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Saving Soles

Former "Amazing Race" contestant and footwear impresario Blake Mycoskie didn't set out to be a hero. But if the shoe fits...

Author Gillian Telling Photography Brigitte Sire

Blake Mycoskie donates shoes to the world’s poor, and his well-heeled customers foot the bill.

THERE ARE MEN YOU ADMIRE, and there are ones you envy—like those young, good-looking guys who get to spend their time traveling the world. Blake Mycoskie, the 32-year-old founder of TOMS Shoes, is both. Two years after he launched his footwear line, TOMS (short for “Tomorrow”), the practical shoes can be seen on every ecologically minded Californian surfer (and wannabe surfer) on the beach, as well as on poor children around the world. Mycoskie himself can be seen jetting around to deliver them, while trendy boutiques sell his line like hotcakes. His mission is simple: to run a company that’s not only profitable but charitable. For every pair of TOMS sold, a pair is donated to a child in need.

Mycoskie, an “Amazing Race: 2” contestant who fell four minutes short of winning the million-dollar prize, decided to relieve his sorrows by traveling back to the places he’d seen on the show. While hanging out in Argentina a few years ago, he saw volunteers collecting ratty old shoes in Buenos Aires for people in poor villages who suffered from wounds and infections because they had nothing to put on their feet. Mycoskie decided to tag along on one of the volunteer missions, and he witnessed the desperate need firsthand. He also noticed that the polo players he was hanging out with were wearing alpargatas—rope-soled canvas slip-ons that sheep-farmers had been wearing for hundreds of years. He thought the shoes were cool enough that he could sell them to boutiques in L.A. (where they now retail for between $42 and $98 a pair). With the profits, he would donate new shoes to kids in the villages. That’s how his “One for One” program was born.

In 2006, Mycoskie did his first TOMS shoe drop, donating 10,000 pairs in the Argentine village where he was first inspired. Through word of mouth and top placement in stores like Kitson and Bloomingdale’s, his retail business exploded. To date, the company has donated more than 115,000 pairs of shoes in Argentina, Ethiopia, South Africa and the U.S. Mycoskie has plans to do similar work this year in Haiti with the help of the Clinton Global Initiative. His goal for 2009 is to put 300,000 pairs of TOMS on kids’ feet around the world.

HEMISPHERES: What do you remember about your first shoe drop? How did the children in the village react?

BLAKE MYCOSKIE: I remember it like it was yesterday. It was the same village [in Argentina] I initially went to, and I’d told them I wanted to return and bring 250 pairs back with me. They didn’t believe I’d ever come through, but we did. I immediately knew it was something I really wanted to continue doing and make succeed in the coming years.

What’s been the most memorable thing about this venture?

Seeing the children in these cripplingly poor villages has taught me a lot about life. They don’t have any possessions or running water, yet they’re so happy. It’s a very interesting study, to see how they can be so full of joy with so little. During our first shoe-drop, three boys took me to a field where they loved to play soccer. It was full of rocks and glass, and they’d been playing there barefoot for years. When they got the shoes, they were so excited that playing soccer would now be easier, and they’d finally have some speed.

What’s next for TOMS?

The company is built on a passion to give, and so our primary goal is to continue the mission of helping others. I want to expand our One for One business model to other products and services. But in the meantime, I also want to improve the fit and comfort of our shoes and expand into other styles. I honestly believe we can become a successful footwear company worldwide, and one day give a million shoes to children in need.

You also have a tour program?

TOMS Tours was created as a fun and exciting way to invite our consumers to participate in the mission and witness the One for One model firsthand. I believe life should be about charity as well as fun. So on these tours you spend five days in Argentina visiting villages in need and bringing new shoes to them, and then three days immersing yourself in the culture—we do wine tasting in Mendoza, polo lessons in Buenos Aires and hiking to Iguazu Falls.

A pair of TOMS

How often do you wear the shoes yourself ?

I live in California, so I wear them every day. It’s great not having to go to the office in a suit. All of my employees are able to express their own personal style and work in a relaxed, comfortable environment. I love it.

What do you do in your free time?

It’s pretty rare for me to even have free time. But when I do, it’s usually spent reading business books so I can learn new and creative ways to run this company. This whole thing started as a project and has since become my life. I can see myself doing this forever.

Any advice for other entrepreneurs looking to start a similar charitable venture?

Create a company you’re excited about. Be passionate about your mission and never lose sight of the bigger picture. Take my word for it—do this, and you’ll never look back or want to work for anyone else.

How do you propose other companies remain charitable while still turning a profit in an economic downturn?

I think a lot of consumers are looking for some kind of added value when they buy things these days, and our One for One model creates a benefactor with every single purchase. So that really supports a continued relationship between the consumer and the company. There’s certainly a value in operating on a match program like ours. I can only hope other companies see that in us, and would consider implementing something similar.

What was it like being a reality TV star?

It was awesome. Of course it was pretty weird at first, but then you kind of forgot the cameras were there. The show exposed me to places I had never seen, and because of that I wound up doing TOMS.

TOMS are sold in Nordstrom and 400 boutiques; find them online at www.tomsshoes.com.

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