For years, Matthew Griffin has been meticulously writing down his goals. On the first page of his journal is a long list of things he’d like to achieve three months, one year, and three years from now.
There’s also a lifetime objective: Help 100,000 Afghan girls become literate.
These days, that’s looking “exceptionally difficult at best,” the veteran entrepreneur said in an interview during a break from his work trying to get interpreters, factory workers, and others connected to his company out of the Taliban-controlled country.
“We lost five in that bomb blast,” he said.
Griffin — who goes by “Griff” to everyone except telemarketers and the IRS — is CEO of Combat Flip Flops, a footwear and apparel company he co-founded with fellow Army Ranger Donald Lee and serial entrepreneur Andy Sewrey. Its ties to Afghanistan run deep.
Griffin served on active duty from 2001 to 2006 and deployed to Afghanistan three times. In 2009, he returned for his then-job as a manager of military sales for Remote Medical International and came up with the idea for his business inside a combat boot factory, where he’d been invited for coffee.
“I had never seen anything positive come from my time in service,” he said. “This was my very first experience to see people going to work, people becoming literate, people having jobs, people supporting their families. Because this economic opportunity was there, their kids could go to school and then start the next generation, right? That’s the hope that we have for these nations in nation– building.”
On a table, he saw the sole of a combat boot with a flip flop thong punched through it, and the image stuck.
Investing in flip flops and Afghanistan
Throughout his travels, Griffin “saw how countries and people that worked on a business standpoint and more of a relational standpoint without a gun on the table were doing better in these foreign countries than, say, the Americans,” he said. “What I found was the areas flourishing with small business were the most secure, so I started staying in local hotels, staying in the apartments above the grocery stores, hiring the local dudes to be my drivers, and just getting to see how business was a much more productive way of doing work, and this message kept smacking me in the face everywhere I went.”
After launching his business in January 2012, Griffin and his team sold 4,000 pairs in 72 hours. He and Lee appeared on ABC’s “Shark Tank” in 2016, and by that time, the company was outsourcing shoe production to a factory in Bogotá, Colombia. Combat Flip Flops was also selling scarves, sarongs, and other accessories made by a woman-owned company in Afghanistan, as well as jewelry made in Laos.
Through a partnership with the organization Afghanistan for Education, sales were helping send girls to school; one scarf equaled one day of secondary school.
“Our mission is to create badass products by skilled entrepreneurs surviving in areas of conflict,” Lee said on the show. “Through our experiences in Afghanistan, we found that we wanted to do more for the country other than go over there and be soldiers.”
The duo ultimately obtained a $300,000 deal with investors Mark Cuban, Robert Herjavec, and Lori Greiner.
In the nearly 10 years since its founding, Combat Flip Flops, now a team of five, has continually made progress toward Griffin’s life goal — a cause near to his heart as a single father of two teenage daughters. He theorizes that teaching women to read enables them to work and provide for their families, which leads to fewer children on the streets who end up joining terrorist groups because their families need money.
As of June, the company had raised enough funds to educate more than 1,000 Afghan girls.
“And now the rug got pulled out from under us,” Griffin said.
About 15% of the company’s products are made in Afghanistan, but finances aren’t a top concern right now.
“Our main focus is people,” he said.
So for now, Griffin is focusing on more immediate goals, helping workers and their family members in danger of Taliban retaliation by helping get their paperwork in order, coordinating safe houses, or connecting them with people in charge of evacuation efforts.
“You can really only affect the next 90 days of your life. You can plan out further than that, but today, I can really only take actions that are going to affect things for the next 90 days,” he said.
Since he’s been goal setting, his team has “pulled off some major shit,” he said — even before helping people escape the Taliban.
“Most people are like, ‘How the hell do you get it done?’” he said. “I just write it all down … and I just spend two hours a day doing it, and that’s pretty much the secret to life.”
The chances of meeting his lifetime goal may look bleak — at least for now.
But his lifetime isn’t over yet.