As a private person it took Robyn Ravell immense courage to write a Facebook post she shared for the sake of her business – and her son. “I know it’s probably a cliché ‘help me’ story, so thank you for reading this,” she wrote. “I’m a single mum with a special needs child and my only form of income comes from my sandal brand and my little guesthouse in Bali. My guesthouse is in the danger zone for the Mount Agung [volcano] eruption, so I’ve been forced to close and I’ve no idea when I can reopen. I’m selling last season’s stock of my little sandal range at discounted prices! Urgent to sell.”
It was a desperate plea from a worried entrepreneur and mother. “It’s always daunting to open an emotionally charged chapter of your life and allow people to read it,” says Robyn. “But the sole motivation for it was, is, and always will be, Ocean – my three-year-old son, my little heartbeat.”
Ocean lives with cerebral palsy, which impacts all of his four limbs, as well as epilepsy and Fragile X syndrome – a genetic condition with behavioural and intellectual impacts.
When Robyn shared the Facebook status, she needed enough sales to keep her start-up afloat. She got far more than expected. Within 24 hours, her post was shared, liked and commented on by an army of well-wishers. When the group Mama Creatives – a Facebook page for mothers working on creative pursuits – reposted the status, its members rose to support her.
“From the moment I pressed ‘send’ on that post, a wave of public commitments to purchase my sandals, coupled with private messages of support from women from all over Australia, hit my inbox,” says Robyn. “The very first message I received was from a lovely lady in New South Wales promising to buy four pairs. I burst into tears. I couldn’t believe the compassion from complete strangers.”
For the founder of Kirana – a Sanskrit word meaning ‘shining ray of light’ – entrepreneurship has always been a bittersweet experience. Robyn’s son, Ocean, was nine months old when they relocated from Sydney to Bali to open a guesthouse. Just eight days after signing a contract on the property, Ocean – who hadn’t shown any previous health issues – suffered a five-hour seizure and ended up in intensive care.
“I was left emotionally reeling,” recalls Robyn. “This unexpected health crisis literally annihilated the life I had just started to build for my son and I in Bali. It was decided by his father and I – no longer together at that time – that we had to move back to Australia, with access to medical attention for his complicated health conditions.”
With a house in Bali to maintain and rising medical bills, Robyn was in a desperate situation. “The reality of being a single mum hit when I was staring at a bank balance of AU$2.14,” she says. “I didn’t have enough money to buy my son an AU$5 cake for his birthday.”
Five months later, inspiration came from desperation. “After mentally pummelling myself over and over, I knew I had to turn my life around,” she says. “So I racked my brain trying to come up with a small business I could run from my little house. I had previously bought some leather sandals in Bali that I was in love with. If I love them this much, [I thought], maybe other women in Australia will, too.”
In August, 2016, Robyn posted to Facebook her goal of launching a sandal company. Having previously worked as a production manager at a textile company, Robyn had a bit of experience in the fashion industry, but going it alone was very different. Thankfully, her network was keen to help out, giving her advice, offering ideas, and mentoring her in marketing, publicity and how to build an ecommerce website.
The tagline for Kirana is, ‘I walk on sunshine’. For Robyn it has a two-fold meaning. “These sandals are so comfortable that you literally feel as though you’re walking on sunshine,” she says. “But those are also my words of encouragement to Ocean [who often uses a wheelchair]. We dedicate hours of therapy daily to help him walk one day. I urge him to ‘walk on, my son, shine!’”
To juggle her personal and professional commitments, she works through the night (it’s not unusual for her to go to sleep at 4am and sleep for a few hours).
“When Kirana gets busy during sandal season, I do find that I’m just not dedicating enough hours to Ocean’s therapy,” she says. “I feel incredibly guilty because I know how important his workouts are, but I also know that with each sale I’m saving money for Ocean’s future.”
For both Ocean and Robyn (who says the start-up is theirs, not just hers), giving up is not an option. “In many respects I consider myself very lucky, because I’ve never had another child without health complications to compare it to my life with Ocean,” she says. “He works so insanely hard [in his therapy sessions]. He inspires me every single day without fail. There’s no way I can ever give up, because he’s not watching me – he’s leading me.”
Her hope is the sandal brand will one day become successful enough to hire a manager who oversees the day-to-day duties.
For now, she’s just happy to survive another season. “My advice to any parents with a special needs child, who dreams of starting a business, is do not be afraid to tell your story,” she says. “Be raw, be authentic, ask for help whenever you need it. And let other people share your story, too. The outpouring of help from people over the past year has restored my faith in the kindness of humans – and given my son a hopeful future.”