How CEO Buddy Teaster Grew Soles4Souls Into An Innovative Nonprofit
In 2006, Soles4Souls was a U.S.-based charity giving away shoes to those in need around the world. But by 2012, the organization found itself facing significant operational, financial and governance challenges due to a lack of transparency — failure seemed imminent. Right around this time, YPO member Buddy Teaster was looking to segue from the for-profit world — having founded companies such as Knowledge Builder and ClickPatrol and working with YPO member Jeffrey Rosenthal at STARKART — into nonprofit management. And while taking on the role of CEO in an organization on the brink of failure didn’t seem ideal, Teaster recognized the potential for Soles4Souls to effect real change in some of the world’s most challenging places.
By 2016, Teaster and his team had created a nonprofit growth success, turning Soles4Souls into a trusted, transparent, sustainable organization. Not only were they providing relief through the distribution of free shoes, but also selling high-quality, low-cost footwear to micro-entrepreneurs in the developing world, giving individuals the chance to start small, sustainable businesses that lifted themselves and their families out of poverty.
“This kind of business model is what resonates most with me,” says Teaster. “It’s a market-based approach to a big problem in which we can streamline the supply chain so people can create a better life for themselves, their families and their communities.”
Soles4Souls turnaround would have been success enough, but for Teaster, it only meant that Soles4Souls could now truly innovate — a path of nonprofit growth that has created more impact over the past three years than he imagined.
Highs of nonprofit growth
Today, Soles4Souls is basking in its most evolved iteration yet, thanks in large part to a competition Teaster and his team didn’t win.
“We applied to win a USD100 million grant that was being given to an organization with a proposal that could solve a critical problem of our time. We didn’t think there was a snowball’s chance in hell that we’d win,” he laughs, “but we wanted to take on the challenge of figuring out how to collect more shoes as well as clothes if we did.”
As predicted, Soles4Souls did not win the grant money, but instead of feeling disappointed, they felt inspired. Using resources at their disposal, including the organization’s own money, they set out to manifest their vision. First order of business was expanding the company’s micro-enterprise program by adding apparel, augmenting the 3 millions plus pairs of shoes put into the micro-enterprise program. From 2016-2017, they sold 2,635,895 pieces of clothing at low prices to small business owners in Haiti, Honduras and Transnistria, creating flourishing, sustainable micro-enterprise operations. The apparel was donated by individuals and groups all over the world, including Zappos, FOREVER 21, adidas, Chico’s, Ardenne and YPO member-business StitchFix.
Next up, was opening shoe collection centers across the United States as well as in United Arab Emirates, Germany, India, Netherlands and Singapore. To date, these centers have collected 1 million pairs of shoes that most likely would have ended up in landfills.
These successes merely fanned the flames of inspiration and Soles4Souls partnered with U.S. footwear retailer DSW. Overnight, their drop-off locations increased by 500 after DSW placed donation boxes in their stores and offered points for every pair donated.
“I will tell you this,” says Teaster, “none of us — neither Soles4Souls nor DSW — anticipated the scale of impact.”
Since the project’s inception in May 2018, DSW’s customers have donated 2 million pairs of shoes, not only directly impacting people in need, but increasing foot traffic to their stores and boosting DSW’s sales — a highly beneficial outcome in an era of struggling retail brick-and-mortars.
“To me, this is an incredible example of engaging an entire ecosystem,” says Teaster. “You get unbelievable employee engagement inspired by doing good, super loyal customers supporting the store more than ever before and exponential impact in places that need it the most. Closing the loop, DSW employees and customers have the chance to travel with us to the countries benefiting from the shoes and experience the impact they’re having on the ground.”
Nonprofits pair for lifelong learning
As an entrepreneur, CEO and YPO member, Teaster is highly attuned to the benefits of continuous education and mentorship as his nonprofit has shown growth. While Soles4Souls was helping create entrepreneurs startup businesses, there wasn’t a program in place to help them learn how to run a better business.
“We had a nagging sense that a piece of the puzzle was missing,” Teaster says. “We thought there must be a way for us to expand these micro-enterprises by helping the entrepreneurs become better business leaders.”
Enter Street Business School — an entrepreneurial training program with the mission of ending poverty by providing practical business skills and coaching to entrepreneurs. In 2017 alone, they trained 4,600 entrepreneurs in 11 countries. Graduates from the program go from earning USD1.35 per day to USD4.19 per day (an increase in their income of 211 percent), with 89 percent of them running their own businesses two years later.
This past October, Soles4Souls and Street Business School held their first joint training program together in Central America. Attendees included micro-entrepreneurs from Haiti, Honduras and Guatemala who learned practical, relevant business skills, and found the confidence to claim their brilliance, sense of self and right to succeed. They will continue to expand their impact by running the program in Uganda in 2020.
“By becoming certified trainers of the material and then passing on that training to other entrepreneurs in their communities, our partners will be able to develop more sustainable, powerful business owners,” says Teaster. “The most important thing for many of these people is first understanding that they can be an entrepreneur. Second is to learn all the basics that will sustain their business and third is to return to their communities with the confidence to not only change their personal circumstances, but those of everyone around them.”
The art of patience
The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy famously wrote, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Except Tolstoy didn’t know Buddy Teaster. When asked what the No.1 thing he’s learned during his tenure with Soles4Souls, Teaster says, “The art of patience, which my training as an ultra-runner has helped. I know that if I can remember that yeah, sometimes things suck, but they’re not always going to suck, I can keep going a little longer.” Buddy laughs, pauses and adds, “No strength is unalloyed, but learning to be patient has been beneficial to me as a runner, a leader, a CEO and a member of my own community.”