Thursday, December 10, 2009

Accepting the ACE Award

Rarely do I ever write out a speech, but last night, accepting the ACE Award in DC, was such a special night and opportunity I wanted to make SURE that I thanked everyone in the proper way. The irony of it all is that when Secretary Clinton presented me with the award, I was kind of nervous and confused and I did not get to give the full speech I had planned, so I want to share it with you here and hope that more people will read this than listened to me bumbling up there at the podium. So, here it is...

When I was told that we were nominated for this award, I was filled with one emotion and that was humility. As I looked over the list of past winners, all companies that we all know and respect, I could not believe that I would be going to Washington and possibly standing up here today.

TOMS started as a spontaneous desire to give shoes to kids who really needed them. Faced with this need for the first time in Argentina, I did not want to simply start a charity, for I worried about sustainability. I mean yes I could have asked friends and family for donations and that would have worked for a year or two, but what happens when we have something like Hurricane Katrina and my donors are supporting the needs of the victims, or what happens when we find ourselves in a tough economic downturn? I could not imagine going to the kids we had been supporting and saying, "Sorry, no shoes this year." So I started TOMS as a for profit business based on a simple model. We started in my apartment with 3 interns, one who runs much of the operations today, and our efforts were not fueled with investment capital but a deep passion to help those original kids, and I have found in the last 3 years that passion and compassion can build a business.

With so many health problems in the world, many people ask me "Why shoes?". I did not choose shoes, they chose me, but I have learned a lot about shoes and, more importantly, their importance in world health and the life changing vehicle they can be to people who are at risk for foot diseases such as hook worm or podoconiosis. Most of the foot diseases that cause destruction to lives are preventable with shoes and basic hygiene, and I plan on spending my life preventing these diseases so that these beautiful people can live the full life we each deserve.

The original TOMS shoe was based on the Argentine alpargata, mostly worn by farmers and "common people" as my friends in Argentina say... Now, every time I go back to Argentina, my friends down there and I get a good laugh when I show them the pictures of our humble shoe on celebrities on the red carpet, runways of fashion shows, and being "guest designed" by the great Ralph Lauren for his Rugby collection. But besides laughing at the irony of it , all my Argentine partners get a deep feeling of pride knowing that it is their shoe that is helping put hundreds of thousands of shoes on children's feet in countries like Haiti, Ethiopia, South Africa, and even here in the USA.

Of all the people who have been part of this amazing journey in Argentina, there is one that stands far above them all. In fact, the reason I was so excited that we were nominated for this award was that I knew if we won, I would have the opportunity to recognize one of the most amazing young men I have ever met, and that is Alejo Nitti. He is my friend, our original Chief Shoe Maker, and as they say in Argentina, my "companero". He has been with me since the very first day. Without his commitment to TOMS and this idea I had on the farm 3 years ago, I truly do not know where we would be. You can see why this award is so special to me- it not only represents business being done between two countries that benefits others, but it is proof that when two people come together to do something special, regardless of their citizenship or language, something magical, even historical, can happen and that is what the past 3 years of my life has been: a magical journey with one of the greatest human beings I have ever met. And while I accept this award on behalf of all the amazing TOMS employees in the USA and around the world, I will be giving it to the first believer in TOMS, my companero down in Argentina, Alejo Nitti.

While this journey might have started with Alejo's belief in me, there are many people who have come into my life the past few years who have truly made this dream come true and really they should be standing up here accepting this award. I speak of my staff, or as I call them, my TOMS family. We are now 60 plus people and each person in our LA warehouse, that we call an office, is not only a deeply passionate individual, but they are some of the most talented and positive people I have ever met. Without their willingness to pour their heart into this movement every day, I would not be standing up here. If you all are reading this right now, know that I love each of you very much and you inspire me every day more than you know.

For those of you who know me, you know that I spend most of my days in far off places around the world and spreading the TOMS story on college campuses across the country, so I am rarely in the office. Many people have asked me how it is possible to run my business from so far away and of course we all know one of the answers thanks to my great friends at AT&T and the beautiful commercial they created this year about TOMS and my life, but the truth is it would never be possible to do what I do without a very special person in my life. This person is here with me today, and her name is Candice Wolfswinkel. I met Candice at a Nordstrom when I was selling shoes out of my Airstream trailer and a few months later convinced her to volunteer for TOMS for 9 months in planning our South Africa Shoe Drop. It did not matter that we could not afford to pay Candice in those early days- she gave us everything she had and once we were able to start paying her, she accepted a position as my right hand and has been leading the culture of our company ever since. Candice, I love you deeply and feel so blessed you are in my life, and I thank you on behalf of the 500,000 kids that will be getting shoes this year as a result of your tireless effort and service.

It is very hard to believe but all the people I have mentioned so far have only been a part of the last 4 years of my life and, as you can see, they have affected me deeply and positively, but there is much more to this story than the past 4 years. In fact, the only reason I was confident enough to set out on this journey in the first place was the result of the unconditional support and love my parents, Mike and Pam, and my brother Tyler and sister Paige have given me for the past 33 years. I truly believe that I can do anything because of them and I know no matter how hard I fall, and I will fall, they will be there to help dust me off and set me on my way again. I love you all very much and thank you for believing in me.

Lastly, I want to thank a few other people celebrating this special day with me. My grandfather Bernie, my many friends and colleagues who have flown in from all over the country to be here, Secretary Clinton for presenting me with this incredible honor, Undersecretary Hormats, Assistant Secretary Borg, and Former US Ambassador to Argentina Tony Wayne who nominated us for this ACE award.

So I leave you all with the a few words that a very special friend recently gave to me,

"May your days be filled with love and light."

thank you

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Where it all started

A funny thing about TOMS is how much polo has influenced the company. It's funny because polo is seemingly everything that TOMS is not. In most people's mind, polo is an exclusive sport limited to country clubs and people with summer homes in the Hamptons. That's exactly what I thought when a friend invited me to my first polo match in 2006, but something unexpected happen: I got sucked in. I've always thrived on competition, and ever since I stopped playing tennis in college, I've missed having a sport to completely immerse myself in.

Polo seemed so intense. I remember talking to a player at my first match and him saying, "When you're riding nothing else matters, because the second you take your mind off the horse, you're likely to find your butt smack against the ground." For someone like me whose mind is always racing, this seemed like zen. So that night I Googled "polo lessons, Los Angeles" and found a couple of local clubs with beginner classes, and within a week, I was sitting atop a giant (albeit half asleep) polo pony, attempting to learn the difference between Western and English saddle. Learning polo is tough. When I first started, there was no sign of a mallet or ball, just a painful, and somewhat intimidating lesson in English riding. Now, I'm someone that likes learning things fast, so it quickly became clear that just going to lessons on Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings wasn't going to cut it. While I was improving, I was no where near good enough to play in a game (or chukka, as it's called) and I was growing tired of watching from the sidelines.

When I asked my instructor about speeding up my progress, he said that the quickest way to learn is through total immersion, and the best place to do it is in Argentina. In Argentina, polo doesn't have the pretense and expense that it does in the US. Growing up around horses, many farmers become skilled riders and take to playing polo as a hobby. On the weekends, you can join pick-up games - just like basketball is played on the courts of Venice Beach. Filled with a sudden rush of excitement, I once again found myself on Google, but this time typing in "polo camp, Argentina, low cost"... and a month later, I was on an overnight flight to Buenos Aires anxious to begin an intense, four-week training camp. It was in BA that I met the charismatic, slightly egocentric, and completely lovable Alejo Nitti.

In addition to being a professional polo player, Alejo also told me that he was "pretty much an expert" in everything I could possibly want to do in Argentina. When I told him that I live on a sailboat and love playing golf, Alejo announced that he taught himself how to sail (winning a race, of course) and that his golf
swing is nearly flawless :-)

Rather than writing out the whole story here, I will leave you with just a few of the basic facts. It is because of this trip that:
1. I encountered children with no shoes and came up with the idea for
TOMS and the One for One model.
2. Alejo became one of my best friends in the world and my original
business partner in TOMS.
3. The alpargata, a farmers' shoe commonly worn by polo players,
became the inspiration for TOMS design.
4. While my polo skills improved somewhat, I left Argentina with a
vision that would change my life forever, and one that I hope will
inspire others too.

A few weekends ago, I had the pleasure of returning to Buenos Aires, my
home away from home, to serve as the official witness in Alejo's
wedding. Given everything that’s happened the past few years - and the
unexpected catalyst for it all - it only seemed fitting that I get
back on the saddle and attempt to hit some balls around. Were it not
for polo, none of this would have been possible...

Congrats on the big day, Alejo. I wouldn't have missed it for the world :-)

Friday, December 4, 2009

As The Sun Rises

Bob Dylan plays
the sun rises
our plane is ready
the coffee strong

back i will go
soon will be back
witch's rock i will remember
ollie's point will i return?

thoughts are unfolding
plan for 2010 in the flow
give me a few more hours of thinking before i go

but with a smile
and love and light i give
for the sunsets filled my tank
and for this i have you, God, and everyone to thank.