The 23-year-old started his company in 2020
Former Dubai student Ashay Bhave has turned more than 50,000 plastic bags into sneakers and the 23-year-old couldn’t be happier. Recently, a prominent school in the city introduced his recycled sneakers as part of its uniform, partly because it wanted his story to be inspirational to the students.
Named Thaely, which means plastic bag in Hindi, the brand is a result of Bhave’s ingenuity and sense of social responsibility. From experimenting with the material in the balcony of his Dubai home to recently being granted the golden visa, Bhave has come a long way and credits the opportunities Dubai gave him for the phenomenal success of his start up.
Born and raised in India, environmental responsibility is something that came naturally to Bhave. “My parents never preached about being conscious but it was part of every decision they made,” he said. “Fifteen years back, when it was still a novelty, my parents had invested in solar lights and heater because they believed that is what was best for the environment.”
However, it was the work of his mother, a counsellor at a waste management plant that impacted him the most. “She ran a plant in Mumbai where we were living,” he said. “She trained a lot of women on how to segregate waste and how to reuse or recycle it. The organic waste was repurposed into manure. I could see the impact it was having. However, I noticed that no one was recycling plastic. That is something that stuck in my head.”
After his schooling, Bhave decided to study a course in accessories design at a New York fashion institute. Halfway in to the 2-year course, he realized it wasn’t for him. “It kind of dawned on me that the employment opportunities were very limited,” he said. “None of the alumni of the course were doing anything impressive so rather than waste time there, I decided to quit.”
However, there was one good thing that had come off doing that course- he studied footwear designing as part of it. As a sneakerhead with a significant collection, it was something he really enjoyed and left a mark on him.
Move to Dubai
After dropping out of university in New York in 2017, Bhave moved to Dubai where his family was living at the time. He enrolled for a bachelor’s in business administration (BBA) at Amity university here. “My father was working in the oil industry here and I wanted to stay with them,” he said. “After joining university, I had a lot of time on my hands so I started trying to create a fabric out of recycled plastic.”
After a lot of trial and error, he was able to create a material out of plastic that resembled leather. “It was a fairly decent material,” said Bhave. “However, I didn’t do anything with it for more than a year. “
That is when his university announced a startup competition. With an intention to compete, Bhave took his fabric to a local cobbler in India and got the prototype of a sneaker made. When his entry won the Amity University Dubai’s 2019 Eureka startup pitch competition, his life took a turn that he could have never predicted.
“I don’t come from a business background,” he said. “My parents were always salaried employees. So I never imagined setting up my own company.”
As luck would have it, one of the judges at the competition was Matteo Boffa, a Swiss social entrepreneur whose passion for responsible entrepreneurship has seen him invest in several companies. Intrigued by the promising business opportunity, he decided to invest in the company.
After winning the competition and securing investment came the true test of Bhave’s mettle. It was one thing to make a prototype for a competition but an entirely different thing to make it for mass production.
After months of perfecting the recycling process, Bhave finally made the decision to set up his manufacturing plant in New Delhi where he tied up with a local waste management plant to supply him with the raw materials.
Slowly but steadily he perfected the process and was ready to launch in 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. However, it came as a blessing in disguise for Bhave as he was now marketing his sneakers to a public that has become more conscious about the environment after the pandemic.
Currently, the process of manufacturing the sneakers involves turning plastic bags into fabric using heat and pressure, which is then cut into the desired pattern. Recycled plastic bottles are manufactured into a fabric that is used for lining, shoe laces, packaging and other parts. The sole of the sneaker is made from recycled rubber. Each pair of Thaely shoes contributes to the recycling of 12 plastic bottles and 10 plastic bags.
Bhave admits that running the business has been very challenging. “There is a lot of research involved,” he said. “We are constantly working with distributors to see what colors are more popular and what is in demand. We have a testing space in our factory. Machines can’t always tell you how the fit will be so I wear them, test them and see how they feel. Sometimes, when working with a new fabric, the colours fade. With some others, colours start to bleed out. So we make new samples every week tweaking the texture, colour and sizes.”
The youngster hopes that some day when he will not have to be as involved with the day to day running of the company, he can move back to Dubai and spend some time here. “But for now, I am working hard to make sure that Thaely becomes a household name.”