Not everyone spends their days thinking about how to alleviate global poverty. And for those that do, shoes probably aren’t the first thing that comes to mind.
But with 1 billion people living without shoes, and over 1.5 billion suffering from soil-borne illnesses worldwide, shoes play a much more crucial role in the fight against global poverty than you might expect.
When Kenton Lee thinks about how to make the world a better place, shoes are the first thing that comes to mind. He founded Because International, a global non-profit that delivers adjustable, quality shoes to children in need worldwide.
And they aren’t just any ordinary shoes. Kenton and the Because International team develop and distribute The Shoe That Grows, a pair of sandals that expand over five sizes to grow with a child’s growing foot.
Each pair costs $20 and can be used for years, protecting children for longer, so they can safely walk to school, play soccer, dance, and focus on what matters most: being a kid.
Because International use Paperform to manage leads and handle the day-to-day process of running a rapidly growing nonprofit.
From small town Idaho to a global movement, the story of Because International and The Shoe That Grows is one of hope, persistence, and ingenuity. We spoke to Kenton to learn more about his journey.
After graduating from college in 2007, Kenton decided to volunteer at an orphanage outside of Nairobi, Kenya. It was here that the initial idea—for a shoe that expands over time—was born.
"I was walking with all the kids one day and we're walking down this dusty road, and there's a little girl next to me, probably eight or nine years old," says Kenton.
And as I looked down at her walking next to me, I was absolutely shocked at how small her shoes were.
They were so small that she had to cut open the front of the shoe to let her toes stick out. And I don’t know if I just hadn't noticed before or what, but it was the first time that I was seeing that. And it really got to me. It stuck in my head.
That was the day that I had this idea: what if there was a pair of shoes that could adjust and expand their size? What if there was a pair of shoes that could grow with a child's growing foot?"
Kenton would have a long way to go from that dusty road in Kenya to founding a global NPO, but he had taken the first step. He wrote the idea in his journal and brought it home after his time in Kenya, committed to bringing a growing shoe to life.
As it turns out, creating a shoe that grows is a bit harder than dreaming one up. Kenton didn’t know how to make shoes, let alone run a nonprofit capable of distributing them worldwide.
He knew needed support. His best buddy from grade school was the first to get the call.
Andrew Kroes, a childhood friend turned President of Because International, was on board with The Shoe That Grows from the beginning.
“He just loved it,” Kenton says. “He jumped right in.”
Once Andrew committed, Kenton started reaching for support from their greater Idaho community: spiritual centres, social clubs, and coffee shops.
These venues let Kenton use their space to share the idea, connect with community members, and host concerts and fundraisers for the product.
“That’s all it was in the beginning: an idea," says Kenton. "My town helped get this started. We wouldn’t be here; kids around the world would not be receiving pairs of these life-changing shoes, without them believing in me.”
From a guy walking down a dusty road in Kenya to friends dreaming over coffee, to a town full of supporters, Because International was already growing. But as much as the support validated Kenton’s idea, he needed logistical help to get his NPO off the ground.
He wasn’t a “shoe guy.” He needed designers, engineers, distributors—at the very least, he needed advice from businesses who actually knew how to make shoes.
So he did what any startup does best: he sent emails. A lot of emails. To Nike, Toms, Adidas; all the name brand shoe companies he could reach.
But the support he’d received from friends and family in Idaho didn’t extend to these businesses.
“These people that know a lot more about shoes than I do were telling me, 'no, we don't want to be a part of that,'" says Kenton. 'It’s not a good idea and it’s not possible.'”
The responses were disheartening. But Kenton and his growing team persisted.
“Nobody could tell me that wasn't a good idea because I was there," says Kenton. "I was living at this orphanage for six months.
I saw this problem where so many of the kids, they might have a pair of shoes, but their feet are growing and the orphanage did not have any money to buy them a new pair or to access a new pair when their feet would grow.
Nobody could convince me it wasn’t a good idea, because I saw it. I saw the problem and I really felt like this was a solution.”
Despite his certainty that there was a need for this product—and his commitment to making it a reality—there were times when he thought about giving up.
“Some nights I wanted to quit," says Kenton. "But I'd only quit for about 10 minutes. I'd go grab an ice cream or something, because I didn't want to have a giant burnout and be done. So I just gave myself some little moments to burn out.”
When those moments of doubt tempted him to quit for good, he turned to a tried and true method: a pros and cons list. Kenton wrote out all the reasons to continue trying to create The Shoe That Grows, and all the reasons to throw in the towel.
There were some valid cons: He wanted more time for a family. He needed a job. He wasn’t sure he could gather enough resources to make it a reality.
But the pros all shared something powerful in common—because the kids really need them. Because it’s dangerous to live in these areas without shoes. Because it can make a difference for families living in poverty.
“Everything started with because," says Kenton. "So I thought, okay, I'm going to jump in, and that's my word. I'm going to call this ‘Because International.’”
Kenton went after his dream with renewed resolve. Who needs the support of a giant shoe company when you have a curious mind, plenty of superglue, and a garage workshop?
Kenton started to tinker. He bought a handful of cheap shoes (like Crocs and plastic sandals) and cut, glued, and patched them together to create the first Frankenstein version of The Shoe That Grows.
The prototype was enough to get the ball rolling, but he knew he’d need a more expert eye to create the product he’d envisioned. He started looking for smaller shoe companies that might be able to turn his DIY design into a proper shoe.
After months of searching, he connected with a new company called Proof of Concept. They agreed to make the first prototype of The Shoe That Grows. In 2012, after a year of design and iteration, Proof of Concept completed the sample.
“I got the package in the morning and I could not open it," says Kenton. "I just thought, what if I open this, and I'm disappointed? I put five years of blood, sweat and tears into this.
And so I didn't open it for about five or six hours. I just couldn't do it. And finally, I was like, okay, I have to open this. Just do it. I opened the box, and immediately I was thrilled. I thought it was the best shoe ever made in the whole world.”
At that time, Because International had raised enough money to produce 100 pairs of the prototype. Kenton and his wife, Nikki, took these to schools in Kenya so the children could test them for a year.
Because International adjusted the prototype based on feedback from the kids and manufactured the first 3,000 pairs of the new version of The Shoe That Grows. For Kenton, that was it.
He had 3,000 pairs of The Shoe That Grows stacked floor-to-ceiling in his guest bedroom. He had something to give that little girl walking down the dusty road outside of Nairobi. He'd done it. If everything stopped there, it would have been a success.
But everything didn’t stop there. In April of 2015, The Shoe That Grows was featured in a Buzzfeed article that gained the attention of several national news outlets. Almost overnight, Because International went viral.
The Shoe That Grows was stomping through screens all over the world. Thousands of messages started flowing in, one after the next. What was once a passion project run by two friends became a worldwide foundation, growing exponentially before their eyes.
“Everything changed overnight," says Kenton. "All these people I didn't know were seeing our story online and, and they started reaching out, and then they started donating and wanting to help these kids, to help make the world a better place.
And that’s what I’ve always come back to. I’m just amazed at how many people out there want to make the world a better place.”
Since 2015, growth has only continued. Because International has created over 20 full-time jobs and started a program to support other charitable entrepreneurs.
Most importantly, they've distributed more than 350,000 pairs of The Shoes That Grow globally, from orphanages in Kenya to refugee homes in the United States.
After the viral boom, Kenton knew his business management tools had to evolve. They were up to their necks in leads—donors, clients, collaborators, distributors. Excel spreadsheets and yellow legal pads weren’t going to cut it anymore.
They needed a better way to organise all these requests. That’s when Andrew reached out to Paperform.
“Paperform helped us solve a couple of problems that we were having on our website," says Kenton. "We were struggling to identify and retain people in different categories, like donors and people that need our shoes, or people that want to connect with me.
We had these different buckets that people could go in, and Paperform helped us get them all in the right place. We have some great partners that help us do all the things that need to happen behind the scenes, and Paperform is definitely one of them.”
Because International uses Paperform to collect information safely and securely. The forms are branded to fit in with the website and embedded throughout the site.
These forms perform all kinds of valuable processes—from collecting contact information and taking donations, to making order requests, generating fundraising brochures and accepting applicants to the Because Accelerator.
The embedded Paperforms accept segment each responder into groups, send automated thank you messages and receipts, and automatically forward requests to the relevant person. Our automations handle some of the day-to-day upkeep of running a global nonprofit so Kenton and the team can focus on the big stuff.
It’s also crucial that they make sure any businesses or individuals who donate follow the necessary legal and financial guidelines. The team uses a form with Paperform’s E-signature field to confirm compliance with a digital signature.
It wasn’t easy to create The Shoe That Grows. But if you ask Kenton, his team, or the thousands of children wearing his shoes, we’re pretty confident they’ll say it was all worth it.
Because International hasn’t stopped there, either. In addition to distributing The Shoe That Grows around the globe, Kenton also runs the Because Accelerator, which supports entrepreneurs interested in developing and distributing new products that lift people out of poverty.
Whether improving the product or looking for new ways to support the next generation of leaders, Kenton and his team at Because International are always looking to do more good in the world.
We’re inspired by their ingenuity, resilience, and determination—and honoured by the role Paperform plays in helping make their mission that little bit easier.
You can learn more about Because International, and donate, on their website.
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