'I'm 77, I Started a Sneaker Company With My Grandson'

I have been living and working in Minde, a small town in Portugal, since I was 15 years old. At the age of 8, I had started working on a farm, but it was a really tough life, so when I was 15, I moved to Minde to try and find a better life.

I began a job in a yarn factory, where I met my husband, and I stayed there until I was 24, when I got married. It was difficult to raise a family and work in the yarn factory, so I changed jobs and began weaving clothes. This allowed me to work during the day, and to be home at night with my family.

After a while, I fell in love with making clothes and my father bought me a sewing machine. I started making clothes on the side for my husband, children, grandchildren and friends. When my grandson Bernardo was small, I would adjust his father's old clothes so they fit him. But I didn't graduate from any school, I just taught myself.

Bernardo first talked to me about starting a sneaker business in 2018 when I was 74. He had moved from London back to Portugal and he was spending a lot of time with me; coming over for lunch and dinner. He had been saying for a long time that he wanted to start his own business, but when he came to me with the idea to make sneakers from cannabis or hemp, I told him: "Not a chance! That's drugs, you're crazy!" I remember I told him not to even think about it.

Then he explained the process to me, that it is not illegal and there would be no problem using this hemp to make sneakers. Bernardo told me the hemp would be used for the outside and the insoles of the sneakers, and that the sneakers would be waterproof.

But the real game changer was when he brought me some fabric samples. We started testing out the fabrics and I was able to tell him which would break easily and which were better to use. As my sewing machine was not strong enough for the fabric, we had to look for a factory that would make the shoes to our specifications.

After we found one, I would go to the factory to check the quality of the sneaker samples, assessing if everything was well made. A key part of the production was not working well, the labels were sometimes tilted to the side, and Bernardo was struggling because he didn't have experience in textiles. I was spending days with him on the factory floor and giving lectures to the employees on how to do their jobs!

I helped with all the details of the shoe, explaining to staff when the stitching was not well done or when the glue was coming up outside of the sole of the sneakers; aspects that Bernardo did not know about.

We then launched a Kickstarter in 2019 to raise $10,000 through pre-orders to start producing more sneakers, but we actually raised almost $250,000. We did then have problems shipping the shoes early on in 2019 because we weren't expecting so many orders!

Facing such a huge number of orders, we had to bring the shoes to our garage in batches from the factory. Then we would call in friends to create labels and help us pack every pair to send to its final destination. Those days were crazy. It took us six people over two weeks to ship everything.

But before we delivered a single shoe, we checked them all individually to make sure they were good quality. In the early days, the sneakers were heavy and I wasn't happy with that, because I have knee problems. So now, the shoe is lighter and very comfortable. I still wear one of those early heavier prototypes, but I mostly use the newer, lighter version now.

I am still the person Bernardo sends all the samples to, he might think it's ready and I will tell him that parts are not correct, and I still go to the factory here in Portugal to check on the quality and production of the sneakers. I am like the chief technical officer (CTO) Bernardo handles the business side and we also have a U.S. investor. I would visit the U.S., but unfortunately, I am afraid of flying. So Bernardo goes there and I stay in Portugal.

77-year-old Maria and her grandson
Maria Otilia with her grandson, Bernardo. The pair have worked together to start a sneaker company, 8000Kicks, using sustainable hemp. 8000Kicks

We have sold roughly 10,000 pairs of our hemp sneakers to people all over the world so far, although Bernardo tells me that 80 percent of our sales are in the U.S. To be honest, I don't know much about the internet.

We currently have seven colors of both the men's and women's hemp sneakers, and I've told Bernardo I want us to make sandals for next summer, and to see more colors for the sneakers, but I understand that every time we want to launch a new product, it takes time. 8000Kicks is still a startup so everything we make is reinvested into the business.

The best part of working in the sneaker brand is the time Bernardo and I get to spend together. I feel really blessed to have an opportunity to start a family business at my age. It is also very rewarding to get positive feedback from customers.

My friends laugh at me but they think it's great that I'm working on a sneaker brand at 77 years old. We have been selling a lot of our sneakers to older people around my village in Portugal. I think maybe they're a little bit jealous of me!

Maria Otilia is the chief technical officer of 8000kicks, a sustainable hemp sneaker brand. Find out more www.8000kicks.com or follow the brand on Instagram @8000kicks.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward. Interview translation provided by Bernardo Carreira.