'Soul Mates': Shoe Entrepreneur Finds Love In Giving A few years ago, Blake Mycoskie traveled to a remote indigenous village in Argentina. There, he noticed that most of the children had no shoes. So he created Toms, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based company that gives away one pair of shoes for every pair purchased. The company recently celebrated donating 1 million pairs.
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'Soul Mates': Shoe Entrepreneur Finds Love In Giving

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'Soul Mates': Shoe Entrepreneur Finds Love In Giving

'Soul Mates': Shoe Entrepreneur Finds Love In Giving

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

We're going to hear now about a company that doesn't just sell products, it also gives them away. It's a shoe company based in Southern California.

As NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports, the owner has built a business around donating half of the shoes he makes.

(Soundbite of applause)

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Here's one of your first indications that Blake Mycoskie isn't a run-of-the-mill CEO.

President BILL CLINTON: Before his 32nd birthday, he had already started five successful businesses, been honored by the Smithsonian Institution and brunched with the first lady. He is not your conventional business guy.

BATES: It's not every day that a former president of the United States gives a public shoutout to your resume. But Bill Clinton says Blake Mycoskie is the most interesting young entrepreneur he's ever met.

Mr. BLAKE MYCOSKIE (Entrepreneur): President Clinton has been a huge supporter of us since the beginning, wearing our shoes, telling people - introducing me to people.

BATES: Mycoskie is CEO of Toms, a shoe company whose goal is to donate a pair of shoes every time a customer purchases a pair. He's part of a relatively new group of businesspeople who are called social entrepreneurs. They're using their business skills to achieve social objectives and they believe you can do good while doing well.

Tony Sheldon runs the Program on Social Enterprise at Yale School of Management. And he says Blake Mycoskie's vision is a harbinger of the way many future entrepreneurs want to structure their own businesses.

Mr. TONY SHELDON (Program on Social Enterprise): Their careers can't be only about financial returns, that the social return and the social impact is also integrated into that and they don't want to just make a lot of money and then give a lot to charity, they want what they do with their lives to be in service of a broader vision.

BATES: Mycoskie's notion was to create a business model that would sustain the giving he wanted to do.

Mr. MYCOSKIE: So, originally, when I had the idea, I said, if we sell a pair of shoes today, we'll give away a pair of shoes tomorrow. And then we said it was like the shoes for tomorrow project, and that I want to call them tomorrow shoes.

BATES: But you would have to have had a pretty teeny type font to get all that on the little label of the heel of each shoe. So tomorrow's shoes got shortened to Toms, which Mycoskie admits, causes a little confusion. He's always being asked, where's Tom?

Mr. MYCOSKIE: We always say we're all kind of Tom, you know, everyone who works here and makes this happen, not only here, but all over the world is Tom.

(Soundbite of music)

BATES: The idea for the company was sparked by a trip to Argentina in 2002.

(Soundbite of show, "The Amazing Race")

Mr. PHIL KEOGHAN (Host, "The Amazing Race"): Blake and Paige, all-American brother and sister from Texas.

Mr. MYCOSKIE: My sister and I had been there on "The Amazing Race" a couple of years before, but we don't get to really experience the culture, you know, you just run through there really quickly.

(Soundbite of show, "The Amazing Race")

Ms. PAIGE MYCOSKIE: We're the ultimate team because we know each other well. We know each other's strengths and weaknesses.

Mr. MYCOSKIE: You know, I really don't have a lot of fears. I'll tell you what scares the hell out of me, though - second place.

BATES: They ended up in third place, but that trip made Mycoskie realize he wanted to go back. He'd been running a successful startup at home in Los Angeles, but he had become burned out, so he took off for Aregentina for a month, where he learned to tango and play polo and got to trek deep into the country.

Mr. MYCOSKIE: I was there in Argentina experiencing that when the idea came about.

BATES: The idea was shoes, or more specifically, donating them to the shoeless children of an indigenous village near the Brazilian border.

Spending a few days there made Mycoskie realize that having shoes makes a critical difference for these children in everything from walking miles to bring back fresh water, to being allowed to attend school.

So he worked with a local shoemaker to reproduce a version of the alpargata, the rope-soled shoes many Argentines wear, so he could give them away.

Mr. MYCOSKIE: It was a small project. It wasn't like I, you know, invested hundreds of thousands of dollars and wrote a big business plan and quit my job and all the dramatic things you think of. Now, later I did all those things. But in the beginning it was a very humble start.

BATES: In the beginning, he wanted to help the village's 250 kids. Customers bought Toms for about $50 and knew that when they did, the company was donating a pair to a shoeless child. Within a couple of years, the project with the humble start blossomed into a full-fledged company that's now given away one million pairs of shoes mostly in South and Central America, South Africa, Ethiopia and Haiti.

The recipients' delight is posted on YouTube as a virtual thank you card.

(Soundbite of YouTube video)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: I'd like to say thank you for giving us these shoes. And we are really appreciate that.

Unidentified Children: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Child: Thank you.

Unidentified Children: (Speaking foreign language)

BATES: Since its founding, Toms has grown from two employees to more than 100. Liza de la Torre came five years ago as an intern. And she says she knew right away that this was going to be a different kind of job. For one thing, there was no office.

Ms. LIZA DE LA TORRE: And I went in for my interview literally parking in the back alley of this guy's house.

BATES: Mycoskie's Venice, California living room was both office and sample showroom.

Ms. DE LA TORRE: His place looked like a bachelor pad at the time, but it was funny because there were samples all on the floor and there were girls kind of sitting cross-legged with laptops on their laps and there was something magical about the fact that there were people that were young and my age, but they were running a company.

BATES: That company has since moved from Blake Mycoskie's living room - he now lives on a sailboat, when he's in town - to a funky warehouse in Santa Monica.

(Soundbite of music)

BATES: Where theyre aiming to change the world one shoe at a time.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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