Relationship Is the Solution: Combat Flip Flops
Army Ranger and Special Operations veteran Matthew Griffin is on a mission with his startup, Combat Flip Flops (named for the flip flops made from combat boots). He brings business to former combat zones, such as Afghanistan and Laos, and wages war on poverty and lack of education by employing locals.
From the moment he spied that first flip-flop prototype, Army Ranger and Special Operations veteran Matthew “Griff” Griffin has been on a serious mission. His goal: to solve a very real dilemma in former combat zones by marshaling “unarmed forces” and wage war on poverty and lack of education by using local talent.
A dozen years ago, he was part of a different kind of war, and he could be found jumping out of airplanes and undertaking hundreds of missions in conflict-ridden zones, including Afghanistan, a country for which he has a special affection. Upon being discharged from the Army, he found work with a medical company that brought him back to Afghanistan But being on the ground as a civilian opened his eyes to how business is done locally. Notably, no matter where he was, if there was a thriving business, he set up shop close by and made it a point to meet the locals “to keep me safe and moving around [seamlessly.]”
Griffin knew there was a glaring gap between what the war had promised to provide the locals and the reality of what was actually given to them. During an event in Afghanistan, he struck up a conversation with a former Marine who had built a combat boot factory in Kabul. He learned that his new acquaintance had hired a local workforce to manufacture combat boots for the growing Afghan army. Griffin jumped at the chance to have coffee with him and to tour the facility.
“Each one of those people was supporting five to six family members,” he says of his visit to the factory. “The social impact was massive, with families who had once left Afghanistan to go find work and send money back home getting back together.”
The source of his inspiration proved to be short-lived. Griffin learned that the facility was a temporary one and once enough boots had been manufactured, it would shutter, leaving the 300 workers without employment. For Griffin, closing the factory represented what he considered to be a common mistake on the ground in war-torn places.
“A protracted war usually means the rise of radical power that’s hell-bent on not liking the United States,” he says. “Then our kids are over there fighting again to pay for our mistakes because we get it wrong. And we make all these people promise that they’ll have all this prosperity, even though we know we’re just going to leave?”
For Griffin, this was a wrong he felt an obligation to right. “We’ve been throwing billions of dollars, taking thousands of lives, and crushing tens of thousands of families behind a method that doesn’t work and doesn’t solve the problem,” he says.
What happened next provided him the “a-ha” moment that changed everything. He spotted a flip-flop prototype laying off to one side. It looked like a common enough sandal, except for the fact that its sole had been made with one from combat boot, creating a strong and somewhat ironic sandal; a combat flip-flop. Griffin loved “the whole concept of a military footwear company making beach flip-flops in a factory that would help keep people to whom we had made promises alive and working,” he says.
But it isn’t just jobs that are needed. In Afghanistan, where the median age is only a little over 18 years, the need for accessible education is abundantly clear. The CIA reported that in 2015, the country spent roughly 3.2% of its GDP on education, compared to the United States, which spent 5% of its GDP on education in 2014. During that same time period, only 24.2% of females ages 15 and up could read and write. Meanwhile, 52% of males of the same age group could read and write. To close the gap, a primary mission of Combat Flip Flops is to send Afghan girls to school.
Although the initial factory in Afghanistan did not serve as the ultimate location where flip flops were designed, it still has a presence there where saris and scarves are made. In addition, since 2012, Combat Flip Flops has set up shop in a former drug cartel zone in Colombia, where the actual flip-flops are made. At another location in Laos, landmines from the Vietnam War continue to be cleared and local artists safely repurpose them and sell the resulting metalworks around the world. To date, Griffin estimates over 600 Afghan girls have attended school courtesy of the company and nearly 15,000 square meters of landmines have been cleared.
Griffin believes that being on the ground with a different kind of mission can make the right impact and have a ripple effect. “That’s what capitalism is like, when people start making money, money makes money and it’s likely to be a profitable endeavor,” he says. Likening the potential for growth in communities, Griffin believes that foreign investment makes a world of difference for communities that might otherwise remain wounded. “When foreign investment comes in, communities grow and schools get built, and industry follows. Positive social change comes with a positive economic change.”
Positive economic change has not only improved the lives of countless families in the former battlegrounds, but has given Griffin the opportunity to do well by doing good. “I would much rather make flip-flops and help people than be away from my family for six months or a year and being shot at,” he says. “This way I’m giving people a shot at better lives.”