Kfir Gavrieli, CEO of Tieks, on What Makes a Hero

Kfir Gavrieli

In the same way that some people are naturally good at business, some are also naturally altruistic. For these people, helping others is simply a part of life – a natural, everyday practice – and being generous with their time, resources, and intelligence is a part of their intrinsic makeup. Now, with technology at our disposal, the possibilities for creating opportunities for giving back to our communities are limitless.

One individual who exemplifies this spirit of natural application of time and using resources for the greater good is Kfir Gavrieli, CEO and founder of Tieks. One of the world’s foremost web-only fashion brands, Tieks distributes a line of exclusive women’s ballet flats known for their comfort, quality, and portability. Among the first brands to make a global name for themselves without brick-and-mortar outlets, Tieks has been selling its Italian-leather foldable flats exclusively via its website since 2010 and today has become one of the world’s most successful fashion brands to exist purely online.

But Gavrieli was never an ordinary businessman focused exclusively on launching a great product and building a successful brand. To Gavrieli, Tieks has always been an opportunity to make a meaningful charitable impact, which paved the way for the Gavrieli Foundation and its direct relationship with KIVA. Through the Gavrieli Foundation, Tieks also invests in women’s empowerment at the community level. Through KIVA, an online platform that provides microloans to aspiring entrepreneurs living in poverty, the Gavrieli Foundation has facilitated over $10,000,000 in microloans to women entrepreneurs all over the world, becoming KIVA’s largest lender in the organization’s history.

Demonstrating his visionary talent as an entrepreneur, Gavrieli – who holds B.A., M.S., and MBA degrees from Stanford University – founded Tieks after a successful history in the hedge fund, venture capital, real estate, and technology industries and has led his brand to resounding success over its founding. The company has been recognized by Forbes among its “25 Most Innovative Consumer Brands.” Additionally, Inc. magazine included Gavrieli in its “30 Under 30” feature, Entrepreneur named Tieks among its “Top 30 Startups to Watch,” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show” featured the foldable flats on its “O List.”

Regarding his business approach, Gavrieli says:

In our business, we strive to approach every decision with fresh eyes. We must not only consider what we’ve done in the past but also what could be possible in the future. This outlook has been instrumental in my work. This is what helped us pioneer a new shoe and an entirely new approach to retail in 2008. Tieks, as foldable shoes, are an innovation in an industry that has been around for millennia, and our direct-to-consumer approach to retail sales was new when we started. This perspective is also what helped us become the biggest lender in the world on KIVA because we were determined to be the people setting, not following, trends. I have never been confined to just doing what existed in the past.

Gavrieli attributes his success to his work ethic and the example that his parents set as entrepreneurs, noting that his parents are his “biggest heroes:”

My family immigrated to America when I was a young child, and my parents set an incredible example for me and my four siblings. My parents barely spoke English when we moved to Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. They came here to give us a better life by building a successful business from scratch, where my siblings and I learned the value of hard work as we were growing up.

Among his influences as a thinker, Gavrieli credits the book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari, describing it as being “packed with wisdom.” He explains how the book also reflects his personal values and those of the Jewish community in which he grew up:

It resonated with me because it clearly lays out how limited our time is on earth when put into the context of the span of history. It also makes clear that the comparative advantage that human beings enjoy – the reason we came to become the most successful species on the planet – is because of our ability to work together. Those same lessons are present in the Jewish tradition. If you understand that your success, happiness, and sense of purpose comes from something bigger than yourself, it drives every decision you make in your personal and professional life.

Acts of Heroism in Everyday Life

Gavrieli recently made news as a community hero during the COVID-19 pandemic when his company, in addition to sewing thousands of face masks for donation to essential healthcare workers, also mobilized its fans and followers to do the same. This campaign produced over a million face masks that have been donated to healthcare workers in Los Angeles County and beyond. Gavrieli says:

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, a family friend of mine who works at a hospital told me of the shortages and how healthcare workers were in desperate need of masks, worried that they wouldn’t be protected. As soon as I learned of this coming shortage, I knew we had a responsibility to reorient our business and do everything we can to help protect professionals on the front lines.

This is essentially what led to Tieks’ creation of its historic drive to provide PPE for essential healthcare workers. “It was less a question of ‘If we can help,’ but more determining, ‘How can we help and be most effective in our efforts?’” Gavrieli says.

Initially, Gavrieli’s response was to mobilize his team at Tieks to produce and donate personal protection equipment (PPE) in the form of cloth face masks to frontline healthcare workers. Using the Tieks headquarters to produce the masks, Gavrieli purchased a fleet of sewing machines and had his staff begin sewing face masks. He also partnered with other local businesses to secure and donate the more critical N95 masks to Los Angeles County hospitals and health workers.

“When COVID-19 hit in early March, I heard of the critical shortages and the need for more PPE for healthcare and essential workers, so my company, Tieks, quickly reoriented our manufacturing facility into a mask-making assembly line, producing hundreds of masks for donation to the area’s frontline health workers,” Gavrieli explains.

But the impact of his decision became greater once Tieks launched its historic Operation #SewTogether campaign, which used social media as a tool to incite Tieks fans and followers to join the Tieks staff and sew hundreds of thousands of face masks and donate them to essential healthcare workers. Says Gavrieli:

We soon realized our in-house team was limited in our capacity to help, and the team alone could not produce as many masks as were needed in time for the oncoming crisis in the L.A. County area. We decided to get our fans and customers involved and launched Operation #SewTogether, an online social media campaign that rewards customers and supporters with gift cards for masks sewn and donated. For every 25 masks sewn and delivered, people were rewarded with a $50 gift card, and for every 50 masks, a $100 gift card. Thanks to our amazing customers and fans, the campaign spread like wildfire, and hundreds of thousands of masks were donated within weeks. We are thrilled to have met our goal of over one million masks sewed and donated across the country to date through this initiative.

Once Operation #SewTogether got off the ground, Tieks followed up by offering Tieks gift cards for essential workers as way of expressing gratitude and appreciation for their efforts.

“For several months, Tieks for Heroes offered $100 gift cards to thank first responders, doctors, nurses, and military service members who sacrifice so much for us,” Gavrieli explains. “But I think the Tieks fans who participated in our #SewTogether campaigns embody heroism: self-sacrifice, responsibility, kindness, tenacity, and compassion.”

Naming specific participants, such as Monica Ovalle (@rnmonica), who works in the medical field and sewed and donated 50 masks to her “work family” at Clovis Community Medical Center, Gavrieli also acknowledged several of the leading contributors in the #SewTogether campaign.

Among those named, Gavrieli recognized Melody Dutcher (@melodydutcher), who “embodies responsibility by donating masks to an ER in Colorado and helping people in the medical field stay safe,” and Sandra Lee (@thelifeofsandralee), who Gavrieli said “embodies kindness, donating the masks she made to assisted living facilities and nurses in San Jose, California.” He also acknowledged Lucy Blaylock (@lucysloveblanket), an 11-year-old who motivated her siblings and family to sew and donate 100 masks to healthcare workers at TriStar in Gallatin, Tennessee.

Gavrieli also praised his team at Tieks for their efforts in not only sewing face masks to donate to those in need, but also running the successful #SewTogether campaign which resulted in more than a million total masks being sewn and donated to facilities that needed them most.

Gavrieli stresses that it was the power of team spirit, collective effort, and commitment and dedication on the part of his staff that led to the campaign’s success:

The members of my team are all my personal heroes. Each one of them is more driven to help others than I have ever seen, and they are the ones who have enabled and facilitated everything we have done to help with coronavirus. They’re the ones responsible for driving our campaign, and they deserve the credit for the massive impact we made through our fans and customers.

Expressing his gratitude to everyone who has contributed in some way to helping others and coming together as a community during the pandemic, Gavrieli said, “Truly, everyone who has been working on the front lines of this pandemic or supporting the people on the front lines is a hero in my book.”

What Makes a Hero?

Gavrieli affirms that heroes are everywhere in life, and acts of heroism are often everyday acts that everyday people perform during the course of their everyday lives. In the face of a pandemic, many heroes are performing courageous acts that help sustain society during these trying times:

Heroes are people who put others ahead of themselves, especially when it’s inconvenient, challenging, or even dangerous. Right now, I see many heroes as the ones who are doing difficult things day in [and] day out because it’s the right thing to do. [This includes] all of the medical workers, from nurses and doctors, to EMTs and technicians, to hospital janitors and receptionists, who have been on the front lines of fighting the coronavirus crisis. Like many, I also see the first responders as heroes because they have chosen a job where they are dealing with emergencies [and] doing their best to save people’s lives in incredibly stressful and difficult situations.

Defining heroism as something that “serves a higher purpose,” Gavrieli says that “everyone and anyone can be driven to be heroic because it is ultimately more fulfilling to help others than to help ourselves.”

It’s acts of selflessness and dedication, moments in which people demonstrate their tenacity and commitment to society and humanity, that ultimately become acts of heroism. In reference to his own parents and the sacrifices they made as immigrants starting up a small business – which he views as his first example of heroism – Gavrieli says:

While I understood their sacrifices to a certain degree while I was growing up, now that I run my own business, I see just how much strength and perseverance they needed to move to a new country – where they barely spoke the language – to give their children more opportunities.

Optimistically Looking Toward the New Normal

While Gavrieli expressed his concern about the slow response to the impending threat of the pandemic and the burden placed on the nation’s medical systems, he was grateful for the opportunity to do something to help.

“I’m very grateful I am in a position where I could think creatively to try to help, and I know that many other business and community leaders who have done similar things feel the same way,” he says.

His optimism also extends to the changes that this period in history will bring, which he believes will encourage greater unification and preparedness among people:

Everyone who is living through this time is now going to understand the importance of public health, and we will now be better prepared for the future. People have also come together to help in inspiring and moving ways around the world. We have been able to see people give so much of themselves – whether it’s ER doctors whose lives are at risks, pharmacists who make sure people get life-saving drugs, postal service workers who deliver packages, caregivers to seniors who have been isolating to stay safe, or grocery store workers making sure we can all stay fed – and we can appreciate the selflessness of these heroes who are sacrificing so much during this crisis.

Fundamentally, Gavrieli believes in the “power of community and the eagerness of people to do their part in donating goods, raising awareness, and more.” And his belief in that power has grown even stronger thanks to the phenomenon illustrated by the #SewTogether campaign, which motivated thousands of people to join forces for a common cause:

The Tieks fans have inspired me beyond what I could have ever imagined in their individual and collective efforts to create and donate the PPE needed to protect our essential workers. I’ve seen a shift in people’s actions and priorities, realizing now, more than ever, that we are really all in this together, and a lot of good can come from slowing down [and] taking stock of what really matters and where our time, money, and efforts are needed most right now.

Gavrieli believes sincerely that the collective energy of human beings can bring about positive changes in the world, even in light of the many challenges that we face as a society. For example, in the face of a struggling economy, Gavrieli has expressed his criticism of large corporations that have accepted bailouts and taken out payment protection loans “simply because they could,” while not putting money back into the community and assisting individuals.

“These loans were designed to reduce layoffs and furloughs and save the small businesses already fighting for their lives,” he says. “Larger corporations have access to lines and modes of credit that smaller businesses simply do not. I’ve been shocked to see such well-known business leaders take advantage of this.”

Still, Gavrieli maintains the belief that “humans will always learn to try to be better – and this happens in spite of negative forces that will always exist.”

He believes that individuals and society at large can and will make a shift toward a greater commitment to acts of heroism and becoming better members of a cohesive community:

We can all work to prioritize helping others and being compassionate. Shifting that balance means paying more attention to good people with good intentions. Even though it can be easy to focus on the bad, especially now, during a pandemic, when there is a lot of bad to focus on, we can still focus on the heroes of this moment who are bravely working to save lives.

And community begins at home, with the individual. This is where small acts of everyday heroism can make a lasting and permanent impact. “It can be very easy in our day-to-day lives to close off and just try to get our work done,” Gavrieli says. But he maintains that the lessons learned in 2020 will bring about positive changes in society:

I hope that after this, we see more openness, a commitment to transparency, and a deeper sense of compassion. We need to see the humanness in each other to do better. Through our campaign, I saw the power of communications and social media to change consumer behavior for the better. We have more opportunities for people to express their values through their consumption habits and other choices they make.

He also stresses that companies and entrepreneurs can make a difference in the world by mobilizing their consumer bases and leading the way in terms of social trends:

It’s the job of business leaders to empower people to express their values in how they buy. As people making products, we need to meet all the needs of our consumers: not just that the shoes have to look great and are comfortable, but that we think about our impact on everyone around us and do what we think is right. No business leader and no company is perfect because we are all human, but we have to be conscious of our roles in communities.

Committed to doing his best to mobilize and inspire the good in people through his company and foundation, Gavrieli reiterates:

I do believe that, at the end of the day, people are good. People don’t need to go through curators and arbiters of taste to know what’s right and what’s wrong. The will of the people, I believe, is altruistic. After this challenging time, people are going to remember the importance of altruism and caring about each other.

In the end, Gavrieli maintains that challenges may be seen as opportunities to build more compassionate and community-minded individuals, as well as a stronger society. “The most challenging times are the times when humans also show our greatest capacity to hope for better and to help each other,” he notes. “Right now, community by community, I think most people are rising to meet the moment.”