17 min read

Interview Transcript: Helping Kids and Making a Lasting Change - Kenton Lee from The Shoe That Grows (#2)

Enjoy this transcript of our interview with Kenton Lee, founder of The Shoe That Grows.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: We are here today with Kenton. Kenton, introduce yourself to the audience for me, please, so that they know who you are and what you're doing.

KENTON LEE: Hi everybody! My name is Kenton Lee. I'm the founder of Because International. We are a nonprofit that created a growing shoe that we call The Shoe That Grows.

It can grow five sizes and lasts for years, and we get them out to kids around the world. I'm so happy to be here to chat today. This is fun!

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: Thanks for coming on the show. I appreciate it. Tell me a little about how you were inspired to create the shoe that grows.

KENTON LEE: This was something that was unexpected for me.

I didn't grow up just loving shoes. I wasn't in the shoe industry or anything like that, but right after college, I traveled the world for about a year. For part of that, I lived in Kenya and I was volunteering and living at a small orphanage. One day I was walking with all the kids. As we walked down this dusty road, I'll never forget, there was a little girl next to me, probably eight or nine years old.

She was wearing a white dress. As I looked down, I was just shocked by how small her shoes were. She was wearing these shoes that were way too small for her feet. They were so small she had to cut open the front so her toes could stick out.

And just right then and there, I thought: ”You know, wouldn't that be nice if there was a pair of shoes that could adjust and expand their size? You know, kids’ feet are always growing. So why don't we have shoes that can grow?”

And I really thought I think that would make sense for this little girl and maybe other kids in a similar position where they don't always have access to shoes that fit. So that was when I had the idea.

It's been just a crazy journey ever since then.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: How long ago was this?

KENTON LEE: So that was about 11 years ago that I had the idea. And then I grabbed a few friends and we kind of jumped in with it. It took us six years to just work on the idea, on the design, on the prototype, all that stuff.

So from when I first had the idea in Kenya to when we had our very first batch of 3,000 pairs, that was a six-year project.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: Wow. And how many pairs of you manufactured today?

KENTON LEE: To date, we have distributed over 300,000 pairs of The Shoe That Grows and sent those to kids in over a hundred countries.

We're still going strong, still trying to make it happen.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: That's very impressive. What are some of the mechanisms you use to fund the operation? Whether it's a profit center on one side or donations on another, what does that look like for you?

KENTON LEE: Yeah, we do a few different things to try to fund our mission.

The first thing we do, you know, I wish I could win the lottery and just give all of our shoes away, you know? But the first thing we do is we sell the shoes to the partners that we work with. So if someone is involved with an orphanage or another nonprofit organization or church or something, anybody who works with kids, they can reach out to us or we reach out to them.

As we talk to groups that work with kids, they can purchase our shoes for $20 a pair and then distribute those shoes to the kids that they work with. About half of our funding comes from the sale of our shoes to the nonprofit partners that we work with.

Then we also do general fundraising. We have some amazing donors and supporters and we love talking to them and receiving support from them.

Then just a couple of years ago, we started a separate company, a commercial company to sell the shoes commercially. We had people asking for that and we hadn't done that yet. So now people can buy the shoes commercially for $40 a pair, and then a portion of those profits come back to our non-profit organization as well.

Trying to have lots of different revenue streams to fund this mission and get as many shoes to as many kids as we can.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: Where can someone go buy those shoes if they're listening?

KENTON LEE: The commercial shoes, that company has called GroFive. Just G R O. We left out the W so people can go to GroFive.com.

So G R O. And then F I V E. It kind of spells out the five, GroFive.com, and you can buy a shoe for yourself.

We have adult sizes or for kids. It's a great pair of shoes, a sandal kind of hybrid. It grows five sizes, it lasts for years. I wear a pair every single day myself. I think they’re great. People can go to GroFive.com or even on Amazon you can search for “GroFive” or “expanding shoes” and it should pop up.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: Perfect. Now let's talk about the journey. What are some of the difficulties you came across when understanding the supply chain logistics, sourcing raw material manufacturing, your original molds? What were some of the difficulties there and how did you overcome them?

KENTON LEE: Good question. You know what you're talking about, I can tell.

So all that stuff, I didn't know anything about when I was first getting started. I still don't know much about it, I'll be honest.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: We’re always learning, all of us. Don’t worry.

(Both laugh.)

KENTON LEE: That's right. So part of it, especially as we first got started, it was all around the design. Before we got into materials or suppliers, anything like that, we had to really solidify the design. How could we design a shoe to expand and adjust its size?

So we just had a lot of trouble since I didn't know what I was doing myself. I needed help. And as I asked for help, I reached out to a ton of big shoe companies. I didn't want anything for, I didn't want any money or anything. I just wanted someone to help us make this happen. And everybody said no, and I went out in the garage, I did try to do it by myself and I just couldn't. I didn't know what I was doing.

So for us, one of the big difficulties was - we needed someone to help us. It just took a long time to find that the right person. But if you ask enough, if you hustle enough, there's someone out there who’s going to help you out.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: Did you post a job on something like Upwork?

KENTON LEE: Yeah, good question. I probably should have done something like that. If I could do it all again, I would have done it a little differently, but basically, I tried to network my way through it. Idaho, where I live and work, is not known for its shoe industry, but we are fairly close to Portland. And Portland, Oregon has Nike and so many others.

There's really a big shoe hub there. Ultimately I was able to kind of network and one person knows somebody else who knows somebody else. And we finally found a little shoe design company in Portland that we told them our idea and they just loved it. They jumped in with us. They helped us for about a year.

They took us through a really tense design process, came out on the other end with a really good prototype. At that point, we raised a little bit of money. We made a hundred pairs of the prototype. My wife and I took them back to Kenya and put them in four different schools, had kids try them out for about a year.

At that point we felt like, you know, we made a prototype, we've got a good design, we've got some feedback. We really felt good on the design side. And then it was like, okay, how do we produce this? What materials do we use? Who's going to...you know, I don't have a factory, so who's gonna make these, where are we going to make these?

Kind of a similar thing - I knew I couldn't do it on my own. I needed to have someone help me. And again, we had someone step up and really help us through that kind of factory process cause it was all new to me. I had no idea. How it should work and how it does work? So that probably took longer than it typically does, but you put all that together.

So for six years, we worked on this, but at the end of those six years, we finally had 3,000 pairs of our growing shoes that could grow five sizes that could last for years. We were really pleased, really excited to have that first batch and then things really started to kind of pick up in terms of now we have inventory.

Now we're actually able to get these out and get these on the feet of kids. So that was a really fun moment once that first batch of 3,000 arrived at my house.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: All right. What was the most painful lesson so far?

KENTON LEE: The most painful lessons so far...that's a good question. I've had a lot of them, but I would probably say...you know, I'll give you an honest answer.

About a year ago, we grew a little bit too fast and as we hired people to join our team, it started just with me working, you know, just volunteering and doing it. Then as we grew I was able to join full-time and then a few others.

I believe we had about, about 15 people on our team. And it was just a little bit too many. At the same time, we didn't quite have the revenue that we projected. So truly the most painful lesson I ever learned was when we had to let go of two employees a couple of years ago.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: They were probably friends.

KENTON LEE: They were, oh, they totally were. And they were awesome. And they were great at what they did. It's something I never want to do again. Really the only things that keep me up at night are usually money kind of issues, revenue, and expenses and payroll, things like that.

Not that I didn't take it seriously before, but after having to let go of two people. I mean, for myself, I felt pain in that. And then obviously for them, it was really difficult and they felt the most pain. I see money issues in a whole different way. Even though that was a moment of pain, and a moment of pain for my friends and their families...it was terrible, right? I never want to go through that again, but I learned a lot and it really has helped me be so much better about how we grow, how we use our funds.

Even the fundraising that I do! I'm a little more urgent because I know if we don't hit certain numbers, then at a certain point things have to change. Painful stuff and stuff I never want to go through again.

I'm sure other people have had to let go of more than just two. You know what I mean? You hear about big companies laying off thousands of people it's just difficult whether it's one person or a thousand people. Nobody ever wants to do that.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: Yes. I always recommend a book to growing CEOs called “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz. Have you ever read?

KENTON LEE: That's a great book. Yeah, for sure. Yeah.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI:  And I imagine you must have read “Shoe Dog” by now.

KENTON LEE: Yeah. Phil Knight. That's a fantastic book. Crazy how Nike got started and grew and everything they had to go through. For sure.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: Well, I imagine you're on the path, right?

(Both laugh.)

KENTON LEE: I'm not as much of a shoe dog as a Phil Knight, but I've learned a lot about shoes in the past few years and we love it. We, my team and I, we love the work that we do.

We are so excited to connect with people who kind of see the vision of what we're doing and can support us. It's fun when you get to do what you love every day. I'm very fortunate to get to do what I love every day.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: I hear you saying fun and love. And so that leads right into my next question. How has this mission impacted the quality of your life?

KENTON LEE: I've never had that question before. That's interesting. I would like to say that even without this mission, I would hope I would have a pretty high quality of life. You know what I mean? I'm a big believer that you get to choose your attitude. You get to choose how you respond to things.

In a lot of ways, I think your quality of life is kind of up to you. If you want to have a good quality of life, you will. And if you don't, then you won't. But having said that, I do know that having something that you're passionate about having something, that's your thing...some people don't find it until they're a lot older.

I'm 36 years old and I've been doing this for 10-11 years. So I'm really fortunate when I'm in my mid-twenties, I've got something that I love, that I'm passionate about that. It's my thing.

And some people don't find that till a lot later. I'm very happy, I’ll say that, but I would hope and my wife and I, we talk about this “tomorrow” if everything just blows up and The Shoe That Grows goes away and Because International goes away.

If all this was gone, I'd be sad, but I would hope I'd move on to the next thing and find something else to sink my teeth into and find another way to try to make a difference.

It is wonderful when you reach the point and it could be...for me, it was starting an organization starting this cause. That's not what everybody needs to do. For someone that might be just volunteering their time or it might be just hitting a home run with their career and then donating tons of money, or being a mom, being a dad, like whatever it is, it doesn't have to be starting an organization.

But whatever it is for people, it is awesome when you can identify what really makes you come alive and then have an opportunity to do that every day. I always tell people - I am loving this chapter in my life. I don't know how long it's going to last. I don't know this will be the whole book, or if it's just a chapter, but whatever it is, I'm loving it.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: Is this your primary focus?

KENTON LEE: This is, yeah, my day job, but also my passion, and something I love to do is our work with Because International and The Shoe That Grows. So I'm very, very lucky that this pays the bills, and at the same time, it's something I just love doing.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: And of your 12 or 13 staff, how many of those are volunteers versus full-time employees?

KENTON LEE: Right now those are all full-time employees. We work hard to get revenue from the sale of our shoes. We work hard with fundraising. With our commercial company, we're trying to sell some shoes over there so that we can fund this mission.

And part of our mission is funding our team, where we really believe strongly that you get good committed people who are really focused on something and they can do a lot. They can make great change. I love that our team is doesn’t have to raise their own support, they don't have to just volunteer and have a job on the side.

Again, we're in a really fortunate position that this is the full-time job of our team. For many of them, they've been doing it for a few years now. Our hope is it can be, you know, my career, their career, we can get really good at what we do and really maximize the opportunity we have with our organization and with The Shoe That Grows.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: And around your donations, how is it that you raise those funds or how did you streamline that? What's that process look like?

KENTON LEE: We've been learning a lot. Five years ago when we had that first batch of 3000 pairs, you know, we were already a nonprofit organization, but we were so small. We didn't really know what we were doing.

In the last five years, we've really learned a lot. We've grown a lot. But we still have a long way to go. We still have a lot to learn. But we, as we've learned, one of the most important things is to have different streams of revenue. So even inside of our fundraising, we received some funding from grants, from foundations. We received some funding from just people coming to the website, kind of small donations.

We do a couple of campaigns throughout the year online. One of them is in April. One of them is around Giving Tuesday and then kind of an end-of-the-year campaign. We're trying to always get to know our donors and some of our donors are kind of in that major donor category where they are. They have the capacity to give, you know, $500-$1,000, stuff like that.

I really work closely with our major donors. Lots of other little things too. We're always appreciative when a kid, a teenager, an entrepreneur, a business owner, a corporation, whoever it is, if anybody is interested in what we're doing. They could donate a dollar. They could donate $10,000, but we always love engaging with them to see how they could help support our mission.

Again, we're not really great at it yet, or we're getting better at it. I know we've missed a lot of opportunities, I'm sure over the years. But now we're really getting better at maximizing those opportunities. Something small that we always do - anyone,  whoever communicates with us at any time, whether at the live chat on our website or an email or phone call or a social media message, whatever, our team is great at getting back to people.

If you reached out to us, we are going to talk to you. We love it when people talk to us. So we're really good. You're not going to call us and leave a voicemail and never hear from us. We're calling you back. We love hustling that way. Just trying to maximize every interaction with them.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: I can attest to that. You were very quick about getting back.

KENTON LEE: It's my pleasure. I'm so glad you reached out. I love it.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: Tell us a little bit about how much you're raising donations-wise.

KENTON LEE: This year with COVID-19, it looks a little different. We reframed some of our projections for the year. This year our goal is around $750,000. Again, that's a mix of, I believe, we have about a hundred thousand dollars goal in our foundations and our grants. I think it's about $300,000 from our major donors. And so it's inside of that $750,000. There's a mix of our different revenue streams.

If we could finish the year, hitting that goal of $750,000 would be a home run. We're urgently working towards it.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: Was that an adjustment downwards because of COVID, I presume?

It was just a little bit, I believe if I'm thinking correctly, we adjusted our fundraising revenue down to 80% of what we had originally projected. Not down too much, but we did project that down.

We've been hitting our numbers so far. Our donors have really stepped up, you know, sacrificial giving. We know that these are tough times for many of our donors and they're still giving and they're still helping us. That just means the world to us.

We're working hard to try to hit those numbers and keep this thing going. We're pushing every day and I think we're going to do it, but it'll take some effort, we still got four and a half more months and I'm on the clock. I'm excited to keep connecting with people and providing them opportunities to help us out.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: Let's unpack the donor angle a little bit. How do you identify them? And B - what software and systems or technology do you use to keep track of them and communicate with them regularly?

KENTON LEE: Yeah. So we are in a really fortunate spot. About five years ago, we had a ton of publicity come out about our story, about our shoes.

We had a lot of people hear about us, come to our website, donate and engage with us. We have a real decent database of donors and many of them have continued to give and we know them well. So we're not really looking for more donors, necessarily. I mean, we don't say no, if people want to donate, for sure.

It's kind of like with a company, instead of trying to go out and get a new customer, you try to keep the customer you have. So that's kind of what we're doing with our donors. We're really trying to get to know the donors that we have, really cultivate those relationships, and really, really get them invested in what we're doing.

Some tools that we use to help us with that...we use Salesforce religiously. We love Salesforce. We use that to keep track of our shoes and our orders, our shipments, all that stuff. And then also to keep track of our donors and supporters as well. We really try to use Salesforce kind of for everything.

But there is a smaller system that I use for major donors. And that is a system created by a fundraising group that we did training with. They're called The FOCUS Group. They're in Florida and they have a system they made called Windshield. And Windshield is a really nice, small little system that really just keeps track of major donors and your goal for them for the year and kind of your next step with them, things like that. I really liked that tool to help me keep track of my list of donors that I'm working with.

I still use Excel for some other lists that I have and things that I'm maybe not ready to put into Salesforce yet, but stuff I still want to keep track of.

So on my computer, I've got a few Excel files open all the time, I've got my windshield database ready, I've got my Salesforce database ready. That kept us pretty organized these past couple of years.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: I'm glad to hear. How do you identify talent and how do you convince them about your mission or identify that they really care about the mission?

KENTON LEE: I'll give you a good example. I don't feel like I have to be a used car salesman and try to talk somebody into helping us out if they don't want to. One of my favorite stories is from one of our employees. She had followed us on social media when she lived in Oklahoma. She was familiar with us and supported us.

When she and her family moved to Idaho, so our town, she reached out and asked if she could help so she started volunteering. She just came into the office a couple of days a week and helped out a little bit. Pretty soon we were giving her more and more responsibility.

And then when we had the funding available to add a new position, it was just a perfect scenario to hire her because she was already doing it. She loves what we do, she fit in really well with our team culture. And so whether it's interns, we have a pretty strong intern program, or whether it's just supporters that we kind of locate and say: ”Hey, we know you're really good at this. You know, if ever you want to come, help us out!”

I really don't take the approach where I see somebody who's super talented, maybe they're great at what they do. But if they don't know us, if they're not passionate about our cause, if they're not interested in us, I don't really want to try to talk them into what we're doing. You know, I'd rather take someone who really loves us and is interested in what we're doing and supports us.

And then if they have the right skills and talents that we need, then it's just a win-win. It's an easy fit for them to volunteer or join our team.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: Alright. You know, Kenton, I feel like we could talk for another few hours.

KENTON LEE: We could, yeah. (Laughs.)

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: So I'm going to wrap this up here and ask you how can someone get in touch with you or your organization?

KENTON LEE: Again, we love talking to people. The best way you can go to our website. That's BecauseInternational.org. That'll get you right over to us. You could also Google “Because International”, you can Google “The Shoe That Grows”. All of that's going to take you to our website.

Once they're on our website, you can check out about our shoes. You can check out about donating. You can look at our team and our contact info is there. You can reach out to me or someone else on our team. But our website is really a great hub for kind of anything that you might need.

So for anybody out there who's interested, please go to BecauseInternational.org and we'd love to connect with you.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: All right, Kenton. Thank you so much. I have a feeling I'm going to ask you to come back on the show.

KENTON LEE: Hey, anytime, this is fun! Good questions! I had a couple of questions today I haven't ever heard before so this was, this was fun. I appreciate it.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: I agree. So far, this has been great. Thank you and have a beautiful day!


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