A shoe company with Jewish soul

Tieks makes ballet flats, supports microlending and helped sew a million masks

Even the best-laid business plans can change. Take Kfir Gavrieli, who was born in Israel and grew up in Southern California seemingly destined to enter the family business selling plastics, metals and sign supplies. He was so certain of that career path that he received a master’s degree in materials science and engineering from Stanford University, where he had studied as an undergraduate. In 2006, he entered Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, where he became interested in retail and social entrepreneurship. 

Now, instead of selling vinyl and acrylic, he sells leather, in the form of ballet flats. The shoes are called “Tieks,” which is the Hebrew word for “bag,” because they fold up and fit into a purse. Since launching Tieks in 2010, Gavrieli has worked to make social impact a part of the business, including microlending, mask-making and $5,000 grants for several nonprofits that support Black women and girls. The company sewed masks itself, but also trained customers to do the same, and gave them gift cards for the shoes in return. An online community has grown up around the brand. “We’re more than just a shoe company. Look at the conversations that happen on our Facebook page. Our customers connect on the deepest level,” Gavrieli told eJewishPhilanthropy.

This article has been edited and condensed.

Helen Chernikoff: Did you always know you would go into business?

Kfir Gavrieli: I grew up in a family business, but I was in business school at Stanford, and if your visions of what you think you will do don’t change when you’re at the heart of Silicon Valley, then you might not be getting the most out of the experience. I ended up living with people who were on the absolute cutting-edge of the retail industry. What I learned wasn’t in the classroom, it was some guys selling pants out of the garage.

HC: How did you arrive at this product and business model?

KG: We got to be pioneers and create changes in the industry. The first thing we did differently was the design of the shoe — that it’s foldable. The original idea was a foldable flip-flop, and over time it evolved to the product we sell today. We thought about doing a foldable sneaker and a foldable sandal, and we decided the ballet slipper would be the best product. I lived in China for a year to go through hundreds and hundreds of prototypes. The second [thing] was helping to create the direct-to-consumer channel. Bonobos was the first direct-to-consumer fashion company, and that was very inspiring. Now, when you’re a new brand, it’s a no-brainer to launch online. We had to create innovative ways to bring people to our website. We did lots of testing on various social media platforms.

HC: Why not just sell through the normal channels?

KG: We went through the e-commerce learning curve with the entire industry. That was a fun thing to be a part of. It was an early window into the promise of e-commerce, of understanding what was possible, and breaking through barriers. Our goal was to get our product into the hands of people. We came to want a direct relationship with customers, instead of one mediated by department stores and boutiques and specialty stores. We got direct feedback from customers, so we developed a customer service department. In the early days, we were thinking more about what it would take to survive, and over time we discovered all these benefits.

HC: What made you want to build service into the business?

KG: It was just the idea of having meaning in what we do, more than just the business. Through business, you can have impact rather than just make money and give it away later in life. Through commerce, you can create change. I guess it’s the Jewish upbringing. My family did giving outside of business through involvement with synagogue and community, through helping friends. This model of integrating social impact with the business is newer. It’s a reflection of a bigger trend we’re seeing and at some point it will become the norm.

HC: What does that mean for your company?

KG: We considered the Toms model, where if the customer buys the product, the company gives one away. It was cost-prohibitive for us, because ours is a luxury product. But we also thought we could do better. Was that model really helpful, or was it more about marketing? The idea is that instead of giving someone a pair of shoes, we decided it’s much more impactful to instead enable these women to buy their own shoes, and make their own money, and buy whatever they want. I went to business school with the founder of Kiva [a microfinance company], which creates a marketplace for lenders to provide access to capital for people who would have none. It’s amazing what people can do with access to capital. We just swipe a credit card; we don’t think about it. But there are female entrepreneurs in Africa who would love to buy a coffee machine for $30 and start a coffee shop with it. And that’s really what these microloans make possible. So far, we have loaned $10 million on Kiva. That’s meaningful to us. 

When the pandemic hit, our initial thought was to sew masks ourselves. Our customers wanted to help sewing as soon as we started. We realized that we could teach them how to do it, and empower people who had a deep desire to help. So we facilitated; we gave instructions for mask designs and how to sew them. We try to not be the saviors ourselves, but pay attention and listen to what they themselves want to do. How, as a corporate citizen, can we play a role? 

HC: And what’s next?

KG: What concerns me now is how to help other companies see what they can do and what their responsibility is. It’s a little delicate for companies, because they can generate opposition if they take political positions, but there is so much to do that goes beyond politics. Everybody should be able to agree there are roles for companies to play, and that they have a responsibility. Again, I can trace it back to Jewish values. I’ve been doing lessons with a rabbi each week, and it crystalizes for me that we’re on the right path. What we’re doing is very much in line with what we as Jews were raised on. During Passover alone, I learned 10 lessons about why our approach is the right approach. It’s the idea of gaining by giving. The first Passover Seder created this tradition of first inviting people who want matzah to eat.