I’m a terrible human being.
I have a Masters degree in Adult Education and Distance Learning and you think that I could do something worthwhile with that. Teach a class, mentor one of the forty plus million American adults who are functionally illiterate in this country, even help my own father with learning the difference between “there” and “they’re” would be a great start but, no, I just ply my wordsmithing here in this corner of the Internet and try to delude myself into thinking that I am giving some kind of esoteric pleasure to a few readers every week.
No, Blake Mycoskie is the real man of the year after hearing how this one-time reality TV star of what is the gold Emmy standard of all reality television, The Amazing Race, turned his passion of entrepreneurship into a thriving shoe company that goes beyond having the latest, greatest athlete sport his wares.
Blake has gone beyond creating a shoe that simply breaks your heart with the story of what went brought them to market, he has found out a way to rock your feet with a unique take on an old classic all the while being a model for what good corporate stewardship should be. No one should ever mistake Blake’s commitment to quality, not after you listen to how every pair of his TOMS Shoes is constructed but that, for every pair purchased, another pair is given to a child really less fortunate than either you or I. For those who don’t get it it’s easy: buy a pair, give a pair.
Charity has never been easier.
This year saw the development, planning, launch and debut of Mycoskie’s brain child while still finding time to have his inaugural “shoe drop” for kids in real need of footwear descend into Argentina in order to distribute 10,000 pairs of shoes. There are people who never do as much as Blake has done for other people who need more than they’ve been given and it’s only been his drive, spirit and help of those in higher profile positions, like actress Missy Peregrym, star of this year’s Stick It, to give Blake a little public boost.
As we talked about what makes this shoe unique and how one can go about buying a piece of high comfort, low cost, footwear you will see why this interview has already sparked a couple of purchases even before the ink was dry on this introduction.
You can’t help but feel inspired by what these shoes have meant to those who have in contact with them and, going into the holiday season, I would recommend that you go click on over to the TOMS Shoes website and either start browsing for your own pair or find out how easy it is to gift these bad boys for those you love. At $38 per pair, regardless if you’re a Bigfoot like me or a midget toed doe like your old lady, the site is an interactive joy to navigate. Find out why SPIDER-MAN 3’s Tobey Maguire is a fan (if you can’t trust Spider-Man, who can you trust?) or just know, all kidding aside, that there are kids in this world who deserve to have their feet protected and all you have to do is buy yourself a pair of TOMS Shoes.
This is one of the most inspiring pieces I’ve been able to write for Quick Stop this year and I thank Blake and Missy for giving me some of their own time in order to help me understand how shoes can make a difference in the lives of so many.
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: Well, thank you for making time to talk to me. Now, I’ve read all the materials about TOMS Shoes but, for those at home, tell me how this all came about.
BLAKE MYCOSKIE: I was down in Argentina in January of this past year, basically hanging out on a farm, learning how to play polo and kind of getting away from the world. When I was down there I came across a shoe called the alpargata. The alpargata is a traditional Argentine farmer shoe that farmers have been wearing for hundreds of years and because the polo players, all their horses are on the farm, they spend a lot of time on the farms in Argentina, they were all wearing them after the games and since I was down there ready to play polo I thought, well, I’ll buy a pair and slip them on.
And as soon as I put them on, I loved them. I thought they were cool, I thought they were really lightweight and comfortable. I grew up wearing Vans nonstop. So, to me, they were like a lighter weight Vans and were something different. I liked the style, I was wearing them around and on the last week of my trip I had already contacted a group called Insight Argentina before I went down there to do some volunteer work. What the organization does is to facilitate Americans and Europeans who are coming to South America for opportunities to volunteer. So, I met with my contact, her name as Angelique, and she told me that one of their big initiatives that they were doing was a shoe drive; they were going around colleting used shoes from people in Buenos Aires and taking them to different villages in Argentina for the kids.
I had never experienced that and when I went to one village and saw all these kids without shoes, and saw what they were doing, I guess from an entrepreneurial standpoint my mind was like, “There’s got to be a better way than just giving these kids used shoes that, typically, don’t even fit them.” Especially, when there’s this great alpargata shoe that they have which is their national shoe; it’s not that expensive.
The next day I was sitting on a farm with my buddy who’s a polo player who now runs our business down there, and this sounds kind of cheesy, but I literally turned to him and said, “I’ve got an idea. I’m going to start a shoe company and every pair of shoes that I sell I am going to give one pair back to these children that I met who don’t have shoes. We’re gong to provide shoes for tomorrow and the company is going to be called TOMS.” And, literally, from that first kind of idea it hasn’t really changed all that much.
So, I had the idea and he loved it and I don’t speak Spanish so I needed his help to translate. Right there, about at that same time, I sat there and showed him the alpargata shoe and kind of just spurted out my ideas of, “Let’s put a rubber sole, let’s do a nice leather insole, we’ll do multiple colors on the toes and the heels and he loved it. He was like, “Ok, let’s do it!” I ended up staying in Argentina an extra couple months, learning everything I could about the shoe business, it was quite funny, because everywhere I went people thought I was crazy; this is their peasant shoe. “Why in America would anyone want to buy an alpargata when you’ve got Nike and Reebok?”
They just didn’t get it. It made things difficult because they didn’t believe me when I said, to a supplier, “I’m going to buy this much fabric.” Or, “I want to hire you to do this,” and they figured, “Oh, you’re going to make, like, 10 of them and never see you again.” So it was important for me to explain that I was serious and that I had the financial backing to do it. We made the shoes, we made 200 pairs, a couple of little mom and pop makers helped to make the initial pairs. Even after that we just grew upon those and we’re still aren’t in a very large factory; it’s a very small operation.
And I came back at the end of April, beginning of May, with my 200 pairs and gave them to my friends here in LA and, luckily, I had some friends who were connected with some different celebrities so we were able to quickly to get them on a few of them, one of the first being Sienna Miller. That was a huge breakthrough because when that came out in OK magazine it was just about the time I was trying to get them into stores. And I’d like to give some stores credit who actually ordered TOMS before the story broke: American Rag, Scoop in New York, Milk on Melrose and Fred Segal. From that, we just got some press and some celebrities and it just kind of took off.
And that’s where Missy comes in! I’m done!
STIPP: So, Missy, how DID you become involved with this footwear?
MISSY PEREGRYM: Well, I went to this Emmy suite gift lounge where Blake was doing some charity for the event and I felt really bad because you’re supposed to give $40 when you went in and I did not have it. I had…how much did I have Blake?
MYCOSKIE: You had 26 dollars.
PEREGRYM: I felt bad that I didn’t have that to contribute because they explained that if I pay the money then they’ll give me a pair and some kid gets another pair too. And, after I walked around, and got to his booth I was really impressed with what the company stood for, and I felt TERRIBLE that I only had $26 to contribute, and I knew there was no way I could take a pair of shoes, I couldn’t even pay for them. So, I was like, “Can you please take my $26 and maybe you can give my shoes to another kid?”
And Blake was, “No, get out of here.” He was really mean.
No, he said, “I’ll give you a pair and I’ll give 2 pair of shoes to a kid.” And I thought, “Wow, that was really cool.” So, at that point I left and my publicist actually saw Blake the next day and said, “We want to go to Argentina.”
Because, while I was talking with Blake he mentioned that he was going to be doing a shoe drop in Argentina. And it’s one those things where we’ve tried so many times to get involved with different charities and I’ve always wanted to volunteer but it was always so difficult because things were always getting ripped out from underneath me right before we were going to go do something. And when my publicist called me to tell me we were going to go do the shoe drop I was skeptical. I kind of never held onto the idea at all. When we found out that it was going to work out after all I had to, first of all, raise the money to be able and go. That’s when Joshua Miller and Tim Jackson from Category One Entertainment were really kind and actually sponsored me and my publicist Tej to be able and go on the trip. It turned out that I was almost not able to go because I booked a job a week before I was supposed to leave.
I didn’t think I could go and I was devastated that I was going to have to be in Atlanta instead of Argentina. I couldn’t understand why I was finally able to do something I wanted to be a part of and now I get a job, after a year. Then, four days later after getting the job, it didn’t work out that I could go on the job because they didn’t have enough time to work out my working papers; they didn’t have enough time to transfer my visa to go work with the studio. So, I lost a job, but I couldn’t really cry about it because now I had the chance to go to Argentina.
I ended up being able to go and it was, truly, the most amazing experience. It was life changing. It sounds so cliché but it’s the absolute truth.
One of the things that’s the most significant to me is that you go down there…obviously it feels good that you’re going to be doing something good for somebody else, you’re going to be giving these kids shoes, and you’re going to make them happy but, to tell you the truth, the kids are already happy. The real things in life, like love, and family and community, they already have it and demonstrate that in their daily lives. It was the most unselfish way of life and that’s what kind of hit me more than anything because they have almost nothing. They’re playing soccer with plastic bags and they’re such happy kids.
I wish I could have brought THAT back to America. I wish I could take that experience and just be able to share it with everyone to see what the most important thing in life really is and even though these shoes…these shoes are imperative, it was a huge help to their society.
I knew it was going to impact me in a great way but never in that way. I didn’t think they would be as happy as they were. I don’t know. It was just so hard to come back to LA after that, especially Hollywood. So, it was difficult for me to get my head back in the game and just even want to be here after experiencing that. It made me just want to go and live there.
MYCOSKIE: I think, for me, the joy of the kids was something none of us could have anticipated. The greatest thing about the shoe drop, and what has really inspired me to grow the concept even more, and I knew the kids would be happy to get shoes and that the families would be very grateful to have this because it is a health issue when you don’t have shoes and you’re walking on ground that is very rough and get cuts and scrapes and your feet get infected and you don’t have medicine, I knew what we were doing was important. But what I didn’t anticipate was the joy I would experience in seeing the people we took down there, like Missy, like Tej, like my parents, like my brother and sister, like my interns from this summer, and really seeing the change in their lives both during the trip and when they got back.
Once I got down there I was so emotional, and it was so overwhelming to have all these people I cared about, who were dedicating their time and money to be down there to help me fulfill my dream of giving these shoes away to see how touched they were and the joy they experienced in connecting with the kids was the most amazing byproduct of the whole thing.
Now, what I’m trying to do is, instead of setting up these major shoe drops where we are giving away 10,000 pairs of shoes over a week, create an infrastructure where shoe drops can be going on, literally, six months a year where we are sending groups down, 10 or 20 people at a time, and have a full-time staff down there facilitating them so that literally hundreds, if not thousands, of people from the US could experience the joy and then come back to their respective communities and spread the joy of giving.
PEREGRYM: And I hope I can do that in MY everyday life, and not just with traveling the world and giving kids shoes, but I hope my way of thinking is different and I can apply that kind generosity in every part of my life. And, if everyone did that, I just think it would transform this country so much.
STIPP: And on that point, Missy, looking through some of your photo spreads I am reminded of layouts where you are wearing $300 shoes, opulent clothes, how do you reconcile that with having to play the Hollywood game?
PEREGRYM: I totally understand that. I already had a problem with the industry as it frustrated me, and stressed me out, that every event you go to, God forbid, you wear the wear the same thing over because, “That’s weird.”
So, I try not to play that game. I had a hard time going to photo shoots or doing any of that stuff which seemed self-glorifying. I wanted to do something that would change things for the better and I didn’t think that me, acting, was doing that. So, TOMS Shoes gave me something more than just an experience.
I feel more comfortable with the way I go about things now. It just kind of confirms that I can do that and that, in this industry, the focus is on the wrong things.
Besides, TOMS Shoes are cool anyways. And by wearing TOMS Shoes it’s not like I am sacrificing anything, at all. It’s not like I look like a dumbass walking around in TOMS Shoes.
STIPP: And, to that point, Blake, how can I go about getting a pair for myself? Are you in stores, nationwide?
MYCOSKIE: Well, it’s exciting. I did not come from the fashion or shoe business; I’ve learned a lot in the seven months I’ve been in it.
When you’re working on establishing a brand you, initially, put it in some very unique, select spots and keep it limited to create buzz and that’s what we did this summer. We were in some top boutiques in LA, top boutiques in New York, maybe one or two in Chicago; we kept it kind of limited on purpose to create the buzz. And, now that we have, in the Spring we are going to be in 72 out of 80 Nordstrom’s, we’ll be in every single Urban Outfitters, we’ll be in 30% of the Bloomingdale’s and then we’ll be in over 150 boutiques nationwide.
You can, though, order them online. And that’s one of the great things about the shoe, too. It’s a $38 shoe. You know your size, you know it’s going to fit. It’s not one of those “It’s gotta fit perfectly” kind of shoe. So, of the first 10,000 pairs of shoes we sold almost half of them have been online. That way we can establish a longer relationship with the person who bought the shoes.
We just did a mailer where I sent a picture of one of the kids to every single person who bought a pair of shoes and a thank-you note so we can kind of communicate that way. We really encourage people to buy them online.
STIPP: And, Missy, what else is on your plate, work wise, as I just looked at IMDB and there isn’t anything on there since your turn in STICK IT.
PEREGRYM: I know…
STIPP: Are you getting lazy?
PEREGRYM: No! I’m just really picky with the stuff I want to do and it’s funny because I was like, “Yes, I’ve done a movie and now it’s going to be REALLY easy from here on.”
To tell you the truth, it just got more difficult because then the projects I was offered was either something so similar to STICK IT or horror movies and I can’t even read the script let alone be a part of something like that. And I didn’t even do pilot season last year because I thought, “No, I’m just going to do film.” I just wasn’t impressed with what I was seeing and now I’m just taking my time with everything and making sure the next project I do is something I can go at one hundred percent. I just really want to believe in it and be proud of it. I mean it’s documented for the rest of my life.
I’d rather wait around and do another project that I’m happy to be a part of so, I don’t know, basically I’m still doing what I do, I’m trying to create a television series. It’s called Stupid and Contagious. I’m trying to get on the other side of things as well; I’m tired of waiting for something to be created for me but I also don’t have the patience for that so we’ll see how that goes.
STIPP: Did you catch any of that entrepreneurial spirit of Blake’s and think about just creating your own thing? Strike out and make your own magic happen?
PEREGRYM: Well, to start something from nothing is not something I would want to do and it’s just difficult because in this industry it just takes a long time…you even have an idea of a project it takes years for it to actually go through. I know enough of the right people right now that hopefully this will work out with the next project but it doesn’t really matter what you try to do; it is always in the hands of other people.
You can’t really do your own thing. So, to some degree I just have to accept the fact I don’t have the control over everything and I’m becoming a little bit better at that but I also do believe that the right project is going to come up too. I know it’s just a matter of time.
I’d rather wait and not compromise my morals and values just for a paycheck. We’ll see how that works out; I’m not really eating anymore.
STIPP: And Blake, last question, I know you’re trying to increase the amount of shoes you produce and that you’re committed to making sure the locations where these shoes are made do enough for their workers. Are you aware of the economies of scale and that as the numbers increase you will need to find more and more places that can adequately fulfill demand?
MYCOSKIE: Yeah, and because of all the negative press that shoe companies have gotten, due to labor practices, we, as a culture, are more aware of these things. And, as a consumer, we are much more interested in supporting brands and companies that operate in places where they respect human beings. There are a lot more options today than there were.
In a couple of weeks I am going to Asia to visit several factories that could really help us with scaling There’s even a ranking system now, from one being health benefits and amazing work standards, and paying above minimum wage, etc… all the way to a class four, something I don’t even want to see; I don’t even want them to exist but it does.
So, in setting up these meetings…we’re only meeting with class one facilities. We’re not going to exploit one person to help another.
We’re going to make sure that wherever TOMS are made, be that Africa, Asia or Argentina or wherever, that we are only contributing to the goodwill of the people making the shoes.
STIPP: Coincidently, as a sidebar I know that prior to this interview I listened to a story on PRI’s This American Life about how Cambodia wants to be a player on the world stage with regard to fashion and the manufacturing of it but they’re having problems with doing so because not only have the Khmer Rouge been expunged from their daily lives, and not only are they are one of the rarer Asian countries who believe strongly in the idea of treating their workers better than any of their neighbors but there seems to be no help forthcoming from the United States, a country who Cambodia is trying to reach out to in the hopes someone will recognize what they’re trying to do.
MYCOSKIE: Yes, Cambodia, different parts of West Africa. I am learning so much and I feel like God is getting me back now because I didn’t get through college.
I just can’t make shoes anymore. I need to understand the political aspects of what’s going on so that we really do make the right choices on where we do production.
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