Q&A: A man who spins shoes out of wool

Name: Joey Zwillinger

Age: 35

City: Mill Valley

Position: Co-founder, allbirds


J.: You are a modern-day cobbler of sorts, making sneakers from sheep’s wool, with polymer soles that include castor beans. You’re not the first in your family to work in the garment manufacturing business, right?

Joey Zwillinger

Joey Zwillinger:  Like many Jews in the shmata business in the 1920 to 1950s, my paternal grandfather made uniforms for the U.S. military forces, and he also made uniforms for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency and local law enforcement. He was born in the garment district in New York City and had a shop in his railroad-style apartment on the Lower East Side.


Did your dad follow in his father’s footsteps?

No. Grandpa wore a suit every day, and I think that my dad, a psychology professor, wore a suit maybe three times in his life. My mother’s grandfather, a Lithuanian immigrant, was a shirtmaker in South Africa, so I have roots in the textile and fashion businesses from both sides.


How did you get started making shoes?

I’m not a sneaker fanatic by any stretch of the imagination, but Tim Brown, the co-founder at allbirds, and I decided we wanted to make a simple, comfortable shoe from natural, sustainable resources.


What was the genesis of that goal?

My dad is the pivotal person around my wanting to build a social mission of greater purpose, and I suspect having a strong cultural Jewish identity has something to do with it. I’ve always gravitated toward doing something productive from a business perspective that is positive for the environment.


Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Tiburon, went to Redwood High School and then on to U.C. Berkeley. Now I live in Mill Valley with my wife, Elizabeth, and our 2-year-old twins, Lionel and Julia. The twins were inevitable — “Zwillinger” means “twin” in German. We go to Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco.


You studied industrial engineering in college. What did you do next?

After working for a while as a consultant, I enrolled in business school at the University of Pennsylvania. That’s when I first got involved building a company that would have a positive impact on the environment.


What was your first job in that realm?

For six years, I ran the chemical division at a company in South San Francisco where we used biotechnology to engineer microalgae to metabolize sugar and then converted it into renewable products, such as a substitute for natural vegetable oil or petroleum.


Did you like the work?

We did cool things. We made polyurethane out of algae and put it in surfboards and mattresses. It was an innovative, high-performance product, but I kept thinking there had to be other business opportunities to do things a better way.


Both you and Tim Brown played soccer in college — he later played professionally for New Zealand — before attending the London School of Economics. Did you meet through soccer or in the business world?

Our paths never crossed in soccer. I met Tim through my wife. At the time, he was talking about creating a business making products with wool from New Zealand’s merino sheep.


That led to allbirds’ Wool Runners sneaker. Did either of you know anything about shoes?

Neither of us has decades of footwear experience, so we sought out the best people who do. We found experts in shoe design and manufacturing. The heart of shoemaking is the “last,” the mechanical form of the shoe, and we found an Italian last maker.


You launched the business in March and take orders through the website. What is the meaning of your company’s name?

When New Zealand was first settled, there were no mammals — only birds. So we’re  allbirds.


The Wool Runners have garnered rave reviews. What’s next for the company, and will you stick to shoes?

We’ll switch out the colors, changing them with the seasons, and eventually we will expand to other styles made from different materials. Down the line, there may be other products. Most of all, we’re focused on building an innovative business platform around natural materials. There is so much opportunity to do this.

 

“Talking with …” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to sueb@jweekly.com.

 

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.