Do you remember the Indian Ocean tsunami?

It happened 12 years ago this month. The earthquake was the longest duration quake ever recorded at over 8 minutes. It cost over 250,000 people their lives and caused in excess of $14 billion dollars in damage.

An event that happened on the other side of the world changed my life. At the time I was the president of an international shoe manufacturing company. I had been in the shoe business since I was a 15-year-old kid accepted into a work-study program in high school. That work-study program changed my life and I found a career I loved. And when the tsunami happened, I found myself once again facing a life-changing event.

Transition to Social Enterprise

Like many of us around the world, I was seated in my home the day after Christmas watching the news and seeing the aftermath of the tsunami. It was complete devastation and like so many others, I couldn’t believe it.

Then it happened.

An image flashed on the television screen of a single shoe that washed ashore on a beach. My mind registered it. As a man in the shoe business, all I could do was think about the owner of that shoe. Had the person survived the tsunami? If the person had survived, would his body be found for his family or was it washed to the sea?

I tried to get the image out of my mind over the next couple of days, but it nagged me. As much as I tried to turn to the business at hand, I was haunted by that single shoe. I kept hearing a voice inside me tell me that if I didn’t do something, I was a fool.


Finally, I came to the point where I had to do something. I couldn’t live with myself otherwise. My goal was to ship as many shoes as I could to people affected by the tsunami. I had no idea how many shoes I would be able to collect. I thought it would be a good thing if we gathered a couple of thousand shoes.

The American people are generous, kind and compassionate. We were able to ship to people affected by the tsunami over 250,000 shoes. It was a humbling experience to work with an incredible team of people and see how giving so many people were to people affected by this human tragedy.

And that’s where it began. Over the next couple of years, I transitioned from a shoe industry executive to a social entrepreneur. First I started a nonprofit, which I grew from zero to a budget of over $70 million in fewer than 5 years, which is a feat not done by many nonprofits. In those years I also led efforts to ship over 17 million pairs of shoes to people affected by natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti.

What is a Social Enterprise?

After I left the nonprofit I founded, I established a social enterprise that collects gently worn, used and new shoes from partners who are seeking to raise money with creative fundraising ideas.

What I learned is that making a profit and making a difference were not mutually exclusive. In today’s world, you can easily do both. A social enterprise is a business that accomplishes two goals:

  1. It makes a profit.
  2. It makes a social impact.

Companies large and small understand that customers are seeking something different. They want to patronize businesses that are socially responsible.

If you’re looking to establish a new business for yourself in the New Year, take a look in your state for social enterprise regulations. Some states have moved to designate these types of hybrid organizations that are established for profit and social good.


Author of “Not Your Father’s Charity: Grip & Rip Leadership for Social Impact” (Free Digital Download)

© 2016 Wayne Elsey and Not Your Father’s Charity. All Rights Reserved.