I Had My Dream Job, Then Lost It. But My Comeback Was Even Greater

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OZY and JPMorgan Chase & Co. have partnered to bring you an inside look at how entrepreneurs are coming up with innovative methods to help the communities around them. Enjoy the rest of our special series here.

There is a certain irony in the fact that a large part of any success I have achieved in life is due to the fact that I was born and raised in Washington, D.C. in the 1980s, right as the effects of rampant crack cocaine trafficking throughout the city was leading to the highly ineffective War on Drugs and eventually, the Era of Mass Incarceration. My parents, both Ivy League–educated professionals and acutely conscious community leaders, insisted that me and my two younger brothers focus on being lifelong learners, preparing for the opportunity to be excellent and living for something greater than ourselves. Each of those three tenets has proven invaluable in my winding career path and my personal mission to live as a true man for others.

Save for the extra homework assignments, college-level summer reading lists and the daily 5 a.m. “character building” workout regimen that my father insisted my brothers and I endure — all for the privilege of free room and board in the family home — there were no hardships in my upbringing. The world outside my front door, however, posed a different set of challenges. It was that difficult environment that broke many families and impoverished a lot of communities. But for the blessing of having been born into a family with two amazing parents and having had selfless teachers and coaches and neighbors as guardrails, my life could have taken a very different route. For that reason, I am grateful every day for them.

No small number of kind, generous and patient individuals have been helpful in my journey, but it was my parents who first instilled in me the qualities it takes to be a leader. They raised me and my younger brothers in a home with equal parts Black Nationalist pride (my namesake is Malcolm X), respect for service to our country (my grandfather was a World War II veteran and my mother was an Army reservist), love, discipline and a never-ending search for knowledge of self. Right before I left for college, it was my parents who reminded me: “Life humbles us all and real leaders do before they tell.”

I left D.C. in August 1994 for the University of Notre Dame, and despite my mother’s initial uncertainty about how I would balance my academic workload with the fulltime job of being a student-athlete, I could not have been more focused on a very specific outcome: maintaining the highest GPA on the football team en route to a place in the NFL.  It was at Notre Dame that I met Urban Meyer, who was then just a 31-year-old assistant coach for the team’s wide receivers, but today holds the head coaching position at Ohio State and is a three-time national champion. One practice, Urban told me something that lives in my heart to this day. “You will not win every time,” he said. “But don’t ever let anyone beat you.”

Urban Meyer’s tutelage would eventually propel me to a place in the 1999 NFL draft. During my brief time in the league I found happiness in the camaraderie, teamwork and sense of pride that came from persevering through a grueling workout, practice or game, and the unity and resolve that came from regrouping to fight another day after a bitter defeat. 

My singular focus as a student-athlete helped me reach the NFL. However, that kind of tunnel vision — professional success fueled in large part by channeling out all other outside pursuits — was what led to me experiencing the lowest of the lows when my NFL dream ended with an unceremonious thud less than four years after it began. Eventually, I picked myself back up, had the courage to broaden my horizons and start chipping away at areas that were once weaknesses. I purposely sought out a quantitatively challenging business school program, knowing I would need that skill set in order to compete in finance. Today, the mental toughness I needed to needed to navigate the steps from D.C. to the NFL to JPMorgan are just as important as being able to quickly analyze a client’s balance sheet or operating statement, but I am confident in my ability to handle both because I challenged myself to become well-rounded.

I have come to realize that competing and winning at work can never happen if you view it as “just a job.” 

I was also intentional in choosing an employer that believes in melding talents from all walks of life and all over the world, to serve clients every bit as unique, skilled and diverse. I am inspired by our deep commitment to doing the right thing for the communities where we do business. Alongside my day job as an executive director in JPMorgan’s Real Estate Banking group, I am proud to serve as executive co-sponsor for The Fellowship Initiative, the firm’s mentorship program for young men of color.

Through my first career as a fringe NFL player, and now in the no less adrenaline-pumping world of real estate finance, I have come to realize that competing and winning at work can never happen if you view it as “just a job.” The lessons I have learned, both on the field and in the boardroom, have shown me how a career should not merely be about showing up for work, but helping you gain a truer sense of self and making an impact on the world around you.

Business and leadership, football and my parents have all taught me crucial lessons. The world is not yours or theirs, it is ours. And happiness is a personal, always evolving pursuit.

It can be easy to lose sight of the big picture in the day-to-day minutiae — to-do lists that never get shorter, email inboxes that just won’t let up. But I like to use Labor Day to reflect on what is most important, and impactful, about my day-to-day job. It allows me to pursue true happiness.

Malcolm Johnson is Chair of JPMorgan Chase’s West Coast Diversity Hiring Committee and leads JPMorgan Chase’s efforts in covering institutional real estate companies in Southern California as an executive director.

There’s More to Labor Day Than an Extra Vacation Day

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OZY and JPMorgan Chase & Co. have partnered to bring you an inside look at how entrepreneurs are coming up with innovative methods to help the communities around them. Enjoy the rest of our special series here.

Labor Day marks more than the unofficial end of summer in the United States. The first Monday of September is also meant to honor the contribution that workers make to the well-being of the country — right now, the size of that contribution is unprecedented.

“We tend to look at the labor market as a barometer for the health of our economy,” explains Jim Glassman, head economist for Commercial Banking at JPMorgan Chase. “It’s looking amazingly good,” he says, noting:

The country’s unemployment rate is at a 16-year low of 4.3 percent.

Job creation and employment figures over the summer have far exceeded Wall Street forecasts. Lay-offs are at the lowest point since the early 1970s and the lowest ever relative to the size of the labor force, which is almost double today what it was back then, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Several years ago, in the spring of 2014, employment returned to pre-recession levels. Today, employment is at a new record high and stands six percent above the peak level reached a decade ago. And it’s not just the fact that people are going to work that helps strengthen the country, says Glassman.

“Most economies live around what consumers do,” he notes. “Consumer spending in the U.S. is 70 percent of the economy. So the economic health of the worker is important.” Put simply: the nation’s prosperity is powered by how successful its people are.

What better time, then, to celebrate the true meaning of Labor Day? The holiday first emerged in the U.S. in the 1880s as a tribute to the labor movement, which fought for better working conditions and fair wages. In essence, the movement made it easier for American workers to find good jobs and cultivate their own upward social mobility.

Companies thrive on what their talent contribute to the business, so it’s in everyone’s interest for workers to be happy.

Jim Glassman, head economist, JPMorgan Chase & Co.

But those rights were hard-won: Unions faced violent opposition from anti-labor employers. In fact, Labor Day began more as a protest march, one Tuesday back in 1882. Workers paraded through New York City carrying signs with slogans such as, “Labor creates all wealth.” A national holiday to recognize that fact was finally made official 12 years later. Remembering those foundations is crucial to maintaining a booming economy and country today, Glassman says. “Companies thrive on what their talent contribute to the business, so it’s in everyone’s interest for workers to be happy.”

One reason behind the job market recovery this year is what Glassman calls “the digital economy.”

“It’s an upshot of the digital frontier opening up all kinds of possibilities; technology is fueling innovation and giving people more options.” He cites the sharing economy and start-up culture as opening up a “whole new frontier” for working-age Americans, who no longer need to “sit around and wait for a defined job.” And he thinks this will continue to fuel the labor market in the future: “The businesses we’re going to be living with ten years from now are going to look a lot different to the ones we’re living with today.” 

Still, nothing is perfect. While official metrics show near full employment in the U.S., skeptics point to slow wage growth and the number of people in part-time work, although down significantly from recession levels, as cause for concern. And while technology has in some cases created new jobs — in fact, the U.S. economy has created enough jobs to employ anyone who wants to work through two-and-a-half centuries of significant technological change — there are fears it will displace workers as well, particularly with the advent of factory robots and self-driving cars. Even the optimistic Glassman is keen to point out that, when it comes to a truly roaring economy, “What matters most is not how fast you’re growing, but how well your economy is doing per person — how much income is each person earning?” 

So, if you remember one thing on Labor Day, perhaps make it this: Every single worker counts. “When we’re all working, we’re all contributing to something — we all depend on each other,” Glassman points out. If the labor movement gave everyone a shot at the American Dream, then Labor Day celebrates how workers keep that dream alive: for themselves, for each other, and for the country itself.

Special Briefing: The Devastation of Hurricane Harvey

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This is the first of OZY’s Special Briefings, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE 

How bad is Hurricane Harvey? 

America has never seen a storm like Harvey. Meteorologists are running out of superlatives to describe the worst rainstorm in U.S. history, which has already dropped more than 50 inches of rain — 11 trillion total gallons of water — on the Gulf Coast of Texas since its landfall on Friday.

What is it like in Houston? 

Houston, the fourth-most-populous American city, with a sprawling metro area that is roughly the size of Connecticut, is drowning in heavy rain and flooding. Cars are buried underwater; many homes have water up to their roofs; reservoirs and rivers are overflowing their banks. Coast Guard helicopters and a massive operation of volunteers in boats have been rescuing those trapped in their homes. More than 32,000 people have been evacuated to 230 shelters, and it is believed that Harvey has caused at least 30 deaths so far.

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Volunteers in boats rescue people and their pets from homes near Interstate 45 in Houston, Texas, on August 29, 2017.

Source Jabin Botsford/Getty

Will it get worse? 

The rescue stage of the response to Harvey is still ongoing, and the waters have only just begun to subside. Still, high sea levels in the Gulf of Mexico could slow down receding waters. And with the storm having moved on to Louisiana, still more areas of the Gulf could see dangerous flooding.

WHAT TO KNOW

A failure to evacuate?

As thousands of Houstonians face the decision of whether to abandon their homes, local officials are under fire for not calling for a mandatory evacuation before the storm. Sometimes the chaos of a large-scale evacuation can make matters worse: During Hurricane Rita in 2005, 60 people died in Houston as a result of roads being overwhelmed by evacuees.

 

Don’t mess with Texas

In the face of Harvey, an army of everyday Texans has mobilized, using fishing boats, Jet Skis and other recreational vehicles to rescue their neighbors. Local responders — and the Cajun Navy, a volunteer rescue group that formed during Hurricane Katrina — are also taking advantage of social media and other technology to target rescue efforts and direct food and supplies more effectively. You can donate to efforts here.

“We want to do it better”

So says U.S. President Donald Trump about the federal government’s relief effort. But the president is already being criticized by some for not showing enough compassion for Harvey’s victims during a tour of Texas on Tuesday, instead commenting on the size of the crowd that had gathered to hear him speak. Former FEMA director Michael (“heckuva job”) Brown has urged Trump to learn from the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina and use his bully pulpit to ensure that FEMA gets adequate support from other federal agencies.

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President Donald Trump holds the Texas state flag outside of the Annaville Fire House after attending a briefing on Hurricane Harvey in Corpus Christi, Texas, on August 29, 2017.

Source Jim Watson/Getty

Water or ICE? 

One large group of Houston residents remains reluctant to ask authorities for help. With a new Texas law set to take effect that permits federal agents to check the immigration status of anyone they detain, Houston’s population of undocumented immigrants, estimated at 575,000, is having to weigh fears of deportation against fears of rising water, despite local authorities’ attempts to reassure them.

The coming economic impact

One disaster economist estimates that Harvey’s economic toll “will likely exceed Katrina.” The Gulf Coast is a global hub for the oil and gas industry, and nearly every major refinery there has shut down in Harvey’s wake, resulting in a drop of about 3.9 million barrels a day of refinery capacity. Gas prices at the pump remain steady, but experts say they could rise in the coming weeks as the diminished output is felt.

WHAT TO READ

Harvey Is What Climate Change Looks Like, by Eric Holthaus in POLITICO

“But there’s an uncomfortable point that, so far, everyone is skating around: We knew this would happen, decades ago. We knew this would happen, and we didn’t care.”

How Harvey Exposes America’s Dangerously Dilapidated Infrastructure, by Ryan Cooper in The Week

“Climate disasters like Harvey illustrate an undeniable fact: American infrastructure is living on borrowed time.”

WHAT TO WATCH

Houston, Before and After Harvey

Heroic Rescues in the Middle of Harvey’s Devastation

WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATER COOLER

Harvey will cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars, but ongoing federal relief efforts could also reduce the potential for an upcoming government shutdown. Researchers at Goldman Sachs have lowered the chance of a shutdown to 35 percent (from 50 percent before the disaster), given the new incentives for lawmakers to resolve current impasses over spending.

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma: You Can Do Something to Help

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OZY and JPMorgan Chase & Co. have partnered to bring you an inside look at how entrepreneurs are coming up with innovative methods to help the communities around them. Enjoy the rest of our special series here.

We’ve all seen the devastating photos and videos in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and heard the heartwarming stories of daring rescues. It’s hard to resist the urge to head to the flood-ravaged area and help out any way you can.

While your heart is obviously in the right place, experts say that financial donations will do the most good in the early days. “Donating money is the most effective way to provide support at this time,” says Tara Cardone, Head of Employee Engagement and Volunteerism at JPMorgan Chase & Co. Plus, financial donations can be put to work immediately, instead of making charities wait for supplies in a far-reaching region where the infrastructure is crippled. “And if you plan on donating goods, it is important to find out what nonprofit organizations actually need and are able to store and distribute,” added Cardone.

Truth be told, the impact of both Harvey and Irma will be felt for years to come and that includes the impact on each impacted region’s local economy. According to JPMorgan Chase’s head economist for Commercial Banking, Jim Glassman, “Typically, the rebuilding effort will only return economic output back to where it was before the natural disaster. But an economy that has suffered from a natural disaster most likely will find it challenging to fully recoup the output that was lost in the aftermath and during recovery.”

Here are three ways you can help.

  • Double your donation: Check with your employer to see if they are matching charitable donations to hurricane recovery efforts. In doing so, you can double your donation with minimal effort and if you don’t even ask, you could be leaving valuable relief dollars on the table.
  • Do your homework:  Donate to groups that have been vetted by a nonprofit watchdog like Charity Navigator or GiveWell instead of donating through a Facebook page or through GoFundMe unless you’re already familiar with the group.
  • Don’t forget about the regions affected. In the weeks, months and years to come, the people and places affected by these devastating hurricanes will need your help. Stay tuned and prepare to send those in-kind donations in need or offer your time. Organizations like Operation Hope connect financial professionals with people who need help navigating insurance claims and dealing with FEMA and other relief agencies. You can volunteer on the ground or help out remotely at their 24/7 call center.

Glassman added, “There is a strong rationale for devoting massive resources to restoring productive facilities as quickly as possible. The quicker a region is able to recover from a natural disaster, the less costly the long-term economic damage that it will suffer.”

Many corporations have mobilized quickly in support of disaster relief efforts. JPMorgan Chase is donating $2 million for Hurricane Harvey and Irma relief efforts, including those led by the American Red Cross and other nonprofit organizations, and is matching employee donations to these organizations. For its customers in the Houston metro area and FEMA-declared areas after Irma, JPMorgan Chase automatically waived or refunded certain fees. 

 

How Gretchen Carlson’s Bravery Boosted the #MeToo Movement

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OZY Media’s third prime-time television show, Breaking Big, airs Fridays at 8:30 p.m. ET on PBS stations, OZY.com and Facebook Watch. Join us as we explore the unexpected journeys to success of some of the world’s most influential stars. This week’s episode features TV commentator, author and women’s advocate, Gretchen Carlson.

When Gretchen Carlson sued then Fox News CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment, she catapulted the #MeToo movement into action. After filing her lawsuit, no fewer than 24 other women came forward with allegations of sexual harassment against the TV executive, cementing Carlson’s place in history. 

Growing up in Minnesota, Carlson had no idea she would become such a powerful voice. As a child, she excelled in academia and music, and her parents encouraged her to do something important with her talents. When Carlson ran out of opportunities to continue playing the violin, her mother talked her into competing in the Miss Minnesota pageant. To Carlson’s astonishment, she won, and went on to be crowned Miss America 1989.

Winning the crown launched Carlson’s career in broadcast journalism, and she quickly progressed from local TV stations to national news, soon becoming an anchor on Fox & Friends

From her very first job in TV, Carlson experienced sexual harassment, and she found it was no better at the top. While at Fox News, she continually had to fight to be taken seriously. After enduring years of sexual harassment from Ailes, Carlson decided she had had enough. She sued him and won, taking down a media giant and becoming a mouthpiece for millions of other women who had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.

Today, Carlson is the chair of the Miss America board of directors and has faced recent allegations herself about her leadership — allegations she denies. She also heads the Gretchen Carlson Leadership Initiative, helping to provide resources to thousands of underserved women across the U.S. and empowering them to fight back against gender-based violence, discrimination and harassment. 

“Sexual harassment is not about sex,” Carlson says. “It’s about power and what someone does to you to try to take away your power.” 

Forget Denver. Colorado Hipsters Should Head Here Instead

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Picture life in Colorado: living in the shadow of the mountains with America’s peak outside your window, good food and music just a few feet from your doorstep and an affordable apartment to boot. Definitely you’d move to Denver, right? No, you want to be in Colorado Springs, an hour south.

Why? Because it’s thriving, and it’s cheaper. While metro Denver’s average home price teeters at nearly $500K, Colorado Springs is still at a relatively affordable $250K, which is why it’s been named the third-best large city in the U.S. for first-time home buyers, according to reports from WalletHub in July of this year. “The word I’ve been using to describe Colorado Springs: accessibility,” says Hannah Parsons, chief economic development officer for the city’s Chamber of Commerce. 

The backdrop certainly helps. With misty mountains eclipsing the area (they’re a 10-minute bike ride away), Pikes Peak in the distance and the red-rocked Garden of the Gods even closer, nature awaits. 

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Sassy drinks are served up at The Principal’s Office in Ivywild School, a quirky venue in Colorado Springs. 

Source MAURA FRIEDMAN/OZY

And the drinking is close, too. Ivywild School, an ex-public school turned concert venue, houses a trendy cocktail bar, the Principal’s Office. If you’re feeling like the teacher’s pet, order up the Hall Pass, the Band Camp or the Golden Girl — the Catholic School Girl, Daddy Issues and the Fresh Paddle are some naughtier options. Of course, if it’s not quite 5 o’clock somewhere, then you can stop at Story Coffee Co., a tiny home in a city that calls itself the capital of tiny homes (a dubious distinction — hello, Portland is calling). Chinese teas await at Yellow Mountain Tea House, and the Ohana Kava Bar serves up kava and kombucha (the internet tells me that the former is a Polynesian narcotic sedative drink with crushed pepper roots and the latter is a drink an NFL player recently tried to say got him drunk enough to fail his sobriety test). 

 

Even with nearly half a million people, there’s a feeling of familiarity. “It’s a change in who we are as a nation. People value experience over many things — and the experience is a little bit richer than just being in a big-city rat race environment,” Parsons says. 

With a median age of 34, Colorado Springs is just as young as Denver — despite its retirees-and-military-personnel reputation.

Of course, that small enough trait is also Colorado Springs’ weakness for those who really want to have their cake and eat it too. Take the food scene: As an online reviewer on the Forbes Travel Guide put it, “If you’re expecting to get your pick of sushi bars, falafel huts and dim sum joints, you’ll be sorely disappointed.” To that, Parsons admits, “We’re early in the life stage.” 

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Dishes being created in the kitchen of the the Colorado Springs restaurant IV by Brother Luck.

Source MAURA FRIEDMAN/OZY

Still, the city has lured the likes of chef Brother Luck, who won Food Network’s Beat Bobby Flay, reached the finals of Chopped and is opening a premier restaurant, IV by Brother Luck, that’s trying to turn this meat-and-potatoes town into a fine dining scene … with four-course dishes at just $45. 

And the demographics are catching up. With a median age of 34, Colorado Springs is just as young as Denver — despite its retirees-and-military-personnel reputation. “It’s transitioning — there’s this craft movement,” Luck says. “It reminds me a lot of Portland or Austin.” And as for that other city up north? “When I’m in Denver I don’t feel like I’m in Colorado,” Luck quips.

Hunting Poisonous Frogs in Panama — With My 4-Year-Old Daughter

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I knew a lot of pirates living in Bocas del Toro. Shady expats hiding in the islands of this sprawling archipelago in Panama. We met pedophiles and serial killers and ran into endless run-of-the-mill money-for-property scams. And yet, I spent one of the best days of my life chasing black-spotted poison dart frogs around these islands with my 4-year-old daughter, Lila.

Not that you need a reason to catch frogs, but we did it for Sally, our neighbor, who was there researching the tiny creatures. This particular type of dart frog is found only in Bocas. They’ve evolved differently living there, and over generations, they can no longer mate with frogs from outside the islands.

One night before dinner, we sat with our neighbors watching the Caribbean Sea. I’ve never been much of a drinker, but in Bocas, it’s what we did. Boxes of wine. Seco Herrerano mixed with whatever we had in the fridge. That night, we poured a glass and chatted while waiting for a curry to finish cooking on the stove.

“We’re going to find frogs tomorrow. Wanna come?” Sally asked.

“Of course.” We took another sip and decided what time to meet on the dock in the morning.

That’s how you plan in Bocas. Easy. Other things are more complicated.

In many ways, the frogs evolved like the expats. They were different, detached from outside rules.

An old man floated past with a Panamanian teen in his boat. Tony, who lived in the house behind ours with his Uzbek wife, curled one lip in disgust. “There he is again with another little girl.”

John, an old, salty surfer, pushed away from the table, deeply offended. “Don’t talk about my friend like that,” he slurred. As a practice, John drank himself a bottle deep before sunset, and dinnertime found him ranting about his wife, who had left him when he was in prison for smuggling marijuana. I never quite knew which of his stories were true.

 

“You’re just mad because you can’t afford your own girl,” jabbed Tony. John either didn’t hear or pretended not to, and more Seco blurred the edges of what’s considered socially acceptable dinner conversation.

A fine rain was falling when we met the next day to catch a boat to Bastimentos, one of the biggest islands of the Bocas chain. During rainy season, the tides swell large enough that you can bring a boat directly to the beach, near the frogs. We were in the wrong season, so we docked on the other side of the island, then trekked through the jungle.

We passed through Red Frog Beach condos, an investment community for retirees. Imagine, living on these sparkling beaches with nothing but the sound of waves. It’s a dream come true. Too bad that no one who bought a house in Red Frog Beach ever got a chance to live there. The project fell apart, leaving decaying drywall in place of what should have been hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of dream homes. It was like walking into Survivor — indeed, years earlier, the show had been filmed on Panamanian beaches. We hacked through the foliage, watching out for snakes dressed as vines, and, finally, we found our frogs.

You have to learn how to spot them. They’re barely the size of your fingertip, and in spite of their bright coloring — not just red, but green, yellow, blue, orange and white — they’re hard to spot in the moss-colored landscape. Like a Magic Eye painting, you squint and relax your eyes until frogs come into view.

There’s a technique to catching them too. First, slowly sneak up on them sideways. The moment they see your shadow, they’re gone. When you’re close enough, in one fluid arc, leap and grab. Move too slowly, and they’re gone. Even after you catch them, they wriggle free from between your fingers before you realize what’s happening.

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Daughter, mother, adventurers.

Source Photo courtesy of Noah Edelblum

I learned later that these frogs are reputed to be so poisonous, merely touching them can kill you. We didn’t die, so I guess it was fine.

“Hold your hands like this, Mama,” Lila instructed. She showed me how to seal the edges of my palms and quickly, quickly, pop the frogs in a bag before they escaped.

We didn’t register the rain and cold until hours later, when the wind hit us on our boat ride home. Sally took our catch back to her lab to mate the frogs, measure them and determine how they had changed from other frogs.

In many ways, the frogs evolved like the expats. They were different, detached from outside rules. After sufficient time apart, they changed enough that they were no longer compatible with their counterparts in other places. While that’s fine for frogs, it’s ugly for humans, who become selfish and desperate. They steal and lie. They think it’s normal to bed girls young enough to be their granddaughters. The final straw was learning a friend had been murdered by a serial killer. That’s who hides in these islands.

We had many other beautiful days in Bocas. It is, after all, paradise. When you’re hungry, grab a fish. When you’re thirsty, crack open a coconut. None of that was enough to overcome the ugliness of the place. When our six-month ticket to Panama ended, we left. 

The Couple Behind the Caffeine-Free Espresso That Might Fight Cancer

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Until recently, rooibos tea — from a shrub native to South Africa — was as commonplace as the country’s cornfields and impala. Now, thanks to husband-and-wife team Pete and Monique Ethelston, this once-dull staple, which grows only in the Cederberg mountains north of Cape Town, is being used to make fancy espresso-based drinks in cafes from Cape Town to Copenhagen. Rooibos has never been cool, explains Soekie Snyman, formerly of the South African Rooibos Council, “but now it’s flippin’ cool.”

By grinding dried rooibos leaves into a fine powder, the Ethelstons’ company, Red Espresso, has elbowed this wild bush tea into the boutique coffee market. Put their powder through any high-pressure espresso machine and you’ll get all the intense flavor of a coffee-based drink and almost six times the antioxidants and other cancer-fighting properties of regular tea — with none of the caffeine. Of course, it tastes nothing like coffee, but the pressurized rooibos has a potent, aromatic flavor that’s miles from your mother’s cuppa Lipton — and it even forms its own crema. When it’s served with a swirl of honey and a hit of cinnamon, I’d choose it over a high-octane cappuccino any day. 

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A perfect red cappuccino, anyone?

Source Courtesy of Red Espresso

The Ethelstons married “fairly late in life” after establishing successful careers — Pete as an SAP consultant in Asia and Monique as a marketer for large beverage brands in South Africa. Things veered from the script when Pete convinced his bride to hop off the hamster wheel in 2005 for an extended honeymoon in Nepal and Tibet. There, they ventured into the more remote and spiritual corners, and found themselves grappling with the bigger questions. “In our corporate lives we had this nagging feeling that we weren’t doing people or the planet much good,” says Pete.

Then, in a Kathmandu cafe, Pete received an email from Carl Pretorius, a friend and business partner (they own a tree nursery together). The message told how Pretorius — jittery after his sixth coffee that day, but keen for more — had opened a rooibos tea bag and put the contents through his espresso machine. Over several weeks, by using high-quality rooibos and tinkering with the exact grind, Pretorius had produced something that mimicked a real espresso. “Let’s do this thing together,” he emailed, knowing that Pete and Monique had the perfect skillset to bring his idea to market.

It’s a superfood that’s indulgent … I’m still looking for the downside.

Carolina Tristão, Tristão Coffee Company

Pretorius remains a partner in the business, but from day one it has been driven and financed by the Ethelstons. It hasn’t been easy — even with Monique’s marketing background — but they’ve always known they were onto something: “Coffee doesn’t agree with me,” says Pete, “so for years I didn’t go to cafes.” Red Espresso transcends the coffee and health markets like no other product (matcha, a powder made from green tea leaves, is its closest rival but contains about as much caffeine as java). Many of their most loyal customers are coffee junkies.

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South Africa’s Cederberg Mountains, famous for rock-climbing, wind-carved sandstone — and rooibos.

Source Courtesy of Red Espresso/Facebook

Their first big break came six months after receiving their friend’s email, when they partnered with the South African retail chain Woolworths to include red cappuccinos on its cafe menu. Since then, Woolworths and Red Espresso have worked together on a number of products, under Pete and Monique’s Red Espresso brand. “They were ahead of the health trend,” says Woolworths’ food product developer Claire Edwards, “and we’ve been able to help them on the retail side.”

 

The early years were difficult. And expensive. Teaming up with rooibos farmers working at the highest altitude in the world — where the most flavor- and antioxidant-rich leaves grow — they agreed on a pricing structure that, using fair-trade principles, rewarded these fourth-generation producers for their superior product. And they spent a lot of money to secure intellectual property rights all over the world patenting the exact grind of their product. Not to mention equipment costs (rooibos, harder and twiggier than coffee, is hell on grinding blades).

Farm

The Red Army: refreshing rooibos iced tea.

Source Courtesy of Red Espresso

In the midst of the challenges were important wins. In 2008, Red Espresso was voted best new product by the Specialty Coffee Association of America. This prompted offers from major retailers, including Whole Foods, but Pete and Monique turned them down, worried the product would get lost on foreign shelves without consumer education.

The game changer came in 2014 with the arrival of Nespresso-compatible capsules, which eliminated the possibility of human error and allowed consumers to bring the cafe experience into their homes. Red Espresso capsules have seen 154 percent year-on-year growth since launch, according to Woolworths, and the company has added four flavored varieties, all sugar- and caffeine-free. The environmental debate surrounding single-serve coffee has not escaped the Ethelstons’ attention: Their capsules are recyclable (they’re testing biodegradable ones), and they’ve undertaken other green initiatives, including their Red Cedar Project.

And now Red Espresso is redoubling its efforts abroad — starting with its newly launched U.S. online store. The company has partnered with Carolina Tristão, from Brazilian coffee producer Tristão, who spent a decade in advertising in the U.S. before joining her family’s business. The first obstacle is getting consumers to understand the product: “At least everyone in South Africa knows what rooibos is,” says Tristão. And then there’s the fact that Keurig, not Nespresso, dominates the U.S. coffee-at-home market.

On the plus side, tea sales in the United States are projected to reach $9 billion by 2020 (up from $7 billion in 2015), according to market research firm Packaged Facts, and the National Coffee Association reports that single-serve brands in the U.S. have jumped from 21 percent of dollar sales to 41 percent in the past five years. By using “sniper tactics and micro-influencers,” Tristão is hoping to gain traction in select niches, from sports enthusiasts and yogis to pregnant women and nutritionists. “To understand how amazing Red Espresso is, you have to incorporate it into your life,” says Tristão, who makes red lattes for her kids and drinks red iced tea when she’s trying to cut back on the vino. “It’s a superfood that’s indulgent … I’m still looking for the downside.”

“How difficult can it be to stand out if you’re the only brand in your category?” asks Pete, before recalling just how difficult it’s been at times. But with a product that treats allergies, reduces blood pressure, improves bone health and much more, at least the Ethelstons are no longer dogged by regrets over their lives’ purposes.

* The original version of this story misstated Soekie Snyman’s current role.