One of the things I was most excited about coming here was the academic theme of this trip: Social Enterprise. As an MBA student with the belief that the power and tools of business are the most effective way to create social impact, I see the social enterprise model as a powerful vehicle for change. Most Americans who travel to developing countries see things that may horrify and sadden them, and then they go back home and life goes on. I think those of us on this trip (myself included) will do this to a certain extent as well, but what I’m excited about is the opportunity to leave something behind; the greatest gift that I can give which is my time and my business skills applied to a social project. My project team includes Katie and Mike and we are working with Hand of Hope (HOH), a non profit that is one of TOMS shoes main distributors in India for their giving program. Last year was their first year distributing shoes, and now they await a shipment of 1 million shoes to be distributed around India in 2013. HOH views shoes as an entry point for health, safety and education; as they say, “A shoe is like a foot in the door”. Working on this project over the past 4 days has been a wonderful experience and I look forward to continuing to work on the project over the next month. Here are just a few of my initial takeaways:
1. First things first, HOH/TOMS is not a social enterprise.
HOH is a non profit and TOMS is a socially responsible business as they are giving away the shoes for free. My first lesson learned is that giving away things for free in developing countries is a lot easier said than done, especially if you want to do it properly in a systematic way that is measurable and maximizes impact.
2. Do the shoes fit the need?
Our project included interviewing 32 kids ranging from age 6-15 at 5 different schools who had all received TOMS from HOH over the past year. We heard a lot of feedback from the kids about TOMS and the importance of wearing shoes in general. For some kids, the TOMS they received were their very first pair of shoes, and meant their feet could finally be protected from injury and dust. Some kids wear their TOMS only to school and special occasions in order to preserve them since they don’t know when they might receive another pair. We heard from kids who expressed how happy they were to receive shoes, and that it made them feel good in their school uniforms. We also heard and saw first hand a lot of problems with the shoes: Canvas shoes collect dust, the shoes get smelly, and they slip off when kids run. Most kids we talked to were amazingly practical, valuing durability above fashion. Bottom line: The shoes are flimsy and not necessarily suited to the rocky, dusty trash-ridden roads of India, nor the active lifestyle of kids, esp. young boys who are rough on their shoes. TOMS has a goal of delivering shoes to kids every 6 months but there are operational challenges that limit the reality of this. A shoe may be better than no shoe, but it was interesting from a market research perspective to glean this information, viewing the kids as customers: there are some obvious needs that are still going unmet.
3. A fresh perspective is always valuable.
Of course none of the information we gathered was new to HOH – they are fully aware of the challenges that the TOMS model creates. I struggled all week asking myself, how can I provide value to this organization? What can I possibly provide or create in such a short amount of time that is new or useful? I finally came to peace with these questions yesterday at our final presentations to the clients. Verghese, who is on the board of the Byrraju Foundation and was there to give us feedback said it well: We all bring our own personal colored lenses that tint how we experience India and view these social issues. Even if we are saying something that has been said before, we are saying it in our own way, and it’s still a valuable perspective to share.