The road less travelled
Divej Mehta, Founder of Inmate, has a way of talking about all matters that makes you pause. It’s in his enthusiastic excitement when he describes the idea of training and rehabilitating the most neglected persons by infusing in them the dignity of labor
India has its storied tycoons who began as humble traders before transforming into creators of diversified manufacturing conglomerates. One trader, in leather hides, who succeeded in building a top notch reputation, is Deepesh Mehta. He has transformed his company into one of India’s largest leather hide marketers. His is a story that’s heard often in the footwear trade. S&A’S endeavour is to look out for journeys less chronicled like his son’s – Devij Mehta.
THE GOAL: TRUE REHABILITATION
Figuratively speaking, someone who takes ‘the road less traveled’ is acting independently, freeing themselves from the conformity of others. He chooses to take ‘the road more often traveled’, generally making their own choices, and perhaps leaving a new trail that will become the road more often traveled. It’s no different among a number of family-run groups with what scions doing their bit to change the way business is run. In a few cases,
the next-generation members prefer to do their own thing rather than follow the footsteps of the founders. Devij, who consciously chose not to join his father’s company, instead started a shoe manufacturing unit in Pune’s Yerawada jail by the name of Tergus Works Pvt Ltd. This resulted in launching ‘Inmate’ on April 1st, 2018.
It’s been a promising beginning for Inmate. Devij has been in the thick of things; he has allowed the company to successfully build a sustainable business model. His swift rise in retail testifies his capabilities, but most of all shows how he leads an inspiring company culture.
Tergus Works was established in 2016 with a vision to explore unique avenues to develop the Indian leather industry by meaningfully addressing problems of labor, costs and stigmas. Divej came up with the idea to produce leather footwear in India’s prisons while he was studying MBA in Singapore. The idea started taking shape three years later in 2017, when he reached out to Yerwada Central Prison.
S&A interacted with the founder to find out more about Inmate. Excerpt of the interview.
What’s Inmate all about?
Inmate, the euphemism for convicts, envisions to offer a second chance to inmates by training and developing skills in them. The brand aims at setting a benchmark by successfully employing the believers (inmates) in their post conviction period, ensuring their livelihood and becoming the first footwear brand to operate shoe factories from prisons.
What’s the business philosophy of the brand?
Inmate envisages rehabilitation for inmates through skill and personality development, ensuring individual as well as collective excellence. This also simultaneously addresses the concern of labor and high cost of production, so that the Indian Leather Industry constantly rises to a higher level of achievement.
“The founding principles of a business are what determine how well it serves the society. Inmate is building a rock solid foundation by empowering and working towards the rehabilitation of prison inmates and giving them pride in their work. It’s truly a great endeavour.” – Nazim Virji Regal Shoes
“I have been part of the footwear industry for over 30 years and launched many brands like Woodland, Lotto, Crocs and Disney footwear, but this Idea of Divej and Deepesh Mehta for a project like Inmate touched the core of my heart. I hadn’t come across such a brilliant and noble thought which transforms and rehabilitates prison inmates into factory workers and offers them a second chance in life to get reformed. The moment I heard from them this unique corporate social responsibility project I decided to offer my services where ever I could contribute. Being a marketing person, I volunteered my services as a brand consultant. The success of Inmate will give me much more happiness and satisfaction than the launch of many brands, as this project helps me to give back to the industry what industry has given me in 3 decades,” – B. D. NATHANI Brand Consultant
What inspired you to venture into this project?
I have seen and grown up around the leather industry because of my father. I had always thought of joining the industry, but not merely to advance the family business. It had to be something different which kept things interesting enough for me, to keep challenging myself which also allowed me to contribute to the industry in a positive way. While working on a project during my MBA I got a call from my dad, saying he had been asked to visit and assist footwear labour inmates in Vellore Central Prison, Tamil Nadu. They had tools but lacked confidence and efficiency, my father said. And the next thing I know is I have started working on making his experience my business model. It just felt right.
How receptive has the market been?
We launched Inmate via our website www.byinmate.com on 1st April 2018, and thereafter started retailing the products at select stores of Metro Shoes, Regal Shoes and Inc5 Shoes across 5 metro cities, namely Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai.
What has been the consumer response?
It is very early to define the market response, but we are on the track with our production and strategy on entering newer markets to increase Inmate’s presence.
How would you differentiate your products from the competition?
It’s been just over a month since we’ve started retailing, if you visit a store location, you’d see multiple options, despite having just over 10 sku’s on shelves we’ve been selling at an average of almost 2 pairs a day.
Each pair of Inmate comprises of at least 80% premium quality leather, that’s because we use TPR Soles (Thermoplastic Rubbers) instead of leather soles that promises durability. The memory-foam makes the product extremely comfortable to wear. We also don’t necessarily follow market trends or guidelines. Our idea is to sell something that we’d wear ourselves.
What does the brand have that is different from others?
Inmate fulfils the CSR needs of a company; its roots speak of social and economic development for both, the society and the industry. Further, it also creates awareness among the people in fulfilling their social responsibility.
What is the rationale behind the business expansion?
We are present at a few MBO’S and will be looking at expanding. We are planning to launch leather accessories under the same brand. Once we’re comfortable with having a wider range of products, we will look at exclusive stores.
What are some of the challenges that you are facing?
Since the concept had never been tried before, the major challenge was to gather the understanding of how to work from a prison with inmates who had no background or knowledge of how to make footwear along with working within the framework of rules and regulations of a prison. Time restriction, that we have to work with, also makes the endeavour very challenging to scale up production from a particular unit.
Will we see an aggressive presence of the brand in the market?
Definitely, we are gearing up to be present in all metro cities by next year’s end. We have a production capacity of up to 200 pairs a day, and by October 2018 we plan to have over 30 sku’s on the shelves. As demand rises we will look at expanding into newer prisons and train more inmates.
Have the inmates joined your project post their release?
We work with inmates serving life sentences. This allows us to have a long term commitment from a labouring prisoner and helps us justify the resources we drain on each of them. It also allows us more time to work on individual personalities to get them ready for a better tomorrow. We have promised the inmates we train with an assured job post their conviction period, if they wish to join us.
What would be the retail marketing strategy in the coming years?
As of now, we are focusing on increasing our presence in the metros of India. Once our goal of building in India is achieved, we would like to start retailing internationally.
“I have been a part of the leather industry for almost four decades. When I heard about the idea from Divej about 5 years ago, I knew this was something that had the potential to do wonders. Knowing my son, I trusted my instincts and immediately invested and started guiding him.” – Deepesh Mehta “Tergus Works Private Limited (Inmate) has been a revolutionary step for the rehabilitation of the inmates in the prison. The idea of providing inmates with a second chance is what makes the idea beautiful, the prisoners using their period of conviction productively and developing skill is the true sense of what prisons should be known as. Absorbing these trained inmates post conviction period gives us the opportunity to expand this endeavour and encourage more private companies to share their expertise with us and perhaps rehabilitate with pride.” – U.T. Pawar Superintendent, Yerwada Central Prison, Pune
How integral is digital media for the brand?
Digital media has been the key for Inmate so far. Digital media, especially for a start up like ours, will always be important. We, through our Facebook and Instagram handles (@byinmate), have gotten a lot of traction. The media coverage from multiple news agencies has also been shared on digital platforms, allowing lakhs of people to gain knowledge of our endeavour.
You can’t always get it right. Has there been an instance where things went completely wrong?
It’s true, there have been multiple occasions when I just didn’t know what to do next. Since I’m not technically strong, getting the product right took a while. The trial and error method got frustrating at times, but it was the only way to do it given the uniqueness of the idea.
We had to make sure that everything was in sync, right from the entry of raw material inside a high security facility to getting the products to the stores. Most times communication became a problem as communication devices are prohibited within the prison premises.
Indifferent attitude of prisoners restricted training and skill development. Their unwillingness to join the mainstream due to various reasons and the inherent trust deficit aggravated the problem most times. Further, to work under the framework of rules and regulations of prisons made the endeavour very challenging. There is a severe drain on time, energy, resources and money considering the above realities and other facts and circumstances of a life in jail of a prisoner.
Could you share with the readers the most exciting thing happening at your brand?
Inmates saving their wages and sending money home to their loved ones which helped them reunite, for some it was after 7-8 years of no communication. Packing our first despatch to retail the products, the sight of numb eyes, tears of joy, happiness and the overall satisfaction is beyond explanation; the first time an inmate opening up and talking about how grateful he is to get this opportunity for the first time in his life.
These are some of the best experiences that I will rejoice for the rest of my life, and will help me go on and face many more challenges.
“The brand Inmate has all the elements, in terms of style, comfort and packaging, to give any international brand a run for their money. The most surprising fact is on how Divej has managed to get impeccably flawless work done from the amateur inmates, who are still learning the skill. The brand has been well accepted by our consumers and we are looking forward to adding more stores.” – Mushir Khan Metro Shoes