Austin Jews Discover Peruvian Shoes: Two Companies Strive to Make the World a Better Place
By Tonyia Cone
While traveling in South America, Daniel Ben-Nun and Evan Streusand began thinking about the same thing – Peruvian shoes. Now, Ben-Nun, founder and CEO of Inkkas, and Streusand, founder of Fortress of Inca, are putting into motion their ideas, which originated during completely separate South America adventures.
Daniel Ben-Nun, Inkkas
After graduating from McCallum High School in 2001, Austin native Daniel Ben-Nun spent some time exploring the world.
He traveled and volunteered in Israel for a year; attended college at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, for a year; returned to Israel, where Ben-Nun served in an Israeli Defense Force reconnaissance engineering unit for two years; finished college with a degree in political science at the University of California, Berkeley; and topped it off by returning to the Middle East to work as a journalist covering Israeli and geopolitical issues.
Ben-Nun then returned to Austin, where he worked at Stratfor Global Intelligence, before branching off to work on entrepreneurial projects, including a Tel Aviv-based web company he founded with his brother.
In 2012, Ben-Nun traveled to South America on a summer trip that again shifted his professional direction. Part of that trip was a visit to Peru.
While visiting Machu Picchu, he came across some local artisans in a nearby town, Cusco, who were hand-making shoes made out of authentic South American textiles.
“It was a eureka moment. I thought, ‘Wow, this is really one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. They’re taking these really ancient, authentic South American textiles and they’re cutting them and sewing them into what look like kind of a Converse-style shoe,’” explained Ben-Nun, who now lives in Brooklyn, New York, and frequently visits family in Austin.
After talking with the artisans, Ben-Nun realized, “This would be an incredible product to bring to the world.”
He knew he would have to reinvent the shoes to improve the quality in order to bring the product to a Western market, but within a week Ben-Nun was able to come up with a prototype. He launched a website, and immediately started getting traffic and making sales.
“We were surprised at the speed at which people had found the site and started talking about the site and blogging about it and posting pictures of the prototype on Instagram. That gave us the confidence to purchase our first order of shoes from the local artisans in Latin America and start selling the product online,” Ben-Nun said.
It was challenging to navigate language and cultural barriers and to create a competitive product sourced in Latin America, but in 2013, Inkkas made over a million dollars in sales, and in 2014 approached $2 million.
“Inkkas are unique and different, and people could feel the positive vibes of the product. That really spoke to consumers,” Ben-Nun said.
Inkkas still sells handmade footwear with authentic Peruvian textiles as well as other global ethnic textiles, including African, Asian and European patterns. The company sells its slip-ons, low tops, high tops, joggers and boots through its own website and stores across the United States.
Ben-Nun explained that Inkkas sources all textiles from the original artisans and its manufacturing is split between Peru, Mexico and Columbia.
“We’re helping footwear artisans across Latin America,” he said, noting that the company was founded on principals of fair trade and global philanthropy.
Inkkas’ OneShoeOneTree project puts into action Ben-Nun’s commitment to respecting the environment. The company plants one tree for every footwear purchase, in partnership with TreesForTheFuture. This helps to reforest the world and provide sustenance for local populations in developing countries.
Ben-Nun, who attended Congregation Agudas Achim when he was growing up in Austin, said the concept of tikkun olam, which he was taught at Jewish summer camp and during his time living in Israel influenced his drive to make a positive impact on the world.
“Engaging in activity that has a positive impact behind it and is not just purely for profit -- that was one of the reasons I fell in love with this project,” Ben-Nun said.
A few months ago, Inkkas was selected to be featured on “The Profit,” a CNBC show with Marcus Lemonis, an entrepreneur and investor.
Ben-Nun said of his plans going forward, “Since we now have a major investor, it has enabled us to double down on our original concept. We’re really focusing on trying to grow that concept -- bringing new textiles every season, and new inspiration and concepts – We’re going to focus on the model we’ve already established.”
For more information on Inkkas, visit www.inkkas.com.
Evan Streusand, Fortress of Inca
When Houston native Evan Streusand graduated from St. Edward’s University with a degree in communication studies in 2002, he did not know what he wanted to do. But he did know he wanted to see more of the world.
Streusand, who grew up attending Congregation Emanu-El and playing basketball at the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston, spent the next nine months working to save as much money as possible before taking off on an extended backpacking trip. He had already visited Europe while in college and friends told him they had loved traveling around South America.
“I’d always loved Latin American culture, so I booked a three-month trip to South America,” explained Streusand, who made the 2004 trip with two friends. “The only real plan we had was to start in Rio in Brazil, and end somewhere else; we didn’t have an itinerary or schedule.”
At the end of three months, Streusand found himself in Peru, where he bought a pair of colorful, handmade, lambskin-lined boots.
“It was a cool memento of the trip,” Streusand said. “I wore them for five years, and people asked me about them. I didn’t think too much of it but thought in back of my mind that they would be interesting to sell because you don’t see them in the States.”
In 2008, Streusand found himself at a crossroads. He was looking for a new career direction and wanted to start his own business, when he turned to the idea that had stuck with him since his post-college backpacking trip -- selling Peruvian boots in the United States.
So Streusand got a credit card and a plane ticket to Peru. Once he got there, he convinced a boot maker in a small shop to make him 100 pairs of women’s boots for $5,000. He also enlisted the help of two Dutch women he met on the trip, who gave him advice about colors and textiles for his first order.
When Streusand returned to Austin, in addition to working at other jobs, he sold the boots to people he knew and held boot parties for friends.
“They’d drink sangria and buy boots,” he said.
Streusand also visited local stores, trying to convince them to sell the boots, sometimes on consignment.
“I used the original 100 pairs to teach myself what I was doing,” he said. “Then I grew it into a real business.”
Once stores started placing orders with Streusand, he began working on a production plan. He started working with a woman who served as a go-between for American companies and Peruvian manufacturers in order to find a place that could make a good quality shoe in higher quantities. He also started going to trade shows, which opened up a lot more doors.
Streusand said the 5,000 to 10,000 pairs of shoes Fortress of Inca now sells each year look nothing like those he bought in 2004. Instead of using traditional textiles, the company uses the best natural materials the region has to offer, including high quality leather, wood, rubber and other natural materials.
But a cornerstone of Fortress of Inca is that its footwear is still made in Peru by hand, by people who are paid a living wage, as part of an environmentally sustainable, fair trade shoemaking process.
“That was really important to me, to keep making the shoes in Peru. Some people suggest I start moving it to China, that it’s cheaper and faster, but that goes against everything I want to do,” he said, explaining that his way of doing business results in more expensive shoes and makes it harder to find the right materials and factories, but he thinks it is worthwhile in order to treat people well and make a product that will last.
Fortress of Inca sells to boutiques and independent stores -- including Blue Lux, Free People and Anthropologie -- across the United States, Canada, Japan, and Australia. Fortress of Inca footwear can also be purchased on its website and from its showroom in central Austin.
“It’s a good thing knowing it stemmed from an idea I had long time ago, from a pair of boots I liked,” Streusand said.
As for the future, Streusand is working on getting his shoes into more stores, in more cities and more countries.
“We want to spread awareness and have an influence on the way people are making things,” he said. “We’d like to become a leading voice in sustainable fashion, to be a good influence on other people,” he said.
For more information on Fortress of Inca, visit www.fortressofinca.com.