Chelsea Clinton, TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie share insights on global health leadership

Chelsea Clinton, Blake Mycoskie, and Julio Frenk
Chelsea Clinton, Blake Mycoskie, and Dean Julio Frenk pose during presentation of Next Generation Award.

Mycoskie presented with Next Generation Award by Clinton, inaugural recipient, at standing-room-only event

April 14, 2015 – Chelsea Clinton, vice chair of the Clinton Foundation, and Blake Mycoskie, founder and chief shoe giver of TOMS, talked about their work in global health, and their leadership experiences, to a packed audience in Snyder Auditorium at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, as well as to a worldwide audience tuned in via webcast, on April 9, 2015.

Also at the event, part of Harvard Chan’s Voices in Leadership series, Mycoskie received the School’s Next Generation Award, which honors a public health leader age 40 or under. Clinton, who received the inaugural award two years ago during Harvard Chan School’s Centennial Celebration, presented the award to Mycoskie.

In her remarks, Clinton outlined the history of the Clinton Foundation’s involvement in global health efforts, including combatting HIV/AIDS and childhood obesity. At the Foundation, Chelsea works alongside her parents, President Bill Clinton and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, focusing on improving global and domestic health, creating service opportunities, and empowering the next generation of leaders.

Chelsea Clinton and Atul Gawande
Chelsea Clinton answers questions posed by Harvard Chan’s Atul Gawande.

Clinton also answered a variety of questions, some of which had been emailed in by students, in a question-and-answer session with Atul Gawande, professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Harvard Chan and executive director of Ariadne Labs.

Asked how the Clinton Foundation sets priorities, Clinton said that she and her parents look for “logical extensions” of work they’re already doing, even if the connection may not be readily apparent. As an example, she mentioned the Foundation’s efforts with juvenile justice systems in California and Arkansas to boost healthy eating and physical activity among the young people in those facilities—many of whom are young men of color, and many of whom struggle with obesity. She said young people involved in the pilot are showing an increase in health literacy and in confidence. “They knew how to make healthier choices in terms of diet and exercise—and then one hopes that those healthier choices help ladder up to other healthy choices in their lives,” Clinton said. “We’re hoping to extend those programs around the country.”

Gawande asked Clinton the most important thing she learned from the public health degree she earned at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. She replied with one word—“Statistics”—eliciting laughter and applause from the audience. She said using statistical programs such as STATA helps her “absorb information more quickly and mentally sift through and catalog it.”

Clinton also spoke about the Foundation’s work to improve the lives of women and girls. She said the Clinton Foundation’s No Ceilings report, launched in mid-March, is aimed at advancing the full and equal participation of women and girls around the world in terms of access, representation, and compensation. The effort can at times “feel like a Sisyphean task,” she said. Offering some examples of ongoing issues, she noted that workforce participation among women over age 16 globally is just 55%—the same percentage as it was in 1995.

Asked by Gawande for advice about leadership, Clinton cited three things. “I think it’s really important to have an honest assessment of what each of us are good at and not good at; to have a real honest assessment of what we’re most passionate about or most angry about; and it’s important to be comfortable asking for feedback from those around us who we really respect,” Clinton said.

Praise for a business that does social good

After her talk, Clinton presented Mycoskie with the Next Generation Award. She praised him for creating a viable business model dedicated to “achieving social good and having a real impact in the world.” Under Mycoskie’s “One for One” model, a person in need is helped with every product purchased. Together, TOMS Shoes, TOMS Eyewear, TOMS Roasting Company, and the recently launched TOMS Bag Collection have provided 35 millions pairs of shoes to children, restored sight to more than 300,000 people, provided 100,000 weeks of clean water to developing communities, and is helping mothers safely deliver their babies around the world.

Mycoskie described how he came up with the idea for TOMS while on vacation in Argentina in 2006. He saw that many people didn’t have shoes, and he learned about children who couldn’t attend school because shoes were required and they only had flip-flops. He wound up accompanying two women working for a nonprofit who were delivering shoes to children in a community outside Buenos Aires. When he saw how happy the children and their families were when the shoes were delivered, he realized it wasn’t just because of the shoes. “It was because someone believed in them,” he said. Wondering where the children’s next pair of shoes would come from gave Mycoskie the idea of starting TOMS.

He also talked about the connection between shoes and public health. He learned during a trip to Ethiopia about a disease called podoconiosis, in which irritants in the soil cause painful swelling of the feet and legs. “I saw hundreds and hundreds of people with this disease,” Mycoskie said. “I couldn’t believe it.” Since then, through TOMS, he has helped provide shoes for sufferers of podoconiosis and has worked to help eradicate the disease.

Dean Julio Frenk called Mycoskie and Clinton “remarkable individuals who have claimed the mantle of leadership for the next generation of global health champions.”

Karen Feldscher

photos: Kent Dayton (Chelsea Clinton, Blake Mycoskie, and Julio Frenk) and Emily Cuccarese (Chelsea Clinton with Atul Gawande)