“Flip Flop Philanthropy”
Kyle Berner and Feelgoodz
Flip flops and social change. That is what Kyle Berner is all about. A New Orleans native, Kyle always loved being barefoot and in flops. After graduating from Loyola with a business degree, he held down jobs as a record producer, hot dog cart vendor, basketball coach, and English teacher, before stumbling into his social enterprise passion. In 2008 he created Feelgoodz, a triple-bottom-line B Corporation, which produces and distributes sustainably made flip flops from Thailand. The young company has been successful and inventive, pioneering methods of turning consumerism into philanthropy. Passion, tenacity, and vision are at the heart of Kyle’s success.
How do you go from the Eureka moment idea to the actual model for a sustainable business? Who is there supporting you as you do it?
My underlying passion was finding a way to stay connected to Thailand, finding a way to give back to the people and to the economy. How could I build a business that fuels and supports that passion? When I was on the plane ride back from Bangkok in 2008 I thought: the margins are going to be good enough on this product, that – if we hit the retail price point that I think we can get for this – we can throw a piece of that margin into a philanthropic project in Thailand while still building a sustainable company from a profit perspective. We can use the power of very healthy margins to be philanthropic simultaneously.
Then I came back to New Orleans and enrolled in a business plan course at Tulane and I had basically a forty-person class, all college students, where Feelgoodz was the basis of discussion every day. Through that I learned that this model was a new model, but that it was being reliably accepted by many businesses. I started researching and realized that this is not just my thinking and my gut; there are lots of other people out there thinking like that too. That’s social entrepreneurship. I thought, why can’t there be more for profit social businesses out there? So that’s why I wanted to carve our niche with Feelgoodz to become a progressive leader in a for-profit social enterprise model. I had that support group at Tulane and then that’s when it happened. I just made a decision. Let’s just bring in a few hundred pairs. Let’s go. Let’s do it. And took it from there.
What has it been like to forge larger partnerships with corporations? How do you balance your values with theirs?
The key to that is simply learning what that relationship is going to look like. Whatever relationship you are going to have with that other company, make sure that both parties spell out what that it is going to look like from beginning to end to make sure there are clear expectations. Through that process you’ll learn if it’s a good partnership fit or not.
We’ve had interest from Wal-Mart to carry our flip flops and to me that just doesn’t make any sense because of the type of culture and brand and values that we uphold. While that huge influx of cash is very, very tempting, I was not willing to compromise our values, because they were misaligned. We’ve had a number of retailers that we thought were not good fits.
Do you feel you have the support internally and externally when you make those decisions?
We definitely have a support group. I’m not sure if you are familiar with the Idea Village in New Orleans. They are a nonprofit that spurs entrepreneurship in New Orleans as a vehicle to rebuild the economy here. They are definitely part of my support group. I go to them to be sure that I’m on the right path. But I certainly make decisions for the company on my own.
What is your decision process like?
Gut. It’s very much a gut process and I just go with it. I always, always, always listen to my gut. It guides every one of my decisions. If a decision doesn’t sit well with me intuitively then I won’t make it. My business partner is very much a reason decision-maker, so it’s a good balance.
What do you look for in the people you hire?
I want people who really dig the brand. I want people that are passionate about who we are as a company and what we stand for and that wear flip flops and that like to travel – people who embody our company values and culture. And then, finally, people who have the business acumen that we are looking for.
What advice would you give to someone who is interested in starting their own social enterprise?
First and foremost you have to have a passion for what you are doing. To be very blunt: if you don’t, you can forget it. That’s the most important piece of the entrepreneurial puzzle, is having a passion. Number two: you have to be absolutely tenacious. Obstacles come up every single day and you have to use a healthy dose of tenacity to continue to overcome. And third, I think that you really need to have a vision for where you want to take your project. Do you want to be just a one-store retail shop in your hometown? Or do you want a franchise? Do you want to sell only a line or do you want to have a wholesale model? You really need to think through where you want to take your business. And once you’ve done those things, then you ask yourself, in my case: from extraction to disposal let me dissect every piece of this business and let’s see how we can do this better, in a more sustainable and responsible way. And also do it in such a way that is has a positive effect on society as a whole.
What do you wish someone had told you as you started out?
I wish that someone would have told me, Kyle, your business is importing flip flops and distributing them across America; let’s sit back and think about what that actually looks like. What flip flops are you going to order? How do you know how many and what colors? How are you going to pay for them? When you ship them, what broker are you going to use? What are the intricacies of a brokerage relationship? When they get there, where are you going to store them? I guess what I’m getting at is, as you get started you have to think every step through and answer a lot of questions, because that will save you a lot of headaches down the road.
As you continue to grow, how do you build innovation and creativity into the whole project?
It’s in our philanthropy. With flip flops we can do variations, and we plan to have other products down the road, but to us it’s really about how we are using our dollars for a greater good, and I think there is so much room for creativity in that sphere. And that is what I am most passionate about, is looking at societal problems as a whole and trying to figure out how we can turn the everyday consumer into a philanthropist and do it in very innovative and creative ways. Capitalism is a very powerful thing and with these products the types of margins allow you to do good simultaneously.
What is your definition of leadership?
A leader is someone who understands his or herself, understands who they are as a person and what values they uphold. Every single day their actions are used as examples for others. People grasp onto that. They naturally want to follow someone who knows who they are and knows the type of values they uphold and acts them everyday. To me that’s where it all stems from. That’s what defines me as a leader.