There are not many experiences that I’ve had in life that compare with taking the calloused and dirty foot of a 5-year-old girl in Argentina, and seeing her joy as I placed a new pair of bright red shoes on her feet. This moment, and over a million more like it, have all been made possible because of a for-profit business that built social good into their bottom line from day one.
TOMS Shoes is a company that gives away one pair of shoes to kids in need for every pair that they sell: “One for One.” It was founded by Blake Mycoskie on a trip to Argentina in 2006 when he made the simple promise to 250 barefoot kids that he would find a way to get them shoes. Now, four years and over one million pairs of shoes later, TOMS Shoes is just getting started.
Howdy, my name is Andy Ellwood, the proudest member of the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Class of 2004 and a finance graduate of Mays Business School. I live in New York City and I am the director of business development for Gowalla, a company that inspires people to go out and discover the world, share it with their friends, and record the experiences they have around the places that go. (To join, go to www.gowalla.com or download the app for your smart phone.)
My trip to Argentina was the culmination of a fantastic business campaign that I helped pull together between AT&T, TOMS Shoes, and Gowalla. AT&T, who has been a part of the TOMS Shoes story for years, wanted to help celebrate the huge milestone that TOMS Shoes reached in the fall of 2010: one million pairs of shoes given away. We crafted a two-week campaign that highlighted both TOMS Shoes and AT&T creatively within Gowalla with tremendous results, some of the best that we’d ever seen. The grand prize for one lucky winner was a trip for two to Argentina to be a part of the one millionth Shoe Drop.
So, in addition to our winners, the team from AT&T, and TOMS Shoes, I and the CEO of Gowalla, Josh Williams, headed down to Argentina to help out and see the positive impact of our work up close.
I wish I had the words to describe what it is like to get down on your knees in front of a an eight-year-old girl named Clarissa and take off her hand-me-down hole-filled shoes and place a pair of TOMS Shoes on her feet. I wish there were words for her smile as she admired her new shoes for the next hour knowing that they were hers only and that they were beautiful.
I wish I could show the highlight reel from a soccer game that I organized with 20 boys and a new soccer ball. I would love to show the pride that I felt when I, in broken Spanish, and with the help of a great kid named Andoline, convinced them to all line up, shoulder to shoulder, from “grande” to “pequeno,” and then split them into two teams, “unos” and “doses.” The pure raw talent that came out on the field, the joy that something as simple as a new soccer ball brought, the images of all these boys running faster because of new shoes on their feet: how can I show that?
I wish I had the words to capture the pride in Juan Carlos senior’s eyes as I placed a brand new pair of TOMS on 5-year-old Juan Carlos junior’s feet. I wish I could capture the pure joy on Juan Carlos junior’s feet as he took his first steps EVER with shoes on. There aren’t words for that kind of joy or the feeling I had when he started to run like he’d probably never run before, feet protected from the rough earth below.
As I talked with family and friends about the trip in the weeks and months since returning back to New York, I have resorted to words like “amazing,” “awesome,” and “incredible” to capture the sentiments of my memories and in place of the ability to truly convey the life-changing experience that took place. It is a strange place for me to be, without words. It is a humbling place to be, to know that I experienced something that, naively, I had hoped I’d be able to capture in 140 characters or a succinct summary for a blog post. And it is a refreshing feeling to know that the story we began in Argentina has only begun.
I struggle to recount the images, stories, and people who impacted me in Argentina. I am fighting even more with the responsibility to live up to the knowledge that I now carry with me. The knowledge that one simple idea can change the world. That one passionate attempt to help 250 kids years ago has led to an adventure that has now helped over a million. To see firsthand a model of sustainable giving in action, and have an ever-evolving belief that business can and should be a force for change validated. To know that the bar for potential impact on this world has been set that much higher.
To know that I am now a part of that story has forever changed my perspective.