For 10 years I was a degenerate. My job as a nightclub promoter was to get people wasted. The more people got wasted, the more money I made. I only cared about myself. At 28, I was a recreational drug user who’d smoked 2 packs a day for 10 years straight, drank too much, gambled and frequented strip clubs. Any vice you can imagine, short of heroin, I had picked up. I’d look out my window at noon, still up from the night before, and see people in business attire on their lunch break going up and down Houston Street on a summer day. Yet I was going to go to bed and would wake up at 7 or 8:00 at night, and do it all over again.
One day, I woke up and I realized I was the worst person I knew. I was sick and tired of my own arrogance and selfishness, and wanted desperately to live differently. A life of service, generosity, integrity and compassion. I quit all my vices, sold everything that I owned and began to find my way back to a very lost Christian faith. I found an opportunity to serve for a humanitarian organization in Liberia, West Africa and spent almost two years on the mission. I had never seen extreme poverty before and it devastated me. I wept at the things I saw and before I knew it, my life was completely transformed.
I stepped radically into a new story.
I took the lessons I had learned promoting nightclubs and tried to apply them to promoting justice for the poor. And as with many startups, the early days of charity: water were intense — we worked 80 hours a week building the plane while flying it. We experienced exponential growth almost immediately, and many days we were just trying to keep it all together. You’re starting something, giving it your complete all, and there’s still a good chance that no matter how hard you work, it’s going to fail and you’re gonna blow the whole thing up. I know the conversation has progressed and everybody’s talking about work life balance now, but at the time, we certainly didn’t understand the concept.
I loved it, though, especially the travel. The year before my son was born I did 96 flights — a mix of speaking engagements, meetings with our major donors, and visiting our projects in Africa and Asia. I’ve been to Ethiopia 27 times in the last 9 years. I was able to do that because my wife was Creative Director here at charity: water for 9 years, so she would often travel with me.
When Jackson was born, all that changed. The travel feels more like work these days, and whereas being apart for 2 weeks used to be no big deal, now it’s harder leaving my wife behind knowing she has a whole new load of responsibilities. And of course hearing my son saying, “Dada! Dada! Dada!” on the phone.
I was fortunate that charity: water was almost a decade old when I became a father. By then, we had a great team and leadership in place and I could bring the wisdom of experience and failure and hopes, dreams and disappointments into the fathering experience. I just need to stay fit so I can run around and race my kid when I’m 60 years old.
But I’m glad I’m an old dad — Jackson is 2 and I’m 41 — because I can’t imagine trying to be a parent while just starting to chase my career and living so selfishly and arrogantly. I’m really glad that I — “got it out of my system” isn’t quite right — but moved on from that destructive lifestyle before becoming a dad.
I’ve tried to optimize my life and work around my family. My son sleeps in the walk-in closet of our one-bedroom apartment, but I walk 8 minutes to work. I see him in the morning and at night and on the playground and sometimes in the middle of the day when a meeting cancels last-minute. Proximity has been more important to me than space or a house in the suburbs. We get up early on the weekends, take a long stroll along the Hudson River, stop at all the local playgrounds, and eat cheese fries at Shake Shack.
I still travel for work to some places of great need, and about a year and a half ago, right before Jackson was born, I met a woman named Aissa Marou in the Sahel Desert of Niger, West Africa. We were hours from the capital city, deep in the bush standing next to this absolutely horrific looking watering hole. She was drawing up this brown, viscous water with deeply calloused hands, the opening of the well cut and grooved by millions of hours of rope being drawn across it. Aissa told me how she had given birth to 10 children, and 8 of them had died. Two after birth, one after 5 months, and the other at the ages of one, 2, 3, 13 and 16. She had actually fallen into the well with one of her 2 surviving children and almost lost that child. I couldn’t imagine that kind of grief, how a mother would survive that trauma. And so much of this was because of the contaminated water she was forced to drink simply because of where she was born.
I have a one-bedroom apartment and my kid’s in a closet, but I’ve been alive 41 years and never not had clean water.
So we did a fundraising campaign around Jackson’s birth that wound upraising $250,000, and we made sure all his money went to Niger. His birth is actually responsible for Aissa getting clean water. Her village has been changed forever.
That stays with me as a parent. We know that the work we get to do every single day serves other mothers and fathers and children. It’s a reality check to be grateful and realize how radically different it is to live and be a father or mother here versus in some of the areas where we work. Yeah, I have a one-bedroom apartment and my kid’s in a closet, but I’ve been alive for 41 years and I’ve never not had clean water.
That’s what I want for my son — to grow up aware of the privilege he’s been born into and seek opportunities to use that privilege to affect the lives of the poor. Whether he takes it on like his dad in a full-time profession, starts a business, or just volunteers sometimes, let’s just say I want him to be generous and use his life to benefit others as he grows up.
Scott Harrison went from club promoter to founder and CEO of the non-profitcharity: water, which since 2006 has helped fund nearly 20,00 projects to provide clean drinking water to more than 6.1 million people in 24 developing nations.