By Neil King
We talk with the social entrepreneur who is credited with helping tens of millions of people across the world
It’s not unusual for companies from around the globe to spread their wings and open in Dubai.
Businesses from Europe, Africa, the Americas and Asia are no strangers to the city, or the GCC region in general, with more and more of them looking to set up shop in what is one of the most exciting markets in the world.
It is less usual, however, for them to find a home in the city’s super-malls, such as Mall of the Emirates or Dubai Mall, and even less usual for them to have a backstory – not to mention present and future story – that both impresses and excites.
TOMS is one of this elite group.
With three stores in Dubai, and more across the Gulf, the US-based company is on making good on its promise to expand internationally and grow not only its business interests, but also its social impact.
TOMS, you see, is not your everyday kind of company.
Those familiar with the brand will already know how entrepreneur Blake Mycoskie launched the business in 2006 after a trip to Argentina.
Having met a woman who worked at a volunteer organisation which provided shoes to children in need, Mycoskie was moved to act. Returning to the US he founded Shoes For Better Tomorrows – a for-profit business which could continually give shoes to disadvantaged children.
Based on the One for One business model, the company – which became TOMS – would donate a new pair of shoes for every pair of shoes sold. The model still stands today and has benefitted millions of children around the world to date.
The social businessman, a Texas native, has since become something of a legend in entrepreneurial circles. He continues to develop TOMS and what it offers, bringing eyewear, bags and coffee into its product line, while offering eye tests, providing clean water, and birthing training to communities in need.
Driven by passion and encouraged by his company’s incredible success to date, it is no surprise to see TOMS in the GCC, and for Mycoskie its presence here is a sign of things to come.
“We’re indeed expanding into retail, opening TOMS stores that truly embody the essence and ethos of the TOMS community,” he says.
“We currently have six stores in the Middle East region: three in Dubai, one in Abu Dhabi and Kuwait, and two in Saudi Arabia.
“In October we will be opening a third location in Saudi Arabia at the Red Sea Mall in Jeddah. We will continue to increase our presence as and when we see opportunities.”
The intrepid entrepreneur goes one step further by explaining that the region is in the company’s long-terms plans.
He adds: “The Gulf is a high priority region for us, especially as giving is engraved in its culture.
“We are focusing our presence in premium and unique locations where we can showcase our philosophy and tell our story to inspire communities.
“TOMS is currently selling and giving shoes in 70-plus countries across the globe through the work of our giving and sales partners. We will continue looking for new opportunities to share the TOMS story and allow new customers to be involved with the brand.”
To say that the TOMS business model has evolved dramatically over the years is quite an understatement.
Since inception, Mycoskie has taken the idea from a small-scale operation to worldwide recognition, with an incredible reach in terms of both retail and its principle of One for One.
Today, the company’s wares are sold in hundreds of stores across the world, and ‘gives’ in more than 70 countries. It has issued more than 45 million pairs of shoes, helped restore sight to more than 325,000 people, provided more than 175,000 weeks of safe water.
And the projects keep coming.
“TOMS started as a simple project to get shoes to a small community of 250 children and became the pioneer of this unique business model, which is now a global giving company,” the founder explains.
“With every TOMS product you purchase, TOMS will help a person in need. One for One. It began with giving shoes, then we began to help restore sight through eyewear, offered clean water with our coffee launch, and most recently we are supporting training and distribution of safe birth kits with our newly-launched bag collection.”
Starting out with shoes that are designed to fit children of all ages, and appropriate for school and play, TOMS went on to sell eyewear, which carried with it the benefit of providing eye tests, sight-saving surgery, prescription glasses and medical treatment to children and adults in need.
Through TOMS Roasting Co., the group’s coffee arm, Mycoskie and his team aim to purchase support water systems in seven countries – the countries that TOMS sources its coffee beans. Each bag of coffee provides 140 litres of safe water – a week’s supply.
Finally (for the time being), TOMS is offering the gift of safe birth. TOMS Bags purchases help provide training for skilled birth attendants, as well as the materials needed to help women give birth safely.
The company has come a long way, but it isn’t going to stop there. As Mycoskie explains, the coming years look bright for TOMS and its objectives.
“Our future opportunities are growing,” he says.
“We launched our fourth One for One earlier this spring, which is focused on helping save lived through the purchase of TOMS bags.
“Beside bags we will continue to localise our giving shoe production, where we can, and support more jobs in areas we’re producing shoes.
“We are diversifying our product selection and strengthening the designs of our shoes and eyewear. I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished and I know we have much to do in the future.
“Our community keeps us growing and evolving as a brand. With each new product we identify a global need and work to create products to help address them.
“Giving is truly at the centre of our business model and what fuels our future. We’ve always been focused on giving and innovation. By relying on our customer base to share our story, we’re able to focus our spend on the right areas and better service the communities in which we give.
“When we started TOMS we noticed our early customers found our model refreshing and new. That inspired us to work hard to make it simple for the average person to give back, or make a positive impact through a daily decision or action.”
One example of this positive impact is Haiti, where TOMS first started giving shoes in 2009.
Following the devastating earthquake in 2010 the company upped its presence there, and in 2013 announced it would establish operations there, bringing dozens of new jobs to the country, as well as training opportunities, and a commitment to improving education, health and childhood support for TOMS employees and their families.
Mycoskie continues: “While philanthropy brought us there, doing business keeps us there with the support of Haiti’s government and our many local partners.
“Since our first visit, TOMS has committed to more than just giving in Haiti, and it’s humbling to see the progress we’ve already made. I’m proud that we’re making a difference that goes beyond the One for One.
“We’ve distributed many thousands of shoes to children in need throughout the country, through a variety of health and education programmes. In early 2014 we opened a factory near Port-au-Prince where we make our Black Canvas Giving Shoes. So far, we’ve produced over 500,000 pairs of these shoes to give to children in need in Haiti, helping to reduce our carbon footprint and also create jobs in a country with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world.”
As with all social enterprises, there’s a fine balance to be struck between business and philanthropy – perhaps more so the more successful, and bigger, the company becomes.
For Mycoskie, this balance is an important factor that is considered at every turn.
“The momentum of our brand and mission is in an exciting place as we continue to build all around the world,” he says.
“It’s a healthy friction for all of us to hold our values close and explore new ways of doing business in new markets. We’re working hard to do this in the most responsible and sustainable way possible.
“All of this continues to fuel our giving and, more importantly, allows us to see impact in many new areas in addition to shoe-giving. As we look at new ways to give, we are able to find new and creative ways to address different areas of need.”
The numbers are looking good for Mycoskie and TOMS. In 2014 the company was valued at $625 million when 50 percent of it was sold to Bain Capital to fund its expansion in the US and overseas.
And its success has been infectious. In recent years social businesses have risen across the globe, including fellow footwear company Oliberte, One Laptop Per Child, Better World Books, and countless others.
What’s more, The Hult Prize has brought the social concept to vast numbers of young entrepreneurs, inviting business students to develop social businesses through its annual competition.
All of which is music to Mycoskie’s ears.
“We’re cheering on so many other companies in this space and hope that they can achieve the same type of success as TOMS,” he says.
“If and when they do, it will truly mark a sea change in the way business can be used to improve people’s lives.
“Today at TOMS we’ve got an exciting road ahead. We probably don’t see competition the way some other do, but mostly hold ourselves accountable to our past work and success.
“More than revenue we are celebrating impact as our guiding achievement. Not just in our giving, but in how we’re transforming the business conversation about making a difference in people’s lives and our responsibility to invest in people.
“The TOMS brand and business is growing all around the world, and we’re hoping to do so in the most responsible and sustainable way possible.”
“Identifying the right people to share your vision and grow the brand really introduces those checks and balances from the inside out. We are always striving to improve in all areas of our business, giving, culture, and manufacturing, and getting driven, curious, passionate people is the best way I’ve been able to preserve our goals and protect the integrity of TOMS as we scale.”
It’s clear that Mycoskie sees it as a growing desire among young business minds that shows no signs of disappearing.
“I believe social entrepreneurship is here to stay, that this is not just a trend but an idea that will continue to have a profound effect on how business is done and how consumers purchase.
“I think if you’re passionate about something, don’t worry about the size of the market or how big it could become. Get it right in a small way first.
“When we started I was trying to help 250 kids. I wasn’t thinking about 45 million kids.
“The main thing to remember is whatever you’re going to do, do it really well and do it small. If you’re successful there, business will come. So that’s my big piece of advice: start small, focus, get it right and then let the growth come.”
According to Mycoskie it’s not just entrepreneurs who should be working towards social causes. He sees the role of larger companies and corporations as a vital one in changing the ethos of the business community.
“I really believe it’s the responsibility of business to impact the world in a positive way and make responsible philanthropic choices,” he says.
“My dream is to have giving at the core of all commercial activity and I would love that every company looks at a triple bottom line, understanding that charity is a viable growth strategy.
“I want to see that become standard practice both in private and public companies; that we aren’t just responsible for generating profits, but for our impact in society and community.
“We all gain when businesses make human rights a priority.”
Something that may not have been a priority, but has happened nonetheless, is Mycoskie’s own meteoric rise as a globally recognised entrepreneur par excellence.
Having graced magazine covers, authored a books (Start Something That Matters), and picked up a number of awards and honours, he is a role model for aspiring young business people.
So what are the key things he learnt in his early entrepreneurial days?
He answers with three points:
“To always be curious about the world and quickly notice when needs aren’t being met and taking this opportunity to create a business that meets them.
“To be really careful, no matter how good your idea is and the response you’re getting from the end consumer.
“To 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?”
Sound advice indeed from a man who will have to get accustomed to giving advice in the coming years, following the birth of his and his wife Heather’s first child.
And by the sound of it, the new arrival has given Mycoskie even more motivation to make the most of his already jam-packed life and career.
“Last December, my wife gave birth to our first child, a beautiful baby boy that we have named Summit,” he says.
“We both spent months preparing for his arrival, reading the suggested books, buying all the baby gear, prepping the house and the nursery, and probably most importantly setting time to reflect on the big change that was coming in both of our lives.
“And I can honestly say that it has been the most amazing experience of my life. Instead of living by the motto ‘carpe diem’ [seize the day], I’ve stared to really live and enjoy and appreciate every single moment, so since that day I have lived by the motto ‘carpe momentum’ [seize the moment]’.”
With that in mind, we can be sure to expect even greater achievements from Mycoskie and his TOMS team, as they continue to spread their business-like and philanthropic wings further across the region, and across the world.
For information, tips and advice on setting up a new business or insights from those who have taken the leap into the world of entrepreneurship, click on the Arabian Business StartUp section.