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These shoes help others get a step up

  • Story Highlights
  • Blake Mycoskie helps kids in need get new shoes
  • His for-profit company has a unique business plan
  • For every pair of shoes sold, he gives another pair away
  • Because of that plan, even in tough economy, kids get the shoes
  • Next Article in Living »
By Shanon Cook
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Step into Blake Mycoskie's shoes for a day, and you might wind up feeling enlightened. Not just because the shoes he wears are incredibly lightweight, but because they transport him to regions of the globe where footwear is a rare, precious commodity.

Blake Mycoskie poses with some children in South Africa wearing his donated shoes.

Blake Mycoskie poses with some children in South Africa wearing his donated shoes.

So what are these magical slippers? They're called TOMS, and they're the foundation of Mycoskie's one-for-one business principle: for every pair of TOMS sold, the 32-year-old gives a pair to a child in need.

The idea came to Mycoskie -- who calls himself a "serial entrepreneur" whose first company was a laundry business he started in college -- while he was vacationing in Argentina. He says he was overwhelmed by the sight of children living without shoes. But instead of simply starting a charity, he decided he could better serve by launching a for-profit business.

In the 2½ years since its inception, TOMS Shoes has distributed 150,000 pairs of shoes to impoverished children in Argentina, Ethiopia, South Africa and the U.S. via a series of "shoe drops."

"When I first used the term 'shoe drop,' someone asked me if anyone ever gets hurt," Mycoskie says with a laugh. "They thought we were flying by and dropping boxes of shoes, which could be problematic. But that's not what happens." Video Watch some shoe drops »

Mycoskie's approach is a little more hands-on. With a team of volunteers, most of whom are TOMS Shoes customers who signed up to help online, Mycoskie greets kids on the ground and physically slides the shoes onto their feet.

"I think we get as much value out of it as they do, seeing those amazing expressions on those beautiful kids' faces when they get their first pair of new shoes," he says.

TOMS -- the name being derived from the word "tomorrow" -- are based on the traditional canvas Argentine shoe known as the alpargata. Instead of a rope sole, Mycoskie has opted for rubber, and he's incorporated leather insoles with arch support into the shoe design.

TOMS come in a wide variety of colors and patterns (stripes always sell well, Mycoskie says), and cater to men, women and children. They also don't break the bank -- you can pick up a pair for under $50, a key selling point in this economy.

And they are selling. At a time when small businesses are reeling, Mycoskie says his business has turned a decent profit in the past year. Not bad for a start-up company that gives away as much merchandise as it sells. This year, Mycoskie hopes to donate 300,000 pairs of shoes.

And on April 16, he'll take the social message one step (ahem) further by organizing "One Day Without Shoes," an initiative to bring awareness to how tough life can be in the barefoot lane. Participants are encouraged to leave their shoes at home for the day, a gesture that students at the University of California in Los Angeles and Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida, have already signed on for.

CNN caught up with Blake Mycoskie -- whom fans of CBS' "The Amazing Race" might recognize as a season two contestant -- to find out more about his shoe business.

CNN: So do you consider yourself a philanthropist?

Blake Mycoskie: I definitely do. I think the term "social entrepreneur" is very relevant because I believe you can do well by doing good. TOMS is a for-profit business, and it's important that we have profit so we have sustainability. I've always said that with a charity, what happens when you have a time like right now, (when) economic times are tough and the donors maybe aren't there, the charity really suffers. But the nice thing about TOMS is it being a for-profit business, we're continuing to sell shoes so we can continue to give shoes.

CNN: So it really is possible to be a small business, turn a profit and be very active in social causes?

Mycoskie: Absolutely. I think the advantage to being a small business that's giving back in such a substantial way is that our customers really become our marketers. So when someone buys a pair of TOMS, they're not just buying a pair of shoes, they're kind of joining a movement. And they want to participate in that. And so when they wear their shoes, and someone says, "what are those?" they never say "TOMS." They tell the whole story. They say, "When I bought this pair of shoes, a child got a pair." And that's the best type of marketing you can have.

CNN: Talk to us a little about the response you get when you're in the field in, (say,) Argentina and you're handing shoes to these kids.

Mycoskie: Well, that's the best part. I'm so blessed because I get to be creative, I get to run a business, and I get to spend about half of my year in the field giving shoes to kids who sometimes have never had a pair of shoes before. And the most common response we get from the kids and from their parents is that this shoe represents a passport to a better life. A lot of the places we're giving shoes, the kids are not allowed to go to school unless they have the proper uniform and shoes. So one of the great responses we get is, "This pair of shoes is going to allow me to go to school."

CNN: Isn't there a foot condition that you're seeking to help overcome ... ?

Mycoskie: In southern Ethiopia, there's a disease called podoconiosis. (It's) a very debilitating disease. It comes through the soil into the pores and destroys the lymphatic system. The great thing is we can prevent it with (something) simple: by giving shoes. If we can give them shoes before their feet have that interaction, we can prevent the next generation from having this disease. And that's incredibly important, especially among women and children, 'cause they're completely ostracized from the communities when they get this disease. And they don't have to get it. If they wear shoes, they'll never get it.

CNN: Despite being a businessman, you live a pretty simple life, don't you? Don't you live on a boat?

Mycoskie: Yes, I live a very simple life. After starting TOMS and traveling around the world and seeing the environments that people are living in, I realized that you don't need much to be happy. Some of the happiest people I've ever met live out in the jungle, in rural Argentina and South Africa. And so it's really caused me to want to simplify my life. I have a very nice boat, but it's a boat and it's small and it's simple and I don't keep many things on it.

Also, a life that's somewhat nomadic because I'm constantly traveling. So whether it's coming to New York for something in the fashion world, or being in LA at our home office, or being in Ethiopia giving shoes, I'm constantly on the road. And I find the simpler your life is, the better it is for traveling.


CNN: How involved are you with the design aspect of TOMS shoes?

Mycoskie: I'm pretty involved. I like to start the season by thinking about what's inspiring me and what I'm looking at in terms of what's going on with our cause. We integrate anything from fashion into our designs, to a quote we like. And then we just do fun stuff -- stripes always sell really well. You put a bright-colored lining in it ... people love it. We're constantly trying to update the collection, keep it fun, not take it too seriously and give people all different types of shoes to choose from.

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