Scott Harrison is the founder and CEO of Charity: Water, a nonprofit organization working to bring clean and safe drinking water to the 633 million people living without it around the world. In eight years, Charity: Water has funded over 16,000 water projects, providing over 5.2 million people with clean water.
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Scott: Absolutely. Let’s go.
John: Scott is the founder and CEO of Charity Water, a non-profit organization working to bring clean and safe drinking water to the 633 million people living without it around the world. In eight years, Charity Water has funded over 16,000 water projects, providing over 5.2 million people with clean water. Scott, take a minute. Fill in some gaps from that intro, and give us just a glimpse into your personal life.
Scott: Sure. I guess my story is non-traditional in the charity world. I came to this space by way of night club promotion. I basically partied my brains off for ten years in New York City, from the age of 18 to 28, and lived perhaps the most soulless and decadent life that you can imagine. And was fortunate enough to find my way out of it at 28 years old, and really explore what the opposite of the life of a night club promoter would look like. And that took me on a humanitarian mission to Liberia. After selling all my possessions, I went to go live in the poorest country of the world.
To set the stage at the time, this was about 11 years ago, there was no electricity, there was no running water, there was no sewage, there was no mail. Charles Taylor, the dictator, had just been thrown out after waging a brutal 14-year civil war using child soldiers. And I had gone in on a humanitarian mission with a group of doctors and surgeons who were really trying to pick up the pieces and help people. The country had one doctor for every 50,000 of its citizens. To give you a comparison, here in America, I think it’s one for every 180 of us.
Scott: So if you got sick in the country, you’re just completely out of luck. And I was actually living on a hospital ship, a 522-foot converted yacht that had been gutted and turned into a state-of-the-art hospital. This humanitarian group had just sailed up and down the coast of Africa with the best doctors in the world, would pull into port, and thousands and thousands of people would be waiting, hoping to see a doctor, hoping to be healed. So it was an incredibly moving experience, very different from my world of popping $500 bottles of Cristal, and getting people drunk for a living.
And I was just deeply moved by what I saw. I saw patients with leprosy. I saw people with massive facial tumors. I saw people missing their faces, with flesh-eating disease, and cleft lips and cleft palates, and terrible, terrible burns from the rebels. And many of these stories ended hopefully as the doctors were able to help, as they were able to save lives, as they were able to bring medical care.
And I spent the better part of two years serving on this organization, and I think what struck me the most was as I went into these rural villages, into the remote areas of the country, I saw people drinking dirty water, and I’d never seen children drink from swamps before, from water I wouldn’t let my dog drink. I’d never seen women walk hours to a source that was brown and viscus and contaminated with algae and bacteria. And spending time with the doctors seeing thousands and thousands of people with various illnesses, and then learning that half of the country didn’t have clean water to drink – half of the population didn’t have the most basic health need met – that’s really what led me to go and work on the global water crisis.
John: So there’s so much here that I wanna dive into, Scott. And first and foremost just hearing you talk about your story – have you written a book about your life yet?
Scott: I’m gonna try and do that next year.
John: Okay. Next year, I think that’d be a great goal.
Scott: It’s really been difficult just to find the time, trying to grow the organization and as you said help those 600 and some million people. I really haven’t had time to sit and pause for reflection.
John: Have you ever read Malcolm X’s biography?
Scott: I haven’t. I haven’t.
John: It is –
Scott: Is it worth reading?
John: fascinating, Scott. I think you’ll see actually a ton of similarities between your journey and his journey. He was, growing up in Boston and New York City, and he was doing just those things. That was his life and his job was to get people high and to get people drunk, and to make money that way, until he had that big awakening. And I just really – I’m reading it right now. I’m only about 40 percent through, but I had no idea of this aspect of Malcolm X’s life, just like I bet a lot of people, when they just see you, the CEO of Charity Water, they have no idea of that past that you had.
And what I think it will do is it will inspire people that are maybe currently on that path that you were on, and that Malcolm X was on, and say, “Hey, I can turn this around. I can do something meaningful in my life. I’m not stuck on this road.” So, looking forward to that, Scott. When you come back on – I mean, I should say, we’ll have you back on when you launch that biography.
John: So let’s get into a story now, because EO Fire, we’re all about the stories of really your life as an entrepreneur, and the journey specifically. And you’ve had some great times, and we’re gonna talk about those. But I really want you to take us to what you would consider up to this moment your worst entrepreneurial moment to date, within your business. What would you say that moment is? What’s the story that surrounds that?
Scott: I think I would even go back to a pre-Charity Water business. Growing up, I guess I was always the entrepreneur, with a leaf blowing business, or knocking on doors trying to see people Christmas cards in my neighborhood. And even the foray into night life, I kinda stumbled into that when my band broke up, and I realized that the guy who was booking my band out was making all the money, and throwing us the scraps. And being on the other side of that business was really the way to succeed.
But it’s kind of a random story. I was going to – I was an only – a little more background. I was raised in a very conservative, Christian home, and my mother became an invalid when I was four years old. There was a terrible carbon monoxide gas leak in our house. The gas company had literally installed a faulty furnace with cracks in it, and carbon monoxide was rushing through our home. And it affected my dad and I a little, but my mom, specifically, was fixing up the basement, and became chronically ill, and an invalid, when I was four.
So I grew up in a pretty bizarre childhood. The caregiver role, only child, with a really sick mom. And I think that led to this radical rebellion at the age of 18. Enough of serving mom, enough playing by the good rules of the church. Now it’s my turn. And that led to just a decade of selfishness and debauchery and drugs and alcohol and smoking and pornography and gambling and pretty much any addiction you can imagine ten years in the night life would give you, short of heroine.
But about 20 years old, I had gotten taken advantage of by Chase bank, the big bank. And I was this, I was just starting out in my business, and this was back, kind of early ATM cards. One day, I log into my bank account, and I realized that about $1,000 has gone missing. And I call up Chase and it turns out that somebody in Las Vegas has ordered $1,000 of limos on my debit card. Now I have never been to Las Vegas in my life at this point, and I call Chase and said, “Hey, kindly Chase, that’s not me,” and I can prove that I wasn’t in Las Vegas. Well, they hold my money for a year.
Scott: Over a year, and they just say, “Well you have to prove it,” and it’s not like American Express that just takes your word for it. So this is in the early age of the dot com, so I set up Chasebanksucks.com. And I am going to just tell the world what a horrible bank this is. And someday they’re gonna buy this website from me for millions of dollars.
John: Of course.
Scott: I’ve made such a stink. So, part of it actually works, and it gets hundreds of thousands of visitors, and thousands and thousands of stories, so much so that I have to set up different divisions of this website for people that have been offended by the mortgage department, the credit card department, by the banking department. So I’m not alone. But I’m this 20-year old kid living in a one-bedroom apartment in the West Village, and I get interviewed by this show Business 2.0, and in it they interview some top exec at Chase who starts talking about me. And it’s basically just completely dismissive. And they eventually write me some threatening lawsuits, some letter that I kind of ignore, and the whole thing went absolutely nowhere. So I paid for a bunch of hosting fees over a couple period of years, saw $0 from Chase, and I guess provided a bunch of people a place to vent. So, not a very smart use of time or energy or resources.
John: Yeah, but I do kinda wanna focus on that last point that you did probably give a lot of people a place to vent, and who knows what disasters they avoided because they actually had a release and a place to actually go out there and vent as well. And, of course, Scott, I’m sure you learned a few things from that, so going forward, when you did this or you did that going forward in your 20s, and then into your 30s, you took those lessons with you. So love that story. I mean I can just kinda picture you in the West Village in your boxers just hunched over your computer, just kinda looking at all these different things from Chase Bank.
Scott: This is early internet. This is Goto.com, Dogpile, Lycos, Hotbot, Excite. Right? Back when there were a million search engines. And I remember at the top of this website, there was an animated gif of a man who walks across the top of the webpage, drops his drawers, and pees on the Chase logo. I mean it was the most silly, amateur thing ever, and ironically I’m a happy Chase customer today.
John: Yeah, that’s kinda funny, because I am too.
Scott: Maybe they’ll listen to this and my credit card won’t work next week, but this was an angry college kid that thought he got screwed by the system, and $1,000 meant a lot at the time.
John: Of course. Well, let’s kinda maybe sum this up now, Scott, because you probably learned a lot from that, and that was quite the experience. But what is just the one take away that you want our listeners, Fire Nation, to really get from that story?
Scott: One of the things Charity Water has done really well over the last nine years is given people a place to bring their story. So there I was encouraging people to bring their most pessimistic, snarky, almost stories of contempt, right? Stories of anger and hate. And Charity Water for the last nine years has been a place where people can bring the very best of themselves. Their compassion, their empathy, their generosity, their creativity, where they can focus on serving the poor, serving people born in situations without their most basic needs met. And we’ve really, we’ve become a platform, and given people many different ways where they can serve others. Whether it’s with their time, whether it’s with their talent, whether it’s with their money. So, if Chase Bank – I’ve never thought about this; I don’t think I’ve ever told this story before –
John: Love it!
Scott: because nobody’s asked the question before like that.
Scott: But if Chase Bank sucks 20 years ago was a place where hundreds of thousands of angry people came, Charity Water has been a place where over a million people have brought the best of themselves to really make the world a better place.
John: Scott, I love that story, and that’s exactly why we start EO Fire off with that moment, because it does usually bring people back to a time that maybe they haven’t thought of or they’ve suppressed for a while, because it’s powerful to think about our past mistakes and struggles and setbacks, because it’s part of what makes us who we are today. So, Fire Nation, don’t shy away from those things. And on the flipside, Scott, I’d love to hear another story, but this one is an epiphany, an aha moment, a lightbulb that you’ve had go off at some point in your journey, and you’ve had a ton of these. I mean I know Charity Water was one of those, and maybe you wanna share that moment. But this is your call. This is your story. What story do you wanna share with Fire Nation that involves an aha moment that you’ve had that you’ve turned into success?
Scott: I think it was probably that moment of turning my life around. So, as I mentioned, this upbringing, helping to take care of mom, raised with foundational values and morality and faith and spirituality, and then this – it was a prodigal son story. Flipping everybody the bird and saying, “Now it’s my turn. Now it’s time to live for myself.” I did that for ten years, from 18 to 28, and climbing up New York’s social ladder. I wanted to be the king of night life. And ten years later I probably got to top six or top eight in the city. And a picture of my life after ten years of selfish living, I had a Rolex and a BMW, and a grand piano in my New York apartment, and the girls I dated were always on the covers of magazines, or on billboards, and we chased models and we chased the party scene around the world.
And there was this moment in Punta Del Este, in South America, where it was a New Year’s Eve vacation, and there were servants and horses, and I was with all the right people. And they had planes, and they were throwing $10,000 hands of blackjack down without a care in the world whether they won or lost them. And I realized that in so many ways, I’d arrived.
I’d gotten almost everything I’d been chasing, and I had this epiphany that there would never be enough. I was looking for joy, for meaning, in all of the wrong places, and there would be never enough girls, or never be enough parties, or never be enough status. There would never be enough power. And I just saw brokenness everywhere. It was almost like this veil was lifted, and the 60-year old guys with private planes throwing down $10,000 hands at blackjack, they were broken. Their wives, their ex-wives, hated them. Their kids wouldn’t talk to them as they were dating girls that were often younger than their daughters.
Scott: And the thing that I had been facilitating, the story that I had been telling people, “Hey, get past my velvet rope, get past the one-way glass of the club, get drunk inside on $500 bottles of Cristal, and then your life will have meaning.” That story was the wrong story, and that if I continued down this path, my legacy was gonna be, “Here lies a man that got millions of people drunk.” And I didn’t want that on my tombstone. And I realized that I was emotionally bankrupt. I was spiritually bankrupt. I was morally bankrupt. And I’d come so far from the values and the morality of my youth, and I wanted it back. I wanted a radical change. And being a pretty radical guy, that looked like selling all my possessions and going to live in the poorest country of the world in service of others, alongside some doctors. Actually, even paying $500 a month to the organization just to let me volunteer, because nobody would take a night club promoter at first.
John: I mean this just points back to you, Fire Nation, and looking at your life and saying, “Hey, no matter where I’m at, no matter what I’m doing right now, my legacy is in my own hands.” And when you were telling that story, Scott, I just was kind of thinking of that classic story, A Christmas Story, where Scrooge is like, “Is that my gravestone? Is that what’s written on my grave?” And the answer was no. He had time to change, and he did. Just like you at 28 years old. You had time to change. And, Fire Nation, whether you’re 70, 30, 15, it doesn’t matter. Your legacy’s in your own hands. Tomorrow’s pages are blank. You have the pen to your book right now. What is your life gonna be like? Scott, what is that one, one take away that you really wanna make sure that our listeners get from just that veil that was lifted from your
Scott: I think it’s positional. A life in service of yourself and the pursuit of your own happiness leads to no happiness at all. And mine was a spiritual journey. It was a faith journey, and I rediscovered a very lost faith, a very lost morality. For me, I remember coming across this verse in the bible that said, “True religion is to look after widows and orphans in their distress, and to keep yourself from being polluted by the world.” So I was 0 for 2. I had done nothing for the poor for a decade, and not only was I the most polluted person I knew; I actually polluted others for a living.
Scott: And I think it was just a radical change. So, a life in service of others, a life of integrity, returning to those values and morality that I’d really been brought up with. I was able to find happiness there by looking after others.
John: Scott, let’s bring things to the present now. Let’s talk about you as an entrepreneur. What would you consider your biggest weakness?
Scott: I think I just wanna do everything. And I’m sure this is true for a lot of people listening. You’ve got a lot of energy. You just see opportunity everywhere. You’re excited about those opportunities. I think sometimes I lack focus. Instead of doing the three things exceptionally well, I might try to do seven or ten things.
John: Scott, this might help you. This is my acronym for the word focus – follow one course until success. Focus.
Scott: I like it.
John: Boom. It’s yours brother. Well just give me credit twice, and then after that it’s yours.
John: Scott, what is your biggest strength?
Scott: I think I’m a story teller, and I see stories everywhere. I love telling stories, and if you look at the two decades of my life – the decade of partying and telling that story, that getting drunk and laid gives your life meaning, and then the coming up on a decade with Charity Water, a life of generosity and compassion and empathy and service will give your life meaning, and give you a legacy that you and your family can be proud of.
But I think it’s about stories, and now we look for redemptive stories. We look for stories of hope. We look for stories that move people to almost call forth the gold that’s within people, to encourage them to almost surprise themselves by the virtue that’s within them. And having an organization that’s trying to help 600 and some million people get clean water, there’s just so many stories. And if you just think of the Charity Water universe, I love telling stories about the people that we serve.
Of a woman in Uganda who got clean water and told me that she felt beautiful for the first time in her life, or told our colleague, that she felt beautiful for the first time in her life because she had enough water now to wash her face and her clothes, and that water restored dignity to her life. The stories of our fundraisers, of a six year old girl named Maddy who lives in Vancouver and spent 12 weekends out there selling lemonade for Charity Water. One of those weekends it rained and she didn’t come in, and at her twelfth lemonade stand, she wanted to attract lemonade buyers, so she convinced a local band to perform on her sidewalk, and she sold $5,300 worth of lemonade to give 150 people clean water.
The stories of our local partners, our drillers in Ethiopia. I was just there three days ago, and our drillers are getting up, working 29 out of 30 days a month. They wanna maximize every single moment in the dry season to help lead their own people forward, to lead their country forward, to bring health and improved economic benefits to their citizens. The stories of our donors. The stories of our staff. I think we’re just really trying to move culture with stories.
I even see stories in unlikely places. I’ll give you an example. We crowdsourced a $1 million drilling rig a couple years ago. 10,000 people gave money to put a new $1 million drilling rig in action in Ethiopia. And it’s a tough environment to work in. I mean, this is in the middle of nowhere in a state called Tigray in the north. Really hard to reach some of these communities that we’re serving. And I learned through the grapevine that our $1 million rig has run off the road and crashed, basically. It’s on its belly. And our local partners were fixing it and were righting it, and getting the right equipment to get it back in action again.
And they were a little sheepish. They hadn’t wanted to tell us. They were just gonna do the right thing. It would take them about a month to get it back in action. And I hear this, and I’m like, “No, that’s a story! Send a photographer out there. Get me a picture of our rig, our brand new $1 million rig belly up, and I’m gonna send that to the 10,000 people that paid for it.” Because what it speaks to is the values behind the work ethic of our partners. They are not just drilling well in the easy places. They are not pulling off of the big roads and the highways. They’re willing to go to the most far flung villages to get water to the people who need it the most. And sometimes the roads are dodgy, and sometimes stuff happens. And they probably have shouldn’t have gone down that road with the rig.
But the community on the other end was waiting, and the community needed water. So I think what may be seen as a failure to our partners and to a lot of organizations, I wanted to shout from the mountain top as, “Hey, this is the reality. It doesn’t always work. It’s not easy. But it’s worth doing.” And this speaks to the values of the people that are stewarding that resource that the 10,000 people contributed to.
John: Fire Nation, I have no doubts that you have no doubts that Scott is going to crush the lightening round that we’re about to enter. Scott, are you prepared for the lightening round?
Scott: Okay, let’s do it.
John: What was holding you back from becoming an entrepreneur?
Scott: It’s tough. I was starting things as young as I can remember. Some with more success than others, but I think I always just had that entrepreneurial spirit.
John: What’s the best advice that you’ve ever received?
Scott: Two categories. One work advice. I saw a saying that someone sent me a picture of once. And it said do not be afraid of work that never ends. I don’t know if we’re gonna get 660 million people clean water. When we finish that, there’s gonna be another need we’re gonna meet, whether it’s shelter, whether it’s hunger, whether it’s health. But don’t be afraid of that. Don’t be afraid of work that might not have a neat ending. Personal advice, the best thing I ever heard was the only person you can change in your marriage is you. Anybody that’s married probably knows that.
John: What is a personal habit that contributes to your success?
Scott: I think for me it’s really prayer. It’s a spiritual life that is real to me. A belief that life is not about me or my happiness, but it’s about serving others. It is looking after the widows and orphans. It’s trying to live a life of compassion and generosity and integrity and to be a great role model for my kids.
John: Can you share an internet resource like Ever Note with Fire Nation?
Scott: Yeah, I love this little app called Clear. Best productivity app I have ever used. I have tried a million to do lists over the years, and Clear app is my absolute favorite. It’s stuck with me for the last couple years. Love Pocket as well, for readers. I’m one of those chronic pocketers. I just keep saving stuff for later, and then every once in a while will batch read on a plane and go read 60 articles.
John: That’s what I was gonna say. When you’re flying to Ethiopia, that can be a nice time to catch up on Pocket. Now if you could recommend just one book, Scott, for Fire Nation, what would it be and why?
Scott: Yeah, its’ a book on story called the Elements of Persuasion, by a guy named Robert Dickman that talks a lot about the hero’s journey, and just how people respond to stories. How to move people through story.
John: Scott, this is the last question of the lightening round, but it is a doozy. Imagine you woke up tomorrow morning in a brand new world identical to earth but you knew no one. You still have all the experience and knowledge you currently have. Your food and shelter is taken care of, but all you have is a laptop and $500. What would you do in the next seven days?
Scott: Well, the old life might have tried to throw a party –
Scott: and get as many people drunk as possible. I mean that sounds like a post-apocalyptic scenario.
Scott: I think now it would be, I mean if I’ve got my food and shelter and my needs met, then I’m probably very, very fortunate in whatever scenario this is. It’d be to go and seek out the greatest needs in the area. Find the marginalized people, find the injured people and try to build community and look for ways to help them out. And to share, obviously, what I have.
John: Well, Scott, I wanna end it today on Fire with you sharing a parting piece of guidance, the best way that we can connect and support with Charity Water, and then we’ll say goodbye.
Scott: Oh man, a piece of guidance I think is just if there’s anything to take from my story, it’s 10 years of selfish living that really led nowhere. I’m so glad that I was able to survive it, and I think anything can be redeemed. I’m very fortunate that I was able to take so many of the things that I learned through that decade that was helpful to no one, not even myself, and turn them for good. Nothing is kinda beyond redemption. And I’ve had this incredible opportunity to yeah, lead an organization and lead a group of a million people who have said, “We can do something about this mind-numbing statistic, about the 600 million people living in poverty, and put a little dent in that. Be able to help coming up on six million people around the world in 17,000 villages get clean water. I think it’s never too late. I mean, if you had seen me bent over a plate of cocaine at an after-hours at noon, you would have thought I was gone. I wouldn’t live to see 40. And I was really fortunate to have kinda found my way out of that in a really extreme way, and be able to live a very different story.
Ways to connect with us. We’re at Charitywater.org, and I think one of the things that everybody can do that we’ve had so much success with is we give people an opportunity to donate their birthday for clean water.
John: Oh, cool.
Scott: And turn the birthday into a giving moment. Birthdays for so many people are about getting stuff for themselves, about gifts and ties and wallets and handbags and shoes. And we’ve said, “Look. We don’t need more crap. There are 600 and some million people without water. What if you could use your birthday for good? What if you could use your birthday to serve others?” And we’ve created this program, a platform called mycharitywater.org, and it’s very simple. You ask for your age in dollars, or pound or euros. So a seven-year old kid will say, “Don’t get me anything. I’m not having a party. Just donate $7 for my birthday.” And an 89-year old will ask for $89 and a 42-year old will as for $42. And we’ve been able to raise tens of millions of dollars just through everyday people saying I can’t write a big check, but you could have my birthday.
Scott: And I might be able to get a few of my friends and family to help Charity Water through that. So that’s a really simple thing, even if your birthday’s a year from now, you can just go to charitywater.org/birthdays and learn more about how that works.
John: I love that. And Fire Nation, I know you know this. You are the average of the five people that you hang out with the most. And you’ve been hanging out with Scott Harrison and JLD today, so keep up the heat. We’re talking the last nine years Scott Harrison, not the 18 – 28-year old Scott Harrison.
John: So Fire Nation, head over to eofire.com. Just type Scott in the search bar. His show notes page will pop up with everything that we’ve been talking about today. And of course go directly to charitywater.org and mywatercharitywater.org. And that birthday idea is phenomenal. I was just actually made a note – I’m turning 36 in about a month, so you better believe that that’s what I’m doing, Fire Nation.
Scott: Dude, I will be your first donor at 136 bucks, so we’ve gotten –
John: Woah! I will Scott.
Scott: You have at least a reason to do the birthday.
John: Oh, you’re the man. I love that. And, Scott, I do wanna personally thank you for sharing your journey with Fire Nation today. For that we salute you, and we’ll catch you on the flip side.
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