The Culture of Giving
Like a lot of newlywed couples, Blake and Heather figured one day they’d get a dog. Blake’s parents had better advice—get two, they said. But Blake and Heather aren’t just any newlywed couple—they are the brains and heart behind TOMS, with Blake at the forefront of the groundbreaking Buy One, Give One or “One for One” philosophy that has inspired a wave of businesses intent on giving back.
Buddha and Gypsy, two Golden Doodles, arrived just six months after the couple married on September 8, 2012. A third dog, a rescued Golden Retriever named Canyon, followed more recently, as did Heather’s brilliant idea to extend the TOMS philosophy to help animals in need globally.
Not Just Another Entrepreneur
As the founder of the hugely successful company TOMS, Blake is known for rope-soled footwear and philanthropy. His business model is built on giving back and this is primarily what accounts for his resounding success. The amazing story goes like this: after
coming within minutes of winning a million dollars on reality TV show The Amazing Race, which he participated in with his sister, Blake continued travelling, heading to South America. Befriending children in an Argentinean village, he noted their lack of footwear; the seeds that would become TOMS were sown. Shortly thereafter, his company along with its mandate to match every pair of shoes purchased with a pair of new shoes given to a child in need—one for one—was born. And it simply took off.
Even former President Bill Clinton was impressed, calling Blake “one of the most interesting entrepreneurs (I’ve) ever met.” Certainly others have the same opinion: People magazine featured Blake in its “Heroes Among Us” section, TOMS was featured in the Time magazine article “How to Fix Capitalism,” and Blake was named to Fortune magazine’s “40 under 40” list.
“I had this idea to create a business to help people; it was a new concept to have philosophy and charity incorporated into a for-profit business,” says Blake. “Then the book Giving—Clinton’s book—came out and I was one of the first who was doing this idea.”
He thinks Clinton would be proud that TOMS has expanded to become the only footwear manufactured in Haiti [Clinton is the ambassador to lead change in post-earthquake Haiti].
“Haiti needs industry and jobs, and two years ago I committed to putting a factory there manufacturing shoes,” Blake says.
Two months ago that factory opened.
This isn’t the first time, of course, that Blake has found a way to help those who need it, which comes fairly naturally to him.
“I grew up in a home where I witnessed giving and caring. My father was a doctor and had a great bedside manner. Mom was a generous person and I knew this would be part of my life.”
TOMS has now branched into eyeglasses as well, another vital need Blake encountered in his travels. He realized his One for One philosophy could be applied to more than shoes. Today, for every pair of TOMS eyewear purchased, TOMS helps give sight to a person in need by donating a pair of eyeglasses.
And they haven’t stopped there; his wife Heather has inspired Blake to help animals as well.
Blake met Heather in a surf shop. Soon thereafter, Heather moved from New York to California to work with TOMS, staying a year. It was a career move that ultimately built the foundation for their future together, both romantically and professionally.
“I’m the only owner; sometimes it’s lonely being the boss.” Blake says. “[But] I have Heather at dinner, for walks, to bounce ideas off of. The beauty is she worked for the company, and knows the culture,” says Blake. “I get a lot of inspiration from her ideas and take them back and implement them.”
And TOMS loves animals, both say. The TOMS headquarters, located near Los Angeles, welcomes its 370 employees to bring their dogs to work. On any given day, 40 to 50 dogs report to work. The company has even built a dog run behind the building.
“A lot of science shows that having animals around helps the stress levels. Life moves so fast, it’s hard to take a moment. If you have a dog, you take a break,” he says.
But Blake and Heather’s love for animals stretches far outside the office. It has become a global initiative. Heather in particular has a passion for animals and is very concerned with the issues endangered species face, desiring to raise both money and awareness to protect them. So naturally TOMS “created an initiative. Each season a special shoe is designed and will support a specific animal,” Blake explains. “Heather leads and supports [the TOMS animal initiative] on a daily basis.”
For the first effort, Heather chose the Mountain Gorillas in Virunga national park, a UNESCO world heritage site located along the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo [DRC]. It is home to a quarter of the world’s remaining 800 critically endangered Mountain Gorillas. Against the backdrop of war, Virunga’s rangers continue to protect the mountain gorillas and other wildlife in the park despite the death of more than 130 of their comrades over the last 15 years due to conflict in the area.
“I want to raise awareness and have people relate to [the gorillas] and raise money. I want [the funds raised] to go to the park rangers who continue to risk their lives against the rebels. I want to preserve and save gorillas,” says Heather. She says she and Blake first encountered Silverback and Mountain Gorillas when they hiked through Rwanda. It was a tremendous stroke of luck. Their extremely knowledgeable guide was able to get the Mycoskies to the gorillas after only a two-hour hike.
“There were 25 gorillas;” says Blake, “a main male and all the rest were babies or females. They were within a foot of us.
“It was a very touching and intimate experience with these creatures,” adds Heather.
These very gorillas will be the first beneficiaries of the TOMS animal initiative. They are a high-risk, extremely endangered population. The rebels, He
ather says, want the oil under the park, so they try to kill the rangers, kill the gorillas, and then seize the oil.
“The next four seasons will focus on endangered species then we will bring it into domestic animals and farm animals and see how well the program does,” says Blake. The program does not yet have any goals or benchmarks but he hopes the special shoes will sell well.
When not travelling, which actually takes up about half of his year, Blake launched another One for One program, TOMS Roasting Company. For every bag of coffee sold, TOMS supplies one week of clean water to a person in need, in countries like Guatemala, Honduras, Peru, Malawi, and Rwanda.
“The main resource to make coffee is water,” says Blake. “They take the cherries [the fruits that yield coffee beans] and wash them over and over and over. I felt it was ironic that [the people in these coffee-growing areas] needed clean water for health and had no access to it, as it was used for coffee.” He is working with the non-profit group Water for People to build wells, filtration systems, rain harvesters, and other sustainable regional clean water projects.
Blake is proof that to achieve business success, you need to connect deeply and be passionate about what you are doing. It’s really important, he says, for both business success and for happiness, because your business may occupy much of your life.
“TOMS was a small business the first few years. You never know how big a company can get,” he says, adding that his original goal was to provide shoes to just 250 kids. In March 2014, TOMS gave away its 15 millionth pair.
“It’s really important to build community,” he says. He even wrote a book, Start Something That Matters, to demystify the entire entrepreneurial start-up process so new business owners could become more confident.
Outlook, he says, is vital and is one of the things he credits for his own success—he is a very positive person and asks a lot of questions. Heather adds that he is also energetic and determined.
So what’s ahead for this couple that have already contributed so much to people and animals in need? They are always talking about adding more animals. After all, says Heather, their three dogs have “have never destroyed any of our shoes.”
Follow the adventures of Blake and Heather’s puppy posse: #buddha_gypsy #adventuresofcanyon