TOMS founder mixes business, giving at FPU Business Forum

By wayne.steffen on October 27, 2010 @ 7:16am

What if that guy is Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS Shoes, which gives a poor child a pair of shoes for each pair sold? In just over four years the company has given away more than one million shoes, his footwear has become available at stores such as Nordstrom's and he has struck partnerships with firms like Ralph Lauren.

Mycoskie shared his blend of business and philanthropy October 27 at the 2010 Business Forum. A sellout crowd of about 1,200 attended the breakfast event at the downtown Fresno Convention & Entertainment Center.

Giving does more than feel good. "It turns out giving is good for business," says Mycoskie, who started half a dozen companies before TOMS Shoes.

Putting giving at the center of business:

  • Makes customers your best marketers. In an airport Mycoskie met a woman wearing TOMS Shoes. Without telling her who he was, he asked about the shoes. "She started telling me my life's story," he said.
  • Attracts and retain great employees. People from Nike, Van's and other companies have come to TOMS for less money. "They know they're part of something larger than just a paycheck," Mycoskie said.
  • Draws people outside your company. Ralph Lauren did the first designs outside his own brand for TOMS. 

TOMS began with Mycoskie needing a rest. On vacation in Argentina in 2006 he met people from Shoe Drive, an organization that gives used shoes to poor children. "I invited myself along," he said. "I had no idea what I was getting myself into."

Handing out shoes, "my spirit was filled with joy," Mycoskie said. Being a businessman—even with disheveled hair, jeans and a plaid shirt—he wondered how a for-profit company could be involved. "That would sustain giving, rather than being dependent on donors," he said.

His first goal was to sell 250 pairs of shoes. Thanks in part to coverage in the Los Angeles Times and Vogue, Mycoskie sold 10,000 pair and headed, along with family and friends, back to Argentina to give out 10,000 more. The first of many such trips.

People ask Mycoskie if starting TOMS changed his life. "When my life really changed is when we put those 10,000 shoes on children's' feet," he said.