In 2006 I took some time off from work to travel to Argentina. I was 20-nine years old and running my fourth entrepreneurial startup: an online driver’s education program for teens. We were at a crucial moment in the business’s development, but I had promised myself a vacation and wasn’t going to back out. Argentina was one of the countries my sister, Paige, and I had sprinted through in 2002 while we were competing on the CBS reality program The Amazing Race. (As fate would have it, after 30-one days of racing around the world, we lost the million-dollar prize by just four minutes; it’s taken me a while to be able to put those words together without weeping.)
When I returned to Argentina, my main mission was to lose myself in its culture. I spent my days learning the national dance (the tango), playing the national sport (polo), and, of course, drinking the national wine (Malbec). I also got used to wearing the national shoe: the alpargata, a soft, casual canvas shoe worn by almost everyone in the country. I saw this incredibly versatile shoe everywhere: in the cities, on the farms, and in the nightclubs. An idea began to form in the back of my mind: Maybe the alpargata would have some market appeal in the United States. But as with many half-formed ideas that came to me, I tabled it for the moment. My time in Argentina was supposed to be about fun, not work.
Seeing a Need
Toward the end of my trip, I met an American woman in a café who was volunteering on a shoe drive — a new concept to me. She explained that many kids lacked shoes, even in relatively well-developed countries like Argentina, an absence that didn’t just complicate every aspect of their lives — including essentials like attending school and getting water from the local well — but also exposed them to a wide range of diseases. Her organisation collected shoes from donors and gave them to kids in need — but ironically the donations that supplied the organisation were also its Achilles’ heel. Their complete dependence on donations meant that they had little control over their supply of shoes. And even when donations did come in sufficient quantities, they were often not in the correct sizes, which meant that many of the children were left barefoot even after the shoe drop-offs. It was heartbreaking.
I spent a few days travelling from village to village with the woman and her group, and a few more travelling on my own, witnessing the intense pockets of poverty just outside the bustling capital. It dramatically heightened my awareness. Yes, I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that poor children around the world often went barefoot, but now, for the first time, I saw the real effects of being shoeless: the blisters, the sores, the infections.
I wanted to do something about it. But what?
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