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Our Interview with TOMS Founder Blake Mycoskie

Now that so many people have adopted this One for One® model, how is TOMS updating that or keeping it fresh?

One of the ways that we have really evolved in the last 18 months, that a lot of people aren’t aware of, is our commitment to localized manufacturing. If you really think about poverty alleviation, there are three things you have to focus on. You’ve got to focus on basic needs, education, and job creation. Basic needs is aid, and that’s usually health-related and that’s to give someone the vitality to go to school or have a job.
When we look at the basic needs, shoes help you go to school and protect your feet from illnesses; eyesight helps people see; clean water through our coffee program keeps people healthy from not drinking contaminated water. The second piece of that, the job piece, is something that we didn’t really pay a lot of attention to at first. But about 18 months ago we made a commitment that we will manufacture one-third of all of our giving shoes in the countries where we give them. A lot of people don’t know that about TOMS—that we actually have manufacturing now in Kenya, Ethiopia, India, and we are the only footwear manufacturing in Haiti.

So the biggest part of our mission isn’t just in providing aid, which we do for One for One®, it’s actually in job creation. That’s something that’s one of the reasons that we actually got into the coffee business, because we can support a lot of local farmers in that regard. Job creation and what we are doing on the ground are a big part of our mission right now.

Blake running with Children, Peru. Photo: Kevin Zacher

 Blake surrounded by children, Rwanda. Photo: Kevin Zacher

The group on the bus, Nepal. Photo: Kevin Zacher

Looking ahead, Guatemala. Photo: Jared Chambers

We understand you have outside auditors go in to make sure these factories are up to high quality standards and not using child labor and other things people are very concerned about.
That’s a very important part obviously; if your mission is to use business to improve lives, then you’ve got to take that part equally as seriously as you do the other work that you are doing.

We’re in Germany right now, where there are a lot of social systems put in place by the government here as well as in Scandinavia, and the rest of Europe. The government is supposed to take care of problems that ail society, in a different way than in the us. Because of that, the need for individual philanthropy resonates differently than it does in the US. As TOMS expands, how do you address the cultural differences around the One for One® model?
I was in Berlin a few months ago doing some media, and what I found is because it’s not as common, it makes our model even more provocative, even maybe more radical, which is a good thing from a business-building standpoint. It stands out, it causes a real spirited debate as to whether this is all the consumers’ responsibility or not, and how your purchases can speak to what you’re all about. If you’re going to buy a pair of canvas shoes and you have the opportunity to buy a Converse or a Vans or a TOMS, even if you don’t feel that it’s your responsibility to help those in need, and that it’s the government’s responsibility, it’s a great thing that you can buy a pair, and help someone. So it’s really an additive. We’re not asking the customer to make a donation, we’re asking them to do what they’re already going to do—buy a pair of shoes—and then we’re making a donation on their behalf. It brings them a lot of joy, and when consumers have joy, they’re more loyal.

If someone doesn’t have the means to buy a pair of shoes, what’s a great way for people to give back?
We say TOMS is not a company, it’s a movement. We don’t have a logo, we have a flag, and anyone can fly it. We’ve created a lot of opportunities for people to participate in what we are doing without buying anything. One of them is every year, in April, we do One Day Without Shoes, where we ask people all around the world to go barefoot to raise awareness of the fact that there are millions of people in the world that don’t have a choice, and that little decisions we make every day can help raise awareness.

We also have World Sight Day, in October, where we raise awareness of the 280 million people who are visually impaired, who don’t have to be. Then of course things like Instagram and Facebook and all the different social media is a great way for people to participate in sharing ideas and inspiring one another without purchasing something.

The title of this publication is The Discoverist. What does that and “discovery” mean to you?
Discovery is very closely aligned with being curious. I think curiosity is the prerequisite sometimes of discovery, because you first have to identify that curiosity that causes you to travel or explore or to discover. I’ve been a curious person all my life. That’s what causes me to ask questions, because I don’t have answers. The answers become new businesses that I start, and models that I like to create. So when I think of what a “discoverist” is, it’s someone who is out there, traveling and discovering new ideas, new people, new lands. Not just for your own benefit, but for the benefit of others. That’s where the word philanthropist has been merged with the word discovery. There are a lot of people out there exploring, and discovering for their own good and their own development. But the discoverists are doing it for the greater good of the world.

It goes back to this idea that travel is important, but “traveling with a purpose” is a different thing than just traveling.
There are a lot of brands, Patagonia being one of them, that are really about travel and exploring. We’re not a pioneer in that space. But I do think where we are pioneers, and what my lifestyle embodies, is traveling with a purpose. One of these quotes that I’ve had on my notebook for a while is “Not All Who Wander Are Lost,” supporting this idea that you can wander and travel, but with a real purpose, with a desire to make change. We deal with that challenge every day with the imagery we put out there, so if you take off a TOMS flag, someone will say, “that’s an image from TOMS.” That is someone who is deep in the field in Africa working with the coffee farmers or helping them get clean water, or figuring out how to get the most disadvantaged children shoes for school, or the intimacy that’s so important of placing a pair of shoes on a child’s foot. It’s such a beautiful symbolism of being on your knees to do that. It’s almost physically impossible to put a shoe on a child’s foot without completely humbling yourself and being on your knees. And regardless of how you feel about God or spirituality, there’s something deeply spiritual and intimate about putting a shoe on a child’s foot. It requires the act of deep, deep humility, which has definitely touched me in a very profound way.

TOMS works with a lot of giving partners—what makes a great partner?
A great Giving Partner has a lot of experience, time, and credibility in the field. They understand the community’s needs as well as what the best practice is in development, in these countries. They ask a lot of good questions, they’re good listeners, but most importantly they’re really trusted and integrated into the community. They’re not just coming in and saying, “This is what we think will make your town or your community or your children thrive.” They’re really listening and they’re using our shoes, or eyesight services for solutions.

Do you have any one particular story that has impacted you from your time working in the field?
The one that is most impactful to me was the very first time a mom explained to me that her children were sharing a pair of shoes, and that her children in school required shoes as part of the uniform. What that meant was her children had to trade off days that they would go to school, and they would share the shoes. One child would go to school on Monday, then give his brother the shoes to go to school on Tuesday, and then he would have to stay at home and not get educated. Now because of TOMS, all of her children go to school every day.

What do you do in your down time, if you have any?
Surprisingly I do take quite a bit of time to not work, because I feel that is part of innovating and being creative. Thinking about the future requires time to recharge and relax. I’m a big surfer, I like to take lots of surfing trips and I do a lot of fly fishing.

Do you have a favorite place to surf?
The Maldives. I just got back actually. I took about eight of my buddies and we all went to the Maldives for 10 days, it was fantastic.

How were the waves?
They were perfect, just over head, every day, perfect, glass. No one in the water, just me and my buddies, it was amazing. I didn’t even take my phone or my computer really, I just totally unplugged. Then hopefully that gives me more energy to the work that’s important when I get home.

What can we expect to see from TOMS in the future?
Right now we are really focused on growing the coffee business, and expanding our shoe line as well. We recognize that there are a lot of people that identify with our mission and One for One®, but maybe our original canvas shoe wasn’t their style. So we’re trying to create more shoes for men and women. There are different types of styles, so people can wear their values on their feet and be part of the TOMS movement with these new styles.


Cover Image
Blake painting a mural with schoolchildren, Peru. Photo: Kevin Zacher