Toms Shoes’ model is sell a pair, give a pair away

The power of shoes. It’s something most women and many men understand completely. And it is what transformed the young, shaggy-haired, rope-bracelet-wearing entrepreneur Blake Mycoskie into a visionary business leader hobnobbing with former President Clinton and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu in less than three years. The 32-year-old founded Toms Shoes based on the simple idea that for every pair of his canvas shoes you buy, a pair is given to a child in need.

To date, he’s given away 140,000 pairs of shoes in the U.S., Argentina, Ethiopia and South Africa. This year, Mycoskie expects to donate 300,000 pairs of shoes, bring in $13 million in sales and work toward his goal of eradicating podoconiosis in Ethiopia, a deforming foot disease caused by walking barefoot in silica-rich soil.

It doesn’t hurt that the Arlington, Texas, native has Clinton-like charisma, Hollywood good looks and lives on a boat in Marina del Rey with “Toms” sails. He’s living and selling the SoCal life — with a social conscience.

The shoes, featuring colorful geometric, tie-dye or glitter designs, start at $44 and come in men’s, women’s and children’s sizes. They’re sold at more than 500 stores nationwide and internationally, including Nordstrom and Whole Foods, which features styles made from recycled materials.

“When you’re buying a pair of Toms, if you don’t feel like you’re part of a community then I’ve failed,” he says.

Mycoskie has amassed followers while speaking around the country — at the White House, the 2009 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference and the Clinton Global Initiative Conference. Ralph Lauren asked him to work on a few styles for his Rugby collection, the first time Lauren has collaborated with another brand.

Toms employees are equally enthusiastic. Candice Wolfswinkel, the chief giving officer, worked for free for a year until Mycoskie could pay her. “He is not afraid to show his emotions to make sure people know they are appreciated,” she says. Caroline Zouloumian, chief financial officer and a Harvard MBA, left the world of finance for Toms. “He’s not egocentric like some entrepreneurs are,” she says. More than 1,000 people have applied for this year’s 15 summer internships at Toms.

So far, the company has turned only a marginal profit. Mycoskie says he will have to sell about 1 million pairs of shoes a year to be really profitable. He hasn’t taken on any outside investors.

“The goal isn’t how much money you make,” he says. “But how much you help people.”

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