Rewind to 2009 and put yourself in James McLaughlin’s "silk-stockings." He was four years into his white shoe firm gig at one of America’s top law firms, Kirkland & Ellis. His wallet was healthy amidst the stock market crash and things were going “as planned.” Only problem - he wasn’t excited about the future. “I worked with great people but was worried, long-term, that this wasn’t something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
So what filled his void? Trips down to his wife's native home in Taquaritinga do Norte, Brazil where they would spend their time working on her family's coffee farm, Varzea da Onça. "We always talked about making the family farm more than a vacation spot." Now was their chance.
(Minor detail - Besides really enjoying a nice cup of joe, James knew next to nothing about coffee production, let alone running an entire farm...in another country.)
Below, James shares his greatest takeaways from living abroad, advice to his 25-year-old self, and how he approaches the unknown as he embarks on his newest journey as President of Intelligentsia Coffee.
What were your 3 “biggest takeaways” while living abroad?
1. “If you want something, you have to make it happen.”
While running a coffee farm in a developing country, James quickly developed a sense of persistence. “If you’re not motivated, not determined, nothing is going to get done.” This golden nugget of advice is not just for millennials, he says. "It is important for anyone, in any stage of their life.”
2. Take calculated risks.
James' advice to his 25-year-old self? Take more calculated risk earlier in life. "It's easy to get on the ‘hamster wheel of life.’ Take time to explore what else exists in the world. Eventually you may wake up, make a change, and love that you did."
Leaving financial and professional stability in Chicago for a Brazilian coffee farm was, well, risky. “A lot of people thought I was crazy but if you take calculated risks, you can have really rich experiences and those experiences will open doors that you didn't know existed.” In other words, James didn’t cross his fingers and hope for the best. He saved up money, found a place to store his suit and tie and came up with a “worst-case-scenario” plan. And after pulling off the red tape, could he say -
“Had I not said ‘F it’ none of this would have happened.”
3. Master the art of waiting.
You’ve heard it before - “patience is a virtue.” Fleeting words when you’re waiting impatiently for your daily dose of coffee at your favorite shop. For James, life in Brazil meant replacing synchronized google alerts with twiddling his thumbs. “Life is completely different in Brazil - the people and the spirit of the country are beautiful, but it’s amazing how hard it is to get stuff done.” But by slowing down, James created authentic and trusted relationships with the farmers, developed a business plan, and created a high-end roasted coffee brand that sold nationwide!
When his daughter was born, James and his wife knew it was time to go back to the States. “Faced with the choice to return to law, I knew I wanted to continue to work with coffee so I sent a cold letter to the CEO of Intelligentsia.” Yes folks, he picked up an old-fashioned pen and asked the CEO of Intelligentsia for his dream job. A few weeks later, he got a call back and the rest is “whole bean” history.
It’s easy to feel inspired by James’ story but much harder to take this “blind leap.” Shamelessly, I had to ask him - "How do you handle the unknown?”
"By understanding that there will always be things that are changing and to live in the moment." James' "current moment?" Sharing Intelligentsia's conscious ideals and award-winning cups of coffee steeped in quality, education and commitment to their customers and coffee farmers from around the world.