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Like so many of us, travel changed Blake Mycoskie's life and opened his eyes. But what he did next changed the world. The founder and 'Chief Shoe Giver' of TOMS explains how a journey through South America led him to innovate social enterprise and develop the One for One® business model that has put shoes on over 95 million feet and restored sight to 780,000 people.
In 2006 I took some time off from work to travel to Argentina. I was twenty-nine years old and running my fourth entrepreneurial startup: an online driver's education program for teens. We were at a crucial moment in the business's development, but I had promised myself a vacation and wasn't going to back out.
Argentina was one of the countries my sister, Paige, and I had sprinted through in 2002 while we were competing on the CBS reality program The Amazing Race. (As fate would have it, after thirty-one days of racing around the world, we lost the million-dollar prize by just four minutes; it's taken me a while to be able to put those words together without weeping.)
When I returned to Argentina, my main mission was to lose myself in its culture. I spent my days learning the national dance (the tango), playing the national sport (polo), and, of course, drinking the national wine (Malbec). I also got used to wearing the national shoe: the alpargata, a soft, casual canvas shoe worn by almost everyone in the country. I saw this incredibly versatile shoe everywhere: in the cities, on the farms, and in the nightclubs. An idea began to form in the back of my mind: Maybe the alpargata would have some market appeal in the United States. But as with many half-formed ideas that came to me, I tabled it for the moment. My time in Argentina was supposed to be about fun, not work.
Toward the end of my trip, I met an American woman in a café who was volunteering on a shoe drive - a new concept to me. She explained that many kids lacked shoes, even in relatively well-developed countries like Argentina, an absence that didn't just complicate every aspect of their lives - including essentials like attending school and getting water from the local well - but also exposed them to a wide range of diseases. Her organization collected shoes from donors and gave them to kids in need - but ironically the donations that supplied the organization were also its Achilles' heel. Their complete dependence on donations meant that they had little control over their supply of shoes. And even when donations did come in sufficient quantities, they were often not in the correct sizes, which meant that many of the children were left barefoot even after the shoe drop-offs. It was heartbreaking.
I spent a few days traveling from village to village with the woman and her group, and a few more traveling on my own, witnessing the intense pockets of poverty just outside the bustling capital. It dramatically heightened my awareness. Yes, I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that poor children around the world often went barefoot, but now, for the first time, I saw the real effects of being shoeless: the blisters, the sores, the infections.
My first thought was to start my own shoe-based charity, but instead of soliciting shoe donations, I would ask friends and family to donate money to buy the right type of shoes for these children on a regular basis. I have a large family and lots of friends, but it wasn't hard to see that my personal contacts could dry up sooner or later. And then what? These kids needed more than occasional shoe donations from strangers.
Then I began to look for solutions in the world I already knew: business and entrepreneurship. An idea hit me: Why not create a for-profit business to help provide shoes for these children? Why not come up with a solution that guaranteed a constant flow of shoes, not just whenever kind people were able to make a donation? In other words, maybe the solution was in entrepreneurship, not charity.
I felt excited and energized and shared those feelings with Alejo, my Argentinian polo teacher and friend: "I'm going to start a shoe company that makes a new kind of alpargata. And for every pair I sell, I'm going to give a pair of new shoes to a child in need. There will be no percentages and no formulas."
It was a simple concept: Sell a pair of shoes today, give a pair of shoes tomorrow. Something about the idea felt so right, even though I had no experience, or even connections, in the shoe business. I did have one thing that came to me almost immediately: a name for my new company. I called it TOMS. I'd been playing around with the phrase "Shoes for a Better Tomorrow," which eventually became "Tomorrow's Shoes," then TOMS. (Now you know why my name is Blake but my shoes are TOMS. It's not about a person. It's about a promise -- a better tomorrow.)
Adapted from chapter one, "The TOMS Story," of Start Something That Matters by Blake Mycoskie.
TOMS sold 10,000 pairs of shoes in its first year. Since then, the groundbreaking social enterprise has taken the One for One model into other products. TOMS Eyewear was launched in 2011 and has given almost 100 million shoes to people in need, restored sight to over 780,000 people, contributed $6.5 million in impact grants and delivered 722,000 weeks of safe water to communities. Your purchase of TOMS sunnies makes a real impact.