By Melissa Repko
The Dallas Morning News
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Meet the Flip Flop entrepreneurs with a social mission. After spending time in Indonesia, Lila and Jeremy Stewart were inspired to create a business that would step far beyond the creation of a pair of shoes.
Think beyond the ordinary flip-flop. That’s been the mission of Lila and Jeremy Stewart, a husband-and-wife team who co-founded Hari Mari. The Dallas-based flip-flop company has used new materials and designs to turn the popular beach and poolside sandal into a more comfortable and higher-end footwear option. And they’ve tried do some good, too. They collect and recycle old flip-flops of any brand and donate 1 percent of every purchase to Flops Fighting Cancer, which goes to Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth.
Before starting Hari Mari in 2012, the couple lived for three years in Jakarta, Indonesia. Lila worked with children living in orphanages, and Jeremy produced a documentary on malnutrition. When they returned to Dallas, where they both grew up, they didn’t know what to do next. When shopping for flip-flops and discovering bland inventory, they found an idea, creating a new and improved flip-flop. The startup’s name comes from Hari, which means “of the sun” in Indonesian, and Mari, which means “of the sea” in Latin.
Hari Mari flip-flops, which range from $45 to $75, are sold in stores across the country, including Omni Hotels and Resorts.
Gap and Nordstrom recently started selling the flip-flops, and this month, they debuted at REI, the nationwide outdoor and fitness retailer.
Lila and Jeremy Stewart recently spoke about their flip-flop company at their headquarters and warehouse. Their answers were edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: What made you confident that you could build a business on flip-flops?
Jeremy: We were avid flip-flop wearers. We knew the market for flip-flops was large at the time and ever-growing, especially as America trends toward more casual wear. We thought that there was room for us to do something different in flip-flops. There’s no sense or use in starting a new company if you’re just making the same iteration of something that’s out there. We wanted to make sure we were bringing something that’s unique and different to the table. We saw a lot of brands doing a lot of great things, but mostly they were doing the same iterations of brown and black flip-flops. We thought we could add a pop of color and also make them more comfortable.
Q: Flip-flops seem like such a basic product. How do you innovate something as simple as a flip-flop?
Jeremy: You’d be surprised how many moving parts are inside a flip-flop. When we started, we did a bunch of focus groups _ my background was advertising and marketing _ and out of those focus groups, we found some pretty good insights. Chief among them was that people who like flip-flops or buy them regularly complain about this little piece between their toes, and people who don’t buy flip-flops and hate them complain about this little piece between their toes. And so we said, “How about we do something about that little piece?” And really that became our first point of differentiation.
Q: I’ve heard about the socially conscious part of your brand. That sounds like it’s been important to you from day one. Why is that?
Lila: It all goes back to our time spent in Indonesia. Seeing what we saw, it would be really difficult to get back into corporate America without doing something that gave back in some capacity.
Had we not spent time in Indonesia, I don’t think we would have come up with that (our flip-flop recycling program) either. There isn’t recycling over there. There isn’t really a formal trash system, so seeing such a beautiful country be littered, literally just covered in trash, was really upsetting.
Question: Any plans to expand beyond flip-flops, T-shirts and hats?
Jeremy: Yes. We want to go into closed-toe footwear. We took a page out of brands like Lululemon, aspirational brands that have done a really great job of starting with one specific focus, yoga pants, and blowing it out to a much larger lifestyle brand. We certainly want to do the same thing, but we’re cognizant that we have to get really good at one thing first before we start spreading ourselves too thin. … If we can be known for making a good-quality, premium flip-flop first and foremost, then I think we can do pretty much anything we want to do after that.
Lila and Jeremy Stewart
Age: Lila, 35, and Jeremy, 27
Hometown: They both grew up in the Dallas area, where they live today
Education: She majored in history at the University of Arizona, and he majored in communications at Vanderbilt University
Family: 4-year-old daughter Aiden and 9-month-old son Callan