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When two childhood friends struggled to find shoes that would fit them correctly, their entrepreneurial venture with a social conscience, Soleful Shoes was born
Pradhima Shyamsunder and Kuppal Palaniappan are women after your souls.
“Give us your souls,” demanded Pradhima during our recent chat. Relax! She meant ‘soles’ and was referring to their shoe store and donation drive, Soleful Shoes. Nice play on words!
Together, Sri Lankan-born Pradhima and South Indian origin Kuppal own Soleful Shoes, an online store catering to women with large and small feet. Their passion for helping others has seen them link their product to charity by giving their customers an opportunity to donate their old shoes when they buy a new pair from their store.
Soleful Shoes is a product of the Sydney pair’s personal frustration at not being able to find nice shoes in their sizes.
“We are exactly our brand,” Pradhima explained, referring to her own short stature at 4ft 11inch with petite size 5 feet, and Kuppal’s towering height at 5ft 10inch with size 11 feet.
After tinkering with the idea of a business for several years, Pradhima, a Finance Manager at Social Ventures Australia, and Kuppal, a consultant with Deloitte, approached Divya J Sethuram of Plumtree Shoes. The Sydney shoe designer produces quality handmade shoes from her workshop in Bengaluru, India. In collaboration with Sethuram, Soleful Shoes was launched in 2016.
“When I started working I wore high heels all the time. It would take me ages to find shops that stocked my size. Mostly, they ordered only a few in small sizes which were sold out by the time I got there. So, I ended up buying shoes that were too big and uncomfortable. I started binging on shoes during my trips overseas,” Pradhima shared. “Kuppal, on the other hand, could only find shoes in her size in chain stores and sometimes resorted to shopping in the men’s section. We were spending too much money on footwear that didn’t fit.”
Both women yearned for a solution. From the age of 18, Kuppal dreamed of starting a business selling shoes for women with larger feet, but sat on the idea. Meanwhile, Pradhima got her feet wet with online shoe retailer Teacup Shoes at age 27. That early venture catering to tiny feet was short lived, as she got married and took up full-time employment. Still, Pradhima insists, it was an invaluable experience. “I learned so much that I can now share with Kuppal.”
The pair insist their business is about more than profits; it’s about addressing the needs of people who find themselves outside mainstream footwear options.
“We don’t want Soulful Shoes to be for petite and large shoes only,” Pradhima said. “Our ultimate vision is to cater to anyone who is not a normal shoe size, like women with one foot smaller than the other, or those with disabilities affecting shoe choices. Our brand is all about inclusion. We want to be known as spokespeople for inclusive footwear in Australia.”
As part of their social mission, Soleful Shoes has partnered with non-profit organisation Dress for Success, encouraging women to purchase a pair of shoes and donate a pair of lightly worn shoes to the charity partner.
“Dress for Success provides exceptional services to women looking for work,” Pradhima said. “It gives women professional clothes and shoes and prepares them with training and support to achieve economic independence. We’re proud to be associated with it.”
Just six months into operation, the public response to the venture encouraging.
“Customers love the styles and materials in our first collection of handmade shoes,” Pradhima said. “Divya’s expertise is guiding us to explore creative sides we didn’t even think existed!”
With full time jobs and family commitments, the women agree it is challenging to run a business.
“But what’s important is to keep it sustainable,” admitted Pradhima. “Instead of putting in too much and burning ourselves out, we’re taking it slow and supporting each other. We realise that as the business grows we must make a call, but for now we are managing it with everything else.”
Under the banner of Soleful Shoes, the women are organising a clothes and shoe drive on 9 April. The ‘Donate Your Soles’ event is flagged as a fun affair at Bicentennial Park, Sydney Olympic Park. The event will feature speeches, entertainment and food. Donations for all men’s and women’s clothes and shoes are welcomed.
The proceeds from the drive will go to Dress for Success and associated non-profit organisation Dress for Work, which provides similar services to men looking for work. The organisation imparts job readiness training and support to job seekers, in addition to good quality suits, shoes and accessories, for interviews and formal occasions.
“This is such a tangible way for people to make a difference. In this lucky country, we all have stuff that we can spare,” said Pradhima. “So come along, donate some stuff, grab a bite and chat with us!”
Pradhima and Kuppal would like to see all women embrace their uniqueness and own who they are. “If we didn’t have our differences, we would all look the same and life would be so boring. Instead of feeling insecure and hiding our differences, we must celebrate them because that is what makes us special. That’s what Soleful Shoes stands for!”