Blake Mycoskie visited Argentina in 2002 while competing in the second season of The Amazing Race with his sister. He returned on vacation in January 2006, and noticed that the local polo players were wearing alpargatas, a simple canvas slip-on shoe that he began to wear himself and which are the model for the original line of Toms Shoes. They are made from canvas or cotton fabric with rope soles, but Toms makes theirs with rubber soles. Mycoskie said that when he was doing volunteer work in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, he noticed that many of the children were running through the streets with no shoes on. He decided to develop a type of alpargata for the North American market, with the goal to provide a new pair of shoes free of charge to youth of Argentina and other developing nations for every pair sold. According to Mycoskie, Bill Gates encouraged him by saying that the lack of shoes was a major contributor to diseases in children.
In July 2011, Toms founder Blake Mycoskie participated in an event sponsored by the group Focus on the Family. After being criticized for supporting a socially conservative non-profit, Mycoskie posted an apology on his website stating that he and his handlers had not heard of Focus on the Family before participating in the event and decided it was a mistake. He also stated that he and the company support equal human and civil rights.
The major mission of Toms is that a business, rather than a charity, would help their impact last longer. In his speech at the Second Annual Clinton Global Initiative Mycoskie states that his initial motivation was a disease called podoconiosis—a debilitating and disfiguring disease which causes one's feet to swell along with many other health implications. Also known as "Mossy Foot", podoconiosis is a form of elephantiasis that affects the lymphatic system of the lower legs. The disease is a soil-transmitted disease caused by walking in silica-rich soil. Toms currently works with factories nearby where they perform some of their shoe drops.
Author Daniel H. Pink described the company's business model as "expressly built for purpose maximization," whereby Toms is selling both shoes and its ideal. Toms' consumer market are purchasing shoes and also making a purchase that transforms them into benefactors for the company. Another phrase used to try to describe the business model has been "caring capitalism". Part of how Toms has developed this description is by incorporating the giving into its business model before it made a profit, making it as integral to the business model as its revenue generating aspects. Business tycoon and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson wrote of the company's business model in his book Screw Business as Usual, "They look for communities that will benefit most from Toms based on their economic, health and education needs while taking into account local business so as not to create a correlating negative effect." He also commented on Toms' expansion into eyewear in order to help the nearly 300 million people who are visually impaired in developing nations.
In 2009 Toms partnered with the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project to create limited edition shoes, and used profits to benefit education and medical support in remote areas of Africa suffering from AIDS outbreaks. Toms has also produced shoes with a handlebar mustache symbol in place of the traditional Toms symbol in support of the Movember Foundation. Toms is a supporter of the charity charity: water, with which it has partnered with for several years, including its WaterForward project, which aims to bring clean water to underdeveloped countries. An additional partner charity is FEED, a charity where a consumer will purchase a pair of shoes and the company will donate twelve meals to impoverished schools in addition to a pair of shoes for impoverished children.
We believe in a better tomorrow. And we have from the start. Our company began back in 2006 in a Venice, CA apartment with one goal in mind: to give shoes to kids in need. Since then, your purchases have helped provide shoes, sight, and safe water to millions of people around the globe. And with 10 locations across the country, including our new Brooklyn space, there’s even more opportunity locally to make an impact globally.
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Students attending colleges across the United States have created TOMS campus clubs. As of March 20, 2014, 281 campus clubs existed in the United States with another dozen located in Canada. By comparison, another nonprofit organization known as Lions Club International was established in 1917 and is known for working to ending the cause of blindness, reports 400 Lions’ campus clubs in 42 countries.
A story by LA Weekly priced the manufacturing cost of a pair of Toms Shoes at $3.50-$5.00 in U.S. dollars, and noted that the children's shoes given out by the company were among the cheapest to make, which is not necessarily apparent to consumers. According to garment-industry author Kelsey Timmerman, many people he spoke to in Ethiopia were critical of the company, saying that they felt it exploited the idea of Ethiopian poverty as a marketing tool. An Argentina-based shoemaker agreed, saying that the imagery used by the company was manipulative.
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Mycoskie sold his online driver education company for $500,000 to finance Toms shoes. The company name is derived from the word "tomorrow", and evolved from the original concept, "Shoes for Tomorrow Project". Mycoskie initially commissioned Argentine shoe manufacturers to make 250 pairs of shoes. Sales officially began in May 2006. After an article ran in the Los Angeles Times, the company received order requests for nine times the available stock online, and 10,000 pairs were sold in the first year. The first batch of 10,000 free shoes were distributed in October 2006 to Argentine children.
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