This is a wonderful planet we live on and we should enjoy it every day, because it won’t be here forever if we continue to disrespect her. It’s now or never. If not you, then who?
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing James Merrill.
James spent the last decade living and working in every corner of the world for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and other international NGOs. From Asia to the Middle East and all across Africa, James helped build and expand programs addressing gender and economic inequality, agricultural value chains, climate change, and biodiversity protection policies.
All of this allowed James to see the magnificent beauty of the world firsthand: the sights, the people, the cultures. However, the images of violence, poverty, pollution and abandonment he saw have stayed with him too. That’s what Opolis is born out of. The beauty and despair James experienced around the world inspired him to create a brand with a soul; a company that’s able to uplift and benefit the communities (and the unsung heroes) he met along the way. A lifestyle that would take his love for travel, culture, photography, the environment and adventure, and use it to have a positive impact.
And so, it happened. James left his old life behind and created Opolis, a sunglasses brand on a mission to help those in need. Shedding light on the beauty and afflictions both people and the planet endure every day.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I grew up in New England’s Kennebunkport, Maine. Many people asked if I grew up summering there, but I am happy to say I was a year-round, four season Mainer. I grew up exploring the beaches and mountains of my home state. I took advantage of all it had to offer like camping with my family in Bar Harbor, voyaging up the coast of Maine, eating the world’s best lobster, snowboarding Sunday River and Sugarloaf, and surfing the winter holiday’s storm systems.
When I was not totally immersed in the Maine wilderness I was touring the US with my premier soccer team or playing lacrosse. I attended a private Jesuit High School named Cheverus, based in Portland Maine, focused on St. Ignatius of Loyola’s (1491–1556) vision of the “magis,”which challenged us to seek the “greater good” and to embody this vision by becoming men and women for others. Active in the community service programs I started thinking how I could give back or create an impact.
You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
I created Opolis to be a conscientious global brand that builds premium eyewear using recyclable and bio-based materials. This focus on sustainability is in direct response to the plastic pollution I saw while overseas over the past decade.
I first saw how single-use plastic led to degradation of natural resources and impacted low-income communities. Through technological innovation, Opolis uses rPET plastic — that would otherwise ultimately end up in the ocean — as upcycled material for durable goods like sunglasses. Opolis is also intentional about sourcing plastic in a manner that creates jobs in Kenya, Indonesia, and the Philippines. As a consumer ourselves, we need to take accountability into our own hands by researching each raw materials’ supply chain to determine whether it aligns with our definition of sustainability.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
By managing projects for USAID and its NGO partners, I was exposed to many diverse projects all around the world. The mission of the projects ranged from agriculture value chains to biodiversity protection to the prevention of violent extremism. But among everything I saw and experienced, the ever-consistent issue of plastic pollution was always present, no matter where I went. Its ubiquitousness and vastness has stuck with me ever since.
Over 500 billion plastic bottles are made every year, one million are bought every minute, and only nine percent are recycled. Most of these plastic polluters either end up in a landfill or in the ocean. I experienced these statistics firsthand working with fishing communities all over southeast Asia and landfill communities in Africa. Plastic pollution had a severely negative impact on people’s health, life expectancy, hygiene, and education.
Working with these communities and seeing what they dealt with every day had a profound impact on me. I told myself that if I ever decided to leave my career I would do something to support these communities’ environments.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
Approximately two and half years ago I left the government contracting world to help a college friend launch his affordable eyewear company. At this point in my career, I was ready for something different — a new challenge if you will. However, I had no idea what I would do. Government contracting was all I knew so when my friend asked if I would help him build his company I jumped at the opportunity.
While working for the government I wore many hats — mainly managing and overseeing multi-million dollar projects in the most complex parts of the world. My biggest strength was serving as a Project Start-Up Specialist. Once my company received word that we had won a contract they would send me to the project location, like Iraq, Uzbekistan, Bangladesh or Indonesia, and tasked me to build the project from scratch. This meant registering within that country, locating office space, hiring staff, training staff, meeting with local government figure heads, reporting into US government officials and developing the project’s programming. I basically had to think like an entrepreneur or head of a startup, and learn quickly how to navigate a new terrain and get things done, regardless of the obstacles.
My friend knew how hard I worked and the physical toll it took on me which is why he asked me to help him on this endeavor. So, I finished my assignment in Northern Nigeria, moved back to DC, gave my two weeks’ notice and before I knew it found myself in Los Angeles (and then Bali) launching a new e-commerce sunglasses company.
My “Aha Moment” came in September 2019. The sunglasses launch went extremely well and the company was generating revenue. However, as our customer base was growing, so were the questions pertaining to our manufacturing process — in particular, how they were made, who made them, what were they made of and MOST importantly how they impacted the environment. That’s when I noticed a trend and concern from our consumers about single use plastic being pushed into the marketplace. I could not answer them in the way that I had wanted to and my experience seeing how single use plastics were impacting communities and environments continued to eat away at me. It was at this moment that I decided to start my own company using sunglasses as the agent for change in combating the plastic endemic. My friend had given me the skill set and experience within the e-commerce and sunglasses production framework. Paired with my background and skill set, I knew I could do this, and do it well.
That’s when Opolis — the Greek word for “Citizen” or “Community” — was born.
Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
To be honest it was never my intention to start my own company. For the longest time I wanted to find a path in which I could support positive impact, experience and meet new people and cultures, and travel. It wasn’t until I started managing complex government contracts that I realized my desire to lead.
After leaving the contracting world for the private sector I realized the skills I acquired over the years working for the government were directly applicable to starting and running a successful ecommerce company. So when it came time to refine my idea for a business everything came naturally. I started by focusing on the following:
1. Cultivating my idea
One of the very first things I did to cultivate my idea was to write my ideal mission statement. For most founders they write out a business plan, create a branding/style guide that includes a logo concept and identity, and develop a budget. While these steps are important to the process, I needed to come up with something to help fuel everything else. I started writing down what my ideal product would be, what type of impact I wanted to make, who was my target audience, and what I hoped the company could be. It wasn’t until I started writing out my thesis and addressing the “who, what, when, how and why” did I start understanding what I wanted and what I needed to do to bring this idea to fruition.
2. Honest & Transparent Supply Chain
A major recurring theme that continued to pop up while drafting my ideal mission statement was “honesty,” “transparency,” and “supply chain.” Whether it be a supply chain or value chain, the most successful projects had a clear vision on how each step, person, and thing associated with the chain were connected. Always keeping the overall mission in mind.For me this idea or business would only be successful if positive impact was occurring at every step. Without realizing it, this focus turned into what is called a circular economy. I wanted those that were picking our rPET out of the oceans, beaches and landfills to benefit. I wanted the certified manufactures within these countries that we were sourcing from to benefit so that the communities at large were positively impacted. I wanted people purchasing our product to know what and how their purchase benefits people and the planet.
3. Quality Product
Without providing a quality product to the market I knew I would never have a chance to make the impact I wanted nor meet the goals listed within my ideal mission statement. I put myself in the shoes of the consumer to understand what would get someone to buy a product that was over 100 dollars. My two answers every time were (1) quality and (2) impact. Currently, there are amazing brands out there doing incredible things with upcycled or recycled products. However, in my picky opinion, there wasn’t much out there that I would wear on a consistent basis. I would be inclined to purchase because of the story, sourcing and impact but that would be more or less a donation. I wanted to create a product made out of incredible materials and something a consumer would never want to take off her or his face.
4. Identifying my Strengths and Weaknesses
For the most part, the success I have had in both academia and my professional career had to do with my great curiosity: asking as many questions as possible ability to swallow whatever ego I had and ask away. This unabashed ability to ask questions and ability to admit when I didn’t have all the answers allowed me to realize my strength in identifying my weaknesses and most importantly identifying strengths in others. In order to have a successful business, a leader needs to surround herself or himself around smarter people — not only that — those individuals that hold the skill sets that a person does not pose themselves. My strength is in operations, networking and building out a vision. However, it takes far more than organization skills and socializing to scale a company.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Rather than an interesting story I have a great observation. Although I have only been doing this for a short time I have been overwhelmed by amazing individuals, brands and organizations within the sustainable, green, blue and circular economies space. The support and welcome I have received has been extremely humbling and unexpected. I have even received support from those in competition within the same space. The most interesting take away or story I have encountered is that people and companies within the space care about the common goal, being that change and/or impact cannot be made by few but many. It’s an extremely selfless space and I am grateful to be in it.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
By far one of the funniest mistakes was when I took my first crack at product design. Given that our designs are custom, my manufacturer had to create molds from scratch which meant the technical designs I was providing had to be extremely precise. After going through multiple iterations and review of the technical designs I thought they were ready for mold production. A month or two later I received the samples in the mail. I was super excited to finally see my idea realized. When I took them out of their packaging the sustainable materials looked and felt amazing. However, when I put them on they looked like something a giant would wear or someone suffering from severe cataracts. These things were huge; I looked like Mr. Magoo. The mistake was entirely mine, as I had provided the wrong dimensions. I was so distraught over this mistake, but ultimately decided to engage in a self-deprecating laugh session. Sometimes the best medicine for mistakes is laughter, sobe prepared to laugh a lot at yourself when starting a business.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
There is absolutely no way I would be where I am without the support, advice, and mentorship given by my family, friends and mentors. I do have a story about a mentor but first and foremost, I need to acknowledge my family’s relentless support in pursuing this. Without their support, confidence and faith I would have never pursued this.
The mentor I have is an amazing businessman, college alum and most importantly a friend. He has been building his sustainable fertilizer company for over five years. He’s accomplished so much within a short period of time. Given that he has been building his company for years he has gone through the trials, tribulations and successes that successful businesses endure. He was and continues to be an incredible resource for me while I feel my way through this turbulent path.
From the very beginning he has been a huge supporter of Opolis and had unwavering faith I could and would do this. One of my favorite interactions with him was pertaining to an investor call. While I feel like I have had hundreds of these calls, I remember this one in particular because it was his reaction/advice that has been ever present in my mind. I was going through a series of seed rounds of investor presentations. This one presentation in particular went approximately two hours. It started as a standard presentation where I’d introduce myself, give a summary of my background, and then walk through my executive summary and investor deck (about 25 slides long). However, the questions I received after insinuated they might make an offer then and there. My intuition was correct, and they did; however the offer caused me to worry. We finished the presentation and I told them I would get back to them regarding the offer. The first person I called was my mentor. I gave him a high-level summary of how it went. He then said — and I will never forget this -“now do you want to hear what I have to say about it, or would you rather just tell me what your gut says?” It was in this instance that I understood the importance of the question he was asking and how important it is to trust one’s own instinct, or what he calls a “BS meter.” From that point on, whether it be investor meetings or discussions with third party vendors or whatever, I always trusted my gut. It’s amazing how effective my “BS meter” is now.
Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
There are 100+ things the community, society, politicians and corporations can do to help support circular economies to address the well-being of communities, countries and the environments most in need. However, in my opinion, the number one priority for all of these groups should be Accountability. If we hold each other accountable we are committing to uphold and adhere to checks and balances that ensure what we are saying, creating, and selling is what it is without using smoke and mirrors to convey and that we have the community at large in mind. For instance, within the direct-to-consumer market there are many brands, organizations and corporations that have good intentions but tend to sell their customers something without being 100% transparent. They can do this without any repercussion because there are no checks and balances, legislations or required audits to keep folks from saying their product does such and such i.e., “is sustainable” when it’s not. If accountability measures pertaining to sustainability were enforced with legislation this would help, ensure that folks involved in specific circular economies were actually benefiting.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
I suppose this goes back to the theme I keep emphasizing about an honest and transparent supply chain. If a brand, organization or corporation is focused on honesty, they will inform their audience and customers of every aspect of production. People want to know the obstacles that folks face. It makes it more real and something they can relate to. If the target audience knows the struggles one goes through in developing a sustainable product, they will be more inclined to pay a bit more for it. In addition, with the new technological advancement in using sustainable materials there is no reason why industries that are using, let’s say, plastic should not be using PET (recycled water/soda bottles) to make their products. The margins and costs are not much different.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Be good to your relationships and network
2. Remind yourself each day why you are doing what you are doing
3. Don’t be afraid to fail, you will fail everyday
4. Don’t take yourself too seriously
5. Inspire through action
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
This is a wonderful planet we live on and we should enjoy it every day, because it won’t be here forever if we continue to disrespect her. It’s now or never. If not you, then who?
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I graduated from high school, I received a paper weight that had a Chinese proverb inscribed which stated; “The glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time you fall.” This is something I think about every day. Failing is a part of life; it’s how we react and bounce back that is what’s truly meaningful. If we never failed, we would never appreciate the true meaning of joy or success.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Without a doubt I would love to break bread with Yvon Choucinard, founder and owner of Patagonia. He is THE original pioneer of sustainability practices. He is the anti-businessman while being one of the best. What I love most about him is that he has not forgotten why he created Patagonia. He could have retired 100 times over but continues to push his company and its standards. Because he has stuck to his principles, his company has flourished. I would love five minutes just to be in that kind of presence.
How can our readers follow you online?
Folks can find me and Opolis online via:
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!