Using the power of capitalism to create positive social change
Loyola publications -
When you first meet Kyle Berner ’03, co-owner of the flip-flop company Feelgoodz, it’s hard to figure out what you like best about him. Is it the fact that he thanks you twice for buying him a $3 cup of coffee? Or is it that he has taken time out from his busy schedule to meet with you for an interview in the first place? It could be his passion for what he does. Maybe it’s that he tells you so many funny stories about his first year in business. Then there’s the moment when he gets choked up talking about the people of Thailand and his determination to give back to them. Whatever it is, it’s all rolled up into one young, successful, humble, flip-flop-wearing social entrepreneur.
Berner, a 2003 graduate of the Loyola College of Business, started his flip-flop company in 2008. It wasn’t part of some grand vision he had carried around with him for years. It just sort of evolved while he was exploring life. Berner is the first one to tell you he has had a very unorthodox career path (which is ironic considering one of his jobs was at a university as a career coach). At 28, he has been a record producer, worked for a large computer company, and managed a hot dog cart. It was the hot dog cart that led him to Thailand. There he is one evening on the streets of Austin, Texas, hawking hot dogs when a guy walks by and asks him if he knows of a good Thai restaurant. He didn’t. But the two started up a conversation with the passerby telling Berner all about his recent trip to Thailand. Berner was intrigued to say the least. He sold his car, bought a oneway ticket, and spent a year immersing himself in the culture of a people and a country he soon grew to love.
He ended up in the city of Phitanulok where he lived and worked as an English teacher for a year. Being among the people of Thailand for 12 months, he grew to love their culture and their simple way of living. He experienced their willingness to give—of themselves, their time, their food, their homes—to this young American that had landed in their village. He was so moved by the Thai people who gave and gave when they themselves had so little that he knew he had to do something for them in return. But what? The thought stayed with him when he moved back home to New Orleans. On a subsequent trip back to Thailand in 2008, he happened to buy a pair of flip-flops from a Thai street vendor. To his amazement, they were the most comfortable flip-flops he had ever worn—and Berner had worn a lot of flip-flops in his time. Besides comfort, the flip-flops were made there in Thailand by a family-owned business and the product was eco-friendly. Soon Berner was looking up the company’s website and striking a deal to sell their flip-flops in America. As Berner says: “You have to take advantage of opportunities you’re interested in even if you don’t know where they might lead you.”
He and his business partner, Joel Neland, started with a $25,000 investment. With a recent foray into Whole Foods Market, Feelgoodz has gone from selling 400 – 500 pair of flip-flops a month to 5,000 pairs in six weeks. That’s a whole lot of flip-flops—if Feelgoodz sustains those numbers, that’s 60,000 pair a year to be exact at an average price point of $19.99 a pair. Most business folks will tell you that a 1,000-percent increase in sales over the course of your first year in business is not a bad place to be. Feelgoodz will soon move into the West Indies and South American markets. Their website can handle both retail and wholesale orders, and they are currently in 45 stores from Hawaii to Maine. Berner sees more products down the road once the flip-flops are established and there is some money in
the bank. Any future products have to meet the Feelgoodz criteria: green, ethical, and comfortable.
It is not just about sales and profits. Most important to Berner is the social entrepreneurship element to this story through plans to give back. Beginning in December of this year, Feelgoodz will donate three percent of its revenues back to the people of Thailand. This will happen through a partnership with a non-profit organization called Ashoka, a self-described global association of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs. Berner says: “I’ve always believed that the most sustainable model of creating positive change is to support the change makers at the ground level -- the people that are really trying to help their communities -- and Ashoka does that. They have more than 73 Ashoka Fellows in Thailand. We donate a percentage of our revenues to Ashoka, and then they funnel the money as stipends to their Fellows.”
Ashoka Fellows are the individuals who do the actual work to bring about positive social change around the world. Their businesses and associations are engaged in projects to improve the conditions of the poor and disadvantaged in areas of health, education, the environment, and human rights. Berner goes on to say, “Partnering with Ashoka is a perfect fit. Ten years down the line let’s say we’ve given millions of dollars to the Fellows in Thailand. What next? Ashoka is global so we can use this model and just expand it to other countries—India or Vietnam for instance. It took me a long time to create the right model and find the right partner in Ashoka, but once we did that we can see the vision. This is how I can make the most impact.” Berner’s framework for affecting positive social change includes three elements: fair trade, micro-finance, and community development. He and his partner plan to work this model into their website so people making purchases can see to whom and where their money is going. It’s important to Berner that this be a part of the conversation that people have about Feelgoodz.
Then there are the stories about his first year in business. When you are running a start-up business there isn’t a lot of money for purchasing a customized company vehicle to promote your product. Not a problem for the flip-flop guy. Berner went to one of the better known car leasing companies (who shall remain nameless as what they don’t know won’t hurt them) and leased a white van for a month for his Texas trip. A white van is pretty generic though and didn’t reflect the personality of the company. So Berner had custom Feelgoodz decals produced and applied directly to the van and thus, the Flop Mobile was born. Now it was hard to miss. And off they go to Texas. When Berner returned home, he knew he obviously could not return the van in its current state. As any good entrepreneur knows, ingenuity in business is a key requirement for success. So with heat gun in hand, Berner painstakingly removed each and every decal himself. Then he had the van detailed and returned it in immaculate condition and the still unnamed wellknown car rental company was none the wiser. A bit risky? Sure, but isn’t that what being an entrepreneur is all about?
When asked about what advice he had for others interested in social entrepreneurship Berner didn’t hesitate. “If you’re drawn to something you’re drawn for a reason. Explore that—give it a try and find a way to make it work. Think about the model and how your ideas are going to play out. Have a vision stated that will get you there.” And don’t be afraid of hard work. Berner says: “There’s the saying about the harder you work the luckier you get. I’ve been very fortunate in that, throughout this whole process, things have gone my way, but I’ve worked really hard to make it happen.” The flip-flop guy has indeed put his best foot forward. For more information on Feelgoodz, visit www.feelgoodz.com.