Pursuing practical compassion
by Anna Lee, class of 2004
“Practical compassion is our mission. It’s who we are,” said Kenton Lee (’07 and ’12), founder and executive director of Because International. “We want to do the simple things to help people have a better life. I really believe that if we can help people with the small things, it can make a huge difference in their lives. We want to make innovative products that can help people in poverty live better everyday lives.”
Lee and his best friend and director of operations, Andrew Kroes (’07), are seeking to accomplish that mission through a humble but innovative idea—a shoe that grows. This simple concept is making national headlines with NBC’s “The Today Show,” “Smithsonian Magazine,” “O Magazine” and many others taking note. However, that isn’t where the story starts.
“Andrew showed up in the second grade,” Lee said. Kroes and Lee attended the same church and the same school and eventually came to NNU together, both pursuing business administration degrees. That friendship would lay the foundation for a burgeoning non-profit organization that is capturing imaginations far beyond its roots in Nampa, Idaho.
“We are committed to creating innovative solutions to assist children living in poverty.”Because International is the brainchild of Lee. After graduating from NNU in 2007, he spent a year traveling and living internationally trying to understand a call to missions. Inspiration struck one morning in Nairobi, Kenya where Lee was working at an orphanage. “I was walking with the children to church and looked down at the feet of a little girl in a white dress next to me. I was stunned by the size of her shoes. They were so small she had to cut the front open for her toes to stick out. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a shoe that could expand as these kids grow?’”
When Lee returned home to the U.S., “Andrew was one of the first people I talked to about it.” Kroes agreed to serve as a board member and help Lee form Because International in 2009.
With no experience in footwear, at first they simply tried to give the idea away. They contacted every major shoe company they could think of, but no one was interested. The idea lay dormant for a while. Kroes pursued a lucrative career with a technology startup in Boise and earned his CFA designation while Lee returned to NNU to serve as the assistant director of campus life.
It was through a series of NNU connections that the seeds planted in Kenya finally started to take root and grow. Lee had a chance meeting with an NNU alumnus that eventually introduced him to Proof of Concept, Inc., a Portland-based shoe company that creates prototypes.
Finally, a company was excited about The Shoe That Grows. Proof of Concept helped produce 100 prototypes of Lee’s idea. Meanwhile Lee and his board began fundraising. They raised enough to fund the 100 pairs of shoes and to send Lee and his wife, Nikki (Bodenstab, ’06), back to Kenya in 2013 to distribute and test them. They delivered 25 pairs to each of four Nazarene schools. The response was outstanding.
Following that trip, in October 2014, Because International received its first shipment of 3,000 pairs of shoes, launched the website and started distributing them to churches and organizations for missions trips. Lee’s idea was finally a reality. And the product really worked. The Shoe That Grows is constructed of compressed rubber on the sole and high quality leather on the uppers. It has no mechanical parts that could easily break but rather sturdy metal snaps that allow it to expand in three places—the front, sides and back. It can grow up to five sizes and last up to five years.
“Over two billion people have a soil-transmitted disease,” said Lee. Kids without shoes are highly susceptible. They lose chances to succeed because they miss school and lose time to help their families. “We want kids to be in the best possible position to succeed, and something as simple as a shoe can help make a difference.”
Finally the shoe was attracting attention, but Lee was struggling to keep up with the demands. In 2015, Kroes took a leap of faith and stepped away from his career to work full time as the director of operations for Because International. Kroes handles logistics and finances while Lee continues to travel, interact with the media, and spread the vision.
Despite being consumed with packing and distributing thousands of shoes out of their homes and a donated warehouse space, Kroes contends, “We are not a shoe company. We are committed to creating innovative solutions to assist children living in poverty.” They are already working on their next idea: The Better Bed Net. They hope to move forward developing this concept within the next six to 12 months. They already have an NNU engineering student with family in Africa, junior Korte Zickefoose, who is working with them on design and testing.
Lee and Kroes agree that NNU has been pivotal in the growth of their organization and in their personal lives. “Andrew and I were business majors together, and now we are creating this organization from scratch. I would have never thought we would start an organization like we practiced in our senior seminar project,” said Lee.
Kroes concurs. “More than anything, NNU taught me how to learn and how to be responsible. My education gave me the tools I need to be as effective as possible within a role and to shorten the learning curve as much as possible.”
For Lee the impact of NNU goes even deeper. “My NNU experience really helped shape my life. A big part of that was leadership. I got to be a part of student government and work with the folks in Student Development. Their belief in me helped me believe in myself.”
Beyond their personal development, Kroes and Lee believe in the education NNU provides. It influenced them and continues to influence students and alumni to both create and support endeavors that make the world a better place.
Lee said, “NNU gives its students ways to make a literal difference in the world even before they graduate. While students at NNU, they work on projects and have assignments that can really make a difference. That means a lot to us as an organization, and we love using these students to help us achieve our mission of practical compassion.”