Mixing business with a social mission takes practice, TOMS director of social impact Shira Shafir said Feb. 27, 2015, at the seventh annual Social Enterprise Symposium.
“We have to be very open, we have to engage and we have to listen,” the keynote speaker said during the event, organized by the Center for Social Value Creation at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. “One of the things I am most proud of is that, as a company, we actually listen to our critics, and we continue to innovate.”
Shafir’s audience included local students and guests from across the nation gathered for the AshokaU Exchange, a three-day event hosted in 2015 by the University of Maryland.
Shafir said TOMS started in 2006 with a powerful pledge: For every pair of shoes sold, the company would donate a second pair to a child in need. The model inspired millions of customers to get involved, but unintended consequences emerged.
What happens to local manufacturing and sales, for example, when an international organization enters a market and gives away stuff for free? Shafir said TOMS is working to address concerns about the economic impact, and one-third of donated shoes will be manufactured locally by the end of 2015.
“These are high-quality jobs,” Shafir said. “And in these facilities over half of the jobs go to women.”
Other innovations include an expansion of the “one for one” model. TOMS will continue to sell shoes, but now customers can buy TOMS coffee beans and trigger the donation of one week of clean water for a person in the source country.
Customers can buy TOMS sunglasses and provide an eye exam and treatment for a person who lacks access to health care. Or they can buy a designer TOMS bag and provide clean birth conditions and a skilled attendant for an expectant mother.
“We don’t want to be just a shoe company,” Shafir said. “We want to see how we can grow the ‘one for one’ model.”
Following the keynote address, panelists discussed investing in women. The symposium also included breakout session and the Do Good Showcase, where aspiring social entrepreneurs pitched their ideas and competed for startup money.
Smith professor Christine Beckman, academic director of the Center for Social Value Creation, said the symposium and corresponding AshokaU Exchange fit nicely with the center’s mission. “We provide a place where students, faculty and the community can come together to address and solve important social problems of our time,” she said.