Scott James ditched a lucrative technology job to start making soccer balls. His motivation? Fatherhood.
“It was becoming a father that led me to do a shift from the world of high-tech to the world of sustainability,” Scott says. He realized his son, now 7, would someday ask what he does for a living. “I wanted to tell him that I directly help people.”
When Scott left his senior marketing position at Microsoft back in 2003, he didn’t know what he’d be doing next, but he knew it would be for a good cause. His quest would eventually lead him to launch Fair Trade Sports, a sports equipment company that espouses fair trade and sustainable manufacturing and has pledged to donate all after-tax profits to children’s charities.
Fair Trade Sports makes balls for soccer, basketball and football that are eco-certified and made by adult workers who earn a fair wage, under healthy working conditions. The rubber for the balls comes from sustainably managed plantations in India and Sri Lanka, and no animal byproducts are used (the balls are vegan).
But Scott, now 39, didn’t build the company overnight. In the beginning, all that mattered was finding a new job that he’d be proud to tell his son about.
The first thing Scott did after leaving Microsoft was to arrange as many meetings as possible with people who had experience in the nonprofit world. Most of those sources encouraged him to parlay his sales and marketing expertise into a fundraising development position. But it didn’t feel right.
“That didn’t really seem like the best use of my skill set, and it wasn’t really going to be uplifting to my soul. And it didn’t solve the problem. I didn’t want to tell my kid, ‘well, I raise money.’ It’s too many steps away from directly helping a population.”
What he took away from his three-month investigation was an interest in social capitalism, social entrepreneurship, and fair trade. “I was disturbed by the gross and obvious imbalances in the current economy, as we’ve built it, and the way we do international trade,” Scott says. “But I didn’t want to just whine about it, I wanted to be part of the solution that brings a positive alternative.”
So he took a marketing job with a fair-trade coffee and tea company in Seattle, where he learned the ropes. Three years into his time at Pura Vida Coffee, he heard news that a soccer ball had received fair trade certification. It was the first non-agricultural product to achieve that designation, and it struck a chord with Scott, who knew the soccer ball industry was notorious for exploiting child labor and engaging in environmentally irresponsible practices. “I still play soccer as an old guy, and I was aware of the ongoing child labor issues. So it hit multiple passions for me,” he recalls.
Scott started working on a business plan, and nearly one year later, was ready to launch Fair Trade Sports.
The company does things differently than most. For starters, Fair Trade Sports is committed to donating all after-tax profits to children’s charities, including Boys & Girls Club and Room to Read. (John Wood, another ex-Microsoft executive and author of Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, founded Room to Read, which works with communities around the world to build schools and establish libraries.)
Fair Trade Sports also has an unusual corporate structure, built around a network of free agents, freelancers, sole proprietors, and subject matter experts. It’s modeled after a Japanese concept called Keiretsu, which describes a group of affiliated corporations doing business together. “I love that idea. It lets you scale really quickly,” Scott explains. “It also means that everybody stays very highly incentivized to do their best, to be the best type of partner to the rest of the team.”
Launching a new business meant a significant lifestyle change for Scott and his wife Susan, who’s a social worker and wellness coach. No more commuting to Microsoft’s corporate campus. No more fat salary. Less eating out and lots more growing of their own food (today Scott, Susan and their 7-year-old son and 3-year old daughter grow about 50% of the produce they consume).
It was risky. “A marketing gig at Microsoft is like a warm cocoon,” Scott says. “You’ve got a great salary, a phenomenal benefits package, seemingly unlimited budget to spend, and all these really smart people and great teams. I was most definitely walking away from a sure thing into the world of the unknown.”
"I was most definitely walking away from a sure thing into the world of the unknown.”
Today, Fair Trade Sports is nearing profitability and may even reach it as soon as the current quarter -- though Scott still does not draw a market-value salary, nor has the company started paying back its start-up loans. Nonetheless, “it feels great to see the light at end of the tunnel, when it’s a matter of weeks instead of months away,” he says.
Scott told me that in the early days of reinventing his career, he always asked people two questions: What do you love about your job? What do you hate about your job? So I turned the tables and asked Scott those same questions.
“I love the direct impact on the producer families, where the parents are doing the stitching and getting a fair trade-certified wage,” he says. “I love having a direct, positive impact on the lives of these families on the other side of the world.”
He also loves being part of bringing the fair trade movement closer to the tipping point. “I think it’s going to happen quite soon,” Scott says. “What’s driving it is the ability to talk to the North American citizen [about fair trade] across multiple product categories. So they’re getting this reinforcing message at the grocery store, but they’re also now getting it in sporting goods, and soon they’ll be getting it in apparel and shoes.”
Just as the organic movement started out totally fringe, and then moved full-on into the mainstream, “fair trade is following that same hockey-stick curve of acceptability and recognition,” he says.
Scott’s dislikes are cash flow worries and politics.
“That’s something I don’t look forward to every month -- reviewing the cash flow and trying to decide how to allocate funds to all the different projects we have going on,” he says.
As for politics, Scott hoped leaving the technology world would put an end to productivity-draining corporate politics, but he had no such luck. “There’s lots of politics still in the sustainability movement. Tied with cash flow woes, that’s my No. 1 least favorite thing about this job.”
But the good stuff clearly outweighs the bad. And Scott’s career switch didn’t go unnoticed by his son, who first picked up on the fact that his dad was working from home instead of commuting to work.
“He was noticing these family changes, and he started asking questions,” Scott says. “It was great because he totally absorbed the fair trade message, and he totally absorbed the building-your-own-company vibe. Now, on a regular basis he comes up with ideas of companies he’s going to start. There’s absolutely nothing in common with any of the ideas, except that they’re all fair trade companies.”
“What a great Father’s Day present that is.”