Sometimes I’m asked how I got into the “giving field.” In truth, it started when I received my bachelor’s degree in design. The issue is, I’m not a designer. What does a designer who isn’t a designer do? Apparently, head to Romania. I found a group-home accepting volunteers. A missionary couple had rescued 33 children from a government orphanage, and needed help. Watch out world, I thought, “I’m here!”
I arrived in the dead of winter, looking like a sorority girl in Aspen. I know this because the volunteer from NYC told me, “You look like a sorority girl in Aspen.” But I think Clair really meant “naïve,” and she was right on target. I knew nothing about how the world really works.
I’ll never be able to wrap my head around the horror those kids endured to survive in a communist orphanage. I won’t send you to tears in this post, but let’s just say that when Bruce and Sandy Tanner arrived, they had to teach ten-year-olds how to walk. Because, since birth, the kids have never left their crib. The bubble I lived in had burst.
On the weekends Clair and I would leave the sleepy village to buy groceries in town. There, I’d see another shocking sight – street children. I had never seen grubby, tattered kids before. Let alone hoards of children hanging out without adult supervision! What was this?
Through broken English and a bit of sign language, one of the girls told me she wanted to go to school, but couldn’t without shoes. Looking down I saw her little stubby toes poking out from broken foam flip-flops. Lord have mercy, I thought! It was a cool, negative ten degrees at the time, and the kids were dodging snow-covered trash heaps without any shoes. Something had to be done!
Clair and I took action, sent a few emails to friends, and the next week we were standing in a shoe store with a wad of cash and a dozen grubby children. We became the Willy Wonkas of Shoe-ville. “Shoes for everyone,” we announced to cheers and screams. And it felt great. As kids jumped up and down in their new knock-off Nikes, Clair and I snapped pictures and beamed with pride. These kids will go to school because of us! We’re such great people.
Until we arrived the next weekend.
We saw the kids. But none of the shoes. Their parents had sold them.
We felt. Stupid.
But on that day, I learned the most important lesson in my career: Our greatest intentions aren’t always the greatest investments. You can’t change the world without listening. And if you really want to create sustainable change, you have to create jobs. Give people the tools and resources to fish for themselves. So they can take care of their families, put food on the table, and send their kids to school. That’s what everyone wants in life, no matter where they live.
I saw the shoes as a gateway to school and a solution to a problem. Their parents saw the gift as a pawn to hawk for something more urgent…like food or medicine. Who was I, pretending to play God?
I always smile when people ask what I think about TOMS Shoes, and their model of buying a pair and giving one away. They’ve received heat about how their massive shoe drops are putting local shoemakers in developing countries out of business. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it always reminds me of my stint as a shoe-giver in Romania.
While their model may not focus on long-term impact or creating jobs to improve local economies, they’re doing a hell of a job introducing Americans to a world outside themselves. Converting people who might never have been interested in life outside “Aspen.” Those folks will go on to tell their friends about the shoes, and engage, even for a fleeting in second, in a conversation about helping.
TOMS Shoes is not a Social Enterprise. They are an Introduction.
Just don’t be shocked if a smart entrepreneur in Africa sells his kids new TOMS to buy his family food.
Here's a good article Daniela Papi, a social entrepreneur and general rockstar, wrote about the TOMS debate. If you have thoughts, please share in the comments section below.
QUESTION FOR YOU:
I received a great question last week.
"How do you get that first seed-funding? I know you will say persistence. What's next on the list after that?"
If you have experience with grabbing that first round - I'd love your story and tips and tricks for my next post. Email me here. Thanks!