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."
So why is he now selling plants? Although he thought he'd be able to deal with the demands of a banking career, Folger says it was harder than he'd expected. As an analyst at Jefferies, he seems to have had a baptism of fire. "There were only four of us, and I was the only junior." It was a "formative experience" and there were no other juniors he was working closely with and could confide in.
By the time he joined Rothschild & Co., Folger says he'd developed "pretty severe anxiety." - "It was the combination of several years of not really knowing how to cope with the pressure or how to effectively manage it, and no one teaching you how." Folger left Rothschild in October 2019 and the bank - which is known for its caring approach to junior employees and which runs programmes to help support staff and nurture mental health - would undoubtedly say that things have improved significantly since.
Folger says he began suffering panic attacks at weekends. "The phone would start buzzing and you were expected to drop everything and return to work. My heart would race, I'd experience intense nausea and feel overwhelmed by anxiety. At any time, you can get a barrage of emails from an angry MD and it takes its toll." He started seeing a therapist in the evenings. "I would go to the West End for therapy for an hour between 6pm and 7pm, and then I'd come back to the office and keep working."
On average during his banking career, Folger says he was arriving in the office at 9am and working until midnight. This might sound entirely manageable to anyone working 100 hour weeks. "But there were lots of deals where you'd be working until 4 or 5am," says Folger. "It starts to grind you down, and not just because of the hours. - Your whole mental and physical health is on the line for a company, and you get very little recognition."
Despite this, Folger didn't simply quit banking altogether. His intention was to move to another bank in Canary Wharf. He left Rothschild and had three months gardening leave. And it was while he was on gardening leave that he began to realize he had other options.
"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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