Ah, family memories—1960s antiwar rallies in Berkeley and trailing farmworker activist César Chávez as an 11-year-old, with his socially progressive parents. Add the weekly trip to Peet’s Coffee to buy a bag of freshly roasted coffee beans with his father.
For John Sage, 46, cofounder of Seattle’s Pura Vida Coffee, whose mission is to raise awareness and funding to benefit at-risk children and their families in coffee-growing countries, those recollections are the essence of who he is today.
But Sage mixed in one ingredient all his own. He’s a capitalist. “I was the black sheep of the family,” he says. “I enjoyed business.” As a boy, he ran a lemonade stand and a paper route. In college, he started several businesses to pay tuition. “I was convinced, though, that one day I should entwine being compassionate and being a capitalist.”
After graduating from Stanford University in 1983, Sage spent a handful of years working for pharmaceutical giant McKesson, garnered a Harvard M.B.A. in 1989, and achieved financial success as a Microsoft marketing executive. He took a turn as a vice president of a start-up high-tech company, Starwave, which was acquired in 1998 by Disney and Infoseek, leading to his “lucrative exit” as a multimillionaire, he recalls. “I was fortunate to be in high tech at the right time.”
Good deeds. The impetus for Sage’s transformation was a 1997 reunion of business-school chums. One was Christopher Dearnley, pastor of a church he started in Costa Rica, part of the International Association of Vineyard Churches. He met Sage in San Diego for their annual golfing reunion. Sitting poolside after the outing, Sage was struck by his friend’s commitment to his work for the poor, which focused mostly on helping homeless children in the tough neighborhood of Alajuelita. But support for Dearnley’s urban work was almost depleted.
Dearnley gave his friend a bag of Costa Rican coffee as a present. It hadn’t cost much there but, if sold in the United States, was worth three times that amount. “A light went on,” says Sage, who had been consulting for Starbucks.
Here was the hands-on, business-driven philanthropy he had been seeking. On napkins, a business plan for Pura Vida—which means “pure life” in Spanish but in slang translates as “way cool”—began to take shape.
As Chávez said, “The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people.” For Sage, it’s about people—and first-rate coffee. “It’s a great value proposition,” he says. “I believe that business can be driven by good, not greed. It takes a tough mind and a tender heart.”
Sage supplied over $1 million in start-up money for the new coffee company and agreed to run operations and marketing from the company’s administrative office in south Seattle. Dearnley would select the coffee suppliers and continue his work in Costa Rica. A portion of net profits from sales and donations would go directly to support social services in Costa Rica and beyond.
This year, Pura Vida will sell close to 1 million pounds of shade-grown, organic, certified fair-trade gourmet coffee, meaning that living wages are paid to farmers and they are guaranteed a fair price. Pura Vida beans, sold over the Web and to student unions and dining halls at more than 200 U.S. college locations, including Duke and Cornell, are expected to generate roughly $6 million in revenues.
To date, the company has distributed over $1.5 million, which helps provide clothes and food to street kids, job training, libraries, computer centers, and scholarships.
Sage’s new venture affords him the flexibility that didn’t exist in the espresso-fueled, 100-hour workweeks at Microsoft. He can spend time with his wife and three boys, ages 3, 8, and 11, coach baseball, and attend Scout meetings.
“I’ve landed at a great intersection,” he says. “In the words of Frederick Buechner, the Presbyterian minister, that’s ‘the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.'”
This story appears in the March 12, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.