Collecting shoes has given me some pretty beautiful blessings. I love the shoe business so much, I’ve created a business that not only allows me to enjoy doing what I love but, also to do good for people in developing nations.
If collecting shoes offers me an opportunity to help others, then I’ll continue with my social enterprise. I’m a firm believer in karma: the good kind. The kind that shows up when you do good by somebody and you get the same. I’ve heard it described as ‘paying it forward.’ What you put into it is what you get out.
In December of 2004, I sat in my living room during the holidays watching the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami. The devastation and loss of life were astonishing. At the time, I was the president of an international shoe manufacturing company. I had been in the shoe business since I was a 15-year old kid. I started my first job at a retail shoe store.
I was watching television one day, and I saw a single shoe wash ashore on the TV screen of one of the beaches; it touched me deeply. I thought of the person who may have owned the shoe. I wondered if that person had lived or died. That image helped me realize that hundreds of thousands had died, millions had lost everything they owned and were lucky enough to have survived the tsunami. And that’s where an idea was born.
As a shoe senior footwear executive, I just had a feeling I could do something. I picked up the telephone and told a colleague about my idea to ship shoes to men, women, and children who had lost everything. I thought I might get some push-back and someone telling me that it was a crazy idea. That didn’t happen, at all. In fact, the opposite happened. I received calls, once word got out, from people throughout the business asking me how they could help.
I thought we would collect 10,000 or 20,000 shoes. We collected more than a quarter-million shoes. And within weeks, we shipped hundreds of thousands of shoes to people in the countries affected by the tsunami. My transformation from shoe executive to social entrepreneur had begun.
Eight months later, we suffered another natural disaster when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of the United States. Again, I assembled my resources, and we delivered shoes to families who had lost everything. I did it again when an earthquake decimated the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti. In all, I led efforts to ship over 17 million shoes to people who needed to start over with nothing after terrible natural disasters.
I am not a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffet. I am, however, interested in doing good for others and merely getting a smile or just a small gesture of appreciation in return. I don’t wish to be famous. I don’t want my name on a wall. I just want to see a better world. If I can see that happen by doing my part as a self-proclaimed philanthropist, then so be it. I mentioned I would tell you my story. Well, here it is.
In those ensuing years, as I became more involved in philanthropy I realized a few things. I learned that nonprofits needed to raise money with creative fundraising ideas. I also became aware of the poverty in developing nations and the need for us to give people a hand-up and not simply a handout. And, as a former shoe industry executive, I knew that over 600 million shoes end up in landfills in the USA every year. Shoes in landfills are an environmental and health disaster.
It took me some time to perfect it, but I was eventually able to establish a social enterprise, which seeks to make money and provide a social impact. We have the ability with the technological and financial capabilities we have in today’s world to eradicate poverty. We have everything we need today to make it disappear. We can wipe out diseases. We can create the world in a way that’s better for our kids than what we had, but it takes ingenuity, creativity, and determination.
I started out in the footwear business thinking I would spend my career manufacturing and selling shoes. I’m still in the shoe business, but I saw a way to make money and do some social good in the process. I can say this if I can do it, you can do it.
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Photo Courtesy of the author.