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TOMS founder speaks on giving

Jenn Metz | Thursday, April 15, 2010

A project that started with 250 pairs of shoes and three duffle bags has grown tremendously in four years, partly because “giving is a good business strategy.”

Wearing the shoes that inspired a worldwide movement, TOMS founder and “Chief Shoe Giver” Blake Mycoskie spoke to a crowd of over 450 on Wednesday evening, sharing his story and offering advice for college students looking to make a difference.

The company’s “One for One” campaign, in which every pair of TOMS purchased allows a pair to be given to children in need all over the world, was the result of a much-needed vacation.

Four years ago, Mycoskie, an alum of the CBS show “Amazing Race,” requested a month off from his driver’s education software company and traveled back to Argentina, a destination he visited during the show’s second season.

“I wanted to go back to some of these countries and really immerse myself in the culture,” he said.

Toward the end of the trip, Mycoskie overheard volunteers discussing an upcoming shoe drive in a village about an hour outside of Buenos Aires. After discovering there were children that did not have shoes and were not allowed to attend school without proper footwear, Mycoskie was “blown away.”

He asked to join the volunteers on their trip, not sure what he was getting himself into.
“I expected the kids to be excited, but these kids were acting like it was Christmas Day — the best Christmas ever,” he said, “I found myself getting on my hands and knees, trying to fit these shoes.”

The experience was mentally and spiritually fulfilling, and he said he had “never done anything like that before.”

After a “great day,” Mycoskie went to bed concerned: What happens when the children grow out of their shoes?

A self-described “serial entrepreneur,” Mycoskie developed the idea that the business could have an effect on the children, that he could redesign a traditional shoe, sell it in the United States and give pairs of shoes to the children in Argentina.

“I didn’t feel like I could leave the country until I did something about it,” he said.

With no experience in shoes or fashion, Mycoskie was up against tough odds, but a stroke of luck allowed the brand to make headlines: The leading fashion columnist from the Los Angeles Times saw TOMS’ first in-store display and wanted to hear more about his story.

That article was the first of many, he said, and after his partners bought out his shares of their software company, Mycoskie had money and time to invest in the TOMS project. The idea of buying shoes today and giving shoes tomorrow inspired the name “Tomorrows,” but the size of the label on the back of each shoe required an abbreviation.

As of January 2010, TOMS has donated over 400,000 pairs of shoes to children in 21 countries around the world.

Mycoskie’s overarching philosophy is based on a simple fact: “giving feels good.”
“Customers become your greatest marketers,” he said, “It’s an amazing phenomenon.”

One of the personal anecdotes Mycoskie shared with the crowd was when he first encountered a stranger wearing TOMS shoes, four months into the project at JFK airport in New York.

He approached her, and admired her red shoes, and to his surprise, she began to tell his own story.

“She literally grabs my shoulder … and says, ‘you don’t understand, this is the most amazing company in the world,'” he said. “If she had that much passion to tell the TOMS story to a stranger, how many people had she already told?”

That girl in the airport made Mycoskie realize TOMS didn’t need to focus on traditional advertising.

“If even a fraction of our customers acted like that girl, you do the math, it’s crazy,” he said. “We have to focus on giving and having people tell our story … it grows and grows and grows, and that’s only because of the giving.”

The giving aspect of the company has attracted “the greatest employees,” Mycoskie said, because “they truly believe the business model gives them the opportunity to be something bigger than themselves.”

TOMS has also gained the support of business partners like Ralph Lauren and AT&T, resulting in a limited edition TOMS line that sold out immediately and a successful commercial that drew new customers to the brand, Mycoskie said.

The company is expanding its merchandise line to include shoes people can wear year-round, and is also donating different kinds of shoes to children, such as rubber rain boots, running shoes and school shoes.

“We’re expanding the giving program to match what kids need the most,” Mycoskie said.
He encouraged the audience to incorporate putting into their business, or their life in general, their own “personal brand.”

“At the end of the day, what we all want is to be excited about something, and what I have found in my life is … the excitement starts to wear off if it’s just about yourself,” he said.
On Mycoskie’s agenda in the coming weeks: working on the designs for the TOMS Spring 2011 line and traveling to Haiti for volunteering.

“Every time you start to get burned out of the business part, you get to do the giving part,” he said.”

A newly-formed TOMS club at Notre Dame will be hosting a “Style Your Sole” party as well as screening the TOMS documentary in the coming weeks.

Student Union Board (SUB), Student International Business Council and the Poverty Studies department sponsored the talk, which took place in the Jordan Auditorium of the Mendoza College of Business.

Junior Neva Lundy, co-programmer for SUB’s Ideas and Issues committee, said the group brought Mycoskie to campus because of his socially-conscious organization that is “working in the business world to make the world a better place.”

“Finding speakers who are going to capture the minds of college students is a difficult task,” she said. “Blake Mycoskie and TOMS really embody a lot of the values that Notre Dame espouses.”