M.S. in the Management of IT Blog

Steps Forward in Sustainable Art: Erin Smith (M.S. in MIT ’04), CEO of Ocean Sole

Nearly 100 Kenyans employed at Ocean Sole are part of a social enterprise that transforms discarded flip-flops into works of art and pours the money back into local communities, as well as assists employees with educating their children, buying land, and other avenues to betterment.

Erin Smith

Ocean Sole is bringing a sustainable glimmer to the old saying that one person’s trash is another’s treasure.

The Kenya-based social enterprise is upcycling and beautifying the world in a sustainable way that enables opportunities and amplifies positive impact. They’re drawing attention to critical environmental issues in an engaging way: by creating art from discarded flip-flops.

In collecting more than 10 million flip-flops, Ocean Sole’s process contributes to cleaning up beaches, oceans, landfills, and streets, while providing employment for a country that has a painfully high unemployment rate. The result recasts what was the problematic wasteful byproduct of industry into vividly colorful animal sculptures, bringing awareness to problems that threaten the biodiversity of the global ecosystem.

As an investor and consultant for tech and media startups, Ocean Sole CEO Erin Smith first became involved with the organization when she helped her friend and founder Julie Church navigate some operational issues and shareholder disagreements. In late 2016, she decided to get more involved.

“I negotiated to buy the debt of the company and transform it into a social enterprise,” Smith says, noting that she was sure her experience tackling massive undertakings and previous work in the region would allow her to revive a failed business and grow it into a vibrant organization.

The nearly 100 low-income Kenyans that Ocean Sole employs are part of a venture that collects, washes, and cuts the flip-flops and pours the money back into local communities, as well as assists employees with educating their children, buying land, and other avenues to betterment.

All told, they believe they are helping more than 1,000 Kenyans through the enterprise, aiming for recycling a million flip-flops annually, upwards of one ton of Styrofoam monthly, saving over 500 trees by replacing wood as the medium of choice for its sculptors, and returning 10-15% of revenue to a range of conservation, vocational, and educational efforts.

An International Intent

To say Smith is well traveled is a bit of an understatement.

Calling Nairobi, Kenya, home, Smith had been an executive at BT (British Telecom) in London, where she had a global remit as the CIO.

“I traveled everywhere,” she says—and she’s not kidding. “So far, I have been to 132 countries.”

She vacationed often on the remote Indian Ocean island of Lamu, Kenya, and when the time came to move on from her position at BT, she looked into staying in the region for her professional life. The choice led to becoming head of the Middle East and Africa for a company owned by a private equity group. But after a few years, she came to a crossroads.

“I basically decided to leave the ‘corporate life’ of private equity, high tech, and telecoms and semi-retire before I was 50,” she recalls. “In 2014, after several years living in Nairobi, Kenya, and working across the Middle East and Africa region, I decided to live permanently in Kenya.”

Smith says that living as an expat is a lot like being a university student: “Everyone knows you, your business, and your personal life, and if they don’t know it, they will certainly make it up!” That trade-off has proven to be more than worth it. “The ability to make a difference, work in nature, mentor people, and overall see how everyday people benefit from your efforts is very rewarding and everyone should experience,” she says.

A Business Focus on a Heartfelt Mission

Her business skills have clearly helped her to move the organization closer to meeting its goals. Her time working in business development, executive leadership, and technological innovation has brought value to Ocean Sole.

Keys to success? “The way to solve problems, lead teams, deal with customers, provide operational effectiveness/efficiency, and think differently,” she says. “Also, we are heavily getting into the Web3 world: We’re looking at how our art, projects, and impact can be leveraged in this space. It has been very fun to take my everlasting interest in tech to a social enterprise; it is helping us pivot into new products and marketplaces.”

Ultimately, she calls the creativity of the art and the relationships that the organization builds with its clients as highlights of her work. But using her commerce knowledge to better the world stands out.

“What has been the most fun for me has been the transformation I had to make from ROI—meaning return on investment—to ROI—meaning return on impact to our conservation and community commitments. Also, the autonomy of having my own company and being able to create a culture of collaboration, fun, and impact have been the most beneficial to this endeavor.”

Smith is continually heartened when Ocean Sole achieves worldwide recognition, such as the fame that has come from videos, including a clip produced by 60 Second Docs about one of their flip-flop artists that reached more than 170 million people across multiple platforms. She also references a Business Insider video about Ocean Sole’s efforts that has been viewed more than 8.8 million times on YouTube alone, as well as coverage on CNN, German TV, the NatGeo channel, and more. “When others come to see our work and the art we create, then it is very rewarding to share our story, and I love it!” she enthuses.

Of course, all of this success comes with challenges. Many of them, Smith says.

“Going from managing, leading, and mentoring executives or managers to overseeing artisans is a big leap. I went to the U Penn’s social impact master’s certificate program to learn about different leadership styles, business model frameworks, and impact metrics to determine how to steer Ocean Sole in the right direction with the right accountability and measurements,” she says. “The gap in culture, skills, and experience is a big challenge, but communication, transparency, and a lot of energy help.”

She also notes that financially, the organization is “always on the hustle,” as they don’t rely on donations, but rather, art sales. As a result, Smith says they walk a tightrope between conservation and community commitments with revenue from moving product. “Fifty percent of my job is running an online commerce site, and the other is managing the artisans and impact,” she says. “It can be full of conflicts.”

Enabling Common Good through Commerce

Since she joined Ocean Sole, several rewarding moments remain with her.

“Our artisans have been creating safari animals out of flip-flops since they were out of school—yet they had never seen a real-life giraffe, rhino, or elephant,” she says. “We had a company outing to our local national park and took all 80 employees to experience a real safari. The looks on their faces was invaluable.”


Another essential trip took place when she brought five artisans to KAUST University (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology) in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia. “They were able to take courses on their craft, go to lectures, and meet the famous [former Ivory Coast national football team captain] Didier Drogba! In addition, we went out on the ocean, and they experienced dolphins and whale sharks and blessed themselves in the Red Sea,” she remembers fondly. “It is humbling to see people exposed to experiences we all take for granted in our daily or working lives.”

Real life-changing moments such as those were not only important for the participants, they are indicative of commerce’s ability to elevate lives.

Erin Smith

“I tell everyone we are like the Girl Scouts: ‘If I am not selling cookies, I can’t do good!’” Smith insists. “Companies should be more proactive in their commitments to various impact goals that they want to deliver on from their organizations. Commerce is the only way to forecast, project, and deliver on any sustainable or impact commitments in a consistent manner.”

While she recognizes that social enterprises entail many of the same challenges that for-profit businesses face, she says there are greater rewards for those who dare to take the plunge.

“Marrying commerce—sales, product development, distribution—with impact is the way forward,” says Smith. “What is really needed is people who are willing to take their commerce experience, ‘turn left,’ join the world of impact, and do good.”

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