If the Shoe Fits

In the last two years, TOMS Shoes has grown in leaps and bounds (pun intended). Here, we talk to founder Blake Mycoskie about good leadership skills, staying on mission and the fashion biz.

For every pair of TOMS Shoes that’s sold, you give a pair to an orphan in need. What gave you this idea for a business?

It would be convenient to say I grew up around great philanthropists or charity workers or that I had a great experience in this area or field. But the truth is I was really just an entrepreneur minding my own business. Deep down, I guess there was this desire because I saw kids with no shoes and wanted to help. But it wasn’t this planned-out attack. It was just something we stumbled into, but it’s changed my life forever.

Many TOMS customers and employees are passionate about the cause. What enables that level of buy-in?

I think two things. One, in order to really make a difference in the world and create a movement that we’re trying to do, that cannot be created by one person. I recognized early on that it was going to be key for me to hand over the control of the marketing and the messaging and the ownership from a branding standpoint to other people besides myself. So from very early on, I didn’t try to own the brand any more than I had to as the founder, and tried to create an environment where others could take pride and ownership in the brand. That’s just my management style from day one.

The other part is that because our focus and goals are on the shoes that we create and not the profit that we make—while that’s important, that’s not the goal—that creates an environment where people can participate even more. With every shoe that’s given away, anyone who helped get the company to this level owns that. It’s not because of Blake’s efforts that we’re giving these shoes away. It’s because of everyone’s efforts. When people realize that, it creates a situation where people really own it themselves.

In the last year, is there a highlight moment for you?

I’m thinking of two things. One is just being on the ground and going on as many shoe drops as I do. I went to Ethiopia this last year doing some work there and I met some women with a foot disease called podoconiosis. These women had no lives. No one would marry them or give them a job. They were basically on the verge of suicide. And when I heard these women talk about being healed from this disease by wearing shoes and they were doing a hairdressing business and they were married with kids and had a life, that was one of those moments where it was like, “Man, who would have ever thought that having a single pair of shoes could change someone’s life so much.” That was a very special moment and further ignited me into committing my life to doing this.

On the ground here in America, this just happened last week. I just spoke at the Clinton Global Initiative for university students, so I spoke to 1,400 student body presidents from around the world. After I spoke, I was talking to them and seeing how inspired they were by my story. They were seeing that you could start a company and help people at the same time and realizing it was something they could do, too. It wasn’t only for the social elite or wealthy to do, but young entrepreneurs can be involved in philanthropy as well. They said I inspired them more than anything else they’ve ever heard. That made me feel really good because that means other people are going to go out and make good in the world and will affect people I will never even know about.

So many of the beautiful stories from TOMS refer to what’s happening on the ground in other countries, but this seems to bring change in the lives of those Stateside.

Yes, that’s definitely the case, and it’s an important part of my role. It’s the reason why I do make it a priority to do interviews and tell the story 10,000 times. If you write a story and a young person reads it, that might be the next person that starts the next TOMS. To that degree, every one of these interviews or articles becomes immensely important to inspire people. Hopefully it inspires them to buy a pair of TOMS shoes and that helps further our mission, but oftentimes it will inspire in a way we’re not even aware of.

Can you define a shoe drop?

It’s just a bunch of volunteers passionate about helping people and passionate about TOMS going to a school or a place where kids don’t have shoes and hand-placing shoes on their feet. It’s really that simple. We work with NGOs and nonprofits in those areas. They’re working with kids in schools or kids in a soup-kitchen-type of situation.

You say you’re giving away 300,000 shoes this year. How many shoe drops would that take?

We do shoe drops with volunteers, but that’s more of wanting to get people involved in the experience. But we have shoe giveaways through the NGOs five days a week all over the world in thousands and thousands of increments. So we don’t take volunteers every time we give away shoes. We just do that for special shoe drops so then people can get the experience. But we actually have a situation where shoes are given away all the time. Otherwise, we would never be able to catch up. [Laughs]

Thursday, April 8 is TOMS' One Day Without Shoes. Find out more here.

The original version of this article appeared in the May/June 2009 issue of RELEVANT magazine.

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