For Prem Thomas, starting Gurus was more than just a new venture: It was a way to connect to his heritage and give back, all at the same time.
His Tampa, Fla.-based company, which Thomas launched with friend and business partner Joe Choorapuzha in 2013, uses all-natural rubber for its sustainably sourced $30 flip-flops for men and women. Sold through the brand’s e-commerce site, as well as in surf accounts, eco-boutiques and nail salons, Gurus plants a tree with nonprofit Trees for the Future for every pair sold.
The Kerala region in India that supplies the rubber is a significant one to the founders. Thomas and Choorapuzha, who met while working in banking in New York, both have relatives based there — in fact, they discovered after meeting that their families hail from the same street.
Their fledgling brand was also born there almost four years ago. Thomas was at the market running errands for his mother when he spotted an antique pair of methiyedi shoes, a once-ubiquitous style that Mahatma Gandhi was known to wear. “I saw some ancient wooden sandals hanging up as art, so I bought them as art,” he said. “My mom said that when she was a kid, my grandpa had a pair, and she and her brothers and sisters used to steal them and wear them around.”
Seeing potential for a modern audience, Thomas and Choorapuzha decided to manufacture the shoes, except made in natural rubber. Like the prototype, their finished line features a raised button that keeps the toes in place. However, unlike the original, the Gurus model has a flat bottom plus a strap over the instep that adds security on the foot.
Another departure is that the collection is made from natural rubber. Thomas pointed out that latex can be harvested daily for 25 years without harming the tree it is tapped from, so the material is sustainable as well as biodegradable. In addition, it’s comfortable and has a local connection, he said.
“Both of our families were in rubber farming,” Thomas said. “[In fact], some of the rubber we’re using comes from the rubber trees on our family farms.”
The young duo — Thomas and Choorapuzha are both 31 — knew they wanted their company to include a philanthropic component, but debated just what that could mean. “Do we give food to children, do we provide them with shoes, or something else?” Thomas said.
Eventually, the founders decided on planting trees. “We thought that because the shoes come from a tree, it would be great to plant something for the future,” Thomas said. “We’re trying to go for a completely sustainable product. We’re taking our product from the rubber trees, so we add more to the earth.”
Although the team initially considered manufacturing in India, Thomas said a long search led them to China, where factories could work with their minimums and quality was impressive.
The duo self-financed the project for three years before its official launch. “We had saved some money, so to put it into an idea we really believed in and that brings a part of India to the U.S. is great,” Thomas said.
Last fall, the brand launched a Kickstarter campaign and raised more than $16,000 with 410 backers, exceeding their goal of $12,000 to pay for inventory and tooling costs.
Gurus is currently stocked in shops including Florida bike chain Ride-N-Roll Cyclery and some Ron Jon Surf Shop doors. For the duration of next month, the brand will introduce its product at the two New York locations of Equinox’s Pure Yoga studio, in celebration of National Yoga Month.
The give-back component was an attractive element for Pure, according to Janice Ko, special events and new business coordinator for Equinox. “This is the first time we’ve stocked a brand like this,” she said. “We just thought it would be a really good fit.”
To diversify and continue building its retail roster, the company plans to exhibit at trade shows including the Atlanta Shoe Market this season. For fall, the brand will add metallic silver and gold styles to meet consumer requests, and spring ’15 will see the launch of kids’ sizes, as well as a partnership with Bel Kazan to put the Los Angeles-based label’s signature prints onto Gurus products.
But while the team is keen to explore different design options with its natural rubber material, the focus for now is on Gurus’ signature toe-post look. “We have ideas, but we would like to have people know us for this design,” Thomas said.