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How one charity turned into a thriving business

How one charity turned into a thriving business

By Jim Callahan, Journal Register News Service

February 19, 2010

An entrepreneur turned a side project for charity into a working business that is not only personally satisfying, but profitable.

Blake Mycoskie, founder of Toms Shoes in Los Angeles, said he was on vacation in Argentina four years ago and discovered children in a village outside of Buenos Aires couldn’t go to school because they lacked shoes.

He decided to help.

After getting into it, Mycoskie decided to make his charitable impulse into a for-profit business. To make it work he pledged to donate one pair of shoes for every pair sold. From an original goal of raising enough money to purchase 10,000 shoes for charity, he has created a business that donated 400,000 pairs to the needy last year.

Mycoskie spoke at a networking meeting of the Chester County Chamber of Business and Industry on Tuesday. He told the business executives that incorporating giving into their business was satisfying to the owners and employees.

While he admittedly travels internationally “as the chief shoe-giver” for his business and cause, he considered programs right at home to be just as, if not more, rewarding.

He noted that people get great satisfaction for efforts they make in their own community to make things better. “The great thing about locally is that you get to touch and feel,” he said. It also can create enormous goodwill for a business in a community.

Mycoskie said that to create that feeling for Toms customers, the company is careful to have recipient charities document the distribution of shoes. “Our customers want to see where it goes,” he said.

Mycoskie cashed out his interest in a start-up software business to finance his start-up shoe business. At age 33, he has started five businesses, the first when he was 18. He said it brought him into contact with investors who were at the end of their business lives and looking to make charitable contributions from the profits of their life’s work. He said he got the charity bug from them.

Since he is the boss, no one ever complains that he is out of the office while his 72 employees keep things running in L.A. In fact, it was his travels promoting the business and the charity that led to his greatest exposure.

The NBC-TV station in New York City did a profile on Mycoskie and in it he was asked how he could run his business while he is constantly on the road. Mycoskie responded by pulling out his BlackBerry and explained he received all pertinent e-mails, design drawings and voice calls on the device.

AT&T’s ad agency made an inquiry to his office about what service he used, and it was AT&T. Mycoskie agreed to do a commercial explaining his working methods for the company, which was an all-around win: AT&T promoted the reliability of its worldwide service; Mycoskie got exposure for his business and charity.

Mycoskie explained his charity works with existing nonprofits already on the ground to enhance their efforts and to monitor the effectiveness of his giving.

To increase awareness of the need for shoes around the world, his company has started a promotion called One Day Without Shoes on April 8, asking people to go without their shoes for the day, or for a time during the day, to bring attention to the importance of shoes in a child’s life.

Toms Shoes are available in selected department stores nationwide.

Since his name is Blake, Myoskie was asked how his company got the name of Toms.

“Good question,” he said, smiling.

He was fiddling around with names to describe the business, thinking along the lines of working today to make a better tomorrow.

Tomorrow was considered. The name was too long to fit on a tag for the shoes. Toms fit, he said.

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