Thursday, October 23, 2008

Saving the world, one shoe at a time

I am going to assume that everyone has heard enough bad news the past few weeks. If it is not a financial conundrum, it is a moral one, and with increasing anxiety and division as we approach Election Day, I personally needed a break.

Lucky for me, my job as Chief Shoe Giver of TOMS Shoes regularly provides such departure, and yesterday, for the first time, it did so on U.S. soil.

Two and a half years ago I had an idea to start a shoe company where every pair we sold would be matched with a pair given to a child in need. What started as a "project" to give 250 kids in Argentina their first pair of new shoes has unexpectedly become one of the fastest growing shoe companies on the planet -- and in the process TOMS Shoes have given over 85,000 shoes to children in need around the world. Needless to say, it has also changed my life in a powerful way.

Unitl yesterday, our giving efforts have focused on countries like Ethiopia, South Africa, and Argentina. Without a doubt, the most frequently asked question I receive since I started TOMS has been, "What about kids in the U.S.?", which led me to conduct extensive research on the topic. What I found was that most kids, even those living in disaster recovery zones, have access to a pair of shoes. However, the disclaimer I found with that fact is that almost all their shoes are hand-me-downs that often fit improperly and sometimes, they are required to share shoes among several siblings. What stood out the most in my research was how difficult life could be for these kids -- many still living in FEMA trailers while their homes are rebuilt -- and that rarely a day comes when they can just have fun.

Our growth at TOMS Shoes has come in part through parties called Style Your Sole, where participants spend an evening -- from summer camps to college nights to 40th birthday parties -- designing their own TOMS Shoes and sharing the story of our One for One movement. Each attendee starts with a white pair of shoes and customizes them with art supplies, knowing that not only will they end up with a creation all their own but a child somewhere in the world will be receiving a pair of shoes on their behalf. These parties are tons of fun, and I thought they could be the perfect fit for the children I read about living in our country's disaster recovery zones. How perfect for the children to not only receive what might be the first pair of shoes that are truly theirs, but to be able to express themselves on those shoes. Their new shoes aren't just new, they belong to them in every aspect.

TOMS is visiting schools in four districts and we plan to reach 3,500 elementary students. The schools we are visiting are still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. We have visited two schools as of yesterday, and the feedback we are receiving has been inspiring and fulfilling. Katie Hodge, a student nurse at Gaston Point Elementary, wrote in and told us for the first time in a long time, kids at her school had something to be excited about.

We can't wait to finish the week strong. Our volunteers are amazing and they inspire me to keep doing what we do best: sell shoes so children everywhere, in every community, know that they are cared for. Even though the economy is in bad shape and the election is bitter, there are people taking the small step to change the world.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

CGI 2008

A few colleagues and I attended the annual Clinton Global Initiative conference in NYC earlier this month, and there are some really exciting things to share! At the closing Plenary Session, Former President Bill Clinton announced that TOMS Shoes will give 100,000 pairs of TOMS shoes to Haitians affected by Hurricane Ike as a key part of a larger giving commitment.

We are partnering with some really prestigious organizations and people on this initiative, who will be providing 20,000 families food every month; supplying 36,000 farmers with seeds, fertilizer, and training; providing five million liters of clean drinking water; rebuilding thousands of homes; improving education for more than 600,000 students; rebuilding two destroyed bridges; and rebuilding twelve schools.

I can't tell to you how keyed up I am to have TOMS be a part of this project. President Clinton mentioned that, "The losses were so great in Haiti, but the talent and yearning for a better future is also great," and this is what TOMS is about: building a better tomorrow, together.

Those who will be partnering with us include Rene Preval, President of Haiti; Dr. Paul Farmer; Greg Allgood, Director of Children's Safe Drinking Water/Proctor & Gamble; Ray Offenheiser, President of OXFAM America; Wyclef Jean, Founder of Yele Haiti Foundation; Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie; Frank McKenna, Chairman, and Matt Damon, Spokesman for ONEXONE; Richard Roe, President of Open Learning Exchange; Ad Melkert, Under Secretary General and Associate, UNDP; Ronaldo Gonzalez Bunster, Founder of Dominican Republic Energy; Steve Green, The Green Family Foundation; Richenda Van Leeuwen, Founding Board Member of Good Energies; Ted Widmer, Brown University/Director of the Carter Library; Ruth Messenger, Director of the American Jewish World Service; Bill Lowry, Haitian Education Leadership Program; Lisa Hamilton, President of the UPS Foundation; and Dennis O'Brian, Haiti's largest cellular phone provider.