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Leadership Breakfast 2/23/12
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The Success Paradox: Why money, power, and prestige weren't enough to keep me in Corporate America
Wayne never thought the same industry that defined his career would become the framework for his life’s passion, an international shoe charity called Soles4Souls. He attributes a decision to “get off the couch and do something” to help those suffering from the Asian tsunami in 2004 as the genesis of a personal and professional revolution that challenged him to give up his corporate status – despite the perception that it was “crazy” – to become a nonprofit entrepreneur. Wayne has built one of the fastest growing nonprofits on record. Having distributed more than 16 million shoes to the shoeless around the world, or one pair of shoes every seven seconds, he has transformed his business background into an opportunity to give people hope.
Wayne Elsey grew up in the Washington, D.C. area, and always felt compassion for other people.
Wayne has worked in the footwear industry since he was 15. He started by helping out on the floor and stockroom of a retailer and worked his way up to serve as President and CEOs of several footwear companies in the United States. Still, Wayne felt his life's potential was not being fully realized. He wanted to help people with more than providing a great product.
It was at this time that the Asian Tsunami struck in December 2004. While he was watching news coverage of the disaster, he was extremely moved by the image of a solitary shoe washing up on the beach. He orchestrated a nationwide shoe drive with a few friends and it netted over a quarter million pairs being routed to Southeast Asia. In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast region, Wayne quickly organized the same team and launched KatrinaShoes.org. "The outpouring was phenomenal for this effort and we received over 3/4 million pairs for the disaster," Elsey said. "I was standing in a field with cows and many people getting shoes in Mississippi. I could not believe the reaction and the devastation that these folks went through. At that time, I thought, 'Why not do a formal, 501(c)(3) for the world to donate new and used shoes and let footwear (my heritage) to make a huge difference in people's lives?' I went back thought through it, made a few calls to the folks who helped with the previous shoe drives and asked what they thought. Hoping they would say I was crazy, they said 'Okay, let's do it.' Six months later we launched Soles4Souls, Inc. - a non-profit corporation based in Alabama. We secured a building, offices, truck, more inventory and a team of people that are driving the Soles4Souls enterprise."
Since that day, Elsey watched as the charity continued to rapidly expand. "I was working full-time as President of another company while I was also trying to give advice to the Soles4Souls team and realized I had to make a choice," Elsey said. "I couldn't do both, and that's when I realized that the pure joy of working with Soles4Souls - a simple mission to give away free footwear to needy people - was more more gratifying than selling a million pair of shoes for profit." Elsey came to work with Soles4Souls full-time in April 2007. "This has been a whirlwind for all of us," Elsey said of the charity's growth. "We have given away more than 11 million pairs of shoes since we began this thing, and that translates to one pair every 7 seconds. We are adding staff members every other month just to keep up!" Elsey and his team have appeared on hundreds of news outlets around the country as the word of the charity's work gets out to the public. "It's really NOT about us - we want to return the focus of all this media attention to the people who are reading the stories," Elsey said. "We want to inspire them; we want them to say 'Hey, wait a minute - I can do something like that with my own resources.' At the very least, they could send us the shoes that are cluttering up their closet, because we know there are about 300 million children alone who could really use them."