talked for a while about what they were making, and how they make these shoes, how long they’d been doing it. We just hung out, drinking tea in their small house.”
At some point, the shoemakers found out that it was Paratore’s birthday and before he knew it they had invited at least 50 people over to their house for a party, including a reporter from the local newspaper. There was cake and a birthday ritual with candles and people shoving pieces of cake into Paratore’s face. And then after all that, when it came time to sit down and talk business, it turned out that this particular family didn’t actually make the shoe Paratore was seeking. But they did, however, know exactly where he could find it.
The next day, en route to his final destination, Paratore was shocked to find himself on the front page of the local newspaper: “American Lawyer Quits Job to Sell Indian Sandals.” According to Paratore, “everybody thought I was crazy. That I must be insane to have quit being a lawyer with a job that makes a lot of money and switch to one with much less ‘status.’”
But it seems to be working out for him. It turns out, the shoes are made by a group of about 170 families already organized into a co-op connected to a local microfinance organization. Soon after returning to the U.S., Paratore founded Mohinders and reached out to the co-op to bring the shoes stateside. The company is now three years old and remains committed to providing ethically made shoes that are sourced directly from the same artisans who made Paratore’s first pair. Currently, Mohinders only offers two styles, but as it grows, the company plans to branch out into different styles and colors. Check out all the current styles and any new ones at mohinders.com.
And what’s life now like for a former lawyer-turned shoe peddler? “It’s pretty cool. A lot of it is just work. When it comes down to the business side of it, I’m just another brand out there in a competitive market and I spend a lot of time dealing with the logistics. But I am living that life that first attracted me; I still get to go to India every once in a while, I work with artisans, and I'm doing things that I feel good about.”
Oh, and if you were wondering if the name "Mohinders" has anything to do with the TV show “Heroes,” you’d be right. It was a cool name that Paratore liked from the show that kind of stuck with him, just like the shoes did.
© 2016 AFAR Media