Boots on the Ground: Timberland CEO’s View of Haiti, Wyclef Jean, Disaster-Inspired Innovation

Timberland CEO Jeff Swartz on adapting a mission in a time of crisis–and growing innovation from disaster.

Wyclef Jean


About a year ago, we began to build a relationship with a powerful celebrity artist–Wyclef Jean. We were introduced by a mutual friend who figured that Timberland’s passion for environmental stewardship could use a little less earnestness–and a little more connection to relevant emotion. And the word was, while Wyclef is a celebrity and an artist, he is also a for real authentic warrior for social justice, especially on behalf of his homeland–Haiti.

Through a series of conversations, we built a pretty cool business plan for mutual benefit–Timberland committed to reforestation projects in Gonaives, a community west of Port-au-Prince that had been utterly deforested. Wyclef committed to helping us design a small hip collection of boots and connected us to a team of Haitian artists in residence at the FOSAJ art center in Jacmel. The artists would design t-shirts, we would produce and sell the boots and t-shirts, and we would create a flow of moneys for Yéle Haiti (an NGO founded by Wyclef five years ago) that could finance the reforesting in Gonaives. Commerce and justice and opportunity.

We did the advance work and organized for the launch of the reforestation effort–building the tree nursery. We built connections to the local associations and the local farmers, sourced the right fruit tree seedlings, and we fixed the date for the nursery launch.

Yeah, you know the story–the launch of the nursery was supposed to be this week. And yeah, everyone knows that even the best laid plans of super competent teams fall down in the face of earth shaking realities.

So, now what? We make boots, and dream up marketing plans. How can we help with disaster relief?


Well, we did the clothing drive. And we did the fundraising appeal. And yet as we tried to get our heads around the news, as we watched our friend Wyclef on television from Haiti anguishing over the dead bodies he was helping to collect, we knew we had to find a different way forward.

And right as the crisis erupts, Yéle Haiti gets accused, on a blog, of mis-managing their financial affairs–incomplete tax returns, even allegations of self-dealing. So Wyclef is doing Oprah to acknowledge weak accounting systems, while absolutely denying any malfeasance. When his presence was needed on the Web and on the air raising money and working his network, he was instead defending his reputation. To be clear–when he said, “I have never taken a penny for myself,” I believed him. And when he said, “we can run the business part of the foundation better,” I was not surprised. I’ve spent my career sharing strength with magnificent social justice organizations–from City Year to Share Our Strength and the Harlem Children’s Zone–and I know with 20 years of hands-on experience that even the best run NGOs benefit when they adopt best practice, private sector management disciplines. Yéle is not there yet? From my lens, this is not the time for that conversation. Earthquake survivors need food and water and aid, desperately. And if Wyclef and Yéle can get it to them–which I’ve seen them do with my own eyes, by the way–then first, we address the survivors, and in a more quiet moment, we stand with Yéle, and help them build the best-run NGO on Earth.

From all this, it was clear that we needed to pivot our existing partnership model and make the same paradigm work for a different outcome.

We reached out, and Wyclef moved from celebrity entertainer to Haitian leader–from rapping out lyrics, to rapping out directions. He told us from the ground: Aid is pouring in and stalling at the airport. No one’s questioning the good instincts, good intentions, and pure hearts, but the issue is not about intention, it’s about execution. Get the food, get the water, get the medical supplies to the people–period. And Wyclef was hard but clear: We are a for-profit company with superb logistic competences, and with a factory for over 20 years in Santiago in the Dominican Republic–just 100 miles from Port au Prince. He told us to urgently mobilize the trucks, open the warehouse, and get material flowing. Yéle will get the food packed–Timberland has to get it delivered. And then Yéle will do its magic–mobilizing young Haitians, in neighborhoods like Bel Air and Cité Soleil, to distribute food to the hungry, hope to the powerful souls living in the open after the quake. Do what you do well, do what a great bootmaker does, work your logistics network, and partner with the right entrepreneurial partner, and together–we can deliver good.

And so we did–we mobilized our logistics team in the DR, and went to work. And while we are not Federal Express or UPS–we grunted and we got shipments moving over land.


And then Wyclef said: Get on the plane and come here, and see the model for building a new Haiti–a model that is one part the private sector, one part the authentic and effective NGO, and nine parts the spirit of free Haiti. See Timberland plus Yéle plus the young of Haiti working in a specific, focused way to be part of creating a new Haiti.

So I went. They say journeys are more about who you travel with and less about the itinerary. On this voyage, I had the company and counsel of heroes–like Bill Shore (the founder and CEO of Share Our Strength, Timberland board member, and teacher of mine) and a team from Partners in Health who needed a ride to this island in desperate need of medical miracles. We made our way to Port-au-Prince. And in the searing humidity, we served 8,000 hot meals that Yéle had found a way to cook. We served from the back of a truck, in Cité Soleil. We sweated, cried, and saw the outlines of a way forward. One part private sector competence and passion, one part on-the-ground entrepreneurial NGO brilliance, and nine parts Haitian strength, dignity, grace, and energy. And when we wheeled out of Cité Soleil, my heart will never be the same, and neither will my head.

Spending two days in post-earthquake Haiti does not make me akin to its survivors, but it was time enough for me to develop a new understanding of crisis and devastation, and it reaffirmed my belief, as a third-generation entrepreneur, that out of crisis flows innovation. Before the earthquake, I was the CEO of a for-profit company with strength to share and a passion for commerce and justice. Planting trees in Haiti felt like, looked like, the right thing to do. It still is. Only now, post-quake, I’m a CEO with strength and passion who has witnessed both frustration and, amazingly, hope in both a ravaged land and its survivors. Tomorrow we’ll plant trees; today we’re growing a logistical network from Santiago to Cité Soleil. Tomorrow we’ll revisit our marketing plans; today we’re leveraging our strategy skills to figure out how to get more food into the hands of the hungry. Trees, yes, community building, yes–a solid vision for the future is as critical to Haiti’s survival as anything right now–but before the re-growth, a nation needs to heal, and before it can heal, it needs help.

Read more of Jeff Swartz’s blog For the Greener Good

Jeff Swartz

Jeff Swartz is the third generation of the Swartz family to lead Timberland. His grandfather Nathan started the predecessor company to Timberland in 1952. Jeff’s father Sidney and his uncle Herman launched the Timberland brand in the early 1970s. Jeff was promoted to President and CEO in 1998, after working in virtually every functional area of the company since 1986. Under Jeff’s leadership, Timberland has grown rapidly.


Timberland today competes in countries around the world, designing, manufacturing and marketing footwear, apparel and accessories for men, women and children. Timberland has been listed on Business Ethics magazine’s list of 100 Best Corporate Citizens and in 2002, Timberland received the Ron Brown Award, a Presidential award recognizing outstanding corporate leadership in social responsibility. Follow Jeff Swartz on Twitter @Timberland_Jeff

Image: / CC BY 2.0