The world’s future is bright, as long as inspiring young people like James Williams, Columbia native and Washington, D.C. resident, continue to take their vision to the global level. While James enjoys his job with Linden Resources, he is also the CEO of his own start-up, udu, based in Nairobi, Kenya.
Though on both football and wrestling teams during his years at Cardinal Newman high school, James says he was actually more of a creative kid. Thirteen years of school service projects, combined with strong family values, helped James graduate with tremendous empathy for the needy. During his final year at Cardinal Newman, James learned that he was accepted at Washington and Lee University, where he also planned to play on their football team. “I didn’t apply to many schools, and W&L was by far the most prestigious,” says James.
When he was accepted, he couldn’t say no. However, not long after arriving, he tore his ACL, eliminating football plans. But, he did letter in wrestling for two years before tearing his ACL again. By then he was content with concentrating on his major in accounting and business, with a minor in theater.
He also sought an internship with Hugh Henderson, president of HCI Global Trade. Hugh asked about James’ volunteer experience, which was impressive enough to land the internship. “Hugh is a brilliant, inspiring guy who puts all of his time and effort back into helping people,” James says. Hugh additionally operated a homeless mission, so James also became involved with that before graduating from Washington and Lee in 2013.
“I understood the metrics needed for a healthy business,” James says, “but when I graduated, I didn’t want to enter the corporate world right away.” He was awarded the prestigious Elrod Fellowship from The Alumni Network, which is limited to students from Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, Washington and Lee and the University of Chicago. The objective is to pursue public interest-themed projects at organizations across the country.
His fellowship landed him at Linden Resources, an Arlington-based non-profit whose mission is to increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities. James joined the organization in June 2013, and ended his fellowship a bit early when Linden named him director of business development and marketing in January 2014. The organization operates three commercial businesses, which serve 16 federal contracts, and conducts job placement and retention services for people with disabilities, including U.S. veterans. Linden currently employs 300 people full-time.
How udu Began
When Rachel, James’ girlfriend, bought him his first African hoodie in 2011 after she visited Wasani Island off the coast of Kenya, he thought the bright-colored, soft hoodie was cool — as did his friends, who kept asking how they could get one. That gave him the idea to bring the hoodies to the U.S. market. While James was spending a semester in Spain in 2012, he jumped on a plane to Kenya — by himself. He was 20 at the time, and he bought a ticket with no plan. Upon arrival, he met a friend of a Facebook friend who showed him around. James called on Feed The Children and took a tour of its Nairobi facilities, including the Abandoned Babies Clinic and the Livelihood Development Program.
He spent only four days in Kenya before taking 14 hoodie prototypes back to the United States. “Feed the Children helped me identify men and women who needed jobs, and I later met — on Skype — with program developers in Kenya before ordering 100 more hoodies,” says James. “After selling those, I gave the okay to make 500 more.” He hired a project manager to help monitor the process. He does, after all, have a full-time day job. “Feed the Children has been a Godsend,” he says. “They ensure we’re paying fair wages and providing good working environments. And they have controls in place so I know nothing is going to disappear.”
Hard Work Yields Rewards
In March of this year, Kevin Hagan, president and CEO of Feed the Children, shared lunch with James. Subsequently, Kevin posted on his FC blog: “James taught the women and men in our programs in Nairobi to make his product … meeting people like James gives me hope for the future of big charities being able to connect and be relevant to the next generation.”
James currently employs five tailors in Dandora, Nairoba, who make the hoodies. In recent weeks, he replaced his original project manager with Chebet Mutai, a female entrepreneur from Nairobi. Chebet worked two years for the World Bank before starting her own clothing and handbag line under the name Wazawazi, which is a combination of two Swahili words that mean “to think” and “open.” She employs six full-time tailors and is looking to hire two more. James and Chebet are exploring the consolidation of their companies under one roof.
Chebet writes, “He is one of those young people who is making a difference and is well on their way to changing the world in sustainable and positive ways. Access to markets is a major challenge facing the average Kenya/African crafter. James and I will collaborate to bring to the forefront as many amazing crafts as possible. It’s time for the world to see the new face of Africa.”
James named his company udu (pronounced oo-doo) after a traditional type of drum. “It’s a cool word, it kind of made sense,” he says. He named his product Livelyhoods because the hoodies, sewn from traditional East African fabrics, are made by men and women who are living in poverty. According to udu’s website, “Much like the people we serve, no two Livelyhoods are alike.” He created an LLC because he didn’t want to only give handouts; he also wanted to create opportunities for people to provide for themselves.
“I wanted to connect a cool product with economic opportunity for a village. As the saying goes, ‘Give a man a fish and he eats for a day.’ I wanted to teach a man to fish,” says James.
Several days a week, James starts the day with 5 a.m. Skype meetings with counterparts in Kenya. He explains that they are seven hours ahead of East Coast time. He works at Linden Resources from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. then works for udu a couple more hours in the evening.
He’s sold about 200 hoodies so far, but just recently received an order for 500. James explains that he has been finding the path as he goes along. “Just keeping the beat,” he says. “I believe if you ask for help and present yourself honestly, the rest will follow.”
He Works Hard, But is Well-Rounded
Though still in his early 20s, James is well-traveled, having visited Europe, Central America, Portugal, Gibraltar and — in college — Argentina. A lover of all kinds of music, James takes cello lessons at Catholic University and enjoys drawing and painting. He and a few best friends from college have started an investment club. And recently, he began working out again (post-ACL injury) and playing pick-up basketball.
James’ enthusiasm for life and giving back is infectious and, no doubt, has contributed to the success he’s achieved at an early age. He credits his parents, Donna and Jimmy Williams, as his greatest influence for giving back. “It started with my family and continued with always doing projects in my Catholic schools. My parents instilled strong values of making the world a better place, and nothing’s worth doing unless you do it well.”
Home is Columbia — James has no hesitation about that. He was even here in March for his cousin’s baby shower. Proud of his own roots, he is the type of young man who makes his parents, his schools and his hometown proud.
“I miss living in the City of Dreams,” James says. “Sometimes people who aren’t from Columbia laugh when I call it that, but I truly believe there is some validity to that name. Columbia is a place where most people aren’t born with a sense of entitlement; it isn’t Silicon Valley with the next big start-up down the street, or New York City where your next-door neighbor might be a billionaire, or D.C. where everyone knows someone really important. Being from Cola, we’re realists, we know we have to dream big if we want to do something big because no one is handing it to us on a silver platter.
“So, I miss being in the COD surrounded by all of those wonderful dreamers who make it such an awesome city and who hold such great potential for its future,” James pauses before continuing.
“It’s all about chasing a dream, making it a reality, and helping other people do the same.” He must believe that, because James Williams is making it happen.