For AJ Bowman, a newcomer to the DLE community, the COVID-19 pandemic was the impetus for starting a business. An avid dreamer of becoming an entrepreneur, AJ made it happen shortly after the pandemic struck in 2020. He started a company that would save the earth–one shoe at a time.
That’s the credo behind Boatman Shoes, a Berkshire (MA)-based company that bridges sustainability and fashion. Reflecting, AJ recalls the challenge of finding a manufacturer to partner with, given that in-person meetings and manufacturing operations had been altered significantly.
“The shoe sample creation process took over a year and a half to complete. Starting off, Boatman Shoes was going to use a leather made from recycled leather scraps, but that fell through due to a previous contract between the manufacturer and another footwear company,” he recalls. “So, we went back to the drawing board and searched for another manufacturer.”
A big hurdle was finding a sustainable material for producing the shoes. AJ’s research led to Mexico, where the matured leaves of the cactus plant are harvested, made into a pulp and dried out in the sun for a few days. With non-toxic chemicals and dyes added, the cactus leather is applied to a backing that makes it ready to be made into shoes and other accessories.
“There is no other shoe manufacturer using cactus. This really sets Boatman Shoes apart. Although other companies are making shoes and accessories with this material, my company produces the first boat shoe made with the Nopal cactus leather,” AJ says.
Like many entrepreneurs in the early phase of business development, AJ has a day job. He works as a maintenance shop mechanic at Onyx Specialty Papers in Lee, MA, which specializes in small-scale specialty paper manufacturing. He credits his work there with triggering his interest in recycled materials.
“Working hands-on with the manufacturing process opened my eyes to sustainability and the growth of eco awareness worldwide,” AJ explains. “With the surge of sustainable products coming to market, I knew there had to be something I could make that would be eco-friendly and sustainable.”
AJ recently received a patent for his shoes–a huge accomplishment for a 23-year old. “The patent process was lengthy and costly, taking almost two years. However, Boatman Shoes has obtained our first design patent for the Recycled Leather Boat Shoe,” he says.
The achievement has inspired him to think bigger. “At present, we feature a classic boat shoe. However, we want to make more shoe lines–for example, dress shoes, a boot or a chuck. We also want to experiment with new materials, like pineapple leather and mushroom leather. They’re very strong.”
AJ joined the DLE in November 2021. Shortly thereafter, he attended an in-person networking event for new members and joined the Membership Committee. He credits the organization with offering amazing opportunities to make new connections. “The DLE has helped expand my network of professional contacts in a very short time. You can meet people all over the world and explore ideas, talk about daily business hurdles and find solutions,” he notes.
Among AJ’s new connections is DLE Founder Linda Dulye, who has since become a mentor. The two hold weekly tag-up sessions to talk about AJ’s budding business.
When it comes to pursuing a new business or any endeavor, AJ says that any startup is challenging. “You have to be persistent and dedicated. No one knows what they’re doing. Even if you don’t know where to start, just start.”