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TOMS Shoes founder aims to make a difference in the world

January 18, 2012

• With every product sold, TOMS Shoes donates a pair of shoes to a person in need

By Ellen Larson
College Student

They are everywhere. What began as an attempt to cure disease in Argentina has grown to be the talk of the fashion world. They are seen on the feet of men, women, children, celebrities and even brides. They are worn by people in countries all over the world who can’t afford to purchase footwear for themselves. These are TOMS shoes, and their influence and popularity are far from over.

Blake Mycoskie, a 38-year-old native of Arlington, Texas, has always had a passion for adventure. While competing in The Amazing Race, Mycoskie and his sister visited Argentina. In January 2006, he decided to revisit the country for a vacation away from his current online driver education company.

While in Argentina, Mycoskie geared up for a game of rugby only to discover the field was located next to a poor village where children struggled to survive without most necessities. Mycoskie began to observe the situation and noticed there was a shoe drive taking place in attempts to supply the bare-footed children with shoes. Curious, Mycoskie began to get involved and befriended some of the village children, which grew in him a desire to make a difference in their difficult lives.

I was sitting on a farm pondering life, and it occurred to me, ‘I’m going to start a shoe company, and for every pair that we sell, I’ll give a pair to someone who needs them,’” Mycoskie said of his initial idea for TOMS.

Many people do not realize the serious health risks that come from not wearing shoes. Mycoskie cites podoconiosis, or “mossy foot,” as the main health concern that can easily be prevented by simply wearing shoes. Podoconiosis is a debilitating disease caused by walking in silica-rich soil and affects the lymphatic system of the lower legs, causing one’s feet to swell.

In an interview with Rugby Ralph Lauren, Mycoskie remembers several people he met who were affected by podoconiosis, specifically a woman from Ethiopia.

Her feet were the size of elephant’s feet, and she was ostracized from her community. She was so depressed that she was considering suicide,” Mycoskie explained. “Last year, she fell in love and got married — all because she sought treatment and began wearing shoes.”

Apart from diseases contracted through soil, not wearing shoes in general can make the feet extra susceptible to cuts and sores. These injuries are not only painful, but can also become dangerous if infected. Also, wearing shoes is typically a dress code requirement for children to attend school. In poor countries where shoes are not plentiful, some children are missing out on an education, which can drastically alter their futures and prevent them from living up to their potential.

Mycoskie emphasizes the chief aim of TOMS is to not only provide shoes to those who need them, but also to educate everyone about the importance of wearing shoes.

Mycoskie returned to Los Angeles after his trip to Argentina with 200 pairs of shoes in his duffel bag and the idea for a new for-profit company, TOMS Shoes. From these ideas, Mycoskie birthed the One-for-One Movement in which every time someone purchased a pair of shoes, a pair would be given to children in need of them

Since its creation, TOMS has rapidly grown in popularity and increased its area of impact beyond Argentina. During his first trip back to Argentina in 2006, Mycoskie and his team distributed 10,000 pairs of shoes. In 2007, the number climbed to 50,000, and in 2009, TOMS had donated 140,000 pairs of shoes to children in Argentina, Ethiopia, South Africa and the United States.

According to the official TOMS website, as of September 2010, TOMS has given more than 1 million pairs of shoes to children in need in 20 countries around the world. In the future, Mycoskie hopes to partner with other companies and expand this movement by including other things such as housing, water and schoolbooks so people can purchase what they need and, at the same time, provide for those in need.

The growth of distribution goes hand-in-hand with an immense growth of shoe sales. What began as the everyday footwear in small villages have drastically expanded and are now sold in more than 500 stores nationwide and internationally, including Nordstrom and Whole Foods. TOMS has recently partnered with Disney to create a special line inspired by “It’s a Small World” for infants and toddlers, and Element Skateboard to produce skate shoes, skate decks and longboards. Additionally, TOMS partnered with Ralph Lauren and sold co-branded Polo Rugby TOMS, donating a pair for every pair sold.

Because the majority of their popularity lies in the younger generation, TOMS is active in encouraging college students in particular to become involved in making a change in their communities. The TOMS website says they believe the most original ideas come from the freshest minds, and for that reason, college involvement is of utmost importance to them. They emphasize that college graduation is not a prerequisite for making a mark on the world that is desperately in need of change.

Mycoskie released his first book, titled Start Something That Matters, Sept. 6, 2011. The goal of this book is to challenge people to make a difference in whatever their area of influence may be. The book also focuses on the importance of simplicity in every area of life.

People are addicted to stuff,” said Mycoskie in an interview. “They think they can’t live without it. But intellectually, they also understand how not having a lot of stuff to keep, and take care of, lets you lead a more free life.”

Mycoskie is not the only one making plans for the future. Millions of people continue to be inspired by his story and are volunteering with TOMS and other organizations, or are simply purchasing a pair of TOMS shoes. One man’s participation in the race of a lifetime led him to a country that gave him a lifelong passion and project. For Mycoskie, TOMS gives him, as well as millions of others, the opportunity to live out his favorite quote from Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

From the Jan. 18-24, 2012, issue

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