TOMS Shoes Accepts the Secretary of State's 2009 ACE Award

Rarely do I ever write out a speech, but last night, accepting the ACE Award in Washington D.C., was such a special night and opportunity I wanted to make SURE that I thanked everyone in the proper way. The irony of it all is that when Secretary Clinton presented me with the award, I was kind of nervous and confused and I did not get to give the full speech I had planned, so I want to share it with you here and I hope that more people will read this than listened to me bumbling up there at the podium. So, here it is...

When I was told that we were nominated for this award, I was filled with one emotion and that was humility. As I looked over the list of past winners, all companies that we all know and respect, I could not believe that I would be going to Washington and possibly standing up here today.

TOMS started as a spontaneous desire to give shoes to kids who really needed them. Faced with this need for the first time in Argentina, I did not want to simply start a charity, for I worried about sustainability. I mean yes, I could have asked friends and family for donations and that would have worked for a year or two, but what happens when we have something like Hurricane Katrina and my donors are supporting the needs of the victims, or what happens when we find ourselves in a tough economic downturn? I could not imagine going to the kids we had been supporting and saying, "Sorry, no shoes this year." So I started TOMS as a for-profit business based on a simple model. We started in my apartment with three interns, one who runs much of the operations today, and our efforts were not fueled with investment capital but a deep passion to help those original kids and I have found in the last three years that passion and compassion can build a business.

With so many health problems in the world, many people ask me, "why shoes?" I did not choose shoes, they chose me, but I have learned a lot about shoes and, more importantly, their importance in world health and the life-changing vehicle they can be to people who are at risk for foot diseases such as hook worm or podoconiosis. Most of the foot diseases that cause destruction to lives are preventable with shoes and basic hygiene, and I plan on spending my life preventing these diseases so that these beautiful people can live the full life we each deserve.

The original TOMS shoe was based on the Argentine alpargata, mostly worn by farmers and "common people," as my friends in Argentina say. Now, every time I go back to Argentina, my friends down there and I get a good laugh when I show them the pictures of our humble shoe on celebrities on the red carpet, runways of fashion shows, and being "guest designed" by the great Ralph Lauren for his Rugby collection. But besides laughing at the irony of it, my Argentine partners get a deep feeling of pride knowing that it is their shoe that is helping put hundreds of thousands of shoes on children's feet in countries like Haiti, Ethiopia, South Africa, and even here in the U.S.A.

Of all the people who have been part of this amazing journey in Argentina, there is one that stands far above them all. In fact, the reason I was so excited that we were nominated for this award was that I knew if we won, I would have the opportunity to recognize one of the most amazing young men I have ever met, and that is Alejo Nitti. He is my friend, our original Chief Shoe Maker, and as they say in Argentina, my "companero". He has been with me since the very first day. Without his commitment to TOMS and this idea I had on the farm three years ago, I truly do not know where we would be. You can see why this award is so special to me -- it not only represents business being done between two countries that benefits others, but it is proof that when two people come together to do something special, regardless of their citizenship or language, something magical, even historical, can happen and that is what the past three years of my life has been: a magical journey with one of the greatest human beings I have ever met. And while I accept this award on behalf of all the amazing TOMS employees in the U.S.A and around the world, I will be giving it to the first believer in TOMS, my companero down in Argentina, Alejo Nitti.

While this journey might have started with Alejo's belief in me, there are many people who have come into my life the past few years who have truly made this dream come true and really they should be standing up here accepting this award. I speak of my staff, or as I call them, my TOMS family. We are now 60 plus people and each person in our LA warehouse, that we call an office, is not only a deeply passionate individual, but they are some of the most talented and positive people I have ever met. Without their willingness to pour their heart into this movement every day, I would not be standing up here. If you all are reading this right now, know that I love each of you very much and you inspire me every day more than you know.

For those of you who know me, you know that I spend most of my days in far off places around the world and spreading the TOMS story on college campuses across the country, so I am rarely in the office. Many people have asked me how it is possible to run my business from so far away and of course we all know one of the answers, thanks to my great friends at AT&T and the beautiful commercial they created this year about TOMS and my life, but the truth is it would never be possible to do what I do without a very special person in my life. This person is here with me today, and her name is Candice Wolfswinkel. I met Candice at a Nordstrom when I was selling shoes out of my Airstream trailer and a few months later convinced her to volunteer for TOMS for nine months in planning our South Africa Shoe Drop. It did not matter that we could not afford to pay Candice in those early days -- she gave us everything she had and once we were able to start paying her, she accepted a position as my right hand and has been leading the culture of our company ever since. Candice, I love you deeply and feel so blessed you are in my life, and I thank you on behalf of the 500,000 kids that will be getting shoes this year as a result of your tireless effort and service.

It is very hard to believe but all the people I have mentioned so far have only been a part of the last four years of my life and, as you can see, they have affected me deeply and positively, but there is much more to this story than the past four years. In fact, the only reason I was confident enough to set out on this journey in the first place was the result of the unconditional support and love my parents, Mike and Pam, and my brother Tyler and sister Paige have given me for the past 33 years. I truly believe that I can do anything because of them and I know no matter how hard I fall, and I will fall, they will be there to help dust me off and set me on my way again. I love you all very much and thank you for believing in me.

Lastly, I want to thank a few other people celebrating this special day with me. My grandfather Bernie, my many friends and colleagues who have flown in from all over the country to be here, Secretary Clinton for presenting me with this incredible honor, Undersecretary Hormats, Assistant Secretary Borg, and Former U.S. Ambassador to Argentina Tony Wayne who nominated us for this ACE award.

So I leave you all with the a few words that a very special friend recently gave to me,

"May your days be filled with love and light."

thank you.