Fashion

How Toms Built A Footwear Empire Through Social Entrepreneurship

A vacation in Argentinia became the stuff of social entrepreneurship legend.
IMAGE Toms
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It was 2006. Blake Mycoskie was vacationing in Argentina, where he had been before, vying for the million dollars as a contestant of The Amazing Race. This time, the Texas native had more time to explore, and he quickly discovered that in a lot of communities, children had little or no access to decent footwear. 

He wanted to help ease the situation, but not by putting up a non-profit. He was, after all, a gifted entrepreneur who, within 10 years of graduating from college, founded businesses in outdoor advertising and software industries, among others. He also didn’t like the unpredictability of donations. “I didn’t like the idea of asking people for donations and then wondering if I was going to continue to get them,” he explains. “I’ve learned that there is an incredible opportunity and responsibility between business and philanthropy.” 

Thus he founded Toms, or Shoes for a Better Tomorrow, the company that matched every pair of shoes purchased with a pair of new shoes given to a child in need—the “One for One” business model. The concept was straightforward, and the flagship product was the alpargatas, those native casual shoes with a canvas upper and a jute sole. “My vision for Toms and what our impact can be around the world is to allow customers to give back through all kinds of products. I really don’t see any kind of limit to what we can do with the Toms model,” Mycoskie enthuses. 

Limitless is exactly what they have been in recent years. They now work with over 75 like-minded organizations, which they call Giving Partners, to distribute shoes more efficiently across more than 50 countries. They have catered to the specific needs of communities by producing shoes that are suitable for different terrains and climates. By next year, they plan to produce one-third of their giving shoes in the regions in which they give to provide employment to local communities. All of these efforts have proven Toms to be a brand that genuinely cares about other people. 

Mycoskie’s brainchild came at a time when everyone, including the image-conscious youth, was becoming more socially conscious. Amid complex issues, Toms has empowered the everyday person to give back to the global village by the simple act of buying and telling their friends about it. “After creating the journey we've gone on with Toms for the past eight years, I've learned so much not only from a business perspective, but the great joy you get from making giving a huge component of your business, and also how giving is good for business,” he says. 

This “One for One” business model has given 10 million shoes to date. Here, the US Giving Office works directly with five Giving Partners to give shoes in 15 regions, including Metro Manila. (Interestingly, the Philippines is one of the few countries where Toms is sold and given away.) Toms has also expanded to eyeglasses (Toms Eyewear), coffee (Toms Roasting Company), and an online store that also supports other social enterprises (Toms Marketplace). 

When asked for advice for social entrepreneurs, he extols the value of loving what you do: “As you get older, it gets harder and harder to have the freedom to change career paths. So it’s really important to explore options when you are young. You’re going to learn a lot more if you’re passionate about something than if you’re just there for a paycheck. If it feels too much like a job, it’s probably not the right fit.”  

This article was originally published in the June 2014 edition of Esquire Philippines. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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Mark Tan
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