Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Lessons Learned from TOMS Shoes's Blake Mycoskie

Yesterday I was privileged enough to see Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS shoes, speak at the AT&T conference center as part of the RISE philanthropic entrepreneurial convention. For those of youn unfamiliar with TOMS shoes, the concept is simple. One for one. For every pair of shoes you buy, a child in need gets one too. Shoes might not seem like a big deal compared to drinking water or shelter, but in many areas around the globe children without shoes can not attend school or will often acquire intestinal parasites that enter under toenails or gangrene because of bare feet exposed to silica-rich soil.

The event was really classy, there was complimentary soda, water and Sweet Leaf tea (how very Austin) as well as two different kinds of hummus and artichoke dip with the most amazing pita chips in the world. (Truly! Don't you hate when they're so hard you feel like you'll break a tooth?)

Seeing as 80% of the audience who were not convention attendees were UT students, 80% of the audience was also severely under dressed. However, in jeans, a tie dye t-shirt, and my TOMS, I pretty well matched Blake's chosen attire for the evening as well.

"Sorry guys -- I'm about as close as you're gonna get to meeting the Tom behind "TOMS"."

Blake talked for about 45 minutes about the objective and origin of TOMS shoes, as well as his own background. (I hadn't realized that Blake was a contestant on The Amazing Race. I love that show!) Mycowskie was a great presenter. telling his story with rapport, passion, and wit. Here are the lessons I learned from Blake Mycoskie:

Sustainability means more than being green.
The TOMS project is a sustainable one. Children will grow -- and so will their feet. The TOMS business model allows for this, by ensuring a steady supply of replacement shoes because of the crazy amount of shoes sold each day. We all should strive to create something sustainable, no matter if your passion is feeding the hungry, saving the whales, starting a riot grrrrrl band, or running a body image blog! Instead of spending all our resources on one grand act of charity, expression, or experience, we can better serve ourselves and others by creating something lasting that will benefit ourselves and others for a long time to come.

You can do good and do well at the same time.
When TOMS began, critics were skeptical of Blake's approach to philanthropy through capitalism. "If you really want to help, then why did you make a for profit business?" However, by making TOMS a capitalism motivated project, Blake could ensure a steady stream of money coming in to the project -- which meant a steady stream of shoes. During times of economic recession and greater global problems (such as the recent Haiti and Chile crises) the donators that non-profits rely on often can not keep making their same donation because of lack of funds or redirected charity at more pressing needs. But people will always want to buy shoes. Don't feel guilty for profiting off altruism. By helping yourself, you can help others a the same time and at a greater capacity.

The world has a lot of room for failure, and even more for success.
TOMS shoes was the FIFTH of Blake's entrepreneurial efforts. He had mild success with media firms and an internet drivers ed company, but nothing was quite so popular until TOMS. Blake didn't speak of his past ventures as failures, but as means to finding his success. The best part about life is there's no limit to the amount of times at bat we get. So what if you strike out the first few times?

Passion is key.
Passionate word-of-mouth marketing is the best advertising for TOMS shoes; People love to share the story of how the "Shoes for Tomorrow" project began, encouraging friends, family, and strangers to visit the website and buy soem shoes. But more importantly, passion is key because without it -- TOMS shoes would likely have never happened. This business wasn't created out of a financial need, but out of the passion for global aid that Blake discovered during an Argentine holiday encounter with an NGO that selflessly brought shoes to children. This passion inspired Blake to persevere even when the business was only 3 interns and a shaggy haired dude in an LA apartment. Find your own passion and use it to motivate you career and life choices in a way that best blends your avocation with your vocation.

Blake Mycoskie's key note speech left me feeling super inspired. I'm still on my own road of self-discovery and figuring out exactly what the hell I'm doing with my life, but I know that no matter what I do I want to pursue it with these lessons in mind. If I could have a career that combined global aid/awareness, art, media, and people I would be a pretty happy duck.

What or who inspires you? What lessons have you learned that have helped on your path of discovery? What are your goals?


  1. Yes! I'm glad you were as inspired as I am by Blake's journey :) Wishing you the best in your own pursuit!

  2. Cool article, but I am still asking myself a lot of questions about the way they make their shoes.

    First, about the sustainability, it might seem to be a strange argument but people who are used not to wear shoes, don't really need shoes. I went to Africa, I worked in the streets and I saw many people in small villages without shoes and shoes weren't really the first thing they needed : water, education, healthcare are way more important, even though it is a little bit "cliche"... There are ways to send your old clothes to developing countries, what we did in my High School in Belgium for instance.

    Second, if Toms Shoes really make their shoes in a fair way, why don't they ask for a label inspection or something like that ? If they have enough money to do conferences like the one in the AT&T and others in schools, they could afford for a real organisms that check their rules...

    Third, Toms Shoes is a great way to give people could conscience, well that's for sure better than buying Nike or other brands well-known for their unethical way to produce shoes and clothes. But it I feel like it is a lazy way for people to involved themselves in the help to developing countries. Toms Shoes should support and involve their customers into real projects.

    I am sorry to be so skeptical about that, but seeing so many people on campus wearing these shoes makes me feel revolted. It's maybe a first step to get people involved, but I really don't like the idea of a super-marketing behind. Toms Shoes make a lot of money that they could invest in a better way like not supporting the "made in China" factories for instance... I looked up at these shoes in Whole Earth, the first couples I couldn't find where they were made, then I found out it was in China. I am just wondering if the shoes they give to kids are the same the kids produce...
    And I looked up, maybe not enough, but I couldn't find any information about it, and the Toms Shoes website is not a very objective source.

    think about it, maybe in a couple of years, we will travel and investigate about that ;)

  3. Fanny --

    Dude! Ultimate kudos for being an objective and globally conscious consumer. I feel like you brought up a lot of good talking points.

    The argument that shoes aren't a first priority is a good one. It's true that people who aren't used to wearing shoes don't necessarily need them, but in many places they have to have shoes just to go to school! Blake himself said that people have approached him with this question before (shoes as a priority or not) and he recognizes that although it may be the biggest priority, it is still helping other people.

    Second, your concern abut the shoes being made fairly is definitely a valid one. However Toms does have their facilities audited frequently by a third-party, Intertek Lab Corps, that ensures that the factories pay fair wages and are of upmost quality work standards.

    Third, I absolutely agree! Just wearing shoes is not enough to become globally involved. Toms SHOULD use their influence to inspire greater action!

    Most importantly, this article is more about the inspirational life lessons I personally drew from Blake's keynote on Tuesday. The lessons were more about manners of organizing one's own life, projects, or entrepreneurial venture rather than strictly about humanitarian aid. But I believe that all of the arguments you presented were very valid points worth looking into. The unexamined life is not worth living!


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