TOMS shoes founder Blake Mycoskie says one of the great life lessons he has learned is that people don’t just want a job, they want passion. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves.
Addressing an audience of several hundred people Tuesday (Feb. 2) in the Phoenix Room at UW-Green Bay, Mycoskie told a story of serendipity that has led to a sustainable business that is providing shoes to hundreds of thousands of under-privileged children. Good Times Programming and the Office of Student Life sponsored his visit, with a boost from the Red Cross Club and Social Work Club.
Dressed casually and wearing his trademark TOMS shoes, Mycoskie said that when he was a contestant on the CBS network show The Amazing Race, he fell in love with Buenos Aires, Argentina. So a few years later, in 2006, when he needed a break from a business that he and partners created, he went to Buenos Aires for a polo camp. During his time there he met and accompanied some Americans who were delivering shoes to needy children in a nearby village.
From that one experience was born the idea that evolved into TOMS shoes. He could make shoes and give them away. More than that, he could create a business that embraced the one-for-one model: Sell a pair of shoes today, give away another pair tomorrow.
“When I had the idea for TOMS it was just an idea,” Mycoskie told his audience. “The life-changing experience was that first shoe drop. It was so powerful I couldn’t go back (to his online business).”
A shoe drop is the event when Mycoskie and others from TOMS shoes actually bring shoes to those in need. In that first shoe drop Mycoskie, family and friends brought 10,000 pairs of shoes to needy children in Argentina. Since then TOMS shoes has presented 400,000 pairs of shoes to needy children. Mycoskie and his idea have been featured in articles ranging from Vogue to ESPN Online to The Wall Street Journal.
It’s a cause that has been embraced by college students and celebrities and the corporate world. Among the names that Mycoskie mentioned Tuesday – Jessica Biel, Ralph Lauren, Scarlett Johannson and Taylor Hanson (“MMMBop”).
Asked why they focus on shoes for children, Mycoskie explained that it’s because many can’t attend school without shoes, and they are at risk from soil-born infectious disease.
The reason for the one-for-one model was sustainability. A charitable donation would have been a one-time gift. When Mycoskie sold his share of the online business he had enough capital to manufacture and give away 20,000 pairs of shoes. By creating a sustainable business Mycoskie said he’s been able to magnify that gift 20-fold. And there’s no sign that it will fade.
Last year Mycoskie was featured in a national AT&T commercial that identified him as the “chief shoegiver’ and helped promote the mission of TOMS shoes. That commercial came about because a corporate person happened to turn on TV and see Mycoskie explain his mission and make an offhand comment about his reliance on his cell phone.
“Because someone saw that, hundreds of thousands of kids will get shoes,” he said. “I realize that we didn’t need to focus on advertising, we need to focus on giving. When someone sees that you’re putting something above yourself, they want to be part of it.”
And the mission will continue at UW-Green Bay. Mycoskie said that in March there would be a Style Your Sole event in which students will design their own TOMS shoes. And on April 8, TOMS is encouraging people to go barefoot for an hour or a day to spotlight the problem.