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Gauchos go in style

  • Linda Platts
  • Free shoes for children
    In the shanty towns of Buenos Aires and  other impoverished communities, many children go barefoot. Blake Mycoskie changed that paradigm with the creation of a new business – Toms shoes. Now, children  wearing  bright-colored canvas shoes  can be found on four continents.

    After starting five businesses, Blake Mycoskie decided to take a break. He headed for Argentina in early 2006 to visit friends and soak up the culture. The polo ponies were his first fascination, but they were soon replaced by the impoverished children living on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

    When he accompanied two social workers tending families in the shanty towns, he saw that none of the children had shoes. He was astonished that something so simple and basic was unattainable. Mycoskie even examined the children’s feet to find they often had open sores and infections. Some children had contracted serious illnesses by treading barefoot over paths littered with waste and trash.

    He couldn’t solve all the problems he saw, but Mycoskie figured the least he could do was make sure every child had a pair of shoes. From that conviction grew Toms Shoes. Initially, he envisioned a charity, but soon realized that you can only ask people to donate money for shoes a limited number of times. In his mind, it was not a sustainable model. Using his wellhoned entrepreneurial skills, he settled on a plan to manufacture the shoes himself. He would give away one pair for every pair he sold.

    He chose the alpargata as the basic style for his new shoe business. It is a simple slip-on canvas shoe with a thin sole that is commonly worn in the Argentine countryside by peasants and gauchos. As with his other businesses, which ranged from dry cleaning to a television station, he plunged into the shoe business, learning on the go. For Mycoskie, learning something new every day is as exciting as launching a business.

    As the business grew, Mycoskie recognized that he wanted his product to be environmentally friendly, so he hired experts to work with the shoes and the factories where the shoes are made. He has one version of Toms that is not only environmentally friendly, but also vegan friendly, which means no leather is used anywhere in the shoe.

    Toms Shoes has come a long way since those early days. They won the Cooper-Hewitt People’s Design Award in 2007 and are worn by surfers as well as the Ralph Lauren set. They are sold throughout the United States, from Nordstrom’s department stores to Whole Foods grocery stores, in addition to seven other countries. Mycoskie operates factories in Argentina, Brazil, Ethiopia, Asia, and the United States. And true to his original goal, he gives away one pair for every pair he sells.

    He hopes to branch out from just one product, but continues to use the same model of sustainability that he developed for Toms Shoes. Mycoskie has a deep admiration for entrepreneurs. He told Treehugger radio, “I love people who take risk, have ideas, and put it all on the line to make them come to life. That really inspires me.”

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