Pitt students help TOMS Shoes help the world

By Gretchen Andersen

Pitt students want to help get shoes for children in developing countries, like Guatemala,… Pitt students want to help get shoes for children in developing countries, like Guatemala, Argentina and Ethiopia, through a company called TOMS Shoes.

For each pair of shoes the TOMS company sells, it gives a pair away to a child in a developing nation. The company has given away more than a million shoes and reached out through thousands of college students across the country.

Pitt’s group is one of the 1,800 United States college and high school campus clubs representing the company’s mission, said Nori Powojski, club coordinator for TOMS Shoes. The company itself began with one man, not named Tom, but Blake Mycoskie, an entrepreneur from Texas. The name TOMS Shoes actually stands for Tomorrow’s Future, Powojski said.

The club’s leaders said they hope to promote TOMS Shoes’ mission through events on campus. Lauren Miller, the club’s vice president, said one of its biggest events this year will be Style Your Sole on March 24. Students can bring their TOMS and the club will have canvas, sharpies and acrylic paint available, ready for personal decorations on the shoes.

TOMS Shoes also sponsors the One Day Without Shoes, which takes place on April 5. For 24 hours, participants don’t wear any kind of footwear to raise awareness for poor children in developing countries, according to the company’s website. According to the site, more than 250,000 people participated in the event last year.

“The purpose is to be really visible and have people ask why we are walking without shoes on and tell them about the problem that exists,” Miller said.

The shoes cost between $40 and $100 a pair from TOMS Shoes’ website. Most are slip-ons or low-rise, laced shoes and made from burlap, corduroy or canvas.

Graduate School of Public and International Affairs professor Kevin Kearns said the company is an example of a movement in philanthropy called social enterprise, in which the idea is to establish a business that has business goals but also accomplishes a social good or benefit for society.

TOMS Shoes also can provide a “sustainable” source of assistance to people in need without having to rely on government funding, philanthropic funding or corporate grants, he said.

Kearns said that this means TOMS doesn’t need to be constantly asking other parties for money to support its cause. Another benefit with TOMS Shoes is that the company builds public awareness of the need for shoes in the developing world while creating a network of support through customer loyalty.

“People get sort of hooked on buying their shoes there, and then they might get engaged in other ways, perhaps by volunteering, or by making additional charitable donations,” Kearns said.

There are about 50 students who come to regular meetings and 130 on the mailing list for TOMS Shoes of Pittsburgh, Miller said. The club has shown documentary screenings and created committees to plan events.

The club’s leaders — president Natalie Valentino, Miller and business manager Rebecca Sherman — are sophomores who say they wear TOMS Shoes.

“A couple of years ago, I saw a commercial on TV, and then bought my first pair last year,” Valentino said. “After I spoke about the company for class, I thought, ‘We have to do something about this.’”

The company began as an idea that occurred to Mycoskie five years ago. When traveling in Argentina in 2006, Mycoskie noticed many children had no shoes. He decided to help these children by creating a company that would give a pair of new shoes to a child in need with each pair of shoes purchased — part of the One for One Movement.

GSPIA associate professor Paul Nelson said TOMS Shoes has more than just a marketing gimmick, it’s a company that does a respectable job reaching out those who need shoes. But people in need might rather have money than shoes.

“You may need to realize that a pair of shoes given to someone might be on the market the next day for sale to buy food, vegetable oil or medical supplies — which is a smart choice on their part,” Nelson said.

Nelson said students should continue their awareness and look on websites such as Oxfam, Bread for the World and Amnesty International among others, after they buy a pair of TOMS Shoes.

Both Nelson and Kearns stressed the importance of being careful to avoid damaging local shoe industries. Nelson said that when a surplus is given to a population, local industries would have to compete with the lesser priced or free products.

“There are shoe industries in Africa such as Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa and we need to be make sure there is no indirect effect of undercutting small shoe industries,” Nelson said.

The company website says one of its guiding principles in giving away shoes is “Do no Harm,” in which TOMS Shoes will “work with their partners to ensure that the children receiving our shoes truly could not afford to purchase them on their own, to minimize the negative impact on the local shoe-selling economy.”

By last September, the most recent statistics, the TOMS Shoes company gave away more than one million pairs of shoes, according to its website.

“We hope to raise awareness for their movement and cause,” Sherman said. “And this is a unique route to help people.”