When both Harvard and the University of Chicago law schools admitted Brooke Smith, she had to decide which one was the best fit.
So it’s only “fitting” that her honors thesis focused on a popular new shoe company and its role in the global fight against poverty.
The project started when she came back to school in the fall of 2010 and felt that something about campus was different than the year before.
“I tried to pin down the seemingly small change and suddenly realized what was right before my eyes,” Brooke said. “Feet. Shoes. TOMS! All around me students wore different colors and patterns of the canvas alpargata shoes.”
The new fashion trend sparked a research idea. TOMS is the most prominent of a new crop of companies that fuse philanthropy and capitalism with the catchy concept of “Buy One, Give One.” For each pair of shoes sold, TOMS gives a pair to a child in one of 23 developing nations. Brooke wanted to learn the impact this fusion of charity and capitalism had compared to the efforts of purely philanthropic organizations.
The project took her to Cambridge University through a summer program that gives several dozen BYU students the opportunity to study there with a mentor. In Brooke’s case, she received mentoring from a Cambridge Ph.D. student in organizational behavior.
Back at BYU, she found another mentor during an econometrics course taught by James McDonald.
“On the second day in class, she asked me if I would serve as her thesis advisor,” McDonald said. “Throughout the course, she was very proactive. She had a passion about learning and she was anxious to help other people.”
While TOMS has found an enthusiastic base of donor-customers, Brooke’s economic analysis warns of an unintended consequence: outcompeting shoemakers and shop owners in the receiving countries. Even in places where there are no such businesses, the company’s good intentions still affect the prospects of anyone considering opening a shop.
“In scenarios where there are not currently any local producers in the market, the commodity influx can still harm the economy by stifling the potential for productivity,” Brooke said.
Her advice to these corporations would be to shift the focus toward grants or loans that help launch small businesses in the developing world.
As for her own big decision, Brooke has pointed her feet to Chicago for law school.