James Burgett calls himself "the fat tattooed guy," and it's easy to see why. "I am 330 pounds [150 kilos]," he points out. "I dress all in black. I am far from cleanly shaven. And I have a wide variety of tattoos, extensive tattooing on both arms, tattooing on my neck." Indeed, at first glance, Burgett looks like a dangerous criminal. Few people would guess that he runs one of the largest computer recycling non-profit companies in the country.
This unusual executive never graduated from high school. "My formal education basically stops at eighth grade. I practiced theft. I sold a lot of drugs, and did them: heroin and methedrine." To support his drug addiction, Burgett would pull discarded computers out of trash bins, repair, and sell them. His recycling business started in a small two-room apartment.
As more and more computers came flooding in, Burgett's business quickly outgrew that space. And with that success, he says, his need for drugs ceased. He's been clean (drug-free) since 1997. "This is the thing that keeps me from sticking a needle in my arm," he says, gesturing at his warehouse. "I can wake up every morning and look at myself in the mirror and go 'Today, I'm all right. The planet's slightly better every day I continue to do this.'" He calls it "occupational therapy," adding, "this is by far the best thing I've ever done. And we've got a reputation that is rather laudable. We do good and people are finally beginning to notice."
Over the past 13 years, Burgett has given away 16,000 refurbished computers to schools, poor people, government agencies, and non-profit organizations all over the world – literally. "I can state that my computers have touched every continent on earth, including Antarctica. The Cambodian placement went to train public defenders for the first time since the Khmer Rouge was kicked out of power. The computers we sent to Afghanistan ended up in the hands of women who were running illegal girls' schools under the Taliban. We have computers in schools in Guatamala. Latvia got computers and put together the first probation and parole system since Stalin's time. People are out of incarceration because we put in the infrastructure that allowed that to happen."
As proud as he is of those efforts, he is most proud of the people he's hired to staff the recycling center: people who could not find a job anywhere else. "Disreputable degenerates and losers to a man!" he says with a chuckle. "I hire from drug-rehab programs, prison work-release programs, psychiatric programs. They don't give us their sharpest and brightest. The guy who runs my warehouse and handles most of my retail marketing and so forth has nine felony convictions. The guy who now runs most of my collection events has a rather extensive psychiatric history. The guy who pretty much runs the tech room was busted for multiple cocaine convictions."
Dave, who greets donors as they arrive, has worked as the front desk receptionist at the recycling center for four years. He is an ex-con with multiple felony convictions. When asked about James Burgett, he laughs, "He's my hero! He got me a job. You know, he's the only one to give me a chance, I swear to God. You don't know what it was like walking these streets – I had to get a job. It's nice, you know, to do something good instead of always something bad."
Burgett says that's a universal feeling. "Can you imagine people who have nothing to be proud of, and then you give them something to be proud of? Can you imagine how motivating that is? I believe I have a team full of conquering heroes. We're not motivated by profit margin. We're actually very pleased with what we do."
Now that he's reached midlife, James Burgett says he wants to make the most of the time he has left. On vacation and in his spare time, he is working non-stop on other projects: retooling cars, supercomputers, and other appliances to run on hydrogen, propane, and vegetable oil. James Burgett says he is trying to bring us one step closer to saving the planet, one computer at a time.