Meet James Langer: Advisory Board member and entrepreneur going above and beyond for education
Over the last four years, James Langer has supported two Pencils of Promise partner communities in Guatemala and Laos, joined the Pencils of Promise Advisory Board and traveled with PoP around the world to see his impact firsthand.
After traveling to Guatemala, he was inspired to give back to PoP even further through his yoga apparel company, Joriki. Just like James, Joriki believes in giving back: social consciousness is the fabric of their brand, and a portion of the proceeds from each sale goes to support a carefully selected set of organizations that fight global poverty. Through this partnership, James’ impact with PoP continues to grow.
We sat down with James to hear more about what PoP means to him, and about his long-term vision for his involvement with PoP and for the organization:
Why do you consider philanthropy an important part of not only your personal aspirations but also your strategic business objectives?
I feel that living in the United States, and being given the blessings that have been endowed upon me, I don’t need what I have by any stretch of the imagination. It’s important for me to give back and help others who are less fortunate. And in today’s world, we’re in a position to make a much stronger impact through charitable contributions, probably more than ever. It’s important to me personally, which then dovetails into my business life as well.
I want to use what capabilities I do have to benefit others throughout the world who need the help, and that means through my business.
Have you seen a positive trend of businesses incorporating social good into their overall strategy? How has that influenced the world?
Most companies are adopting some sort of philanthropic aspect — whether it be subtle, or direct like ours. Millennials are very mindful of social consciousness and supporting businesses that do good. Given the speed at which information travels today, it’s important to not only have a good product, but a message behind that product, and a purpose behind it, and to ultimately create an emotional experience that a customer can connect with when purchasing.
Tell us more about the genesis of Joriki.
I had my own yoga practice that I started about ten years ago. I was traveling a lot, and what I noticed when I started was that all of the yogis seemed to be wearing the same clothes, black leggings and a simple top. And then they’d leave yoga class and change into these wild colors showing in their clothes. They’re very individualist personalities, but that wasn’t necessarily reflected in the yoga classroom.
During my travels, I met a lot of extraordinary artisans who were making patterns and weaving tapestries. Different inspirational, colorful products — all very local to the communities, and unknown in the states. I thought “wouldn’t it be cool to take the inspiration from those patterns and colors, add them to a high-quality product yoga pant and then give money back into those communities,” which ultimately inspired the design and colors.
Why did you want Pencils of Promise to be one of the charities that you partner with?
PoP is the charity that I’m most passionate about — and I’m always thinking of creative ways, that myself or my company, can benefit the organization
In Ghana, Guatemala and Laos there are such rich textile traditions, and on our trip to Guatemala I gathered so many photos and went to a lot of fabric shops. I came up with a product that hopefully reflects the Guatemalan culture, and is a high-quality product at the same time (available here, each purchase benefits PoP). For each one of our products that is inspired by a specific country, we give back the proceeds to those communities.
It was just a natural synergy for us to give back to PoP. And because I’ve been so involved with the organization personally, I decided to give a percentage of Joriki proceeds back to the organization.
What challenges do you experience in creating a social good business?
The market that we’re in, ‘athleisure’, is maybe the most competitive apparel market that there is right now. There are new entries almost on a daily basis (as well as exits). If Beyonce wakes up in the morning and says she wants to create a yoga line, she has a fully-branded line within just a couple of weeks.
Another challenge is that there are a lot of low-cost manufacturers, bigger companies that have a substantial cost advantage. We’re trying to position ourselves as a premium and high-quality product that won’t fall apart after wearing it five times. So, our costs associated with manufacturing are much higher than competitors, and we have to reflect that to some degree in our retail price.
What do you want people to know about Joriki?
I want them to know that we have an extraordinarily high-quality product. That we put a tremendous amount of time into the design and manufacturing of the product (we manufacture in the USA) AND we are truly trying to impact different peoples’ lives across the world.
Why did you choose PoP?
I’ve always been attracted to charities that have a strong transparency element to their operations, organizations that show directly where the charitable dollars are going.
PoP’s measurable results are exceptionally important to me, and something that I think is relatively new, and rare, in the nonprofit world.
Additionally, education is very important to me. Providing children with access to a clean, beautiful classroom is essential. It’s difficult to have the same learning experience that we all took for granted when you’re learning outside, maybe under a mango tree.
So, I sent an email to Adam Braun (PoP’s founder) about four years ago and couldn’t be happier with the journey that I’ve been on. Being able to travel to each one of PoP’s partner countries, they’ve all been trips that I’ll never forget. And it’s been amazing to see the organization grow.
Traveling to PoP’s remote partner communities is no easy task. Why have you made the commitment to travel to see PoP’s work firsthand?
I thought it was important to see exactly how the communities responded to the schools, what was important for each community and to best understand their needs and understand how PoP addresses those needs.
Seeing things with your own eyes is a much different experience than looking at photos or reading about it. You can never truly feel the impact of the work until you’re on the ground. And the feeling that you get when you experience a school opening or see how happy the children are is something that becomes addictive, and you want to experience it again and again.
If you could share a message with all of our PoP kids and families, what would it be?
There really is unlimited opportunity through education. Think bigger. Think about goals you may not have thought about before. Understand that the world has unlimited possibilities.
Really that anything is possible, and take advantage of the gifts that you have.
How has PoP benefited your life personally?
It has made me appreciate what I have — the small things I have—very much. It’s hard to complain about taking a cold shower, or if you can’t find exactly what you want to eat, the things we take for granted on a daily basis. Being involved with PoP resets your perspective on life. You can see, when traveling to rural communities, how happy people are with the little that they have.
What do you think needs to change about the world of philanthropy today in order to truly impact as many lives as possible (if anything)?
Nonprofits need to start having more of a business mentality to them. And once again, to measure the results that they’re achieving and to have a clearer ROI with all of the work that they do so that supporters can truly connect.
There are always examples of nonprofits going to Africa and building a well. They then leave the project and, six months later, there’s no water. Not only does there need to be initial commitment, but there also needs to be a strong follow-up to each project.
PoP has a wonderful model of trying to create something that is repeatable by others in the community, and creating a snowball effect that is a learning experience to the governments, politicians and the powers that be — and building that sustainable model is exceptionally important. That’s the direction that I think philanthropy needs to be going.
What’s on the horizon for you with Pencils of Promise?
I plan to continue my role on the PoP Advisory Board. I truly enjoy it. We’ve talked about coming up with some creative fundraisers in the near future. A friend that I have in Los Angeles, one of my work colleagues, knows PoP very well and he’s agreed that we should team up and create some impactful events.
I’m also planning an exciting event to raise awareness for PoP in Chicago, where I’m currently based. Chicago is a city that’s very focused on education and I’m looking forward to helping introduce PoP to the community. The event will be Friday, September 28th at the Virgin Hotel — if you’re in Chicago and want to attend, email firstname.lastname@example.org or more information!
There’s no better feeling than providing education to these kids. So I just plan to continue to be involved. You have an amazing team that has been built in a very thoughtful way.