Toms, short for “tomorrow’s shoes” and the name of the world’s most sought-after espadrilles brand, is not just any footwear company. The for-profit business was created on the basis of a ‘One for One’ model, which gives a new pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair sold. Since its launch in 2006, Toms has given over 10 million pairs of new shoes to children in need around the world. In 2011, the brand launched Toms Eyewear, using the same model to provide glasses to those in need and, as of 2013, has helped restore sight to over 200,000 people through this model.
As the brand becomes newly available in the UAE, Savoir Flair sits down with Blake Mycoskie, the founder and ‘Chief Shoe Giver’ of Toms, for his first-ever interview in the Middle East.
What sparked your desire to start Toms?
Toms’ humble beginnings happened unintentionally. While traveling in Argentina in 2006, I witnessed the hardships faced by children growing up without shoes and created a simple solution: to create a for-profit business that was sustainable and not reliant on donations. Over the course of its first five years, Toms was successful in providing shoes for children in need. But I recognized other vital needs during my travels around the world, and realized that ‘One for One’ could be applied to more than shoes. I developed the idea for Toms Eyewear to help give sight to a person in need.
What made you create Toms as a for-profit business versus a charity?
I met a local woman in Argentina who was working with a charity and had so many troubles getting what she needed to help the community. I wanted to begin with something that was sustainable; with a simple purchase, Toms could facilitate a relationship from our customer to a person in need. Several years later, I’m proud of the fact that Toms has helped create a backdrop for so many conversations around the intersection of business and philanthropy. Every day, I’m blessed to be able to hear from business leaders or entrepreneurs who have been inspired by what we’ve created, and are considering new ways of building their business to help people. We really all stand to gain when businesses makes human rights a priority.
How did you come up with the idea of the ‘One for One’ business model?
In 2006, I had this idea that I could help some children in a village I visited in Argentina. I believed the alpargatas (espadrilles) had a great silhouette that could be updated for the US market. As an entrepreneur, the two pieces just naturally came together and became Toms. I had a big vision, but really could never have imagined how much this concept might inspire or how it could evolve the way business is done today.
What challenges did you face when first setting up this business model?
We weren’t sure if it would work! This wasn’t proven and I didn’t really know if it would be financially viable. I began with ‘One for One’ because it was simple and an easy way to explain how I wanted to give through our company, but we weren’t certain we would be able to cover the expenses of our production, distribution, and giving to the areas we wanted to. A few years in, we realized this model was effective and we were able to scale the business.
You’ve moved into glasses, water, and most recently coffee. Was it a natural step?
Toms Roasting Co. was just launched last month. This giving model allows our customers a way to give clean water through purchasing coffee. Coffee for one, water for all. Our hope is that the daily decisions of our customers can fuel positive change throughout the world. I think this can work in many industries or environments. My vision for Toms is to allow customers to give back through many kinds of products.
It was really important to me that the third ‘One for One’ product be something that was disruptive and would cause people to think about Toms in an entirely new way. This is just the beginning for us, and we look forward to continuing this movement and helping those in need every day.
When did you launch the vegan shoe collection? Is there a high demand for vegan products globally?
Our vegan shoes are made with recycled materials and without animal products. We do have a growing community of customers asking for vegan options. I’ve found our customers are conscious about what they are buying.
What advice would you give someone who is looking to start a socially responsible business?
Don’t be afraid to start small, but dream big. I’ve always had a big vision for Toms, but started with a few interns in my apartment in Venice, California. Over the years, we’ve had great supporters who have allowed us to be a little unconventional along the way and, together, we were able to make a difference.
What plans do you have for the future of Toms around the world?
I have always had a big vision for where we could go as a company, but I know there’s a lot of work required each day to get there. I plan to launch more ‘One for One’ categories or products. Toms will continue to localize our giving shoe production, where we can, creating more jobs in areas we’re producing shoes. We are diversifying our product selections and strengthening the designs of our shoes and eyewear. I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished, and I know we have much more to do in the future. Our community helps keep us growing and evolving as a brand.