Doing Good to the Last Drop

Seattle Times Betty Udesen

All it took to change John Sage's life was a good friend, a sunny day and a bag of Costa Rican coffee.

On a lazy afternoon by the pool in July 1997, Sage was sharing memories and margaritas with Chris Dearnley, his former roommate from Harvard Business School. Dearnley, who was serving as a Vineyard church pastor in Costa Rica, explained how difficult it was to fund his aid program for underprivileged children. Sage, who had recently become a stock-options millionaire from the sale of his Internet start-up, said he was ready to leave the corporate world but not sure what to do next. "It was just one of those great poolside conversations about life, money and fate," Sage says. When Dearnley presented him with a bag of coffee, "we both had this sudden vision of a way to support his ministry."

The idea percolated quickly. Five months later, Sage and Dearnley founded Pura Vida Coffee, which sells Costa Rican coffee online and donates its net profits -- more than $20,000 so far -- to social welfare projects in the struggling Central American country.

Friends, relatives and church congregations around the country have scooped up more than 4,000 pounds of Pura Vida's gourmet java. "People are intrigued by the cause and also comment that it's very good coffee," says Robert Caldwell, café manager of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Columbus, Ohio. A pound of Pura Vida Premium sells for $8.95 -- $1 less than Starbucks House Blend.

Dearnley uses the 25 percent to 30 percent profit margin to provide housing and job training to recovering drug addicts and food and necessities to poor children. Last winter, Sage traveled to Costa Rica to see the results of these efforts. When he met a young boy who had been physically abused, he says, "all I could think was, these are our shareholders. We're not working for an IPO or to generate a dividend."

Sage carries out Pura Vida's unusual business plan from -- where else? -- Seattle, where he lives with his wife, Shelly Ogden, '83, and two sons, Jackson, 5, and Nicholas, 2. Although he bankrolled the company's start-up costs and continues to subsidize it, he believes he can "harness capitalism on behalf of philanthropy" and make Pura Vida self-supporting. The students in Harvard Business School's class on entrepreneurship in the social sector, who analyzed the company last fall, agree. They predict that within three years, the company will be worth $50 million.

-- Sonya Schneider, '00