PhiLAnthropist Interview: TOMS Shoes Founder Blake Mycoskie Plans to Give Away 300,000 Pairs in 2009

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What happens when you travel to Argentina to learn how to play Polo? You start a sustainable and socially conscious shoe company. Of course.

Well, that is exactly what happened to Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS shoes. After visitng the country in 2006 and witnessing the mass amounts of children without shoes and its detrimental effects, he returned to the US determined to eradicate this problem. And for the last 3 years, he has been doing just that.

For those unfamiliar with the company, the concept is simple: for each pair of shoes they sell, the Santa Monica-based company will give a pair to a child in need. Shortly after starting the company, Blake and friends returned to Argentina with 10,000 pairs of shoes for the children and ever since then, thanks to the company's success, they have been able to increase the breadth and scope of the project; 140,000 pairs have been given away in Argentina, Ethiopia and parts of the Southern US. He plans to give away an additional 300,000 in 2009 alone.

Tommorrow, TOMS will launch their "One Day Without Shoes" campaign, in order to raise awareness about the impact a pair of shoes can have on a childs life.

In today's world, it is all about what you can do to give back and give more, and we hope to see the emergence and success of companies like TOMS, with a focus on increasing awareness and driving social change.

LAist is a big fan of TOMS, so we were pleased to have the chance to talk to Blake about his unique business model, empowering young people, their current projects in Ethiopia and meeting with the Obama administration.

TOMS core and initial vision and goal was to provide children in need shoes. How has this evolved and grown?

Well now we've started focusing specifically on Southern Ethiopia where there is a horrible foot disease called Podoconiosis that is completely preventable with shoes. Were really focused on that area. It’s almost like an elephantitus of the foot and it’s really grotesque. Specifically, now we have a factory in Ethiopia helping create special leather boots for kids so they don’t get this disease.

So, as we’ve grown our giving has become more focused on specifically preventing diseases for kids in certain areas of the world but we’re still focused on coming with new great shoes that people will continue to buy so that people will continue to support us season after season so we can continue our giving.

You touched on a great point in your speech at the Clinton School of Public Service that when “you are doing something good, people want to help you”. Especially now, how crucial or pivotal has that been to the success of TOMS?

It’s been very critical…it’s really just about telling the story and getting it out there. And when we do that, more and more people will buy the shoes and want to be part of it and want to help. That’s really been a critical part of the mission; it is not just being like “we’re a brand and we’re doing it ourselves” but rather getting people to write about it, email about it, share the videos, write on the blog…it’s really a very inclusive company so that we can get more people participating.

toms shoes close up.jpg And you guys don’t do any advertising, right?

No. It’s really all just through media, viral videos, blogs and facebooking. We’re launching a new website that we’ve been working on for 6 months. There will be a lot more community pages, ways to interact and get more involved with TOMS. I’m really excited about this because I think it will take the kind of “people being part of the brand” to a whole other level.

We’re trying to integrate more web 2.0 and let people know what they can do if they want to get more involved; if you want to have a style your sole design party, it will tell you other people in the area who are doing so. We want to integrate our community and our fans so it’s not just “I’m buying a pair of shoes” but rather hosting an event, screening, or eventually even helping us design the line, so its really just a community of people, and not like a company.

What has been the biggest challenge with this whole project?

The biggest challenge was the fact that we had no experience making shoes when we started, so learning production, quality control, inventory and all the other business parts of being a shoe and fashion company. No one on our team really had any experience, but we’ve been learning that on an ongoing basis, but it has been the biggest challenge so far.

So have you brought anyone new on?

We brought in a guy from Asics and Nike.

What has been the greatest and most unexpected lesson?

When you really give young people a lot of authority and opportunity, they can do amazing things. Because of our giving level and because we’re a start up, we haven’t really had a lot of money to hire a lot of “super-experienced” people, so we’ve hired people right out of college, or even out of high school and given them a tremendous amount of responsibility and authority for the lack of experience they have and for the most part I’ve been really impressed with how many of them have really risen up and become really important assets to TOMS, do their jobs and get things done in a way that people with maybe ten years of experience wouldn’t do.

Also, with our intern program it’s a way to see how much great ideas and efforts come out of that program. It’s really about empowering people, and making people believe that they really can make a difference, and contribution no matter what their age or experience is, and when given the tools and abilities to do so, amazing things happen.

Can you tell me more about the intern program?

There are two parts to it. We have the interns who spend the summer here in LA and we have the Vagabonds. Vagabonds are interns who travel around the country hosting screenings and parties and spread the word about TOMS to high school and colleges around the country. And that’s become a big part of my thinking and a big part of the culture; you don’t necessarily need the most experienced people, you just need people who are passionate, smart and hardworking.

toms shoe walls.jpg What's your advice for people, young especially, who want to take the social entrepreneurship route to give back in their communities and want to make this giving a full-time venture?

I think two things. For better or for worse, a lot of people have been laid off and a lot of companies aren’t hiring, but there are social ventures like TOMS out there and often the best way to get involved is to volunteer some time, and even if you are 40 years old and are not going to do an internship, the truth is, if you have, lets say, graphic design skills, and you’ve been laid off, maybe donate your skills to a not-for-profit or a social venture like TOMS that you’re really passionate about, and often times through that process, especially as an organization is growing, sometimes it can become an opportunity for actual employment.

And I think a lot of people have seen that by getting involved in a socially focused venture that they are not only fulfilling a financial needs but their spiritual and mental needs as well. I think that’s why people love working at TOMS and I think were going to see a lot of other organizations like TOMS popping up because it’s just kind of that right thing to do.

Has TOMS been able to stay profitable and sustainable?

Yes, it’s TOMS third full year. We’re definitely on a path to sustainability. We haven’t had to let anyone go. If anything we’ve had to hire more people in the last two months. We’re right on plan and we’re going to give away 300,000 shoes in 2009.

How do you pick your retailers?

We look at retailers in a non-traditional way and we really pick them based on how passionate they are about our story because we don’t think there is a certain type of person who likes TOMS…so we feel our demographic is very wide so we should sell to a very wide variety of stores, so we pick stores that our willing to tell our story in a very powerful way and get behind it.

I saw the new Vegan TOMS. How focused are you on using the most sustainable materials? What is your commitment to environmental/sustainable practices?

The new line of shoes is made from 70% recycled plastic bottles and 30% hemp, so the fabric is more sustainable than even an organic cotton. So we’re very much focused in that direction and moving as fast as we can.

The pop-up store on Abbott Kinney was so successful you ended up staying longer than planned. Any future plans for more pop-up stores?

No plans yet, but were thinking about San Francisco.

I heard you recently met with the Obama administration in the White House....

Yes, I was invited to go the White House and meet with the administration and specifically talk about the Department of New Media. It’s cool because it’s the first time the White House has ever had a Department of New Media and they invited myself and a few other entrepreneurs involved with technology just to talk about what we're doing and how we can bring more transparency to government.

What’s next for TOMS?

We’re just trying to get our community more involved in our mission, besides just buying a pair of shoes. So there are a lot of ways we’re working with the new website and the social media properties so people can host design parties, screening of the documentary film…really just trying to get our community together offline as well as online so we can really create platforms for social change, not with just shoes but with other big ideas out there.

We're big fans of TOMS, thanks for talking to LAist, Blake!

Top photo courtesy of Blake Mycoskie. TOMS "Styled Soles" and Wall by Emily Lerman//LAist.