One For One: An Interview With Toms Founder Blake Mycoskie

TOMS isn’t just an apparel brand; it’s a company that gives. By the numbers, the company boasts an impressive track record: to date, it has donated over 70 million new pairs of shoes, restored sight to over 445,000 people, provided 400,000 weeks of safe water, supported safe birth services for over 70,000 mothers, and served more than 44,000 young people in the form of bullying prevention and response programs.

TOMS isn’t strictly a for-profit business, but it isn’t exactly a philanthropic endeavour, either. Rather, founder Blake Mycoskie is one of the pioneers of the “one for one” model — that is, for every item sold, an item is donated to someone in need.

We recently had the opportunity to speak with Mycoskie about the history of the brand, his current work, and his plans for the coming year.

Your company was famously one of the first to employ a one-for-one system. When it comes to the origin story of TOMS, what came first: the shoe company or the philanthropic model?

I was traveling in Argentina and did some local volunteering, where I saw that many children were without shoes, which was disrupting their daily activities. I wanted to find a way to help these children and knew we couldn’t rely on donations as that was not sustainable. With that, I came up with a for-profit business model that with every pair of shoes purchased, a new pair would be given to a child in need. One for One. I didn’t have any experience in the footwear business. It all just started as a simple idea to help these children.

Why are they called TOMS shoes?

There is no TOM.  We like to say that everyone is TOM, because TOMS is a derivative of the word ‘tomorrow’ and I had originally wanted ‘Tomorrow’s Shoes’ on the back of the shoes, but that was too long — so I shortened it to TOMS. The idea is that we all make a better tomorrow.

What was the original design process behind the “classic” slip on?

While I was in Argentina, I noticed many local farmers wore the traditional rope-soled, lightweight shoes called the Alpargata.  It was simple and comfortable and there was nothing similar to this style in the states.  We have since introduced many other styles while continuing to reimagine the shoe that started it all.

In what countries is TOMS most actively donating? Are there regions where you’ve cut back in the decade since the company was founded — specifically, areas that have seen an upswing in social and economic growth?

TOMS gives in over 70 countries around the world, across six continents.  We continue to learn from our Giving Partners to identify where the immediate needs are so we can equally support across all regions.

Can you please walk us through the process of the one-for-one model? Once a customer purchases a pair of TOMS in, say, Toronto, what happens?

Everything starts with a purchase.  Once a product is purchased, we collaborate with our Giving Partners, nongovernmental organizations and nonprofits, to distribute the same number as what our customers buy.  Our Giving Team then works with these partners to place an order for the types and quantity of shoes in the correct sizes.  We send new pairs to our Giving Partners, who then place the shoes directly on children’s feet.  TOMS helps to cover expenses to transport and distribute the shoes including freight, vehicle rental, and even delivery by donkey! Following a shoe distribution, we assess the impact of our giving through partner feedback, site visits, and commissioned field studies.  Then we adapt in order to make it more effective.

You’ve stated in the past that the things to focus on in poverty alleviation are basic needs, education, and job creation. What is your response to critics who feel that the act of donating deprives someone in the developing world—in this case, shoemakers—of work?

We are constantly evaluating our give and challenging ourselves to improve.

In 2013, we made a commitment to help create jobs and build industry by producing one third of our Giving Shoes in regions where we give. We have exceeded that goal through our factories in Ethiopia, Vietnam, India, and Kenya. Manufacturing Giving Shoes in the regions where our Giving Partners work allows us to hire local workers, as well as reduce our carbon footprint.  Through these efforts, we have been able to contribute to the creation of over 700 jobs.  We continue to challenge ourselves to improve and be the leaders in the industry.

TOMS is no longer just a shoe company; you’ve branched into sunglasses, bags, and apparel. Do you see the TOMS brand offering any new products in the near future?

Our immediate focus is to continue to inspire other companies and individuals to live a life with purpose.  We all have a responsibility to build a better tomorrow and improve lives.  Last year, I announced the Social Entrepreneurship Fund.

Do you have a favorite memory from your years of working with the company, an experience that taught you something or that you found particularly inspiring?

My most memorable experience with TOMS was returning to Argentina with 10,000 pairs of new shoes to give to the children. My initial goal was to come back with 250 pairs of shoes, so I was blown away by how far we exceeded our target number.  It feels impossible to put into words what an overwhelming experience that was for me.  Fast forward to today, where TOMS and our Giving Partners have given over 70 million pairs of shoes.  I am constantly humbled by the growing number.

Aside from the one-for-one model, TOMS participates in other philanthropic endeavors. What are they, and how do they tie in with your vision for the brand?

We introduced The Tomorrow’s Project, which encourages our employees to become change-makers and advocates for social good while also broadening our impact. Once a month, every TOMS full-time employee has the opportunity to submit a fresh, forward-thinking concept that benefits others.  The ideas are presented and the winner is decided by a company-wide vote. Financial and administrative support from TOMS is given to the chosen project.

You travel extensively, both for work and pleasure. Any exciting travel plans for 2017?

This summer I am looking forward to spending time outdoors both sailing and surfing. My wife Heather and I will also be getting prepared to welcome our second child, so we’ll be sorting out preparations for his/her arrival!

To shop the TOMS spring/summer line, visit their website