James Leitner

Founder of MissionCleanWater

When James Leitner learned that over 1 billion people do not have access to clean water, he knew he knew he had to take action. In response, James founded MissionCleanWater at just 24 years old to address a dire need for sustainable, community-driven clean water initiatives in rural Uganda.

An entrepreneur and endurance athlete, James kick-started his fundraising for MissionCleanWater with a symbolic challenge. To raise money and awareness, James walked the entire continental US, over 3,250 miles from New Jersey to California, while pulling 10 gallons of water to symbolize how far women and girls walk each year fetching water for their families.

Since 2018, James has funded and implemented clean water systems that have helped 4,500 people and 1,500 students gain access to drinking water, cutting their average walk to find water from 3 hours to 15 minutes. With every project, MissionCleanWater focuses on sustainability, working closely with each community to develop solutions together through relationship building, training, and long term investment.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, James has been working closely with Ugandan Government health officials to develop a hygiene response plan that provides handwashing stations and COVID prevention literature to MCW’s partner communities. Recognizing that access to clean water is more important now than ever, James is currently preparing for his next endurance fundraiser: 30 Days for Clean Water. During the month of July 2020, he will run 30 miles per day for 30 days to raise $30,000 for a clean water and hygiene solution for the St. Elizabeth’s All-Girls School in rural Uganda.

Learn more at www.missioncleanwater.org.
The 3,250 Mile Walk for Clean Water: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y69-Q1ntGv0

Where did the idea for MissionCleanWater come from?

The idea of MissionCleanWater started in 2017 when I was walking across the United States, from NJ to CA. There were a lot of issues I saw in the nonprofit water sector that needed addressing. 60% of all clean water projects have failed in Africa due to poor management, inability to work with communities, and the lack of understanding at the grass roots level. MissionCleanWater was formed to fix these issues and properly develop lifelong clean water solutions.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

My typical day is a bit all over the place. MissionCleanWater is not my full time paid position, so I work multiple jobs, meaning I work 7 days a week.

My day starts at 6:30am. I spend the morning doing something light and active to get the body and mind moving. Around 7:45am, I start my coffee ritual and begin work around 8am. From 8am-4pm, I will do all MissionCleanWater work. I am either working from home, scheduling meetings, or traveling to speak to different groups. Between 4:30pm-10pm, I am working at Lifetime Fitness as their Rock Wall Manager. From 10pm-12:00am, I train for all the endurance events that I enjoy doing. From 12:00am-3:00am, I prepare dinner, relax, and finish any work I have. This is my 7 day schedule.

To stay productive, I take time to enjoy the little things and try and create time to do the things I greatly enjoy. I love learning about coffee, so I take my time to enjoy the practice of making a good cup. I will take small walks to look at flowers and enjoy the weather to think of ideas. I take time to perform self-care through yoga, rock climbing, and running.

How do you bring ideas to life?

My friends and I were always the group sharing ideas with each other and laughing about some of the ridiculous things we thought of. They are all now writers, which is fitting, but I never had the creative edge to just pop out ideas like you are in a writer’s room.

My thought process was always more about taking unique or different ideas and thinking about its practicality. Taking an idea like wanting to complete a marathon for a month for a year while carrying 45lbs of water and actually creating a plan to complete it. Break the process down, take a practical approach, and anything becomes obtainable. Reach out to friends, coworkers, and family to see what they think about your idea. Use their questions, criticisms, or suggestions as a way to make your approach better, and any idea is possible.

What’s one trend that excites you?

A focus on mental health. I was working 100 hour weeks to get MissionCleanWater started and noticed after a year and half, I never saw any of my friends or family. If we can focus on improving ourselves, being happy, and continuing the activities we love, we can still maintain a high level of work quality without having to work 80+ hour work weeks.

People are more willing to accept that they need a moment to relax. A moment to not go out to a bunch of bars on a Friday and relax at home after a busy week. It’s a productive trend that is no longer considered a waste of time but rather a good time for self-reflection.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Set up each day for success by making a list of your tasks! One habit that helps me a lot is that at the end of the day, before going to bed, I like to spend one hour off my many screens. Right before logging off for the day, I will open up a post-it note program on my laptop and write down everything I want to accomplish the next day. This helps me remember what has to get done, what is time-sensitive, and what should be prioritized.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Jimbo, my guy! While at school and when working, do not be afraid to ask questions! Raise your hand in front of everyone if you are confused because I guarantee you everyone else is. Question each topic, make people elaborate, and don’t be afraid to say what is on your mind. It will help you stand out and look more impressive than just sitting there saying you understand everything when you don’t.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Hard work does not always pay off. Luck, connections, automation, and your background are all going to play a role. Learn to work smart and don’t be afraid to meet people. Your time is valuable so use it wisely.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I talk to people. Regardless of how you met, people are going to have different experiences, backgrounds, and ideas that you can learn from. Even if they have completely opposite viewpoints, invite them to get coffee and share your ideas. You might learn something that you were not initially planning for. Surrounding yourself with people that think the same will force old habits when there could be innovative solutions you haven’t discovered yet.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Accept what you know and are good at, ask for help with the rest. Running a business is going to involve PR work, marketing, advertising, budgeting, product development, etc. You might not be a Marketing wizard, but others are, so ask for advice or suggestions. See if a close friend who works in marketing can help you for an hour and begin drafting something together.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

One of the biggest challenges in the nonprofit world is fundraising and recruiting. All of this effort gets put in to host awesome events for a cause you love, but actually getting people to register or donate can be a headache. When you don’t get enough registrants or donors, it feels like a defeat and can be heartbreaking.
When this happens – and it will – work with your team to identify what went wrong and what can be done next time to prevent it. Set milestones for the next event or campaign and begin to plan early for them. Talk to others and see what they thought of the event, what they liked, and what can be done better.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

People might think I’m weird for this one. I do not have a name for this but simply “Protein Instant Ramen.” Normal instant ramen is pretty much empty calories (plus MSG – yuck) but Protein Instant Ramen would be jam-packed with all your daily vitamins, protein, complex carbs, and calories. This is perfect for the long-distance hiker, anyone on a budget, or that needs a quick but healthy meal. I will take all investments, thank you.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

My best friend, Eric, invited me to be a groomsman for his wedding. I wanted to find a unique way of thanking him, so I decided to find something focused on his love for cooking and good food. As a surprise, I reached out to the entire wedding party to see if everyone would be willing to chip in $100 to get him and his now-wife, Jess, a dinner for two at 11 Madison Park. Everyone loved the idea and chipped in to create a one-of-a-kind experience at one of the nicest restaurants in the world. They toured the kitchen, met the chefs, and even received a signed menu. Looking at their excitement sharing pictures afterward made all the organization worth it.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

A very useful software my team and I use is ClickUp, a project management software. Since our clean water projects take so many steps and we have different technical and communications experts working together, using ClickUp makes it easy for us to stay organized and communicate. Everyone in our team is able to understand the project as a whole, see how each piece is coming together, and be prepared if there are any challenges coming down the pipeline.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

A book I recommend was written by a very prolific man, Marcus Aurelius. The book is called Meditations. It’s a collection of Marcus’s thoughts as Emperor of the Roman Empire. It talks about his challenges and how he overcame them, how he dedicated time for self-reflection, and how we choose to perceive events as sadistic or optimistic. You control how you want to perceive events and history, but do not have any control over them. With all of the challenges you face as an entrepreneur, are you going to look at this as an optimistic opportunity or are you going to give up?

What is your favorite quote?

This quote is by Patrick Rothfuss, an epic fantasy writer and NYT bestselling author. During my walk across the USA, a friend shared this quote with me, and it has resonated with me ever since:

“ I learned more from a month on the road than I had in 3 years of classes… No man is brave that has never walked a hundred miles. If you want to know the truth of who you are, walk until not a person knows your name. Travel is the great leveler, the great teacher. Bitter as medicine, crueler than mirror-glass. A long stretch of road will teach you more about yourself than a hundred years of quiet introspection.”

Key Learnings:

  • Talk to new people, share experiences, and listen to what they have to say. It might provide a new perspective and solution you did not think of.
  • Breathe. Accept you need a break and go for a walk. Take time for yourself and you will improve your work quality.
  • There are going to be a lot of ups and downs, how are you going to get over the bumps?
  • Understand your goals and fight for them.
  • Don’t forget about the people that love you.