The Rothschild banker selling plants
James Folger used to be an associate at Rothschild & Co. in London. These days, he works in Stem, and not in the standard sense of the word: Folger is founder and CEO of The Stem UK, a London indoor plant delivery company.
"We're an online garden centre based in London," says Folger. "We've been going in earnest for around 18 months and we have around 12,000 customers, most of them young people living in small spaces in London. We're able to make a small but measurable difference to people's lives."
Folger spent four years in banking. He was an analyst at Jefferies for 16 months before joining Rothschild's London office as an associate in April 2017. "I spent two and a half years working in FIG M&A," says Folger. "We covered everything from sovereigns, to banks and insurers."
On paper, Folger looks likes the sort of person who'd thrive in a banking job. He studied economics at University College London and says he was "pretty set on the subject" from the age of 17-18. "I'm very ambitious, and I did internships at Goldman Sachs and Brevan Howard," says Folger. "I was very keen to get into investment banking in order to get some optionality further down the road."
"I did everything I could to try and get away from feeling so compressed in London," says Folger. "I was travelling around the world to some really beautiful places, and it just seemed much easier to take a leap of faith. I was outside the system and it made it easier to take the next step." While he was in banking, Folger says he gave a lot of thought to moving into private equity. He also considered starting a business, "but I never felt that I had an idea that was good enough to make the jump."
Stem was that idea. Folger never started the new job in Canary Wharf. Instead, he spent a year working 16-hour days getting The Stem UK off the ground and doing everything from strategy and concept to delivery driving and customer service. "We grew from just me on my own and zero orders to 2,000 orders and £1m of revenues," says Folger. A crowdfunding round this year means that The Stem UK now employs five people and has drivers to do its deliveries instead. It hasn't been easy, but Folger - who says he's selling "plant happiness" - says it's been worthwhile.
He says that taking time out of banking and spending time in nature has helped put him on a healthy path, and that at The Stem UK he wants to create a culture at odds with what he experienced in banking. "We want this to be a place where people are recognised for their contribution, where people love working and where it's fun." Most of all, Folger says he wants to show other unhappy young bankers that there are alternatives. People "often feel stuck and trapped in banking," he says. They don't have to stay.
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