Tom’s Shoes on Why You Should Become a Social Entrepreneur

At SXSW, Blake Mycoskie told the story of Tom’s Shoes, a creative social business that brings resources to poor children while enjoying attention in the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair. 

There are two roads to social business. You might get there as an entrepreneur seeking to solve a business problem who realizes there’s a way to add a social goal to your business model. Alternatively, you might be an activist working to solve a social problem who decides to do so through a for-profit business. Either way, you combine millenia of a successful human development – through for-profit business – with accomplishing social change.

Blake Mycoskie had a social problem he wanted to solve. Children in Argentina did not have shoes. Without shoes, kids didn’t leave their homes, go to school or pursue their educations. Blake wanted to get them some shoes.

“Instead of looking at charity to solve problems,” Mycoskie said, “I decided to look at look at business.” Mycoskie founded Tom’s Shoes, which sells shoes and gives one pair of shoes away to children in areas of need for each pair he sells. He’s been outrageously successful, creating a successful business and distributing more than 1 million pairs of shoes since 2006.

Mycoskie went from an erstwhile contestant on The Greatest Race to a startup founder who wanted to do something different. He went on vacation in Argentina and came back with an idea. Once back in Los Angeles, with a few hundred pairs of shoes in his garage, his business grew like dry leaves on fire. Mycoskie managed out of control demand from an apartment with no plan, but instead a surfeit of life and support.

Mycoskie’s success is founded not just in his hard work and fervent belief but in the simple one-for-one model that attracts customers and worldwide interest. It takes 30 seconds to understand what Tom’s Shoes accomplishes, and another 30 seconds to become its biggest fan. You’re on board with Tom’s Shoes because of the excellent product you purchase and the social benefit you accomplish.

Mycoskie’s speech at SXSW wasn’t just a celebration. He’s recruiting.

It’s Time to Redesign Your Business

There’s no reason any business shouldn’t be a social business. If you aren’t sold on making your business a social one for old-fashioned do-good reasons, well, I won’t tell. There’s a long list of business reasons for making your business a social one.

  • Loyal customers. With a business that meets social goals, customers aren’t just customers. They’re true believers – evangelists for your brand and your mission – because they’re proud to contribute to the work that you do. Tom’s does not spend money on advertising, because Tom’s customers do the advertising. The quality of the mission attracts customer interest and loyalty over time. Tom’s focuses on giving because their customers are doing the “word of mouth”.
  • Top talent. Social businesses attract and retain the best employees because talented people want to be part of something larger than just making money or creating good products. Your business’s social mission enables your employees to be the best people (and employees) they can be.
  • Partners. The brand differentiation accomplished by adding social goals to your business mission will attract partners who wish to meet their own social responsibility goals and take advantage of your experience in the sector. Ralph Lauren entered into one of its first design partnerships with Tom’s Shoes not because Tom’s shoes were groundbreaking, but because the concept for the business was interesting, different and resonated with customers.

In general, giving doesn’t just feel good; it makes money. You attract customers while solving social problems without appealing for a donation. Using business attracts diverse problem solvers and leverages traditional models to create sustainable solutions.

There are hundreds of thousands of social entrepreneurs around the world conceiving of business solutions for social problems – through investment, creative products, unusual financing structures, mentorship and needed services. Get on board.


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