Millions of People in Poverty Provided with Shoes

1 12 2010

In his book Saving the World at Work, Tim Sanders discusses the concept of the “Saver Soldier”. A Saver Soldier, according to Sanders, is “a highly motivated individual who leverages work as a platform to save the world”.

He gives several examples, among them the following story about a group of sales representatives from Timberland who had gathered in post-Katrina New Orleans for a sales conference. They went on a tour and performed some local community service. The story picks up from there:

At the end of the tour, the buses parked to allow the reps to get out and walk around the neighborhood. As they did, one rep noticed a makeshift community gathering spot constructed of tarps and rotted wood where a middle-aged man in a baseball cap was taking notes on a clipboard. The sales rep started a conversation with the man and soon discovered that he was a volunteer community organizer who had lived in the Ninth Ward pre-Katrina.

Moved by the moment, the rep asked the volunteer what the community center most needed.

“Shoes,” the volunteer replied, pointing to a chalkboard that listed shoes at the top of the Please Drop Off list. “Used ones, new ones–we need shoes.” He then explained that many of the community service volunteers were working in flip-flops and soleless  shoes in an area littered with rusty nails and splintered boards.

The Timberland employee immediately bent down, unlaced his boots, and handed them to the volunteer. He then walked barefoot back to the buses, where employees were loading up for the ride back to the hotel.

A coworker, who noticed the sales rep wasn’t wearing his boots, asked why. “That man there told me that they needed shoes,” the sales rep replied, pointing to the community center. “I gave him mine.”

The coworker stood up, left the bus, and gave the volunteer his shoes, too. The others watched, and acted: In the next ten minutes, the buses emptied out as all two hundred sales reps walked to the community center and donated their shoes or boots to the Ninth Ward, even though, for many of them, these Timberland boots were prized possessions.

The volunteer, overwhelmed, scrambled to keep pairs matched together, tucking laces into boots and organizing them by size. All he could muster was a repetitive “Thank you, thank you” to every Timberlander.

The trip back to the hotel was silent, as employees reflected on what they’d seen that day. A senior meeting planner later recalled, “It was the quietest twenty-minute bus ride I’ve ever been on.”

That first Saver Soldier experience began with the simple act of asking the question “what do you need?”. From the question came the answer, and the Saver opportunities were quick to drive to a different scale (from 1 pair of boots to 200 pairs) in as little as ten minutes.

The Saver Soldier mentality can do more than just add personal value to the Soldier and a few individual beneficiaries. It can also be an effective way to build brand equity in a company.

A related example is that of Toms Shoes. Toms recently gave away its one millionth pair of shoes to people living in poverty. In a recent NPR interview, founder and CEO Blake Mycoskie describes the philosophy of the company, and how it got its name. There is no Tom. Mycoskie explains:

Tom is a concept, not a person. It stands for shoes for tomorrow, because as the 34-year-old Texas native recalls, “We said for every pair of our shoes that’s purchased today, we’ll give away a pair tomorrow. It’s the tomorrow’s shoes project.”

Why shoes? Here are some reasons from the Toms Web site:

Many children in developing countries grow up barefoot. Whether at play, doing chores or going to school, these children are at risk:

  • A leading cause of disease in developing countries is soil-transmitted diseases, which can penetrate the skin through bare feet. Wearing shoes can help prevent these diseases, and the long-term physical and cognitive harm they cause.
  • Wearing shoes also prevents feet from getting cuts and sores. Not only are these injuries painful, they also are dangerous when wounds become infected.
  • Many times children can’t attend school barefoot because shoes are a required part of their uniform. If they don’t have shoes, they don’t go to school. If they don’t receive an education, they don’t have the opportunity to realize their potential.


OK, so sell a shoe, then give a shoe away. Sounds like a wonderful and noble idea. But, what if you’re a board member of Toms; how do you feel about the costs associated with giving away a million pairs of shoes? Well, that depends on how many shoes you would have sold had you not been giving away free shoes.

Toms Grey Flannel Men's Classics

I have to be honest; I’m certainly not the best judge of fashion, but there’s nothing I personally find particularly stylish or otherwise attractive about Toms shoes. It would not occur to me to walk by them in a department store and buy them. But, knowing that my $50 is going to provide someone deep in poverty acquire a pair of well-made shoes when otherwise they would have none? That’s a value proposition I can get behind.

And, of course, that’s exactly the point. Create commercial value in the company by way of creating value in the basic quality of life of people who need help. By buying a pair of Toms, each of us can be a Saver Soldier, and that can be a significant competitive differentiator. It provides Toms the ability to better compete, and sell lots more shoes. Win/win/win.

To get involved:

Saving the World at Work



Millions of People Surviving Cancer

28 11 2010

This post is a follow-up to a prior post. As those of you who know me will attest, LIVESTRONG is a big part of my life, so I’ll ask for your indulgence.

In January, I decided I was going to complete three of the four LIVESTRONG Challenge events around the country. Specifically, I would participate in the 100-mile cycling events in Seattle, San Jose, and Austin. I had done the San Jose event each of the last two years, which was natural since I was living there at the time and the course was familiar to me. My first-ever century was at a LIVESTRONG Ride for the Roses event in Austin in 2005.

In doing multiple events, I would try and raise $5,000, $2,000 more than last year. I was approached by my friend Hillary who was wanting to start a new team for the event in Austin in honor of Anna Basso, a 17-year-old high school junior from Plano, TX who was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, one of the most insidious forms of bone cancer, Thanksgiving 2009. Later, after much prodding from good friends Gretchen and Carol from the BikeTown Africa Project, local Philadelphia-area residents, I added the Philadelphia ride to the list.

Four cities. 400 miles. Very little opportunity to train with all the work travel. OK, yes. I’m a little nuts.


In looking back, the event that best summarizes the spirit of LIVESTRONG was the appreciation dinner on October 23. There was a very instructive background of how the foundation originated, led by John “College” Korioth. He spoke about how Lance brought together his friends and just wanted to “do something”. Yes, Lance has a larger-than-the-galaxy personality, but it wasn’t all that ambitious. They were thrilled to raise less than $25,000 in their first Ride for the Roses event in 1997, and well they should have been.

This year, Team Spokin’ for Anna alone raised more than $16,000, and we felt pretty good about it. Hillary and I had hoped to recruit 10 team members and raise $10,000, and across the four events we convinced 20 crazies to join us and met 160% of our goal. I was fortunate to have 70 individual donors contribute to my campaign alone. It’s a wonderful feeling to have that many people participate in such a worthy cause.

OK, now for some perspective. The LIVESTRONG Challenge event in Austin for 2010 raised more than $3.1 million. There were 26,000 donors, which is an average of about $120 per donation; $49 more than the $71 per donation than for my individual fundraising (which I was very satisfied with). For you finance types, going from $25,000 to $3.1 million in 12 years is 320% CAGR. And that’s just for the Austin event. It doesn’t include any of the other LIVESTRONG fundraising activities anywhere else in the world. Wow.

OK, that’s a remarkable statistic, but not the most remarkable one (to me). This year there were 5,900 participants in the Austin event. Of those, there where several hundred (I didn’t get the count) that were invited to the recognition dinner, each of whom raised $3,000. Now, here’s the most remarkable strength of this event: Team LIVESTRONG is a set of teams within a team. The winner of the team fundraising award, Team Fatty, raised $178,000 just for the Austin event. That’s after raising $144,000 at the Seattle event, $38,000 for the San Jose event, and $147,000 for the Philly event. That’s $329,000 for a single team. Please visit Fat Cyclist for more about Team Fatty and its founder, Elden Nelson, who started the team after his wife Susan, now tragically deceased, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

The number from the title of this post, incidentally, is 28. 28 million people living with cancer. We should all want to manage it up (more people who are diagnosed become survivors) and also manage it down (fewer people who are diagnosed through prevention). Raising awareness about this number was the basis of the final day theatrics of Team RadioShack at this year’s Tour de France. Many people can say lots of things about Lance around the world, but to me personally his bullheadedness on this issue trumps it all.

OK then. In summary, I’ve decided three things:

  1. I am committed to being involved with this organization for the long term
  2. Four events was great. Five events will be better.
  3. Next year, I think I’ll train.

Some key shots from this year’s events:

Honor Wall at the LIVESTRONG Village in Seattle

Jersey names after LIVESTRONG San Jose

Start line for LIVESTRONG San Jose

Honor Wall at the LIVESTRONG Village in Austin

Recognition Dinner for the LIVESTRONG Challenge Austin

College, Doug, and Lance discuss LIVESTRONG beginnings

Patrick Dempsey, Doug, and Lance discuss the future

In case this is important to you, and it should be, the foundation reports that 81% of all donations go to beneficiaries, with 12% going to fundraising (read: reinvestment) and 7% to administration. Very respectable overhead for an organization that’s as active in the media as it is. Kudos to Doug Ulman and his team.

To get involved:


American Cancer Society

Susan G. Komen Foundation (supporting breast cancer research)

Fat Cyclist

And, We’re Back…

27 11 2010

It’s been over a year now since I last posted to this blog, a fact that I’m not terribly proud of. Quite a lot has happened professionally and personally, but that’s not much of an excuse. So herein lies my re-commitment to this task, with hopes that future life distractions will be few and far between. At minimum I’m proud to say my principal personal goal for 2010 was achieved, at least as it pertains to charitable causes. More details about that in the next post.

If anything, the last year has reinforced to me that it’s not appropriate for me to be content in simply taking from the world. We’ve all been blessed with certain talents, and I believe it’s optimizing the application of those talents to the benefit of others that frames our individual purpose for being here. Sometimes, it’s not evident what those talents are, but there’s clearly a desire to help. Sometimes the talents are obvious, but how to best apply them to helping others is not so clear. So, we try stuff. We learn. Over time. Days, years, decades. The process is unique to each of us and takes its own sweet time.

That said, with effort, some luck, and a lot of love and support from special people along the way, I’m confident we can each discover what our distinct talents are and how to best put them to work in service of others. If we look for them in a way that’s genuine, the clarity will come. I’m still looking, but I think I’m getting closer. We’ll see how it ends up.

And so it begins again.

Thousands of Years of Life Expectancy Added

6 10 2009

During the week of September 20th I had the distinct honor of being a part of the BikeTown Africa project in Orange Farm, Soweto, South Africa. This project was originated by Bicycling Magazine editor Steve Madden in 2006, extending the BikeTown project he started in the U.S. in 2003. The project is a partnership with the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation’s Secure the Future program and Kona Bicycles. The mission of the program is to provide purpose-built, durable bicycles to health workers in countries most affected by HIV and AIDS, so those heath workers can expand the quality of care to patients by minimizing the transit time between care visits. Kona designed and manufactures the bikes to account for the specific conditions in sub-Saharan Africa, and Secure the Future coordinates with local relief organizations to determine how best to distribute the bicycles to the point of need.

Below is from my journal entry for Day 3. To me this experience sums up the value of this program.

In the last two days we’ve built 260 Kona AfricaBikes, largely due to the direct support of 30 local health workers from the community. These are the very health workers who will be receiving these bikes to use as transport to administer to their patients in their area. The formal handover ceremony is tomorrow.

To celebrate the completion of the build, we all went to a local shebeen (pub) and had some social time. For context, these workers live in some of the poorest sections in the township. None that I have been working with the last two days has been wearing clothing that’s been recently washed. They administer to people who they describe as being significantly worse off than themselves. While we were at the shebeen I had the opportunity to get a head start on my interviews with a couple of them, and learned something I think rather important.

Today, a health worker has 10-14 patients assigned. Each patient is infected with HIV, and many others with TB as well. The role of the health worker is to deliver medications, perform critical hygiene functions if necessary (depending on the stage of the illness), and track the administration of HIV and TB drugs.

In a typical day, they can see up to 5 patients, which means that even for the sickest patients they can at best visit them every 2-3 days. This is due to the extended travel distances on foot, which sometimes have to be extended due to the risk of traveling through some more dangerous areas on foot.

With a bicycle, however, they were confident they would be able to visit each patient at least once per day, and twice per day for the sickest patients. Obviously for a patient on a triple cocktail as well as an antibioitics course for TB, this is a critical enabling development because it allows them to personally administer the drugs at the proper times of day to their critical patients, something they can very rarely do today due to the basic logistics.

Each of these workers was thrilled to have access to the bike, not for the bike but because they were clearly and genuinly passionate about caring better for their patients. It was really an inspiring day.

Doing some simple math, conservatively these 260 bikes could add more than 10,000 years of life expectancy to patients in South Africa:

[260 bikes to workers] x

[12 patients per worker] x

[4 years of additional life expectancy per patient (due to daily care and medication oversight)] =

12,480 years!

Each of these bicycles has a landed cost of about $120 or so. That comes out to an investment of $2.50 per year in additional expectancy. Quite a worthwhile investment for any local economy.

The summary quote, however, came from Meshack, a health worker we worked with throughout the week:

“Our patients thank you. They may die, but thanks to you, they will die with dignity.”

Some videos of the program:

Day 1 Summary

Day 2 Summary

Gum Boot Dance

Day 3 Summary

Visit to Inkanyezi Community Center

Day 4, in 4 Parts

To get involved:

BikeTown Africa

Secure the Future

Kona BikeTown

Millions of Countrymen Brought Democracy

13 08 2009

Aung San Suu Kyi is a scholar and pro-democracy activist from Burma, also known as Myanmar. She is the leader of the non-violent political opposition to the military government that has been widely condemned for human rights violations and isolationist policies. She has been a pro-democracy advocate since 1988, and has made significant personal sacrifices in her life to fight for democracy in Myanmar. In 1990, the party she represented won a general election decisively, entitling her to assume the position of Prime Minister. The military government in turn nullified the results of the election to remain in power, which has been the state since then.

She has been living in Myanmar under house arrest for 14 of the past 20 years, as she is currently. She has worked extensively with the UN, and among many international awards to date is the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1991. From the Nobel Committee’s release:

“In awarding the Nobel Peace Prize for 1991 to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to honour this woman for her unflagging efforts and to show its support for the many people throughout the world who are striving to attain democracy, human rights and ethnic conciliation by peaceful means.”

In 1997, her husband of 25 years was diagnosed with prostate cancer, while they were living apart due to impedance from the Burmese government. The junta refused him a visa to enter the country, and instead encouraged Suu Kyi to leave. Knowing she would not be allowed to return to Burma, she refused to leave to join her husband. He died in 1999, having seen her only five times since her initial arrest ten years earlier.

The military government

The true nature of the regime Suu Kyi has been struggling against came into full sunlight in the wake of Cyclone Nargis in May of 2008. That storm, which reached Category 4 strength, was responsible for more than $10 billion in damage and more than 146,000 fatalities in Myanmar. There were widely-published reports of the junta keeping international aid workers out of affected areas by withholding or denying visas, and also reports of the regime keeping US and other foreign military vessels full of food aid off-shore for extended periods during the apex of the crisis. The generally-accepted rationale for keeping aid at bay and preventing foreign nationals from distributing that aid within Myanmar’s borders was that the junta insisted on distributing that aid to the afflicted only with their own resources, and without international assistance.

From the New York Times:

“French and U.S. naval ships carrying aid supplies waited just offshore for more than two weeks while the generals dithered. Finally, lacking permission to deliver the aid, the ships withdrew.”

Ultimately, 146,000 people died. People didn’t get food, water, medicine, or shelter in a timely manner because their government wasn’t able to take all the credit.

Further, Human Rights Watch noted in the aftermath that citizens were being forcibly evicted from public shelters, despite aid organizations such as UNICEF stating after on-the-ground inspections that even voluntary returns were premature.

“The forced evictions are part of government efforts to demonstrate that the emergency relief period is over and that the affected population is capable of rebuilding their lives without foreign assistance.”

In other words, the government was pushing their citizens into unstable conditions after a disaster to demonstrate that things were perfectly OK, despite expert indications to the contrary.

The military government’s resistance to criticism continued well after the disaster, just in other forms. Recently the New York Times noted that more than 150 dissidents in Myanmar had been given sentences of 2 to 65 years, including a local comedian who was sentenced to 45 years for speaking critically of the military government’s handling of the relief efforts after Nargis.

Recent developments

Earlier this year, while Suu Kyi remained under house arrest, an American chose to swim uninvited across the lake adjoining her home. When he arrived, he remained for two additional days under Suu Kyi’s care claiming he was exhausted and unable to return safely across the lake. He was arrested by government authorities when he did make the swim back.

Suu Kyi was charged with volating the terms of her house arrest, tried and sentenced after that to 3 years in prison. The trial was widely-criticized as being unjust and her sentence was quickly reduced to 18 month extended house arrest. The circumstances both under which she was charged and sentenced has been criticized by world leaders and thought leaders alike, including formal protest by Secretary of State Clinton, UN Secretary General Ban, French President Sarkozy, and others. That’s where the story is today.


Aung San Suu Kyi has endured in ways that many of us can only imagine in defense of democracy for her country. She has rightly earned the respect of the Burmese citizenship and the international community, which no doubt contributes to her being so threatening to the existing power structure. We can only hope that international pressure and insistence on human rights will ultimately clear the way for her efforts to be rewarded by a free and vibrant democracy in Myanmar.

To get involved…

Human Rights Watch


Children Provided Educational Opportunities

18 03 2009

In 2002, Nicholas Negroponte of MIT founded the One Laptop Per Child initiative. The mission of the initiative, from the OLPC Web site, is as follows:

To create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning. When children have access to this type of tool they get engaged in their own education. They learn, share, create, and collaborate. They become connected to each other, to the world and to a brighter future.

The program outlines what they call The Five Principles, which are as follows:

  1. Child Ownership – The child owns the laptop and is expected to protect it and care for it
  2. Low Ages – The laptops are designed to be first adopted by children ages 6-12
  3. Saturation – Every child should have a laptop, and nobody should be left out
  4. Connection – The laptops should always be connected, both to each other and to the Internet
  5. Free and Open Source – The laptops should use open source technologies to ensure that the experience is extensible and can grow with the child

When I first heard about this idea, I think I was in good company in being skeptical. I did not think that the manufacturing and distribution costs could possibly hit the target $100 point originally discussed, and that’s turned out to be true.  But, the project has gotten the unit cost down to $180 according to a recent CNN article, which is very impressive given the capabilities these units offer, including wireless capability and solar power.

The net cost of investing in such laptops in classroom comes sharply into focus when you consider the comparative costs of textbooks across a variety of subjects. 2005 study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups showed that the typical annual costs for textbooks at an American university are $900 per year. The cost is approximately half in Africa or the Middle East, but according to Bruce Hildebrandt of the Higher Education Association of American Publishers, those lower prices in other countries are primarily to discourage piracy, Hildebrandt says costs the textbook industry $500M to $1B annually in Asia and Africa.

Certainly elementary educational materials are less expensive than university materials on a per-student basis, but there are hundreds of millions more elementary school students worldwide. It’s a completely different scale. OLPC hits the bottom of the pyramid, not the top.

Further, textbooks can’t help students communicate with each other or peers around the world. They can’t blog, can’t connect to RSS feeds, and can’t Twitter. They can’t help a student get video-based tutorials of processes, or let them attend live streaming sessions of events around the world. And, perhaps most importantly, they can’t dynamically refresh their content when there’s an important political change in their locale or around the world. Textbooks don’t know when borders change, or when regimes change.

Some interesting and important stats from the CNN article:

  • OLPC is working actively with the Afghan government to provide laptops to girls in Afghanistan. Under the Taliban regime, girls were not allowed to attend school at all.
  • To date nearly 750,000 laptops have been distributed in countries such as Haiti, Mexico, Uruguay, and Mongolia, and according to Negroponte, that number will double by June 2009
  • In Rwanda, still recovering from the genocide in 1994, a school which received OLPC’s XO laptops went from 50% attendance to having 1,000 more students than capacity, and has students now attending on weekends

Clearly there will be further scale economies as the distribution grows, and as components naturally get less expensive and more compact. Through open-source software, the capabilities of these devices will continue to expand. The team of leaders appears top-notch, and I’m sure the stories of opportunity are just beginning to come in for this initiative.

No more skepticism. I’m in.

To get involved…

OLPC Ways to Give

Thousands of Citizens Living Peacefully

8 03 2009

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

It’s one of the 7  Habits of Highly Successful People, from the classic book by Steven R. Covey. I see the importance of that rule of thumb every day in my professional life. So often when we are engaged in debate with co-workers we so desperately want to get our point across that we can’t wait for the other person to JUST FINISH TALKING ALREADY so we can TELL THEM WHAT THEY NEED TO HEAR.

What Dr. Covey’s coaching tells us is that this is a very dangerous trap to fall into. It’s poison to professional and personal relationships, and behaving this way is a critical barrier to accomplishing anything of real significance in business, marriage, or any other setting where collaboration is needed. To be successful in these situations, it’s critical for each party to focus first on understanding the point of view of the other. This doesn’t in any way require agreement with that point of view, just a thorough understanding of it. Only then can true progress be made.

Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell are two names recently in the news who must understand this principle more than any two Americans on the planet. In their line of work, behaving in the way described above  does not just kill a business deal or threaten a marriage. In their line of work, allowing a breakdown means thousands, perhaps millions, of citizens on both sides of an armed conflict may die. 

Richard Holbrooke is a professional diplomat who was recently named by President Obama to be the Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He had previously served in as the United States Ambassador to the UN, but arguably his greatest achievement was negotiating a peace agreement in Bosnia which culminated in the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995 ending the Bosnian War. This ended the war that saw the introduction of the term “ethnic cleansing” into contemporary vernacular, and which saw the rape and murder of between 20,000 and 50,000 people between 1992 and 1995 according to estimates (see Wikipedia note). 

George Mitchell is a former Majority Leader in the United States Senate, who was also recently tapped by President Obama to be a special envoy to the Middle East. In a diplomatic context he is most well-known for leading the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland that led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. That agreement established a functional power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland as well as the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. Prior to the Good Friday Agreement, the civil war between Catholic and Protestant factions in Northern Ireland had led to the deaths of more than 3,100 people through bombings and other violence that had terrorized Irish and British alike from 1968 to 1994. Recently, a police officer and two soliders were killed in Northern Ireland, allegedly by a splinter group of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), but that action was quickly condemned by Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA that is a party to the power-sharing agreement. The violence is not expected to continue, a sign of the durability of the agreement signed more than 10 years ago. 

Ambassador Holbrooke and Senator Mitchell are outstanding examples of two Americans who have given their professional lives to the cause of advancing diplomacy for the sake of lasting peace in areas of conflict. It takes a very specific and valuable skillset to be able to broker agreements of this importance and sensitivity. I wish the two of them the best of success in their new callings on behalf of the new administration. Their time and talents are certainly needed. 

To get involved…