From Shoes to Masks: How One Small Business Is Pivoting to Make a Difference—and Survive COVID-19

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From Shoes to Masks: How One Small Business Is Pivoting to Make a Difference—and Survive COVID-19 Hero Image

Around the world, small businesses are struggling to survive the COVID-19 pandemic. “Honestly, business has been annihilated,” says Tal Dehtiar, 2007 YouthActionNet fellow and co-founder of Oliberté, a mission-driven shoe company based in Ontario, Canada. “The hardest thing is having to let go people who have helped shape the company, people I care deeply about.”

To address these unprecedented challenges, Tal has found an innovative solution. “We’ve pivoted,” he explains, “from shoes to masks.” Below, Tal discusses shifting gears to meet new demands, making a social impact while keeping the lights on, and what a moment like this reveals about the world.

Why and how did you pivot from shoes to masks?

I heard stories about doctors unable to perform critical surgeries because of a shortage of necessary equipment—like masks. With the COVID-19 crisis, there’s a huge demand, but not enough supply. Believe it or not, there are people stockpiling these masks in warehouses, not releasing them in order to drive up prices. It’s ridiculous. It turns out, in the main city in China where we source materials for one of our brands, there are factories that also make surgical and an N95-comparable product known as the KN95 mask. So, we’ve pivoted from shoes to masks until better times ahead when we can go back to selling shoes. My quality-control team in China that normally inspects our shoe factories and the shoes they manufacture are now inspecting the masks produced by validated Chinese factories to ensure they meet all local and international regulatory compliances for safe, effective use.

Ultimately, what is the goal of making this pivot—what does success look like?

I’m not looking to get into the healthcare industry permanently—this is a temporary move. Part of the decision comes from my heart, which says I need to get masks to people as quickly as possible. But, while I am a social entrepreneur, the reality is I’m not independently wealthy. I’m not a philanthropist. I can’t just donate masks because I still have a business to run. Don’t get me wrong—I am not grossly profiting here. My financial goal is cost recovery. Ultimately, a successful pivot is this: we have brought millions of masks to the people who need them the most, and we’ve kept our business alive. In a time like this, you have the choice to fold up, or to try and do something different. Of course, not everyone has that option—I got lucky. I just happened to have a network of contacts, and I’m working with them in any way possible to make this work. And, there’s nothing to say this is going to work. But, we have to try.

Where are the masks going—where in the world, and to what kinds of end users?

Currently we have sold our masks to smaller hospitals, health care facilities, charities, police and fire units, and businesses that need masks for their frontline workers. The demand has been nonstop. So far, we have already shipped masks—or have orders and are preparing to ship—to end users such as these all around the world including Canada, US, Kenya, Italy, Spain, Mexico, and others.

What are the biggest challenges you’re encountering?

There’s a lot of red tape to cut through, which can slow things down. And, prices are changing overnight due to supply and demand. I can only give my customers a 24-hour price guarantee—I may give a quote one day, but the next day it could change because my costs are shifting literally overnight. I try to be as transparent as possible, to give the best assurances I can—but it’s tough. I have customers who don’t know when they’ll be able to pay us, and vendors asking me when I can pay them. It’s an ugly cycle right now. We’re not perfect, but we’re doing what we can to get as many masks out at affordable prices.

Are you able to learn anything that may help when you get back to the business of making shoes?

Honestly, with the lack of sleep and the speed at which we’re moving, I haven’t had the time to think about what I’m learning—the focus now is just on getting this done. It’s hard not to be negative. On the other hand, I talked to one of my long-time suppliers recently. Normally, he’s very concerned about getting a commission on what he sells. He always asks about it. But, this time, when he saw my email describing the need for masks, things changed. I said, “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you get your commission.” And he said, “Are you kidding, I don’t give a sh*t about commission. If I can help, I will.” Not everyone is out there stockpiling masks to drive up prices. In a time like this, you will see the worst in people, but you also see the best.

What can others do to help?

If you’re reading this and want to help, please forward our message on to your government officials, local authorities, businesses, healthcare providers, and any others who may be in need of masks. We’re here and happy to try and take care of their needs. Please spread the word.

April 17, 2020 Update: Since the interview was published, Tal reached out with some inspiring updates. "In the last 20 days," he said, "we have shipped or placed orders for more than 8 million masks." As he noted in the interview, there's a lot of "red tape" that comes with manufacturing masks in China, and this can slow the shipping and distribution process. To address the issue, says Tal, "Next month, we will begin manufacturing non-surgical masks at our own location in Canada. Shortly after, we will begin to produce medical masks, once we have submitted them for medical-grade testing. We believe this will make the masks more available and affordable." 

For additional information, or to place an order for masks, you can reach Tal at [email protected] or call him at (+1) 905-901-3660.

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