Delivering On a 21 Year Old Promise To Myself



For the first 20+ years of my career I focused on building businesses with one goal in mind - to make money.  I was raised in the 70's by relatively conservative parents and grew up with a strong drive to "succeed", which by all definitions simply meant to make a bunch of money and become financially secure.  My personal definition was - be independently wealthy. 

I selected my college, Villanova University, because it had a great business school.  Selected my major, Accounting, because it gave me the opportunity to deeply understand how companies function in all areas - most importantly how the money flowed.

When I graduated in 1994 I took a job with Arthur Andersen for $24,000 per year and after about two years of auditing and operational consulting, six of us left Andersen to start our own consultancy - my first taste of entrepreneurship.  Did I leave because I really believed in what we were doing or because I had a passion for Activity Based Costing (the specialty of the firm)?  Nope, I left because I knew I could make a lot more money, and I did, in fact my pay went from $27,000 to $60,000 the day I quit.  We grew the company quickly and I basked in the glow of watching my bank account grow - ah sweet "success".

A little over a year later I was approached by one of our clients who wanted me to consult directly for them.  It was an exciting offer which would allow me to leave my new partnership and strike out on my own.  I would own 100% of the new company instead of 5% of the existing one, I would be my own boss, but most importantly I would be making a bunch more money.  In fact they were willing to pay me $150,000 per year, AND I only had to work 3 days a week!  I was 26 years old, getting married and considering starting a family, so more money and time sounded like a great deal - more basking - more growing. 

Over the first twenty years of my career I was the founder or co-founder of three businesses; one consultancy and two software companies.  All were in different industries solving different problems, but they all had one thing in common, I started them because I thought they would make money, not because I was interested in the problem I was solving.  I never hit any huge home-runs with these businesses, never birthed a unicorn, but I have done well, provided for my family, created a bunch of jobs, solved a bunch of problems and have learned a ton along the way.  Many people would consider my career a success, but in my eyes I have failed.  I failed because I was not true to myself.  I failed to follow my heart, I traded my deep seeded desire to do something important for surface level financial rewards.

The picture at the top of this post is from a journal I filled during a six week trip to Europe when I was 22 years old just after graduation.  In the journal I wrote:

I will not be happy being a normal ho-hum man in the world.  I must do something to help my fellow man.  I have been so lucky in my life that it would not be fair to let that debt go unpaid.  I owe something to the world and if I don't pay it back somehow I feel that my life will be incomplete.....I hope that when I read this in the future I can look back and say I have accomplished my task.

Please forgive the use of the word ho-hum and the over the top idealistic / romantic notion of doing something to make the world a better place and give back,  I was 22 and in that "on the road" vibe.  Most people go through some phase in their lives where they have these romantic ideas.  It typically hits when we are young and then as time passes the feelings fade and we end up just following the script, job, family, 20-30  extra pounds, retirement.  However, this passage and that moment have stayed with me all my life, constantly pulling at me and reminding me I am supposed to be doing something else. 

Shortly after I returned from Europe I packed my car, headed west and started my job at Arthur Andersen.  By the time I started I convinced myself the way for me to give back and fulfill my promise was to make a lot of money so I could give a bunch of it to charity.  It was a nice lie that fit in well with my drive to "succeed".  By hiding behind the "do good later" lie I was able to work insanely hard on making money and succeeding without having to feel guilty about ignoring my desire to do something more important.

This all caught up with me about 5 years ago while I was the CEO of Balihoo, the third business I founded.  I was 38 years old, the company had gone through some major up's and down's, but had survived 2008 (thanks to some amazing employees and investors) and was doing quite well at the time, yet the sheen on my tidy little lie was starting to fade.  I knew I was not following my heart, but I did not know what to do about it.  So I did what I always have done, I worked the problem. 

I started to read about purpose and corporate social responsibility.  I talked with other CEO's about how they felt and slowly over time I started to gain a better understanding of what I needed to do.  The two books which influenced me the most were Let my People Go Surfing - by Yvon Chouinard  the founder of Patagonia and Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey the founder of Whole Foods.  I needed to incorporate purpose into the business, I needed to start thinking more holistically about our role as a corporate citizen. 

I started to make changes immediately.  We started to measure our commitment to our customers - using NPS.  We started to give back to the community in a myriad of ways, we dramatically improved the benefits we gave to our employees and within a couple of years we were named one of the top places to work in the country by Outside Magazine - which remains one of my proudest accomplishments. 

My drive to find meaning and to give back led me to a path which I have been on for the past couple of years, and has brought me to the next chapter of my life.  In 2014 I stepped down as the CEO of Balihoo so I could fulfill a lifelong dream of traveling around the world with my family.  This was an incredible privilege and something I will always cherish.  It gave me the opportunity to be the father I desperately wanted to be (but wasn't while I was a CEO), to spend undiluted time as a family before the kids went to college, and to deeply examine my own personal purpose.  It was during this trip I saw first hand how the rest of the world lives and what it means to truly follow your heart.

On the trip we had the privilege of meeting and working alongside Koy and Reny Chhim who founded Cambodian Care, a non-profit dedicated to providing schooling to Cambodia's poorest children.  The work they do is beyond what I could possibly describe with my poor writing, but suffice it to say they are truly saints.  Koy left his good job (with another non-profit), with one month living expenses in the bank in order to care for these people because nobody else was.  They live with their four kids in a remote area of Phnom Penh struggling to get by financially, but so full of love and contentment they instantly draw you in.  They are following their hearts and doing the most important thing in the world to them - serving others.

As I write this I am nearly 44 years old.  By all measures I am just entering the prime earning years of my life.  If there was ever a time for me to reach for the brass ring it would be now.  I have skills which are in high demand and have been recruited for some amazing jobs which would take my earnings to another level.  This would be significant for me and my family because I never did attain my goal of financial independence.  I need to work, and need to make money, I AM NOT RETIRED, not even close.  However, instead of following the dollar, I am following my heart, and fulfilling the promise I made as a 22 year old.  I am using everything I have learned to start an organization to make a difference and that organization is GoodWell.

I have come to believe it is essential for companies to behave in a more holistic manner and for consumers to reward those companies with their support.  I believe it is not only good business, but good for humanity and good for the planet.  I believe that if all companies globally adopted standards of simple good behavior we would solve big systemic problems in the world.  As a result of these beliefs I intend to spend the next chapter of my life (which is hopefully about 45 to 50 more years) fighting for this cause so that as my last page turns I can go back and read that passage in my journal close my eyes and know that I made a difference. 

If you would like to be part of that journey, head over to GoodWell now and become a Founding Member.  If you are a CEO, founder or executive of a company and are interested in becoming GoodWell Certified, contact me directly at

Oliver Russell