The serial entrepreneur founder of footwear brand Toms sees no end to the ways it can mix business with charity.
You founded Toms in 2006. How and why did you come up with the One for One concept of giving a pair of shoes away for every pair sold?
It was simple and unintentional. It all began while I was travelling in Argentina in 2006. I discovered that in rural villages there were many children in need of shoes and the hardships that came along with that. So I felt compelled to come up with a solution: a for-profit business concept that empowers consumers to help a child through an everyday purchase. For every pair purchased, Toms can give a pair to a child in need. One for One.
Your job title is chief giver - what does this mean?
As an entrepreneur, I’ve had to wear many hats and function in almost every role needed to start a business, from packing boxes with interns in my apartment to thinking of ways to tell our story or even developing new styles. But from the very beginning, the role I treasure the most is to sit in front of a child and give them a new pair of shoes. In everything I do each day, I want to remember that giving remains the central purpose for every part of our business.
You sold a 50% stake in Toms to Bain Capital in August, retaining the other 50% for yourself. Why did you do this?
Toms has partnered with private equity firm Bain Capital to accelerate the company’s growth and giving programmes around the world. This is a big moment not only for Toms, but for social entrepreneurship in general, proving that business can be a catalyst to truly help improve people’s lives.
You’ve made estimated revenues of more than $250m (£154m) and given away more than 35 million pairs of shoes - how does it feel to have balanced business with philanthropy?
Giving is at the heart of everything we do. Giving feels good but it’s also good for the bottom line. Charity is a viable growth strategy for a lot of companies. We often say to the big business world: we can be the engine you need to incorporate giving into your business.
You’ve expanded into eyewear, coffee and now bags for spring 15 - why did you add bags?
As with every new category, it all starts with a need. The more time I spend travelling and learning, the more areas of need I feel we can begin to address through the purchase of a Toms product. With every bag you purchase, Toms will provide a safe birth for a mother and baby in need. With clean birth conditions, more than 1 million babies can be saved each year. Working with a network of giving partners, Toms will help provide vital materials to help a woman safely deliver her baby and provide training for local birth attendants.
In a dream world, what other initiative would you like to do?
Toms is well positioned to take on a new initiative every year and I’m inspired by creative leaders like Richard Branson, who could branch into so many different industries with the same philosophy. I want to do that with the idea of giving. It would be so exciting to start looking at things like the hospitality business, where Toms Hotels can help the homeless, or Toms Banking to somehow support microfinance. New ways to help are infinite and I love to
think of the possibilities.
You’re an avid traveller. Where is your favourite place?
Ethiopia has always been incredible. The people are happy, welcoming and warm. I’ve also learned so much from the people there.
Do you have a career highlight?
I still feel like the best is yet to come! But being recognised by Bill Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative [in 2013] is a moment I’ll never forget.
You’ve always been an entrepreneur - tell us about your other businesses.
It’s true, I’m a serial entrepreneur. I’ve started five companies in the last 12 years, mainly in media and technology. My first venture was a laundry and dry cleaning company when I was still in college. Soon after, I launched an outdoor advertising company. Another was a television network, then a tech company that provides education online. I’m curious about the world and I quickly notice when needs aren’t being met and I like to create businesses that meet them.
What was the biggest flop?
My TV network company. We had to shut it [in 2005] and let go of the 40 people working there. I was embarrassed and felt like a failure. I’ve gone through a lot of hard times, but when I go back to start a new business, I find my enthusiasm and passion again. I love the start of something new and I always remember what I learned from the times I failed.
What’s the biggest lesson you learnt?
Always be nice to people. You never know when they will cross your path again. It takes the same energy to be nice as to be a jerk, so why not just be nice?
What would we find you doing on a day off?
I love to be active outdoors and explore the world. I’m an avid golfer, surfer and snowboarder and I love spending time on my sailboat. These are all ways to get outside with my friends or family and relax. Some of my best ideas come when I’m away from the office and doing something active.
You’re often seen wearing Toms. Where’s the strangest place you’ve worn them?
I’ve worn Toms everywhere. When we started, we only had the Classic Alpargata style, which made quite a statement at awards shows with black-tie suits! But I’ve also worn them on my sailboat, on giving trips around the world and even on my wedding day.