TOMS: Marrying Business to Social Conscience

If you're an educator looking for an enjoyable, brisk read that will connect to themes or coursework in Catholic, Jesuit education, I highly recommend Blake Mycoskie's Start Something that Matters.

Mycoskie is the founder of TOMS shoes, and his book is about the origins and early days of the company. I've long known about TOMS's one-for-one program, but beyond that, not much. The story behind TOMS is much richer than just that program. Mycoskie's book teaches about entrepreneurship but also how to harness that entrepreneurship to a social conscience. His reflections nicely bridge two worlds that our schools and students often inhabit—the corporate/business world, and the service/charity world.

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Jesuit schools send out graduates who cherish their experiences—encountering the marginalized, witnessing poverty, discussing ways to become servant leaders—but who will enter traditional moneymaking professions. While I don't mean to suggest that TOMS models Catholic social thought, I think his book helps bridge the disparate territories our students inhabit, helps students move toward integration rather than bifurcation. I can see many of our students relating to Mycoskie's description of how the idea for TOMS began to grow:

I spent a few days traveling from village to village, and a few more traveling on my own, witnessing the intense pockets of poverty just outside the bustling capital. It dramatically heightened my awareness. Yes, I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that poor children around the world often went barefoot, but now, for the first time, I saw the real effects of being shoeless: the blisters, the sores, the infections--all the result of the children not being able to protect their young feet from the ground.
 

I wanted to do something about it. But what?

This book would be an ideal text for many different classes, e.g., summer reading for incoming juniors or seniors or a course on entrepreneurship that connects the business impulse to Gospel values. (Again, it's not perfect, but in this world, what is?) I think Mycoskie's book can inspire young men and women, motivated to build empires, to reflect upon the human values and human needs at stake and to be innovative in meeting those needs. It's a book that could even generate some healthy dialogue—e.g., What is service? Is TOMS's model something that should be followed?

Also, Mycoskie comes across as a nice and humble guy—a refreshing change from the perception that CEOs must be imposing, ruthless characters in the mold of Donald Trump or Steve Jobs.

Have you read Mycoskie's book? What do you think?

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Joseph J Dunn
3 years 5 months ago
I read "Start Something that Matters" in one day, at Matt Emerson's suggestion, and I agree with him that this would be a good starter for student discussions about entrepreneurship, leadership styles, and TOMS's novel business model. Emerson's effort to help students get beyond the oft-encountered binary (business=bad; non-profit=good) and to find a resource that "bridge(s) the disparate territories our students inhabit, helps students move toward integration rather than bifurcation" is commendable. How else are students to reconcile the reality of their own parents working in the for-profit sector (not perfect, but in this world, what is?) while paying the tuition for a school that advocates social and economic justice? Three of four American workers find their careers in the for-profit sector. How does one help students who may already contemplate a vocation in business to sort through questions of how to help the disadvantaged? Shouldn't students' education help them to sort through their questions about the role of business in building a better society for all? Yes, there are cautions. A founder/CEO's self-assessment of his skills and traits may be less than fully perceptive, as was Henry Ford's "My Life and Work." The sole or majority-owner of a company enjoys a freedom that CEOs, or even boards, of publicly-traded corporations do not have. But great teachers lead discussions that open the eyes and minds to life-long discovery, to values and ethics that serve well in the world in which we live. Go for it!

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