- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2000

Call it coffee with a conscience. It's not often that conservatives get involved in "socially responsible" causes benefiting Latin America, but two young entrepreneurs are doing just that through a coffee company that markets to individuals and church groups.
Seeking to "satisfy the physical and spiritual hunger of those in need," the coffee company calls itself Pura Vida, meaning "pure life" in Spanish. It is also a slang phrase for "cool" or "great."
Begun in October 1998 by retired Microsoft executive John Sage, 38, and missionary Chris Dearnley, 39, the company aims to bring compassion, Christianity and coffee together.
"In the back of my mind I had always hoped to find a way to put my business and faith together," Mr. Sage says. "It came down to the right circumstances, timing and attitude."
Pura Vida, which sells coffee for $6.95 to $8.95 a pound through the Internet, donates 100 percent of its net profits to aiding the poor and homeless in Costa Rica. Based in Seattle, it has a staff of 10.
The company operates under two separate entities: Pura Vida, which is the for-profit business side, and its sister company, Pura Vida Partners, which is the nonprofit vehicle used to accept donations and fund its charity efforts.
The two men, who met while studying at Harvard University's business school in the 1980s, began discussing the Pura Vida concept during a poolside conversation three years ago.
"Chris handed me a bag of coffee from Costa Rica, and I started wondering about how much it costs to make and what the margin of profit would be," Mr. Sage said. "In a nutshell, it was increasingly clear that starting this company was what we needed to do."
At first, the plans were to sell only to churches. Then Mr. Sage and Mr. Dearnley decided the Internet would be a great place to peddle their wares.
"The Web is a way to agitate our market, which is very fragmented, but large," Mr. Sage says. The company plans to keep its business Internet-based, leaving street sales to larger coffee companies such as Seattle's Best Coffee and Starbucks.
Mr. Sage is hoping the nature of his company will persuade coffee drinkers to purchase a "coffee that cares."
Morningstar Inc., a Chicago-based company that tracks mutual funds and stocks, is finding that socially responsible investments, or SRIs, are becoming increasingly popular as interest in investing grows.
"There is a demand for SRIs," Morningstar analyst Catherine Hickey says. "More and more people do realize that you can invest according to your values."
The majority of SRIs were started in the mid-1990s and were designed to give people the choice of investing in environmentally friendly companies and keeping clear of alcohol or tobacco companies.
"Pura Vida is a pretty specific and rare case," Ms. Hickey says, referring to the company's commitment to donate all profit to the needy. "Even Ben and Jerry's [ice cream], where they support farms run by certain people, is rare."
The money Pura Vida generates provides Costa Rican street children with meals, clothing, medical assistance and computer centers.
"You meet these kids and you hear their stories," Mr. Dearnley says. "The more you get involved with something like this, the more you see and realize the need."
He cites the case of 6-year-old Corina, "a deaf immigrant whose parents never took her to a doctor for fear of being deported. We heard her story and agreed to help her. It turns out she had partial hearing, and she was able to be fitted for a hearing aid."
Mr. Dearnley, who has been working directly with Costa Ricans intermittently for the past 12 years, said his epiphany occurred at a drug rehabilitation center in San Jose, the Costa Rican capital.
"I asked someone how I could really help, and that person told me I could help by helping the kids on the street because they were the future drug addicts."
Tourists often think of Costa Rica as the "Switzerland of Central America." It is a democratic, developing, midlevel economy country with a good tourist industry and great beaches, but it also has an alarmingly active child prostitution ring.
"The kids are victims of circumstances," Mr. Dearnley says. "They have to find a way to support themselves and sometimes the easiest is prostitution. The problem is bigger than most are willing to admit. It looks bad to admit it is a problem, and there are a lack of funds to stop it."
Coffee companies are not the only businesses striving to be socially responsible. Target Stores give 5 percent of their taxable income to various charitable organizations and have been essential in funding the recent restoration of the Washington Monument.
Pura Vida is doing well for a 2-year-old company. Since December, sales have increased eight-fold, and the company now has more than 3,000 customers in its database. Sold in black bags with yellow tags, the coffee tastes a tad gentler than its neighboring competitor's, Starbucks.
Pura Vida gave more than $80,000 to help the poor in Costa Rica last year, and diverted a portion of its profits for food and clothing in Nicaragua and Honduras after Hurricane Mitch wreaked havoc.
The entrepreneurs' inspiration comes from the gratification of seeing children's lives change.
"My motivation from the beginning was to support the work of my friend," Mr. Sage says. "We need to remain focused on the kids as our shareholders."
Starbucks, begun in Seattle in 1971, also funds projects in Central America, mostly in Guatemala.
Dave Olson, senior vice president of corporate social responsibility at Starbucks, says his company's sales help people in other countries to "advocate for themselves."
"In Guatemala, where we are the most active, we focus on the care component by supporting neighborhood clinics and clean-water projects," he says.
Customers are not buying Pura Vida coffee based solely on the company's work outside the United States.
Andy Caterall, president of Integrity Marketing in Kirkland, Wash., likes the fact that he can support a good endeavor and receive a good product run by a competitive business.
"We're kind of coffee snobs in Seattle," Mr. Caterall said. "The product has to be good or people will say great cause, maybe buy a couple of pounds, and then go back to Starbucks or whatever their normal" coffee is.

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