The company has given away nearly 50 million shoes. Now with a cash windfall from Bain, it’s investing to support other companies making a difference.
In 2006, Blake Mycoskie was traveling in Argentina when he came up with the idea for TOMS, his one-for-one shoe business. Nearly 10 years later, he’s given away almost 50 million shoes around the world.
But ultimately, as he told an audience at the Fast Company Innovation Festival in New York today, he doesn’t see selling products as the most important part of what he’s doing. It’s ultimately about inspiring other companies to bring purpose into their business models.
Speaking to an audience at the NYU’s Skirball Center, he announced a new fund—the TOMS Social Entrepreneurship Fund—to help early-stage social startups get off the ground.
“When we started, nobody was talking about business and giving [together],” he says. “Then we started to see more and more companies add the one-for-one model, and I thought that the impact that TOMS could have 50 or 100 years from now won’t be measured in shoes or eyesight [we’ve improved], but actually the people we’ve influenced to incorporate giving into their businesses.”
The fund has already made 11 investments, including Artlifting, which sells art on behalf of the homeless, and Change.org, which allows anyone to start an online petition. Mycoskie says he’s agnostic about the exact nature of the startups he’s funding, as long as it has a core social mission (as opposed to a corporate responsibility arm) and the founders are crazy about what they’re doing. He told the audience that he didn’t understand it when people choose to be entrepreneurs, as if it was another career choice, like deciding to be a lawyer. Instead, you need to be driven to start your business. “You have to be so passionate about what you’re creating,” he said.
Joining Mycoskie on stage was supermodel-turned-humanitarian Christy Turlington Burns, whose Every Mother Counts charity sells birth-kit tote bags and backpacks through TOMS. Turlington Burns recounted how she founded the nonprofit as a result of suffering her own serious complication during childbirth. Like Mycoskie, she agreed it was easier to sustain organizational purpose if you’ve had your own experience with the issue involved.
Mycoskie said he came up with the new fund after he sold half of TOMS to Bain Capital last year. “When the Bain transaction happened, I woke up. It was like I was in a dream. All of a sudden, I had all this wealth that I never thought I’d have, because that was not the [company’s original] purpose,” he said. “I thought, what can we do differently? And I realized we could really continue to catalyze social entrepreneurship.”