Blake Mycoskie and TOMS Shoes

Profiles of Success

Blake Mycoskie and TOMS Shoes

Making a living by giving

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There’s a young woman on a video on TOMS Shoes’ website who says, “People laughed at Blake when his idea was to start a shoe company basically where he gave away shoes. People laughed and said that was ridiculous. [But] it’s more about putting people ahead of you.”

Perhaps you’ve seen the AT&T television commercials that began running this past spring featuring Blake Mycoskie. Blake, president and Chief Shoegiver, is the narrator of the commercial and, while extolling the virtues of AT&T’s network, explains TOMS Shoes’ One for One model of doing business: For every pair of shoes sold, TOMS gives a pair to a child in need. They donate shoes directly to the children with the help of volunteers, primarily in developing countries where going barefoot can profoundly affect a child’s health and quality of life. (The company name refers to the idea of “shoes for tomorrow,” not the name of a person.)

While attending Southern Methodist University a few years ago, Blake began flexing his entrepreneurial muscles by starting a door-to-door laundry service for college students and later created marketing and media companies. He took time out in 2004 to compete on the second season of “The Amazing Race” on CBS. Teamed with his sister Paige, he came in third.

Blake returned to South America a couple of years later on a personal vacation to Argentina to learn to play polo and do some community service work. While there he discovered great numbers of people living in extreme poverty and many children who had no shoes, which puts them at risk in several ways.

The importance of having shoes goes far beyond comfort, or even safety from foot injuries. Because walking is the primary mode of transportation, and often the only mode, shoes enable children in impoverished regions to go further to get the necessities of life; therefore, they create access to more water, food, shelter and medical care. While protecting feet from injury, shoes also prevent dangerous diseases and infections that can be transmitted from contaminated soil through cuts and wounds in the feet. And because shoes are part of mandatory school uniforms in many parts of the world, a child without shoes often cannot attend school and cannot get even the rudiments of the most basic education.

Blake returned home to Venice, Calif., in 2006 with the idea of starting a shoe company with the One to One giving model. He adapted a traditional Argentine alpargata, a simple canvas slip-on shoe, and sold 10,000 pairs the first year. That same year he returned to Argentina with some friends, relatives and volunteers and gave away an equal number of shoes to the children there. In the past two and a half years, TOMS has given away more than 140,000 pairs of shoes in Argentina, Ethiopia and the Southern U.S. The goal in 2009 is 300,000 pairs, and Haiti will be added to the Shoe Drop Tours.

The Santa Monica-based company also has an active intern program. Some of them are known as Vagabonds and travel extensively around the U.S. doing promotional events, creating awareness about TOMS, and promoting its mission. Blake says he is “really impressed with how many have . . . become really important assets to TOMS.” And, despite their inexperience, he acknowledges that, “Empowering people can make amazing things happen.”  Volunteers are also recruited to help spread the word and deliver the shoes.

As he had no experience in making shoes or in the apparel industry, it has been a challenge for Blake and others running the company to educate themselves about production, inventory, quality control, and all the business elements of a manufacturing enterprise, although they recently brought on someone who has worked with Asics and Nike. Other items that have been added to the product line include a wrap boot, T-shirts and onesies for babies.

Blake hopes his success will prove the principle expounded on the TOMS website: “entrepreneurs no longer have to choose between earning money and making a difference in the world…profitability can be achievable with a giving-based business.”

Suzanne Ridgway is a freelance writer and regular columnist for Working World and Working Nurse magazines. She also writes grant proposals for nonprofit organizations.

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