Susan Adams, 03.04.10, 6:00 PM ET
Most MBAs would covet Scott James' old job. As a marketing manager at Microsoft in Redmond, Wash., James, 38, banked a salary, bonus and stock option package worth $200,000; he traveled to glamorous spots like Tokyo and Sydney; and he enjoyed instant access to brilliant colleagues and seemingly limitless budgets.
But the trim, athletic weekend soccer player was not fulfilled. Especially after his first child was born in 2003, he started to struggle with what he describes as "a war in my soul." While his wife Susan, a social worker, could tell their son that she helped people for a living, James felt that he couldn't say the same for himself.
So he made a dramatic career switch, breaking free of Microsoft's golden handcuffs in 2003 and three years later starting a company called Fair Trade Sports, which makes balls for soccer, basketball, football and rugby using rubber cultivated in pesticide-free, sustainable plantations in India and Sri Lanka. The balls are hand-stitched by unionized Pakistani workers who earn a living wage, certified by a watchdog group called the Fair Trade Labeling Organization.
James says he modeled Fair Trade Sports on the salad dressing and cookie company set up by Paul Newman: Fair Trade is a for-profit enterprise, but pledges to give away all its after-tax profits to charity. Financed with $200,000 James socked away while working for Microsoft, the company starting doing business in late 2006. Last year it lost $15,000 on revenues of $400,000.
James expects to turn a profit this year, when he'll start to collect a nominal salary himself. He works from home and has no employees; contractors handle everything from sales to accounting. His business plan has his pay ratcheting up to $100,000 once the company is in the black. He will turn over the rest of the earnings to two nonprofits, Boys & Girls Club and Room to Read, which builds libraries in Asia and Africa.
A Notre Dame business school grad, James acknowledges that moving from marketing executive to entrepreneur was a bit of a leap. When he was deciding to leave Microsoft, he spent three months meeting with as many do-gooders as he could find in the Seattle area, including Paul Shoemaker of Social Venture Partners, a group that connects Seattle area donors with local charities, and the head of the Union Gospel Mission, a church organization that serves the homeless. Most had one message: He should take his marketing expertise and parlay it into fundraising. James wasn't interested. "I realized I should take my marketing and sales skills and apply that to a business scenario that would generate charitable dollars."
James didn't make the leap all at once. Several of the nonprofit folks he met recommended he check out a company called Pura Vida Coffee, a Seattle-based for-profit fair trade outfit. After his wife agreed to quit eating out and to scrimp by any means necessary, James took an 80% pay cut (to $40,000) and started work as Pura Vida's marketing head. The couple produces most of their own food, including eggs from the 14 chickens they keep on two acres they own with their home on Bainbridge Island, across Puget Sound from Seattle. The family has always had a big garden, which they farm together, but since James left Microsoft they've expanded it to what James calls a "food forest," including fruit trees and berry bushes.
While pushing Pura Vida's coffee, he immersed himself in the fair trade community. One day, he saw an online mention of a London company that was making fair-trade soccer balls. The note caught his eye: It was the first time he'd heard of a product that wasn't an agricultural commodity being certified as a fair-trade business. And as a passionate participant in Sunday Bainbridge Island pick-up soccer games, James felt personally inspired.
Since James had only been at the coffee company for a couple of years and was still learning the fair-trade marketing ropes, he filed the green soccer ball idea in the back of his mind for nearly a year. But eventually he pulled out the notes from the entrepreneurship class he took at Notre Dame and started writing a business plan.
James turned to an international nonprofit called the Forest Stewardship Council that certifies agricultural enterprises as environmentally friendly. The group helped him connect with rubber-growers in India and Sri Lanka that eschew pesticides and grow their rubber plants together with other crops, like tea bushes, so the land produces the greatest output. The Fair Trade Labeling Organization hooked him up with a factory in Sialkot, Pakistan, that has a policy of hiring workers who are 16 or older, and paying what it deems a living wage for the region.
So far 70% of Fair Trade Sports' balls are sold online, through the company's Web site and Amazon.com. But James is in discussion with Costco about introducing his products in five West Coast stores, and he's planning to approach Sports Authority. "We don't want the stores to rip and replace their other balls," he says, sounding like a marketing executive. "Everything green is so sexy right now, we want them to include our products as their green line."
Once he gets his wares into the chains, he's hoping that puts pressure on the likes of Nike, Puma, Adidas, Spalding and Wilson. His ultimate goal: to be put out of business. "If I can start a tiny sports ball company that then fosters change by one of the top five brands, and they take over what I'm doing," he says, "then I get to walk away claiming victory. Then I've used a small investment to effect massive positive change."