When Gero Francis decided to start a business, he didn’t even know what kind of business it was going to be.
“I was an architect by training and I loved product design,” says the native of Chennai, India, who earned an MS degree in Entrepreneurship from the Zicklin School in 2016. “I knew I wanted to create a product that would have a positive impact on people and the planet, but I didn’t have many specifics.”
As part of his master’s program, Francis attended a CUNY Startup incubator session at the Lawrence N. Field Center for Entrepreneurship, and it was there he was introduced to Marina Shtatlender, a former graphic designer who also wanted to make sustainable products. “We clicked instantly,” says Francis. “We both knew we wanted to focus on sustainability. Our goals were completely aligned, and just like that we started working together.”
Shtatlender had a “pain point”—problem in search of a solution—that helped the pair figure out their next step (so to speak). She wanted a comfortable shoe, but one with lots of different looks so she didn’t have to buy multiple pairs. She and Francis came up with a design for a sandal with a cork footbed and interchangeable tops attached with Velcro.
They chose cork because it’s one of the most sustainable materials available. “Producing one ton of cork removes 73 tons of carbon from the atmosphere,” Francis explains. In addition, debarking the oak trees that produce cork helps the trees live longer. And that’s not to mention the fact that cork is comfortable to wear, lightweight, and naturally odor resistant.
And so Tsouls (pronounced “tee souls”) was born in December 2018. A Kickstarter campaign successfully raised more than $13,000 and the company launched a line of cork-soled booties; a new shoe line will launch this spring. And thanks to a well-connected supplier, the company was recently featured in a Forbes article on sustainable fashion.
Francis says his Zicklin classes prepared him exceptionally well for this venture. “The CUNY Startup incubator was life-changing,” he declares. “The Lean Startup methodology they teach is very useful for starting a business quickly. If you have a good idea, you can bring it into the classroom and have other students work on it with you. And the professors often take extra time to give you feedback on what to do next, what to change, and so on.”
The school’s location is also essential. “You’re just a few blocks from big tech companies and the best co-working spaces, so it’s very easy to make connections,” Francis notes. “On the one hand you have learning, and on the other you have the inspiration you get by being around other entrepreneurs. Zicklin definitely provides all those opportunities.”