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SMC TOMS club interviews founder

| Monday, March 23, 2015

img_3838Photo courtesy of Nora Clougherty

Members of the TOMS club at Saint Mary’s Skyped with TOMS Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie during his TED talk Thursday.

The TOMS company, through its “One for One” model, donates a pair of shoes to the poor in third-world countries every time someone buys a pair of its shoes. When someone purchases TOMS eyewear, a part of the profit goes to help restore sight to those who are poor. A new addition to the One for One organization is TOMS tote bags. Every time one is sold, a new bag, along with a safe home birth kit, is given to a pregnant mother in need of one.

“For a long time, TOMS just provided shoes,” Mycoskie said. “We now have factories in Haiti and Kenya. We try to continually stretch the boundary of our company to create jobs.”

Martin Burt, the founder and CEO of Fundacion Paraguaya (FP), which receives and distributes donated shoes, also Skyped in with Mycoskie and the Saint Mary’s club.

“We are using TOMS not as charity but as self-help,” he said. “It is self-help and self-reliance that gets people out of poverty.”

Burt, who founded FP in 1985, works to provide education in entrepreneurship and microcredit to students in Paraguay. At the moment, he is creating schools specifically for rural youth who are chronically unemployed, as well as developing the “Poverty Stoplight,” which uses technology to help poor families understand their economic position and work to improve it.

“Our bottom line is impact, not poverty,” he said. “We try to design ways to diminish poverty.”

TOMS club president Nora Clougherty said it was rewarding to speak to both Mycoskie and Burt, whose foundation, as a TOMS giving partner, directly uses the shoes.

“We were not only able to witness how the shoes are being put to use, but we also got to talk to someone who was directly impacting TOMS,” she said.

In response to a question from the Saint Mary’s club, Mycoskie said the biggest challenge was just making the shoes while keeping one question in mind.

“How do you preserve a culture of giving as you scale a big business?” he said.

Mycoskie said another major obstacle was keeping in mind the purpose of TOMS creation.

“The challenge was in keeping the whole organization excited and focused on why we do what we do,” Mycoskie said. “More important is the mindset that we’re changing.”

Burt said a partial obstacle to eliminating poverty is that people sometimes forget that poverty exists.

“It’s not that the poor are invisible — we do not see,” Burt said. “We can transform the world and end poverty in one generation just with the TOMS shoe example, but it is impossible for people to see the solutions that are right under our nose.”

Burt said TOMS is a good model because it can be applied beyond just shoes.

“This is about social innovation, taking what works in one industry and applying it to another industry,” he said.

Clougherty said the conversation inspired the club to continue to spread its message.

“My goal is to one day see everyone on campus wearing TOMS so that we can see the change a simple purchase can have,” she said.

Another club member, Delaney Hunt, said talking to Mycoskie helped her to consider the service aspect of business.

“Talking to somebody that has that reputation and is so well-known makes it more real,” she said. “It makes me believe in their mission even more — it makes it more personal. The business model itself is interesting in that you could apply it to anything. It gives me ideas on what you can do with a normal business major.”

Club member Tori Wilbraham said Mycoskie’s talk was particularly impactful as she prepares to graduate.

“He inspired me to follow my passions rather than pursue a career for money,” Wilbraham said.

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