TOMS Shoes makes social responsibility stylish

Katie Eder

Blake Mycoskie, founder and self-proclaimed “chief shoe-giver” of TOMS Shoes, gave a presentation on corporate social responsibility and socially-conscious entrepreneurship in the Villanova Room on Feb. 15. 

Jonathan Doh, director of the Center for Global Leadership at VSB, teamed up with Villanova’s Business Without Borders organization to make the event possible. 

For every pair purchased, TOMS gives a pair of shoes to a child in need, under his model of “One for One.” 

This is the premise that Mycoskie used to establish his for-profit business back in 2006. 

Since its beginning, TOMS Shoes has sold over 400,000 pairs of environmentally friendly shoes produced in fair wage factories in various countries. Thanks to TOMS consumers, the employees have hand-placed 400,000 pairs of those shoes on the feet of children in need all around the world. 

It all started in Argentina four years ago. Mycoskie had taken a month off from his online driver’s education school business in California to return to Argentina, a stop which he had made during his time as a contestant on “The Amazing Race” on CBS. 

While he was immersing himself in the Argentinian culture, Mycoskie met a few people from the United States who were involved in a shoe drive for children outside of Buenos Aires. He learned that the children were not allowed to go to school unless they wore shoes, and he was touched by the experience of watching others put shoes on the kids’ feet. Mycoskie wanted to find a way to help those kids on a more long-term basis. And so, after months of production with Argentinian shoemakers and efforts to get TOMS Shoes into the stores in California, his revolutionary business model of giving back through sales hit the market. 

By the end of the summer of 2006, Mycoskie and his team of three interns had sold 10,000 shoes out of his small apartment, which was the headquarters of TOMS Shoes at the time.

“My life changed with that first shoe drop,” Mycoskie said during his presentation. “Physically putting 10,000 pairs of shoes on kids’ feet beside my mom, sister, brother, friends and the interns gave me new perspective on the business.”

Mycoskie’s unique business model has made TOMS Shoes one of the fastest growing shoe companies in the world right now. 

“I’ve calculated that in 10 years, TOMS could be bigger than Nike,” Mycoskie said.

He has created a company that can, and will, sustain itself by tying global corporate responsibility and profit to social justice movements.

“His work shows it’s possible to do social good through a business venture, while still turning over a profit,” said Laura Picciano, who is co-president of Villanova’s BWB with Abby Butkus. “The story of TOMS Shoes is innovative and inspiring, and that’s the impact we are taught to have as students, especially in VSB.”   

“Giving is really good for business,”Mycoskie explained, “and it’s okay to admit that.” According to Mycoskie, prospective customers and employees are not only interested in the business and the products themselves, but also in the story of social justice which they represent. When the customers become passionate about the story, they become the marketers, especially in a world hooked on Facebook and Twitter. TOMS Shoes has saved millions and has remained profitable by partnering with AT&T, avoiding traditional outlets for advertising and using the cause and the consumers to market the product.

One piece of information that Mycoskie mentioned which is relevant for today’s students is the changing attitudes of the Fortune 500 companies. 

“I constantly speak to the companies, and they always want to know how they can better attract students with a higher purpose,” Mycoskie said. “To keep up with the changes in society, the companies are becoming more passionate about service and connecting with their customers on a personal level. They want to attract interns that are engaged in philanthropic efforts.”

Four years ago, it was a radical idea to have a sustainable business that could profit while remaining socially conscious. Through TOMS Shoes, Mycoskie has defeated the odds and implemented a successful business model of profit and giving.

“We at VSB believe that his experience is consistent with Villanova’s values and VSB’s commitment to developing business leaders who can contribute to building a better world,” Doh said. “His story may inspire some of our students to explore how they can integrate their commitment to social justice with business careers, especially in developing countries that continue to face pressing social challenges.”

To get involved, Mycoskie suggests that students buy the shoes and tell the story of the company when someone asks them about their shoes. TOMS Shoes is also sponsoring a nation-wide “One Day Without Shoes” on April 8, 2010. 

“Our goal this year is to get 500,000 people to go barefoot for the day; in class, at work or wherever,” Mycoskie said. “We want people to see what it feels like to not have shoes, even for one day.”