At age 29, Blake Mycoskie was burning out in the business world. Having started four successful businesses, often clocking 80 hours a week, Blake decided to clear his schedule–and his head–for a month. He flew to Argentina hoping to recharge his batteries with a little sailing and polo. Off he went unaware that he was about to stumble onto a life-changing idea.
While visiting a number of impoverished villages, Blake was startled to see how many children were barefoot. He couldn’t help but notice how painfully cut up and swollen their feet were from the lack of shoes. He also learned that many were forbidden to attend school without shoes. In an interview with TIME Blake said, “I was sitting on a field on a farm one day, and I had an epiphany. I said, I’m going to start a shoe company, and for every pair I sell, I’m going to give one pair to a kid in need.” One for one.
Upon his return, Blake put feet on his dream.
Calling his company TOMS, Blake designed a collection of colorful, light-weight shoes built around the alpargatas footwear worn by Argentine workers. The simplicity of his idea caught traction at the grassroots level once the media ran with his idea. Thanks to features in People, VOGUE, TIME, and Oprah’s magazine O, Blake’s upstart company quickly gained national exposure.
In two short years, TOMS has donated more than 10,000 pairs of shoes to children in Argentina and placed another 50,000 pairs of shoes on the feet of South African kids. In a recent interview, Blake admits the success of TOMS far outpaced his initial aspiration: “The original goal was to sell 250 and give back 250 to this one village. But we ended up selling 10,000, just out of my apartment.” His dream now is to give away millions of shoes one day. Blake’s current goal is to give 30,000 pairs of shoes to children in Ethiopia. Why Ethiopia?
According to TOMS website, more than one million Ethiopians (about 6% of the population) are suffering from podoconiosis. TOMS explains that podoconiosis is a “soil-transmitted disease caused by walking, farming, running, playing, working barefoot in silica-rich soil.” And, as they further explain, “Silica is ancient volcanic glass that penetrates the skin and makes its way into the lymphatic system. The feet and lower legs swell, open sores and ulcers develop, infection sets in.”
The solution to the prevention of podoconiosis is simple: wear shoes. No vaccines or expensive antibiotics are needed. Just shoes. That’s why Blake, who prefers to call himself the Chief Shoe Giver rather than CEO of TOMS, has targeted Ethiopia between now and year-end. With Christmas just around the corner, he’s 9,000 pairs closer to that worthy objective.
When Blake returned to the Argentina village where he had his epiphany with a truckload of shoes, he was deeply moved by the experience. He reflected, “It’s such an intimate thing to take a dirty foot in your hand and put a shoe on it. It was a very emotional experience.”
TOMS offers an excellent product while making it easy for us to touch the lives of needy children half way around the world in a tangible way. In an era marked by corporate greed and fiscal mismanagement, it’s refreshing to see a young company with a vision to give back in such a generous way. Dare I say these guys have sole!