Have you ever looked at people’s shoes and created a narrative based on what you see? I do it often, and it is amazing what stories I drum up based on the type of shoe and condition it is in. But if you don’t actually talk to the person in the shoe, it’s hard to glean the magic that lies within and behind the footwear.
Take Kenton Lee for example. He is a born and raised fellow from Nampa, Idaho, who wears black sandals every day of the year (with wool socks in the winter). What would you think if you looked at his feet? Cool, madman, or hippie? Would you guess that he invented the shoe he is wearing to last five years and grow five sizes (if need be)?
It seems an impossible feat (pun intended), so you are not likely to know that The Shoe That Grows (TSTG) has been distributed by over 1,000 partners to over 150,000 individuals in 97 countries. It is a high-quality adjustable shoe created for “incredible kids,” according to TSTG founder Lee. “Shoes are a small thing that make a big difference in people’s lives.” To date, 300 million people are without shoes, and 1.5 billion people suffer from soil-transmitted diseases worldwide.
The truth that “small, straightforward things make a difference” is the small-town mentality that Lee hails from. The son of a plumber, Lee did not travel outside the United States until after college. Post studies, he toyed with the idea of missionary service but did not want to commit to the required three-year term. Then, when his long-term girlfriend broke up with him, he hit the road solo. He thought, “I don’t even want to be in the same country as her,” and took off for Ecuador and Kenya.
Lee’s epiphany came unexpectedly while working at an orphanage outside Nairobi. One day as Kenton walked to church with a group of children, he noticed an 8- or 9-year-old girl in a white dress wearing shoes that were far too small for her feet. In fact, she had cut off the top of the shoes to let her toes hang out. This experience sparked Lee’s imagination. Why couldn’t he create adjustable shoes that could grow in size?
It took six long years of gritty and focused work to make this dream a reality. Upon returning to the States, Lee, not knowing anything about shoes, began contacting every major shoe company in search of a partner. He also attempted to make his own adjustable shoe out of random materials in his garage. Not only were his results comical, but no one appreciated his idea. Then behold; one day a small shoe company out of Portland, Ore., agreed to make 100 prototypes of an adjustable shoe that were distributed to four schools in Kenya. It was a first step in the right direction. With feedback from the kids, Lee had 3,000 pairs of shoes made in a factory in China. Word slowly got out that a “growing shoe” existed.
In April 2015, Lee’s creation went from a hobby to a full-time job when a series of coincidences landed TSTG on the BuzzFeed website, and his concept and vision went viral. Overnight, Lee’s shoe became the first major project of his company, Because International.
Providing Innovation and Opportunity
Because International’s mission is “to leverage innovation to make things better, using the positive cycle of innovation to fight the negative cycle of poverty.” In explaining the company’s mission, Lee added, “If we just use our innovation as a hand out and don’t provide opportunity, we keep people down. There is not a lack of ideas but a lack of support and opportunity to make those ideas a reality.” For this reason, Because International supports entrepreneurs worldwide and also focuses on increasing production of its shoes in the regions that need them most. While their principal partnership is with a factory in China, the company also collaborates with factories in Haiti, India and Ethiopia to grow fair-trade jobs. And TSTG is just the beginning. Lee and his team recently launched Bednet Buddy, a freestanding pop up tent that can be used inside or outside to fight malaria. (Traditional bug nets must hang, excluding people who do not have a roof).
Shoes are critical for our health, are required for school, and improve our self-esteem. In many parts of the world where human and animal waste are prevalent in public areas and sanitation is poor, people frequently contract disease via their feet. Additionally, the majority of schools around the world require shoes with uniforms. If you do not have shoes, it is yet another setback on the challenging road to success. And while self-esteem may at first seem less important, Lee offered, “I underestimated the importance of self-confidence and shoes. For many of our kids, it’s their first shoe, and they feel proud to be wearing a high-quality shoe.”
TSTG’s invests a lot of resources into the quality of its shoes to ensure they last five years and grow five sizes. The sole is made of compressed rubber like a tire, and the rest of the shoe is composed of a synthetic rubber. The shoes are adjustable at the front, top, and back. Additionally, the sole of the shoe has special ridges that naturally unfurl as the foot grows. So, the next time you put on your shoes, pause and appreciate what you have. And when you happen to glance at a stranger’s shoe, do not let its confines hold you back from imagining the possibilities for friendship, innovation, and collaboration. TSTG logo is as important as a pair of shoes: two footprints in the shape of a heart.