Lessons from TOMS Shoes at the Social Enterprise Symposium

By Danielle Bennings

Shira Shafir, director of Social Innovation and Impact at TOMS Shoes

Shira Shafir, Director of Social Innovation and Impact at TOMS Shoes

Last week the Center for Social Value Creation hosted the 7th Annual Social Enterprise Symposium; one of the largest annual events at the University of Maryland. Students, faculty and staff from across campus gathered for a day of interactive sessions, panel discussions and workshops centered around social, environmental and economic change. One of the most exciting aspects of the day was the morning keynote from Shira Shafir, Director of Social Innovation and Impact at TOMS Shoes. Her talk focused on the evolution of TOMS as an organization and their mission to use business to improve lives. Keep reading for highlights from the talk.


Blake Mycoskie, TOMS Shoes founder

TOMS Shoes was developed after the founder, Blake Mycoskie, traveled to Argentina and recognized a problem worth solving; many children in rural areas didn’t own a pair of shoes. Blake thought he could gather donations to purchase shoes or collect shoes and deliver them to children, but that neither model was sustainable. This is how the famous one for one business model was created. For every pair of shoes purchased, TOMS provides a pair of shoes for a child in need. Using over 100 organizations as global giving partners, TOMS Shoes is able to give in 70 countries around the world.

Throughout the talk we saw glimpses of the lean startup methodology in TOMS Shoes’ business operations. Just like we teach our student entrepreneurs, TOMS has pivoted over the years in response to customer feedback. By maintaining close relationships with global giving partners, TOMS learned that children in different parts of the world had different needs. In regions with heavy rainfall, the traditional canvas slip-on took too long to dry, so TOMS developed a wet weather slip on. Partners in Eastern Europe needed a warmer shoe, so TOMS developed a winter boot. Through constant customer discovery, TOMS was able to develop a Global Shoe Menu that better served the needs of their global giving partners.

The process didn’t end there. TOMS Shoes has continued to innovate by providing a range of products that can improve lives around the world. Every TOMS Eyewear purchase provides one person with sight-saving surgery or a pair of prescription glasses. Every bag of TOMS Roasting Co. coffee purchased provides a week’s water supply. Finally, launched just the night before and announced for the first time at the Social Enterprise Symposium, every TOMS Bags purchase provides one safe birth for a mother in need.

toms-one-for-one-eyewear-7x6oknuk toms-roasting-coimages

Shira ended her talk with these key pieces of advice for the aspiring social entrepreneurs in the room:

  • Always keep learning, especially concrete skills. You never know what you’ll end up doing, so don’t assume you’ll know what your career will look like in the future.
  • Network — but not in a creepy way. Instead of reaching out to strangers on LinkedIn, develop strong lasting relationships with the people you interact with all the time such as classmates or colleagues. Make these relationships last as you move through your career.
  • Stay humble, but not too humble. Be assertive, but not aggressive. Ask for what you want, but don’t overplay your hand.

Read The Diamondback’s coverage of the Social Enterprise Symposium

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