When you were 17, what did you want to be?
I'm sure a lot of people say that they have no idea, but I really had no idea what I wanted to do. I'm sure I wanted to be an astronaut one week, but I never pegged myself to anything. But looking back, I think where I've ended up makes a ton of sense.
I've always had a strong desire to be other places. I grew up in Orange County and I hated where I lived. When I got my driver’s license, my friends and I were always going camping, going on boat trips, just trying to get somewhere else. The other thing was my dad used to travel a lot for work when I was a kid, so it was really normal to me that he would go to Indonesia for a month every year and a lot of other places. He had a sort of vagabond gene
I always remember around Halloween, this box would show up at our house and it had been on a boat for six weeks and it was all raggedy. We'd open it up and there would be all these little trinkets wrapped in newspaper in a language I didn't understand that he'd picked up for us. And we always just had that stuff around our house, and I remember one of my friend's moms commenting on it. And I didn't even realize that was weird.
I think given those things, it makes a lot of sense where I've ended up. But I didn't know what international development was when I was in high school. I didn't know that was a thing.
How did you decide to attend University of California, Santa Cruz?
I started at San Diego State, and I went there for two and a half years, and then I transferred to UC Santa Cruz. San Diego felt like I was getting away from home, but I was still close enough. I remember visiting San Francisco State and that seemed cool, but I wasn't sure that was where I wanted to live. And I remember visiting other State schools and none of them really spoke to me. I don't think San Diego State did either, but it seemed kind of fun.
I had wanted to go to UC Santa Cruz in high school, but I couldn't get in. So a year or so later, I was not really feeling fulfilled at San Diego State, and I decided to apply to Santa Cruz. I got really lucky because, at the time, Santa Cruz had gotten a mandate to accept more students. So anybody that qualified was getting in at that time. It really was a small community, and this was in the late 90s before they even offered grades. Narrative evaluation was still the main method of feedback, so I actually chose not to get grades. I loved it.
How did you choose your major?
I had thought I wanted to major in philosophy. I took philosophy my first semester at San Diego State, and I had this professor who had a serious drinking problem. She missed like half the classes, so that kind of soured me on philosophy as a major. And then I took a really great sociology class and it gave me a lot to think about. I don't think I really knew what sociology was, but I liked that it wasn't fixated on right answers.
I don't like looking for right answers. I like answering questions with more questions. And that's really the core of sociology. I like that it seemed applicable to everything and nothing at the same time. Like it was knowledge for knowledge's sake, rather than for a job. There's certainly not a booming field of sociologists out there making livings at it. But I liked that you could take it and apply it to a lot of different things.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
I graduated in March of 2001. I had only been in Santa Cruz for a year and half at that time and I really liked it so I wanted to stay there. But within months, the economy collapsed and then September 11th happened. So that was when I started bartending actually. There wasn't really a better way to make a living in Santa Cruz at the time, and I was just out of college, I didn't have any job experience. And I still didn't really know what I wanted to do.
I had taken a semester off in my second year at San Diego State. I saved a bunch of money, went to Europe, did the whole Eurail thing. It was actually cheaper than being in the US. So I started saving up money for a few months, and then I'd go travel somewhere. I taught English in Japan for six months, and I did a lot of volunteering overseas. Then in 2006, I ended up kind of randomly in Myanmar, and my friend and I were there for the better part of that year. And that's when I really decided that I wanted to work in international development.
So I started applying to grad schools overseas, because I knew if I was going to go back to school, I wanted to live abroad somewhere. I ended up at University of Glasgow doing a master's program in environment and sustainable development, which is an economics program. It's funny, I kind of thought, "Oh, I'll go to grad school and then I'll know everything." And it clearly isn’t like that at all. You just basically do another year of college. And so, I still felt like I didn't have all the tools. But I had the credential and I was a little further along.
When I graduated in 2008, the economy collapsed again, as luck would have it, and there wasn't a lot of opportunity at that time. So I came back to the States. I was staying in San Francisco with friends, and I ended up couch surfing for a few months. I got a couple of internships, I got a bartending job so I could pay the bills, and then I moved to Oakland.
One of those internships turned into a full-time job, and that was my first development job. It was a nonprofit called Foundation for Sustainable Development that worked on developing an alternative to the Peace Corps Program in pretty targeted areas. I ended up managing the programs in Kenya, Uganda, and India, the flow of interns that went into these programs, and the relationships with all of our partners in the communities where we worked.
I was making pretty frequent site visits. It wasn't development per se, but I found myself really loving it. It felt like I was preparing these minds, because these young adults would inevitably have these grand notions about going to volunteer in Africa for the summer. And our organization was really good about telling them, "This is not about you doing anything. You're going to be the recipient of all the benefit. You're the one that's going to learn, the one that’s going to have a life-changing experience. You're not going to change anyone's life.”
I think you have to stay grounded and stay humble, and recognize that you're not going to fix everything. It’s almost like - sorry, sports reference – being a great hitter in baseball. If you hit .300 for your career, you'll go to the hall of fame. That means you failed 70 percent of the time at the thing you're supposed to be really good at. If you hit .250 for your career, you'll probably play for ten years or more. It means you failed 75 percent of the time. You kind of have to get comfortable with the fact that the things you're working on most of the time aren’t going to work out.
I was at FSD for four years, and I left that job feeling a little maxed out. It was a very small organization, and I felt like I had done everything I wanted to there, and I was ready to hit the rest button. I met Maria [my now wife], and we both quit our jobs and bought one-way tickets to India. We traveled around for the better part of that year, then we got engaged, applied for a visa and a green card and all that, and we got married.
We came back to the US where I had a very short, but glorious, stint with the Princeton Review. And then I got hired by the previous executive director of FSD who was starting a competitor organization. He was very committed to that model, and he was just getting it off the ground. But it was a little less fleshed out than I thought it was getting into it. After being there for about six months, I realized he was basically trying to carbon copy what FSD had been doing, which I wasn't really sure was the right way to go.
I got a call from an organization called Give to Asia, which I had interviewed with a year before. They had another position open up, and asked me if I was interested. I talked to them and it sounded really great, so I went to work for them as a program officer working with donors in the US who wanted to do grantmaking in Asia specifically. I started working with a portfolio of corporate clients, and after a few months I ended up taking over the disaster program.
Anytime there was a large disaster in the Pacific, which is almost monthly, we would do some kind of a campaign or work with different donors. I eventually ended up taking over other disaster preparedness programs, and brought them under the same umbrella. Disaster preparedness, at a certain point, is just doing development. You're really trying to create community resilience, like do you have evacuation plans? Do you have an ability to communicate with people? Do people know what to do, first of all? Do they have basic things that we take for granted?
That was really interesting work. I really liked it. But I didn't like being so beholden to corporate social responsibility imperatives. So when that grant was coming to an end, I was looking to do something different. My son was also a year old at that time, and I was traveling more. I had taken him and my wife to India and Bangladesh right at the end of my time there, and they got to come out to the fishing village we were in and he got to play with all the kids which was fun. But that wasn't going to be something we could do every time.
After that, I took a wrong turn and went to work for another nonprofit called Tech Soup, which, they're great, but it just wasn't what I wanted to do. It was very much a cushy desk job, which is what I thought was the right move at the time, but I realized pretty quickly it was not.
I was there for two years, but I had been keeping my eye on Fair Trade USA for a while. I found this job back in June, applied for it, and was hired in two weeks, really fast. And now I'm the director of supply chain for consumer package goods. What that means for us is how do we, as an organization, operate along a supply chain where fair trade commodities are being sourced.
I just went on this trip to the Philippines, which was really great because we're seeing amazing outcomes there. In the Philippines, we work primarily with two big companies that export coconuts. And they both have dedicated staff that focus on making the fair trade programs work as well as their organic programs that are kind of side-by-side. And all those things add up to a pretty successful program, which has unlocked some opportunities for people.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
I really like my job right now. I've never been this excited about a new job. But I still wouldn't say I know what I want to do. Even now, when someone asks me where I want to be in five years, damned if I know. I think some people have the ability to map that out a little bit better, and part of me thinks that would have been nice. But I also think a lot of people map it out and they end up in the wrong place anyway.
I'm always puzzled by how often people will ask me for career advice, because I've been winging it this whole time. I've just put one foot in front of the other and followed things that I'm interested in. And that's worked for me. In some ways I was really unlucky, and in other ways I was really lucky, because that led me to do other things that were maybe more interesting.