Prem Thomas (BSBA ’05) is proving to be a marketing “guru” – offering a novel twist on an ancient sandal design.
Thomas is CEO of Gurus, which produces a sustainably sourced, eco-friendly sandal made from sap collected from rubber tree farms in South India. Its design is based on a 5,000-year-old wooden sandal style, methiyedi, which Mahatma Gandhi wore.
Their updated design uses rubber rather than wood and features an ankle strap. The shoes are adjustable with twisting straps and a traditional Indian toe post, which allows greater stability and flexibility than modern flip-flops.
“I showed a pair to my friend more as a piece of art, but after a while we started thinking we could redesign this into something you could actually wear,” Thomas said.
Thomas, who grew up in Tampa, Fla., met that friend, Joe Choorpuzha, while they were working in New York. They discovered that their families grew up on the same street – almost 7,500 miles away – in Kerala, India.
They spent over three years searching for the right manufacturing partner, but finding enough customers to back the project took just 30 days thanks to Kickstarter, an online crowdfunding platform. In just under one month, their Kickstarter campaign collected 410 backers who collectively pledged $16,236 – more than $4,000 above the team’s original goal.
“With Kickstarter, you feel like you’re part of the development and manufacturing process,” Thomas said.
Customers who backed the Kickstarter project could vote on the product’s final color choices, which will include a variation of Carolina Blue. For each sandal sold, Washington D.C.-based “Trees for the Future” will plant a tree in India to provide for those in need and educate them about sustainable forestry.
“I would have never gotten the idea for Gurus if I hadn’t gone to India,” Thomas said. “Ever since then, I’ve had an itch to do something overseas, so bringing the Indian influence to consumer here is kind of a way to fulfill that.”
And without exposure to international opportunities offered through UNC Kenan-Flagler, Thomas says he would not be the entrepreneur he is today.
“If somebody is interested in entrepreneurship and traveling, working or even studying in different environments in different cultures, you can get great ideas and look at businesses and life from a different point of view,” Thomas said.
While a business student, Thomas spent a semester learning about international business culture while traveling Asia, Europe and South America as part of a global scholars program. After graduation he received the J. Troy Smith Study Abroad Scholarship for a two-week immersion trip to China, South Korea and Thailand, where he toured such businesses as IBM and 7-Eleven.
Thomas received the Steamboat Scholarship in 2004 and spent a summer working as an intern for Bloomberg’s public finance team. After he graduated from UNC Kenan-Flagler with a concentration in finance, he worked as an investment banker for Bank of America in New York. He also worked for the New York City Investment Fund, a civic venture capital fund, before he headed to the Philippines to work in Manila as a Kiva Microfinance Fellow in 2009.
The social entrepreneurship work of Kiva, a nonprofit network of worldwide microfinance institutions that provides loans to citizens without access to traditional banks, appealed to him.
“The transition from corporate to entrepreneurial life was a little easier since I did the fellowship with Kiva in the Philippines for six months,” he said.
After that he was ready to “do something of my own,” Thomas said. “So I moved back to the U.S. to work with my father on the biotech startup based on his research. He and his father co-founded Tampa-based Sagene Pharmaceuticals, a biopharmaceutical company that is developing novel multi-pathway pharmaceuticals with improved effectiveness.
Thomas credits his educational and career experiences for his current success.
“I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t spent two years working close to 120 hours a week in investment banking,” Thomas said. “Those types of jobs and the relationships you build with people open a lot of doors. I’m glad I did it… Coming out of college I just took the best opportunity I could find and that’s something I think everyone should try to do.”