How TOMS Founder Blake Mycoskie is Helping to Rebuild Haiti

PHOTO CREDIT: Jared Chambers
PHOTO CREDIT: Jared Chambers

It may seem like the TOMS shoe, that soft canvas slip-on worn by socialites and children in Rwanda alike, is omnipresent, but in truth, it’s the company chief who’s everywhere. Blake Mycoskie, the Los Angeles–based founder of TOMS, estimates that he’s visited “25, 30 countries” for either work or play; he circles the globe scouting locations where they can establish “giving partnerships”—part of the One for One campaign, where, say, a free pair of shoes is given away for every pair purchased, or eye care is offered for every pair of glasses sold.

“I’ve filled up two passports already,” he says. “I’m not really checking them off—I know some people like to have a number. I just kind of go where the business and where our giving partners need me, and then where there’s great waves and great snowboarding.” (In case anyone’s wondering: The Maldives have the best waves, and Utah and Colorado have some of the best powder, says Mycoskie.)

We chatted with the globetrotting shoe giver earlier this year about his most recent venture in Haiti. Five years after the 7.0 earthquake, the Caribbean island is still in recovery, but with its president making a push to increase tourism—and business travelers like Mycoskie making a case for development—Haiti’s horizon looks clearer by the day.

What’s your impression of Haiti right now? What did you see when you went to Port-au-Prince?

I was very encouraged. I’d say in the last 24 months, even more so than the 24 months prior, it’s just really trying to go back to normal. The trash is off the streets, people are back in their homes, there’s a lot more police and security—I feel very safe there as a traveler. The roads aren’t as congested as they once were; they’ve got a lot of the roads opened up so it’s easier to get around. And the new Marriott Hotel just went in. The foundation has been laid, and I think it’s very encouraging for the future of Port-au-Prince and also just Haiti in general. We spent a lot of time outside of Port-au-Prince when we were there as well, and I think there’s just a real spirit of optimism.

Are you seeing that in the people you’re working with as well?

Yes. We started a factory there last March, and we’ve already made about 400,000 pairs of shoes there. For a lot of the workers, it’s their first job back after the earthquake and they’re very grateful and very excited. It’s a really fun place to be right now.

How did you make the initial decision to travel to Haiti?

What took us there was really philanthropy. After the earthquake, after the vital needs were met in terms of food, shelter, and water, the next line of defense were things, frankly, like shoes. Because there was so much tetanus on the ground because of all the debris, kids and adults just needed shoes. So that was a really important thing for us to be there and help distribute hundreds and hundreds of thousands of shoes. That’s what brought us to Haiti, really—the shoe giving. What is going to keep us there is that we see Haiti as an opportunity to build great production capabilities [and] speed the market into the U.S. eventually since it’s so close. There’s a very big tax incentive to being there. Philanthropy brought us there, and business and our love for the climate and atmosphere is what will keep us there. It keeps us going back, too.

How much travel did you do outside of the city?

We went to Jacmel—in the 1920s and ’30s it was kind of a high-end beach resort, and then over time it lost some of its appeal. But it still has a lot of beautiful buildings, and we actually went surfing in Jacmel, which was really fun. There’s a surf camp called Surf Haiti that the local kids put on. It’s a great way to support local tourism and your tourist dollars go into local hands directly, so the surf camp is cool. I didn’t go up to the Citadelle [Laferrière], but some of the people we were with took a day trip to go to the Citadelle, which is a beautiful castle farther out in Haiti. There’s a great kind of treehouse hotel/bar that they all had a great night in, although I only got to see pictures. So that was really fun. Those are the areas that we really spent time in outside of Port-au-Prince on this trip.

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SOURCE: Conde Nast Traveler, Laura Dannen Redman