After seeing countless impoverished children without shoes in Argentina, Blake Mycoskie, 34, started TOMS Shoes in 2006 with a simple idea: if you buy one pair of shoes, TOMS gives one pair of shoes to someone who needs them. In the past four years it’s become a much buzzed-about company, making Fast Company‘s list earlier this year of the Ten Most Innovative Retail Companies, and Mycoskie has become a leader in the social entrepreneurship landscape. This September the company celebrated a major milestone, giving away its one millionth pair of shoes. Blake talked with Fast Company about the past, present and future of TOMS.
David Burstein: What was your big idea?
Blake Mycoskie: I always knew I wanted to incorporate giving in my business but it was a matter of finding the right way to do so. My big idea with TOMS was creating a sustainable way of giving, blending business and philanthropy. If I had created a non-profit, we would have been able to give shoes once, or maybe twice, but by developing this One for One model, we have been able to return to these communities and other areas across the world with shoes for children in need.
What was the inspiration behind your idea?
I was traveling in Argentina in 2006, just on vacation, and met some community workers who were holding a shoe drive. I was surprised to see so many children who did not have shoes. Their feet had cuts and infections, and it was there I had the idea to start a shoe company that matched every pair sold, with a pair given to a child in need. One for One.
What problem or issue did you first try to answer?
I saw so many kids without shoes or shoes that no longer fit them. Because of the lack of footwear, I learned they were more susceptible to foot disease and even denied an education, in some cases. Even though, there were volunteers distributing shoes, my first thought was, “What happens when the kids grow out of the shoes?”
What was your initial goal in addressing that problem?
I started to think of ways I could get more shoes to these children and had the idea of creating a shoe company that would serve as a sustainable way of giving–matching every pair sold, with a pair given to a child in need. One for One.
How did your goals change over time? And what is the goal today?
I think TOMS’ goal has not changed from the beginning, but rather recognizes that the need for shoes is a global problem. We are working with charitable organizations to help TOMS distribute shoes to the children they support through their existing programs worldwide. We are able to reach more children through these trusted and established methods.
What was the first milestone reached when you knew this was going to work?
I can’t remember the first recipient of a pair of TOMS but it was an inexplicable feeling to go back to Argentina with 10,000 pairs of new shoes for children when I had set out to come back with 250 pairs of shoes. I was able to share this moment with friends and family and that’s something I will never forget.
There were three boys who had just received their TOMS shoes, and they led me to a field where they loved to play soccer. It was full of rocks and glass, yet they had been playing barefooted. The first thought when they had received their shoes, was that playing soccer would be easier and even give them speed! Experiencing that was one of my most fulfilling moments.
What figures do you most admire, whose leadership do you follow and whom do you seek for advice?
I read a lot of books by Seth Godin and Muhammed Yunus and look to my parents when I need advice on almost anything.
Where did you grow up?
What occupation did you parents have?
My dad is a doctor and my mom is an author.
What College did you go to? Major/Minor?
I was a Philosophy major at Southern Methodist University in Texas.
Favorite specific class or teacher, what was memorable about him?
Dr. Woodruff, from my high school theology class, piqued my interest in world religions and spirituality.
How is your life different now than it was before you started?
I can say my life is fulfilled. TOMS allows me to be an entrepreneur, engaging from a creative standpoint and helping people at the same time. Business and philanthropy are no longer mutually exclusive, and I’m able to combine both of these passions through TOMS every day.
What excites you or concerns you about your generation?
What excites me about my generation is that so many young people are truly wanting to make a difference and are acting upon their ideas. What concerns me is that there is a sense of entitlement among my peers and they don’t realize how hard you have to work to make something happen. Success isn’t easy.
What assets or challenges do you have because you are young?
Being a young entrepreneur makes it a lot easier to stand out from the pack, allows me to be more curious, and believe that anything is possible. Being young also has its downsides. Some people don’t take you seriously and it’s hard to get a loan from the bank!
What was or what is your biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge I had with TOMS was at the inception of the company. The fact that we had no experience making shoes–we had to learn production, quality control, inventory and all the other business parts of being a shoe and fashion company very quickly. No one on our team really had any experience, but we were able to get TOMS up on its feet and here, four years later. I wouldn’t necessarily want to change this experience because it’s what allowed us to be creative in building TOMS and making it unique.
How has technology, social media affected your business?
Social Media has been a great asset for our business, allowing us to engage and keep constant conversation with fans of the brand and those just learning about our story. It’s amazing to see so many people wearing TOMS, and sharing our story, and seeing the events they’re hosting to help propel the movement forward.
If you had 60 seconds with President Obama what would you tell or ask him?
Knowing the effort it takes to run a company, I can only imagine what it would be like running the country. If I was fortunate enough to be in that situation, I would ask him how I, or TOMS, could be of service utilizing business to make the world a better place. I would ask that of any President.
How would the world be different in 10 years if you had your way?
Global warming would be resolved and everyone would be operating on clean energy.
David D. Burstein is a young entrepreneur himself, having completed his first documentary 18 in ’08 for which he was awarded a $10,000 grant from Nancy Lublin’s DoSomething.org. He is the Founder & Executive director of the youth voter engagement not for profit, Generation18. His book about the millennial generation will be published by Beacon Press in fall 2011.
David and Fast Company are producing Change Generation, a new series profiling a young generation of change-seekers. We’ll be covering everything from educational activists to champions of political reform, creative entrepreneurs, and outright thrill seekers. We’ll be hosting Q&As as well as video profiles with production partner shatterbox.