Ryan Berman talks to thought leaders from around the globe in business, sports and entertainment to uncover what it means to be courageous in today's world.
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EP114 Buddy Teaster - CEO at Soles4Souls, Inc.

Buddy Teaster – CEO at Soles4Souls, Inc.

Be clear on the ‘why’, flexible on the ‘how’. Let’s walk in the shoes of Buddy Teaster. Buddy is using shoes and clothing to create opportunities for millions as he runs Soles4Souls, where they collect and distribute shoes and clothing around the world.

Episode Notes

In his conversation with host Ryan Berman, Buddy gives listeners actionable advice to move towards a purposeful career, and also reminds us that you don’t necessarily need to switch jobs to start making an impact. Buddy also touches on how Soles4Souls has been able to help people through the power of shoes in places like Haiti, Honduras, and right here in the U.S. by providing free shoes that can boost morale, and enable the ability to walk long distances to places like school and work. He and Ryan also discuss what T.E.A.M stands for, and find similarities between Soles4Souls and one of Ryan’s organization, SockProblems, which “socks” problems in the world with altruistic socks.

Ryan Berman 0:00

This is a show about facing fear, unlocking courage, and taking action.


Speaker 2 (Female) 0:05

Courage isn't necessarily a daunting thing.


Speaker 3 (Male) 0:07

It's going to give you more purpose, it's going to give you more drive.


Speaker 4 (Male) 0:10

It feels like making a courageous decision is going to get you closer to who you aspire to be.


Ryan Berman 0:14 

It’s knowledge, plus faith, plus action equals courage.


Buddy Teaster  0:17 

I meet people all the time in the corporate world who are filled with purpose, and they do that through their day job. So, don't wait until you're retired, and then you think you're going to do it. That's a terrible plan. Too much difference you can make now. “I'll make all my money, and then I will…” That seems a life not well lived.


(Intro Music 0:33-0:42)


Ryan Berman  0:42 

So, when you are a podcast host, you try to stay in your lane. But the reality of it is, and this is not the first time I've talked about this, the reality of it is there's other things I do. And one of the things that I've tried to do is take everything I learned in marketing, and storytelling, and weave it into my own superhero business. If you didn't know this listener, I have a company called The idea is soc is not just a noun but a verb. And how cool would it be if we sock problems in the world with socks? Sock racism, sock climate change, and every sock has a charity partner associated. And so, when you go through life, and you're trying to be purpose-driven, and you meet other people in the world that have gone on their journey and landed sort of in similar arenas, it's like instant simpatico. And I think, my guest today, Buddy Tester, he's the president and CEO of  Soles4Souls. He’s joining me today. Buddy, it's good to see you, man. How's it going?


Buddy Teaster  1:54 

Great. And I couldn't agree with you more. This seems like, i don’t know if it's peanut butter and jelly, or whatever these things, but socks and shoes seem like a perfect combination.


Ryan Berman  2:01 

Yeah. And we have not had that convo, but we sure will. At some point, we're gonna have that conversation. But why don't you kind of kick it off with your journey? Because you haven't always been in the ‘sole’ business, pun fully intended. You did a few things before you landed here. Can you share a little bit about your story?


Buddy Teaster  2:21 

Sure. So, I went to college, I was the first one on either side of my family to go to college, it was a big deal. And then, I wound up majoring in religious studies and French much to the consternation of my father, who feel like I blew it. I worked in the theater for a couple of years. And then, I went back to get an MBA and an MA in Arts Administration thinking that was my path. And that wasn't. So, I went to work for a not-for-profit, really interesting [Inaudible 2:47] important in my life called the Young Presidents Organization. And then, for the next 30 years, it's been this dance, to use your word, between for-profit and not-for-profit. So YPO is a membership organization, it doesn't really have this kind of social purpose, but has a lot of the same characteristics. Then did some technology-related things, came back to YPO. Did some other technology stuff, came back to YPO, I was there three different times. Then left to run a company owned by a YPO guy. We sold ads on grocery carts, it was very different. And when we got that back on track where he wanted it, I was kind of at a fork, and I decided I want to come back into the not-for-profit world. And I've been at Soles4Souls for the last 10 years. So, the thing I love about Soles4Souls, and there are lots of them, but it is the chance for me every day to weave together the for-profit and not-for-profit sides of my experience. And that's, I think, one of the reasons that's kept me so happy here


Ryan Berman  3:45 

And, just so the listener hears it from you, explain Soles4Souls, the model, if you don't mind?


Buddy Teaster  3:51 

Sure. So, we think about how to use shoes and clothes to create opportunity for people. Some of that, maybe we can get into it if you want, how we create economic opportunity for people so that they can take care of their families. We create opportunities for people to do things with what they think they can no longer use, that's in their closet. We create opportunities for companies to engage their employees and their customers, and to put their excess inventory and factory seconds to a higher purpose than put in the trash, or incinerating it. People have an opportunity to travel with us and experience this sort of full circle; you collect shoes and you see the impact. We think about this idea of creating opportunity holistically. Shoes and clothes are the vehicle for that. And this year, we'll collect about 5 million pairs of shoes, about three or 4 million pieces of apparel and accessories. And then, some of that we sell, some of that we give away for free. And we try to think about all those different ways of sort of short and long term. How do we help create opportunity for people?


Ryan Berman  4:50 

You know, my personal mantra is ‘patiently relentless.’ I don't have to rush it, I don't have to force it, but I'm clear enough that I can slog along. I guess it's tortoise versus hare. I'm coming to this realization right here, there. But as a guy that, you're an ultra runner, right? You're focused on running. You've done 50-mile, 100-mile trail runs, does that mantra work for you too? Or like, Are you like a patiently relentless guy, or is there more urgency, like, “We got to, like, move now”?


Buddy Teaster  5:30 

I think it's more the patiently relentless, I would concur with you, my wife might disagree sometimes about that. I think there are a couple of things. One; that the ultra-running experience has really informed a lot of how I look at life, and that is, it is going to suck. There are going to be times when you want to quit. When you're out 400 miles, let's say, 24, 36, 48 hours, it's not great. And so, the ability to know when to bear down, when to give yourself some credit and walk a little while, when you need to sit down and eat. And how these other things like sitting down to eat, and to make sure you're drinking enough, is just as important as the, quote, ‘running.’ All that stuff is informed, especially the last 10 years at Soles4Souls. When I came it was a turnaround. And so, having the patience to know where we were going. I guess there are two things I would say about that, one; kind of my mantra is ‘clear on the why, flexible on the how.’ That came out of ultra-running, it's applied to every day at  Soles4Souls, probably applies to a lot of my life if I think about it. And also, I don't know if it was Bill Gates, but somebody like Bill Gates said, “We underestimate what we can do in the short term and underestimate what we can do in the long term.” And I think those are constantly in tension, which is great. But the real game is the long game, and that's the one that I think the running piece, in particular, has helped me stay focused on.


Ryan Berman  6:59 

You're kind of a turnaround junkie, you know? (Laughs)


Buddy Teaster  7:05 

So, I've done two, so I won't say a junkie, but it's a big reason why I wanted to come to Soles4Souls. When I knew that that was a part of what we would have to do here, I was definitely intrigued and attracted to that. And it's a team sport, right? I'm attracted that, not everybody is, so you have to find the people who want to be in that part of it. And the last 10 years, Ryan, there's been nothing in my life that's been as satisfying as the work that I've done here at Soles4Souls. There are lots of reasons for that, but getting it from ‘not sure if it's going to make it’ to now where we're healthy and growing has certainly been a part of it.


Ryan Berman  7:41 

No, I can't do things I'm not passionate about. I acknowledge it’s the way I'm wired. And, look, there's other people, even in my family, it's that whole ‘work to live, live to work’ concept. And I'm like, “So let me get this straight, you're going to work to live. So, you're going to sleep for eight hours. Then you’re going to go to your job, you're going to sleep through a job for eight hours. On the back end, it doesn't. It's not for everyone. And I get it, people need to make money. There's no doubt. There's a whole lot of Maslow and you got to make money. But for any listener that's like, “Yeah, dude, I'd love to work at a purpose-driven company. I'd love to be part of the solution. I'd love to be in a place where the ‘why’ is concrete and the ‘how’ might be flexible.” What's your advice that you'd give to them?


Buddy Teaster  8:36 

Well, one; I think a big difference now, Ryan, but let's say to divide that between not-for-profit and for-profit for a second, it used to be that, if you went to the not-for-profit world, it was a giant sacrifice, especially financially. The good-wins, that's not as much a trade-off as it used to be. There aren't stock options, and some of those kinds of big bonuses and stuff. There's not an ownership piece that you're going to build and sell later. So, there's some things that are off the table. But good-wins now don't require you to take a vow of poverty to do the work. So, I think the first thing is to say, “The world's changed, and so the trade-off might be less than you think.” The second one is, purpose doesn't work without a good business strategy underneath it. So, don't think that it's unicorns and roses. That's just not true. You would walk in, Ryan, to a lot of meetings and things at Soles4Souls, and you'd be like, “This is a not-for-profit.” We've got metrics, and quarterly plans, and KPIs. So again, it might not be as different as you think. And the third piece, I would say, if you can find those two things in a not-for-profit, do it, it will be good for you, it'll be good for the world. And I think it's okay to be selfish about how it’s good for you. And then, the last thing I would say is, I don't know that you have to leave to make that trade-off anymore. There are places, but there are not-for-profits that seemed pretty soulless to me. So again, it's not magic. I know a lot of the brands that we work with, one of the reasons we work with them is because they're interested in purpose and making a difference. I meet people all the time in the corporate world who are filled with purpose. And it might be around getting kids to play, or clean water, and they do that through their day job. So, even 20 years ago, that was a real trade-off that I don't think we have to make in the same way. But I would just underscore your point; don't wait until you retire then you think you're going to do it. That's a terrible plan. It's too long. Too much difference you can make now for that to be something that, “I’ll make all my money, and then, I will…” That seems a life not well lived.


Ryan Berman  10:41 

Yeah, I obviously get a chance to do a ton of keynotes. Sounds like the shameless promotion podcast, but I always talk about Lawrence Fink's infamous letter that was in the New York Times, which was, of course, he was running BlackRock, CEO of Blackrock, and basically sent a note out to all of the CEOs in his portfolio that talked about like, “If you don't have purpose in your company, if you haven't figured out what that is, get out of the portfolio. Get out of here.” And I love talking about that. And then, even Frank Cooper, who he's now the CMO of Visa, he was at Blackrock for a while also talks about like, “Why do you exist in the world beyond making profits?” So here, you've got the CEO of Blackrock talking about, “Get out of our portfolio if you haven't figured this out.” And you've got the CMO of Visa, these are not small businesses, saying, “Why do you exist in the world beyond making profits?” And I always ask the audience, I'm like, “What do you think they really mean by this?” And the answer, at least, that I could see is, when the money guys are talking about purpose, it must mean that purpose makes money.


Buddy Teaster  12:06

Money. Exactly. There's proof of this… And I also think there's no way the next generation who thinks that my generation messed up their place, their planet, will not… They wear their values on their sleeves, they will not buy something if it isn't. Unless again, through Maslow land, if they can, it's got to be purpose-driven. Are you seeing this everywhere too?


Buddy Teaster  12:31 

You know, I have to be careful what my data set is, because I do think it's self-selecting in some ways. The companies that want to talk to us want to talk to us for a reason. I will say that I have gotten more skeptical, Ryan, of people that say, “I'm going to change the world.” That's kind of bullshit. There's a red flag for me as soon as somebody says that, that it's either coming from an ego place, it's more of the ‘I’ is more important than any other part of that sentence, which is never going to work. I don't care how great an entrepreneur you are, ultimately, that won't work. But I think also, for me, a part of purpose is understanding that we are all part of a process. I don't have any illusions that, because of Soles4Souls, we're going to end homelessness in our public schools, or poverty in Haiti, but if we can help a million and a half kids here in the US, 400 entrepreneurs in Haiti, 50 employees in Honduras, that is the job. It doesn't have to be every… I don't get the movie title right, but ‘Everywhere All at Once,’ it doesn't have to be that to count. And so, look, I think, more and more the people that we talked to, purpose as a part of the conversation. I think the Blackrocks and the Visa’s, they're getting much more subtle about what purpose means. And it's not I don't think these big overarching sweeping statements as much. Because, it's like, if it's going to be about, “How does it relate to my business, how's it going with my employees and my customers in a way that makes me a better business,” it can't be all this kind of ‘pie in the sky’ stuff, you better have some traction. And part of that is being very clear and defining what that means. And I think lots of companies are getting better at that.


Ryan Berman  14:22 

I agree with you, the macro ‘I'm going to change the world, we're going to change the world’ it's like lots of ideas, no plan. But when it gets down into the plants, so like, even for you guys, I think I've read somewhere, you guys want to create a billion dollars in economic impact by 2030. 2030 is going to be here in a blink. I'm curious, how do you feel it's going, and how do you go about doing that? What's the ideas, the impact? What's the plan? What's the path?


Buddy Teaster  14:53 

Yeah. It is probably one of the most important things that we set for ourselves. We did in 2017 when we were a long way from the goal, it seemed further away. It was more than a decade out, and we had no idea how we were going to get there. And so, to the extent that we pick the right one, it has motivated us tremendously. How we think about our work, where we work, who we work with. And I will say, without a ton of strategy, we really thought deeply about how do we get beyond counting what came in? That's the easy thing, and that's what a lot of not-for-profits struggle with, the metric piece. We said, “What's the value of what we're doing to the people that we say we serve?” So, let's start with that. And then, we have three components to it. There's a financial piece, there's a what percentage goes to our mission piece, clearly. And then, there is a clear path to how do we stay on track for economic impact. And like almost any triangle, when you're trying to have three things, you can only get two at a time. So, Ryan, that big goal of 2030 is closer now than it used to be. But we use that framework to make decisions every day so it does not seem far away. It's not like, “Oh, at the end of the year, we'll see how we did.” Because we use it every day, we report it weekly to ourselves, monthly to our board. How are we doing? Where are we behind? What's going right? What's going wrong? It feels very real. And I think that's been one of the… Other than having a big target that allows us to calibrate how we're doing, it also is something that is just baked into how we work every day. And that's been really valuable.


Ryan Berman  16:36 

I think I read elsewhere like, I think, the purpose, I don't know if it's changed. Is it just simply ‘break the cycle of poverty?’ Is that what the purpose still is?


Buddy Teaster 16:46 

That's it. Correct.


Ryan Berman  16:46

Okay. So, again, give me more nuance on how does one get there because that's not small. “What are you doing this weekend?” “Just breaking the cycle of poverty.”



So, I could probably do that best by telling some stories and giving me some examples. And I'll use, maybe, three short ones. So, in Haiti, we started working there about 10 years ago. It's only gotten harder and harder to do things there. Now, it's almost impossible at the moment. And yet, we're working with probably 400 women through our local partner there called the Haitian American Caucus. And these women, many of them have gone from not owning anything to owning land, to building a house in two, three years in a place where women don't have many rights, they certainly don't own property. And now, they have the tools, we don't have to teach them how to work, they know how to do that really well. They go from almost total instability to having a lot of security and predictability. Have a place for the family to stay, kids are safe. The shoes are the way that that happened. It was their hard work. We provided them better shoes at a better price, and they took it from there. So, that's one example breaking the cycle of poverty. Those kids are going to go to school, they're going to eat more, they are not going to have the same trajectory as their mother or grandmother. In Honduras, the model is a little different. We would have a local partner, and he employs people in the warehouse and the stores. And there's a woman named Kimberly who works there, she runs a warehouse now. She had tried to leave. She walked all the way to Mexico, she got stopped in Mexico, she spent some time in a Mexican jail with her two kids. Now that she's back, she has a decent job where she loves working and she's respected. She says, “I don't have to leave anymore.” That's how you break the cycle of poverty. And then, the last thing I'll say, in Eastern Europe, we work in a part of Moldova called Transnistria, which is right in the Ukrainian border. It’s a long complicated story, won't get into it, but it's a very weird place. And a lot of the people who were born there, if you're an orphan, if you were born after 1990, you have a Transnistrian passport that nobody in the world recognizes. You can't travel unless you're traveling illegally. And so, to work with our partner there, Heart for Orphans, they have created jobs and training programs so that people can stay. They don't have to worry about getting traffic, or working illegally in Russia, or Poland, or the UK. They can stay and raise a family. Again, that breaks the cycle of poverty. Lots of these kids come out of orphanages. So, those aren't like world-changing big things, but you think about each of that multiplied times 10, 20, 50, 400, it's a big deal. And that's how we think about the everyday . How do you make that sort of stuff possible by working with our partners?


Ryan Berman  19:45 

First of all, it's so cool that this is what you get to do. And I'm sure you're traveling around also checking out that impact. 20 year anniversary is coming up 2026, is that accurate?


Buddy Teaster  19:58

Yes, that's correct.


Ryan Berman  19:59 

What's the big plan?


Buddy Teaster  20:01

Oh, that seems a thousand years away.


Ryan Berman  20:03 



Buddy Teaster  20:03

We haven't even started talking about it yet.


Ryan Berman  20:06 

Well, I'm in to help. You let me know I can help.


Buddy Teaster  20:09 

Okay. It was funny. Somebody contacted us in 2021 and said, “It's your 15th anniversary.” And we're like, “Oh, thanks for letting us know.” (Laughs)


Ryan Berman  20:17 

Head down. Head down, Too much work to do. The idea was founded after Katrina, I believe, correct?


Buddy Teaster  20:26 

Yes. So the people who went on to found Soles4Souls, Ryan, it was a super organic way. They first responded to the tsunami in Southeast Asia. And it was just some guys. They pick up the phone, they talked to some people, they got some shoes to a few different places around the region that were affected by the tsunami. And then, nine months later was Hurricane Katrina. And they said, “Well, we kind of know who to call, but this is here, we can obviously help more.” And then, Soles4Souls came about six months after that. And so, there was, from the beginning of Soles4Souls, this really serious connection helping people in the short term. And I think, for the first part of Soles4Souls existence, that was really the focus, it was new shoes to folks affected by natural disasters. And then it's kind of grown and expanded from there.


Ryan Berman  21:15 

All right. Let's say that Buddy CEO, President and CEO Buddy is talking to just coming out of college, “Thanks, Dad for the great advice,” Buddy. So, you're here today and you're talking to that Buddy, What is the three pieces of advice you give for yourself on the journey you're about to go on?


Buddy Teaster  21:43 

I would say, “Get out of the US and live as soon as you can. Don't stay here. It'll never be easier than the day you walk out of college, or high school, or whatever it is. No family, no kids, go. That I think is probably the most important thing for making you a good person.” Secondly, I would say…


Ryan Berman  22:03 

Why do you feel that way? I'm just curious.


Buddy Teaster  22:06 

How much of the world can you understand if you only live in your bubble here? It's not even 10% of the world.


Ryan Berman  22:15

We don't see it that way. We don't see it that way.


Buddy Teaster  22:18 

Well, the number of people that I run into who don't have a passport tells me this is a big, it's a big issue. I read something the other day, Ryan, you’ve probably seen this. If you make more than $50,000 a year, you're in the global 1%. if you make $50,000 a year here, you're not even middle class anymore. We don't think about it that way. And I'm not saying that's right or wrong, but I'm just saying if you stay here and you think that's the world, that is not both the up and the downside of that, you got to get out of here. So, I would start with that. The second thing…


Ryan Berman  22:54 

By the way, I looked it up. This part is brought to you by Google. 40% of Americans have never had a passport. Okay, it's 38%. And then, one in five have an expired or invalid passport. Okay. So, “Get out of here. Go out here.”


Buddy Teaster  23:19 

Get out of here. Get out of here, that’s number 1.


Ryan Berman  23:21 

Knowledge number two journey,


Buddy Teaster  23:22 

Yeah. You just got to experience it. Number two is, don't have a plan. There's nothing that… Even looking back, I can barely connect my story. So thinking if I knew 30 years ago what I was going to do, that's crazy. So, to me, it's mostly saying yes to things and trying. Don't believe that you're… Like, “I need to be this by this age, and this by this age.” I don't know. That's advice that I wish I'd been more comfortable with because every time I said yes, something great happened out of that.


Ryan Berman  24:02 

So, I'm not sure if you’re seeing, and this is where I wish I ever would have video, but I'm looking over my shoulder, I got a bunch of shit basically written on the wall that sort of inspires me. And that piece of advice is, like, I want to thank you for that because there's so many times where I've held on to things that I thought I would become. I visualized writing scripts going to LA, and then I get upset at myself because I can't make the time to do it. And it's not the bubble gum Hallmark ‘shoot for the stars,’ but there are things like that where if I just gave myself permission to say, “It's okay, you're doing amazing things in these other arenas.” And I don't think that just resonates with me, I think, a lot of people, just being able to give themselves permission to go, “I don't really know where this is going.” And, “Yes, let me see where this goes. I'm going to try this and give myself permission to try this and see what It takes me.” So I love that one.


Buddy Teaster  25:03 

Yeah. I think we'd all be a little less hard on ourselves. If you're going to be a doctor, you probably don't have that opportunity. Maybe if you want to be an attorney, it's a pretty narrow path. Most of the paths are much wider than we believe they are. And I would say the third thing is, it's okay to be conflicted about money, and purpose, and meaning. I saw this recently, “Lifetime happiness is a ‘U’ shape.” You're super happy at 20. You have kids, it just dive bombs, you’re kind of miserable into your 40s and 50s. And then…


Ryan Berman  25:41 

Because of the kids?


Buddy Teaster  25:46 

In part. And the money stress, and all the rest of that, and you're working hard, and can you be a good spouse, and all those things. And then, you get a little more secure, you know more about who you are, the kids are gone, and your happiness goes back up. I think it's a little bit of like the saying ‘yes’ thing. That is okay. It doesn't have to be up into the right all the time for your life to be great. And to ask those questions, “Did I make the right decision? Did I make this decision for money?” Maybe that's okay. And just recognizing that it's not a straight line, it’s a ‘U’ for most people, and you got to ride it out sometimes. And then, be ready to enjoy it when it comes back around.


Ryan Berman  26:34 

I think the lazy layman way to say this is people just want to do what they want to do. But there's times when you can't, or you can but your conscience won’t ever allow you to. I have a 10-year-old and a seven-year-old. My wife and I, we have to remind ourselves, I’m like, “You're not just the mother of our kids, you're my wife and we need to declare sometimes when you're one versus the other.” But when your kids are 10, and seven, and they're needy. I love your children, but you're needy. And got to walk up to school, I got to pick them up, it's a constraint on freedom. Money is a constraint on freedom. And to your point about traveling, though, I'll never forget, I went to Guatemala with UNICEF. And the way they do one of their programs when you've helped them, it's very smart, permission granted to run with this. It was a water sanitation program. So, day one, we went to a school, you see all the kids were clapping, and you feel great about yourself. And then, day two, guess where they take you on day two? You know where you’re going. It's like the punch to the nose, like, “Great job, we still got so much work to do.” And I'll never forget, I got to knock a soccer ball around. There's no field by the way, it's dirt. Someone I think had a shotgun protecting us. And you're with little kids, and there's nothing. There's no Wi-Fi, there's no internet, it's just dirt. These kids were happy. These kids were happy. There was no pressure on these kids, there was just play. And when they were done, they didn't know not to be happy, or they just were. And so, I do find it fascinating, like, well, I guess that is freedom. That was their version of freedom, they played. Are you seeing this when you go around other countries, or like?


Buddy Teaster  28:40 

Look, I think there's a complex question to ask yourself underneath that, there is the… Because, for sure, we do about 12 trips a year. We're going to Honduras, and Guatemala, soon the Dominican Republic. We used to travel a lot to Haiti. And there is a recognition of how lucky I am. You go there and you realize, “I have hot water at home, and I don't need a shotgun-toting guard to let me play soccer.” That's true. You realize that there are lots of ways to be happy. And it's not about more stuff, or more money, or whatever those things are. But I think, Ryan, also, for me, and I think what we try to connect with, those people don't necessarily like, “I drink dirty water, and I don't have an education.” So, there's also this recognition, like, they are not happy because they're poor. So, all of that is together, it's all at the same time. I do come home every time and go, “Jesus, what a miracle this is that all this stuff works, and I can eat, and I don't have to worry about so many things.” But that should not let me off the hook for saying, for those people who don't want their kids to grow up the way they did, which is most of us, our bar starts higher here, but it's not different. And I think a danger is to come back and say, “Those poor people are happy because they're poor.” No, dude, they're happy because they're happy. And a part of our work is, if you want a way out of that, we want to help you do that. And I think that's why you were there doing water sanitation, right? You're trying to make it better for these kids to be safer and healthier when they grow up. It wasn't just to be reminded of how lucky it is that you go back home to AC and hot water.


Ryan Berman  30:40 

Plus, some of these kids, at least, [Inaudible 30:42] serving are way ahead on the fashion front. Here's my favorite research moment, and this little explains that last silly comment. When I actually looked at some of the FAQs, my favorite one was, “Do you accept single shoes?” And it's like, “Yes, we do accept mismatched shoes.” The mismatched shoe craze should be happening right now. Isn't that in? No, that’s not in?


Buddy Teaster  31:13 

(Laughs) We've not tried to do that here. I don't know, maybe we're missing an opportunity.


Ryan Berman  31:16 

I'm way ahead of the curve, Buddy. I’m telling you.


Buddy Teaster  31:19 

You’re way ahead. We could do mismatched using mismatched socks, and create a whole thing.


Ryan Berman  31:23 

Oh, we have much to talk about, much to talk about. All right, Buddy. Again, I kind of teased that you’re also… This turnaround junkie, maybe those weren't the right words, but you've seen enough on the turnaround side. So, if you're listening, and you're at a place that you need a process, t there's a process that is followed just to make things 180 from where you are, give me the three to five, what's your process look like? Where do you start?


Buddy Teaster  32:00 

Yeah. This one I've been thinking about a little bit. So, I think there were five things that we did here that aren't unique to Soles4Souls. Look, it was pretty broken. Financially, it was going down in flames, wasn't sure how much longer we were going to be able to keep the doors open. So, it was a very bad financial situation. Our board had shrunk to three, and they were tired, they’d got enough. Our team was demoralized. Our reputation was in bad shape. And we did not have a clear purpose anymore. So, we started with the values. And our first value was… We have four about being transparent, entrepreneurial, accountable, and that the work is meaningful. We started with transparency. So, if we have to rebuild trust in all these different channels, how do you do that? So, for us, transparency was the beginning of that. Financials, what the problems are, what we're trying to work on, what we're not trying to work on. And then, telling people how it went. So, that was internal with the board and external. So, I would say that’s the most important thing that we did is to say, “We are just going to do that regardless of the consequences.” The next thing that we did was to redefine our mission. I said a little bit earlier about changing the world kind of gives me the heebie-jeebies. So, Soles4Souls mission was changing the world one pair at a time. There are lots of problems with that particular one, but two was [Inaudible 33:28] that I was doing to you. It wasn't about working together, it was, “I'm giving you a pair of shoes and I'm changing the world.” But the second piece was Soles4Souls was moving more and more into apparel. So, it wasn't even accurate anymore. So, we redefined that as, first, we were talking about wearing out poverty, and now about creating opportunity. So, that was really important for us. The third thing was you have to have an operating system, how do you keep score of whether you're getting better or not? So, for us, it's called ‘Align.’ There's a software component to it. There's planning. As I mentioned, we have lots of metrics. We have a very good operational sense here, as well as that long-term plan. So, we had to have a… The year before I came, Ryan, we lost two and a half million dollars on a four-and-a-half million dollar cash budget. Soles4Souls had never made money in the six years before that. So, we had to fix that. And we had to have a lot of discipline in having an operating system that increased transparency, and accountability, and being entrepreneurial, all that came together. So, that was the third thing. Rebuild the team and the board. So, people who worked here felt like they'd been lied to, they didn't know what was going on. Like I said, the board was gone, our reputation was pretty terrible externally. So, we had to rebuild, invest. So, first of all, we cut the staff in half over the next two years, then we rebuilt it. We were down to three board members and rebuilt that. So, now we have a team about the same size as we did 10 years ago, but triple the revenue, triple the impact, like, doing the right things to make sure that we're good stewards of the money, it's not our money, and having more impact. The last thing was this Northstar, having a really clear, for us, that 2030 goal of making sure they were always making progress. So, those things together, I would say, are kind of generic. It was values, mission, operating system, the team, and the North Star, those were the five things


I love this, this is so good. First of all, give me the values again. Transparency…


Buddy Teaster  35:37 

So, it spells ‘TEAM,’ which makes it easy. Transparent, entrepreneurial, accountable, and meaningful.


Ryan Berman  35:42 

Okay, I'm writing these down, there's just so good. And I love all of them. And I really appreciate how intentional you are. I have my little ‘there's a price to being courageous.’ And price is an acronym. It's prioritize, rally, identify, commit, and execute. And the ‘P’ is prioritize values, the ‘R’ is rally believers, the ‘I’ is identify fears, ‘C’ is commit to a purpose, and ‘E’ is execute your action. So, very much similar, it’s like TEAM. I say I’m in the courage business, but really, I'm probably in the clarity business. If you're stuck or scared, and you look at the five that you've got. Values, values is clarity. Mission is clarity. Operating System is process. Rebuilding the team is people, and Northstar is clarity. It’s like 60%. It's like once we know what our values are, and we've got our mission, now we got to find how are we going to make this happen and not lose our shirt, the business part. Okay, who are the people that are on board with the values of the mission? And then, share the shared reality of, like, what's that B-hag? How do we all go after that same thing together? And, to your point, I think, any turnaround, any business, any startup… If any startup started exactly with just that, It's like, that's how you start, you've got the clarity to move forward. Sorry, I get excited about words, I get excited about stuff like this. Is there one part of the job right now that just lights you up?


Buddy Teaster  37:28 

You know, one thing that… So, Soles4Souls as I said -- when you asked the question about how we got started -- has always been around providing new free shoes and clothes to people in need in the short term. And I believe in that, but what really attracted me and what I find super motivating is this idea of using business to help people out of poverty for the long term. So, that program was [Inaudible 37:53] we call for opportunity, that still lights me up like it did day one. But one of the things that's not wasn't obvious to me at the beginning when I came is lots of brands and retailers who donate new shoes and clothes to us say, “Happy to do it, but you can't use it [Inaudible 38:08]” They don't want to take it back to stores for returns. There are really good commercial reasons for that, and we want to be a good business partner, so we got it. But then, sometimes, different people in the same company would say, “Well, what are you doing to help here in the US?” And I'm like, “Well, we could do more if you didn’t really restrict it.” So, I think we didn't really do it very well. It was very reactive. Somebody would say, “We need X,” and we would like to open the cupboard and say, “Well, we got Y.” And I didn't like that we couldn't be good partners. But in 2020, October 2020, we launched this program called ‘For every kid’ that provides a new pair of branded athletic shoes to every kid experiencing homelessness. There’s a million and a half kids in the US, it’s a depressing, depressing number to me. And, in the two and a half years that we've been doing it, the feedback and the quantitative results that we're getting about how it matters to kids in terms of their self-esteem, their attendance, we're starting to get some sense that those things lead to better grades. And shoes are playing an important role in that. Not the biggest piece. Housing and shelter, I'm sorry, housing and food are most important, shoes are maybe third. I am totally lit up by the possibility that we could solve this. A million half kids is a lot of kids, but it's doable in this country. The resources are here, [Inaudible 39:31] and tell the right story and all that stuff is true. I just turned 59 In February, I'm going to work until they throw me out of here. And I'm super motivated by that. It doesn't in any way get crossways with our microenterprise equal opportunity program. We can still keep doing that, it all happens outside the US. But I feel like we have a really clear lane now in the US. And interestingly, it's made us better at responding to the Ukrainian refugee crisis caused by the Russian invasion. We shipped 15 to $20 million worth of stock there because we had a partner on the ground, we knew what they needed, we had great relationships. Our corporate partners really wanted to help. One of our big partners, I don't think I can say yet public, they donated 130,000 pairs of shoes that we're about to get into Syria and Turkey [Inaudible 40:23] So, we're getting better at that. And so, before, it was kind of like, “Well, I guess we have to do that.” And now I'm super energized by it.


Ryan Berman  40:33 

All right, take us home here, Buddy. This is like the fastest 40-minute conversation, which is always a good sign. But, for anyone that's listening, what's the takeaway? What do you want them to take away from our chat?


Buddy Teaster  40:50 

Two things, specifically, for Soles4Souls. All of us, me included, and I know better, in my closet stuff that I don't -- let's just stick with us for a second -- I don't wear. It’s sitting there, it’s doing nothing except making me feel bad about being indecisive. It is, literally, opportunity that you're keeping it from people who could turn it into food, shelter, education, security. That is a small action that each of us could take right now, that would make a giant difference. So one; take some action. And I think, related to that, Ryan, is the idea that, for every idea there is around shoes, there's something else that you could do that is a small, significant action that doesn't require a ton of sacrifice on your part, does it require a ton of effort on your part, and yet, the ripple effect of that is giant. And so, looking for those places that in our lives come back all the way to the beginning of our conversation. How do you feel about purpose and connected? But maybe your job isn't gonna give you that right now, and you're making a decision because you have bills to pay, and I'm going to do… There are all these other ways that you don't have to pack up and be a Peace Corps volunteer, or take a vow of poverty, you can help right now. And it will make you a better person all the way around to find those things. And so, they're all around us if we look.


Ryan Berman  42:12 

I've never ever felt bad about finding time to do good. To your point, even if it's like put it on the calendar once a month. What last Sunday of the month. Find a way to do a little bit of good. All right, if you want to learn more about Buddy, Soles4Souls, this is S-O-L-E-S, the number 4, Check it out. I kind of winced when he talked about the closet. I'm like, “Shoot, I got to go… It's time to retire some of my sad shoes that are just…” They're not getting any sunlight, that's for sure. They're just stuck right in the closet.


Buddy Teaster  42:55 



Ryan Berman  42:54 

So, I will do my part. Buddy. Thanks so much for joining, man. And let's stay in touch. Like I said, we got stuff to talk about.


Buddy Teaster  43:00 

Yeah, it was a pleasure, Ryan. Thanks.


Ryan Berman  43:04 

Thanks for tuning in to this episode of The Courageous Podcast. If you enjoyed the show, don't forget to rate and review us on Apple podcasts so more people can find us. See you again next week.


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