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 :-)


HistoriasMinuto said...

Everytime I read Argentina or alpargata, something jumps in my chest. I can't say I'm proud that everything started in my land, because it was in my land that you found children with no shoes. However, if that brings TOMS to life, and so many children and people in need, receive pairs and pairs of shoes, I AM NOT PROUD, but HAPPY. I'm happy that someone kind enough to do something about it, see those children without shoes, and he was brave and hearted enough to make the difference.
In behalf of all those children from Argentina, thank you, one for one more time.

Rush said...

I knew that TOMS was started after a trip to Argentina, but I have no idea that this was the whole story behind it.

The TOMS story still remains an inspiration to me --and I'm really happy to have found your blog.

I really wish the people in my country were as passionate about causes like TOMS' as I am, but no-one seems to get why I would care about children with no shoes--because only children with no food to eat, or with some other highly publicised problem really matter.

But it's really not like that, and I'm so happy that you stand to exemplify that not only the popular problems exist and need to be addressed.

Even though everyone will ridicule me, and look at me funny this April 8th, I still plan on going without shoes, and I hope that at least one person will ask why, and not scoff at my answer.

You're a role model to me Blake!

Thank you,