Be the Change You Wish to See in the World: By creating positive waves, you can inspire and motivate others to do the same. Do what resonates in your heart and not what you think looks good.
In today’s competitive business landscape, the race for profits often takes center stage. However, there are some leaders who also prioritize a mission-driven purpose. They use their business to make a positive social impact and recognize that success isn’t only about making money. In this interview series, we are talking with some of these distinct leaders, and I had the pleasure of interviewing James-Scott Wong.
James-Scott Wong is the Founder and Managing Partner of AlmaStone — a global financing platform that provides private credit primarily in emerging markets along various stages of the food supply chain. Spun out of a global commodity merchant in 2017 and backed by long-term institutional capital, AlmaStone provides specialty financings to agribusinesses across key regions, in particular, Africa, the Black Sea region, the Middle East and Latin America.
He believes in the traditional way of doing business in person and listening to clients. AlmaStone is focused on making meaningful differences by helping stabilize the supply chain and providing food security to the world.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us your “Origin Story”? Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
My origin story is simple. I am the child of humble, immigrant parents who reinforced the need to sacrifice for success. They selflessly did everything for the benefit of my two brothers and me to provide us access to more opportunities and a better footing for our success. My father immigrated to the US in the early 1970s with only a suitcase and a few bucks in his pocket and hustled his way to the American dream through hard work and determination. My mother provided an environment of love, tenderness and compassion that celebrated every achievement and event in our life no matter how small the victory. I was the middle of three boys. During my youth, let’s just loosely use the phrase “healthy sibling rivalry” drove me. Our active competition in athletics, academics and extracurricular activities promoted an environment to always strive to be better and ingrained in each of us, accountability and self-evaluation.
My father instilled the concept of shared accountability, and it was imperative to always protect the family — we were not only accountable for our individual actions but also the actions of my siblings. I remember one time being excited to head to the movies, and I was in my room getting ready. My brothers were waiting outside horsing around. My older brother threw a ball that cracked the garage door glass. There were no movies that evening. Although I was not at the scene of the crime, all of us got punished because we were each responsible for one another’s actions, period.
Growing up was fast and furious, akin to shooting a cannon from a canoe. I’ve effectively died three times in my life. These three transformative experiences gave me perspective and formed the foundation of my beliefs about one’s obligation to family, our role in humanity, a sense of the relativity of our small presence in the universe as well as forcing me to understand the consistent struggle and phases in life where we attempt to balance surviving vs. thriving and controlling vs. influencing.
● When I was 15 years old, my mother died suddenly — I had to immediately go from boy to man and shoulder the responsibilities of the family as the grief weighed heavily on my father.
● When I was 21 years old, my younger brother died prematurely — I thought I could defy God and keep my brother on this Earth while at the same time initially attempting to shield the reality of his illness from my father.
● When I was 43 years old, my father passed away. Despite earlier challenges, he lived a great and full life. His death allowed me to become vulnerable and accept the help of others, a radical change for me, as historically I’ve always self-solved. I attribute his full life to the fact that he surrounded himself with genuine friends, family and love. His motto was “We love you.”
Most would likely view such experiences as traumatic (and no doubt they were), but we have two paths in life — sink or swim. I chose to swim. I endured, I persevered and overcame. I wouldn’t wish such an origin story on others but it’s my story. Often, it is only through hardship not accolades that character, values and beliefs are truly shaped.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I’ve been fortunate to lead a global business that finances food security around the world. Piloting such a business is a constant examination of how we balance people, planet and profit.
There are many colorful stories to be told, though not all may be appropriate for this publication. I should probably pen a book about these adventures. For nearly a decade, I have been circling the globe every month and bouncing between Africa, Latin America, the Black Sea region, the Middle East and Asia. I’ve experienced and seen a lot while building this business as we are constantly on-ground, conducting business in person while being respectful and embracing local traditions and cultures. I’ve had interesting and provocative encounters — from exploring drug cartel areas of Mexico, drinking fermented horse’s milk in Kazakhstan, being offered rats on a stick in Malawi, and to doing my best to negotiate a transaction in Indonesia while naked in a hot sauna pool.
Once, while evaluating a supply chain financing program in Côte d’Ivoire supporting the cashew crop, we visited several government ministries in the morning. Still wearing our blazers, dress shirts and fancy shoes, we decided to do a quick visit to some of the local farming communities. After driving a few hours into the bush and swerving clay pots purposely left in the middle of the road where locals who believe in Vodun traditions (voodoo) hope unexpected motorists hit the clay pots and take away the evil spirits, we finally arrived at the entrance of the tribal community. Strewn across the middle of the dirt road was a large piece of wood with metal spikes backed up with a makeshift, rickety gate and youth with guns…welcoming — not so much. That said, we need not have worried as we were warmly received by the chieftain as we entered the tribal area he controlled. We were escorted to his mud hut and kindly provided with the best seats in the house, plastic lawn chairs that had seen better days.
There was an extreme curiosity with respect to our presence and an interesting juxtaposition of attire as we were in business attire while many community members wore limited clothing or went topless. I vividly recall the chieftain proudly coming out in his crisp, white dress shirt over his traditional garb. We went through the formalities, and he welcomed us and blessed us, but that wasn’t the end of our visit. Out of respect for his elders, he wanted us to meet another older chieftain from the other community. So we trekked across the bush in our loafers to this chieftain’s community. There we sat on the ground outside his mud hut for 45 minutes swatting flies under the baking sun. When he finally came out, he muttered only a few words that even our translator found difficult to decipher.
The visit ended up being not so quick but instead a deep and immersive experience. These unique encounters and locations are my normal — extremely rich in culture and local customs, an opportunity that not many experience yet I get to witness firsthand.
However, the most interesting story that has happened to me since leading AlmaStone is managing our activities and relationships that are directly affected by the Russian attacks on Ukraine. It is the most compelling for reasons other than what one might expect. We still have risks in Ukraine and witness daily the rawness of the war and devastation, yet I need to completely acknowledge we are not in control and therefore trust the relationships that we built on transparency and openness.
The circumstance itself is an act against humanity and a travesty. The Ukraine people demonstrate incredible resilience and heart — individuals who, even in the darkest moments, show an unparalleled fortitude, a resistance not just against the invaders but against despair itself. My daily business challenges pale in comparison. Since February 24, 2022, we’ve been standing alongside our Ukrainian clients trying to support them in whatever capacity we can.
This story of Ukraine is not just one of conflict but of inspiration. It reminds me of the power of the human spirit, of the ability to rise above even the most daunting challenges. The Ukrainian people and businesses that persist, adapt, and survive in the face of adversity are beacons of hope. It is a stark reminder that businesses aren’t just about profits. They’re about people, communities, and the human capacity to innovate and persevere.
We often learn the most from our mistakes. Can you share one that you made that turned out to be one of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned?
I have learned to always hire people for behavior, attitude and values as skill sets can be taught. In trying to grow a business, we always seek to anticipate the needs of the business and fill the skill set gaps. However, making the mistake of hiring the wrong person for the skills gap can damage the culture of a cohesive team. Culture eats strategy for breakfast.
As a successful leader, it’s clear that you uphold strong core values. I’m curious what are the most important principles you firmly stand by and refuse to compromise on. Can you share a few of them and explain why they hold such significance for you in your work and life?
Your word is your bond. These five words are the ultimate measure of accountability and integrity. Say what you mean and do what you say. It’s the alignment of intention and output. An unequivocal promise. This phrase and ethos were imprinted on me by my father at a very young age. When he stuck his hand out, shook and gave his word, it was done. You knew you could absolutely rely on what was agreed. He would always honor his word regardless of the challenges he faced. This belief has formed the foundation of my personal and work life. When I conduct business, when I give my word and shake on it, it means more to me than the contract itself.
What inspired you to start a purpose-driven business rather than a traditional for-profit enterprise? Can you share a personal story or experience that led you to prioritize social impact in your business?
Our purpose is in the name of AlmaStone, itself. Alma means soul in Spanish, and Stone is a reference to the ground. We put our souls in the ground and in what we do. The inspiration came as a natural evolution. My historical professional background was as an investment banker and then as a trader doing distressed investments and restructuring, where one is a contrarian by nature as everyone is selling when you are buying. Naturally, the primary objective is to generate profit, and it takes a lot of fortitude to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. From a personal perspective, I support conservation as we only have one Earth with limited resources.
When I transitioned to a commodity merchant with over two centuries of history and a deep footprint in sugar and coffee and was tasked to build out a lending business, I got up in the air and flew to 40 countries in six months. This pattern of travel has been my modus operandi for nearly a decade and provides me with a rich, holistic perspective of how the world really works. I’ve also been blessed to have a supportive wife and children that still remember my name.
With my travels, I witnessed the vast financing opportunities across the global food supply chain. Yet at the same time, I could personally feel the struggles of local communities in each country. I met with the families that owned the agribusinesses, the farmers that worked the farms and the government officials that tried to enact policy but didn’t always have the means nor expertise. I realized I could build a business that can generate profit, and at the same time, contribute more on a social level as well.
Thus, when founding AlmaStone, I saw the ability to marry my historical “capitalist” expertise in structuring financings while also addressing the greater human need for food security, particularly in emerging markets. It was the best of both worlds. We continue to attempt to responsibly balance the convergence of private credit, food security, and sustainability.
During the earlier days of AlmaStone, there was one trip to Zimbabwe that left an everlasting impression on me. We met a local female farmer who supported her whole family on the cash crop she grew on her one-acre lot. Her husband was a laborer working in another country as the wages were better there. She was left to run the farm, raise the children and ensure the success of the crop. Just seeing the pride on her face was amazing. She shared with us her humble operations which resulted in a high-quality crop given her care and attention. It’s these human moments that are rewarding when one can directly witness the additionality and enablement our financings provide for upward social mobility as well as contribute to another’s success and joy.
Can you help articulate a few of the benefits of leading a purpose-driven business rather than a standard “plain vanilla” business?
This is always the delicate balance I wrestle with — how do we as humans balance people, planet, and profit?
As the philosopher, Rumi, once said, “When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.” I feel that genuine success, in my humble opinion, transcends the mere accumulation of profit — it encompasses the impact and influence one can have in the world and on those around us. Making a positive difference in the lives of others is the ultimate testament to success. One should focus on using your talents, resources, and enthusiasm to create lasting effects on society, rather than solely chasing profit. Financial prosperity holds significance but should never eclipse the value of one’s contributions to society.
How has your company’s mission or purpose affected its overall success? Can you explain the methods or metrics you use to evaluate the impact of this purpose-driven strategy on your organization?
The world population continues to grow, and people will always need to eat. As food moves along the supply chain, there are always gaps in financing. Thus, there is an ever-growing demand. Now the challenge of trying to address this financing void while promoting sustainability and social responsibility is finding the right network of people and market partners in each of the local markets. Trying to bridge the gap in financing agricultural commodities such as sugar, coffee, and grains that are moving along a supply chain (i.e., from the crop to manufacturing to storage warehouses, to ships on the water, then to the end-buyers) in emerging markets, which pose their own risks given local nuances, always requires more translating and risk management than a traditional “plain vanilla” business.
From a personal perspective, it has been extremely rewarding seeing the on-the-ground differences that our financings enable and how they better the local communities and ecosystems.
Similar to how we have criteria when making investments, we’ve created an Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) calculator factoring and assessing these elements. Thus, alongside a prescriptive quantitative score of how our investments rank from a credit perspective, we have a separate score from an ESG perspective. Moreover, I believe a key and genuine difference is that we don’t just do our transactions on a spreadsheet and via Zoom calls, we go on the ground and break bread with people and try to ensure what’s being told to us is actually the reality of what’s being done.
Can you share a pivotal moment when you realized that leading your purpose-driven company was actually making a significant impact? Can you share a specific example or story that deeply resonated with you personally?
Honestly, I don’t think there has been a singular pivotal moment. Every relationship we build with each financing we do has an impact, but its relativity of significance to each circumstance varies. Every time I step foot on the ground in different countries, the first question I ask myself is, “Where is this society on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — physiological needs (food, water, shelter), safety needs (employment, health), love and belonging (family, community), self-esteem and ultimately self-actualization?” Thus, the impact is always relative to the stage of development the country is in as well as the potential for growth in the people. Now when we do our financings, we are looking for market partners in the regions that have the expertise and are aligned with our ethos and philosophy.
For example, we financed a well-known fertilizer company in Africa operating in multiple countries. This fertilizer company also actively supports an orphanage providing shelter, food, education, health care, social amenities and recreation to abandoned or unsupported children. I have visited this orphanage twice now and made donations. The passion of the founder who took the orphanage on as her cause is palpable, and she has selflessly dedicated her life to these children. Likewise, you can see the love from the children towards the founder. The second visit with my daughter last year continued to make me fully appreciate the relativity of the inequalities in life and how blessed I am. These children are struggling with just meeting their basic physiological needs. Without the founder of the orphanage, they would likely be in a drastically different place in life or potentially not alive.
Have you ever faced a situation where your commitment to your purpose and creating a positive social impact clashed with the profitability in your business? Have you ever been challenged by anyone on your team or have to make a tough decision that had a significant impact on finances? If so, how did you address and reconcile this conflict?
Yes. We were considering doing a financing in Brazil that ticked all the boxes from a financial return and risk profile; however, after further diligence, we came across allegations of unfair child labor practices. Despite local banks supporting this business, we chose to cease discussions out of principle.
What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs who wish to start a purpose-driven business? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know In Order To Create A Highly Successful Purpose-Driven Business.”
I cannot take credit with respect to any of the advice being original, but below are five concepts that resonate most with me.
1. Be the Change You Wish to See in the World:
By creating positive waves, you can inspire and motivate others to do the same. Do what resonates in your heart and not what you think looks good.
2. You are the Average of the Five People You Surround Yourself: Surround yourself with people who uplift and inspire you. Your inner circle can have a significant impact on your motivation and success.
3. Your Word is Your Bond: Be true to your word and follow through on your commitments. Your reputation and integrity are your most valuable assets, and they can open doors to new opportunities and relationships.
4. Make 1% Changes Daily: Small changes add up over time. You cannot shoot a cannon from a canoe. Make a commitment to make 1% changes daily, and you’ll be amazed at the progress you can make over time. Even small steps forward can make a big difference as they compound over time.
5. When in Doubt, Take a Step Forward: When you’re feeling uncertain or overwhelmed, take a step forward. Even if it’s a small step, it can help you build momentum, offer a different perspective or provide clarity. However, one should be conscious of not mistaking motion for progress. Rocking in a rocking chair is not a forward movement that leads to progress.
I’m interested in how you instill a strong sense of connection with your team. How do you nurture a culture where everyone feels connected to your mission? Could you share an example or story that showcases how your purpose has positively influenced or motivated people on your team to contribute?
We have a philosophy of focusing on relationships and not just closing transactions. In order to build meaningful relationships, one needs to get to know people better and understand their perspectives.
Propinquity (aka proximity) to the people we do business with and consistently being on-ground and in person is essential. There are meaningful connections that form when the team not only gets to read about what we do but also see how we do it. Often, in business, we form theories and assumptions, but when one experiences the realities of the local markets we finance and gets dust on their boots, a common culture is formed and a sense of higher purpose emerges.
I know we’ve been accustomed to a Zoom world now, but this virtual interaction now inhibits this connectedness. The Zoom world may be efficient while you artificially attempt to make eye contact on your computer, but as humans, we need physical connectedness.
Imagine we’re sitting down together two years from now, looking back at your company’s last 24 months. What specific accomplishments would have to happen for you to be happy with your progress?
The specific accomplishments that would have to happen for me to be happy with my progress are to continue to generate healthy financial returns with zero defaults on our loans as we have a responsibility to our investors, continue to scale our global reach responsibly and further incorporate and educate our clients with respect to genuine sustainability practices and implementation.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
My father’s catchphrase used to be “We love you.” I always found it amusing when he could be standing all by himself with no one around and yet he would still use the collective “we.” I believe there is value in a collective mindset.
The words I share with my kids every day that have the greatest utilitarianism are (i) learn something new, (ii) have fun and (iii) make someone smile every day. By smiling you are taking positive action, and anyone can do it. A smile — a basic act of kindness brings warmth to one’s heart when received, it’s free and really does make the world a better place as it perpetuates happiness and love. It doesn’t take a superhero with a cape to effect change, small gestures such as a smile can create big ripples.
How can our readers further follow your work or your company online?
You can learn more about our work on our website, https://almastone.com/, and sometimes I share my musings on LinkedIn. My latest personal endeavor in collaboration with my eldest daughter who’s in high school is writing a series of children’s books to be released in 2024. In our rapidly changing world where the Internet and social media exert a profound influence, it is important we root the next generation in timeless and enduring fundamental values of accountability, responsibility and moral strength.
This was great. Thanks for taking time for us to learn more about you and your business. We wish you continued success!