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Variety’s 2017 Philanthropist of the Year John Paul DeJoria Shares ‘Good Fortune’

There’s a heart-stirring moment in “Good Fortune,” Joshua Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell’s documentary detailing the passionate altruism of John Paul DeJoria, in which the self-made billionaire — at this point still a fledgling entrepreneur with a few extra dollars lining his pocket — is at a diner eating lunch when he notices a young mother agonizing over the prices on the menu, determining whether she can afford to feed her children. DeJoria anonymously pays the check, he doesn’t want the woman to feel indebted or embarrassed, and leaves a little extra so they can order more. Even after the woman extends a teary-eyed, diner-wide thank you to whoever helped out, DeJoria never reveals that he was the one who paid.

“That particular thing, I was looking at my own life,” says DeJoria. “There was a time in my life when I would order and I had nothing. How much does it cost? What do I get for $3.95? What do I get for $2.95? When I saw that woman there was no doubt that I wanted to do something.”

DeJoria knows something of survival. Before carving out a wildly successful path as the co-founder of John Paul Mitchell Systems, the haircare giant whose awapuhi-infused products defined shampoo scent in the 1980s, and the Patron Spirits Co., purveyors of high-end tequila, DeJoria weathered a hardscrabble childhood in the slums of East Los Angeles. For a five-year period, DeJoria and his older brother, Robert (who died in a motorcycle accident at age 29), were sent to live in a foster home during the week while their mother, a first-generation Greek immigrant divorced from their Italian-immigrant father, sought steady employment.

DeJoria was later told by a teacher at John Marshall High School that he would amount to “nothing.” As an adult, he worked a series of odd jobs, from janitor to door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. He was fired multiple times and was homeless twice, roaming vacant lots for soda pop bottles to cash in for spare change to buy food for his then-toddler son.

“When you’re down and out and kicked out of your place and you have someone’s else’s car you got to put water in every four hours, my only thought was survival,” he says.

Too proud to ask for help, DeJoria never told his mother how bad things were. “That was stupid,” he admits in retrospect. But eventually a biker friend from junior high stepped in and provided him and his son with a place to sleep and “biker mamas” to babysit while DeJoria picked himself up by the bootstraps and turned his life around. He soon after met Paul Mitchell, the legendary Scottish-American hairstylist with whom he founded Paul Mitchell Systems. The iconic black-and-white shampoo bottles are a result of not having enough money to pay for color versions. They became like brothers, running the company together — and establishing a solar-powered awapuhi ginger farm in Hawaii — until Mitchell died of pancreatic cancer in 1989.

Philip Cheung for Variety

DeJoria has never taken for granted the generosity of those who sustained him during the dark moments, and this gratitude is partly to credit for his deep-seated drive to continue helping others, a desire that permeates not only his personal life but his business philosophy as well.

“You lose a huge part of your soul if you don’t give back,” says DeJoria, who helps finance and support more than 160 philanthropic organizations worldwide. “I show up, and that’s a very important part of philanthropy. A lot of people wait for the government or the masses to do something great and they jump on board like they’re part of the winning team. But they forget, the masses are made up of individuals.

One person can get out there and help change so many things. I’m one person, and I realized along the way, all my life, that you’ve got to share. Success without sharing is failure.”

To that end, DeJoria is rigorously proactive in his desire to “make the world a better place.” A fiery environmentalist, he volunteers with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, chasing away poachers in a former Coast Guard cutter that he bought. He thinks nothing of riding the rough seas to save whales from being harpooned and baby harp seals from being clubbed to death.

In L.A., DeJoria mentors job seekers at the nonprofit Chrysalis, delivering pep talks and donating suits they can wear to interviews. In Austin, Texas, where he lives most of the year, DeJoria walks around homeless neighborhoods handing → out $100 bills to “people who look like they’re really down on their luck and need a break.”

At events for A Walk on Water, a national organization providing surf therapy to children with special needs, DeJoria is in the ocean, propping kids up on surfboards.

And for the past 14 years he’s spent the weekend closest to his birthday underwriting and participating in the Peace Love Happiness Charity Motorcycle Ride, all proceeds going to various Central Texas charities serving local paramedics, police officers, firefighters and military heroes.

In 2011, DeJoria signed the Giving Pledge, a philanthropic initiative founded by Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates in which its 170 members, billionaires representing 21 countries around the world, commit to giving away at least half of their wealth to charity.

That same year he established JP’s Peace, Love & Happiness Foundation as a hub for promoting the primary core values of his companies: sustainability, social responsibility and animal-friendliness.

“I realized along the way … you’ve got to share. Success without sharing is failure.”
John Paul DeJoria

“Our employees all volunteer. It’s part of the culture,” says DeJoria, whose offices buzz with the kind of positivity not often witnessed in today’s corporate America, and where every employee gets free lunch, every day. “In our business we all contribute and participate.”

Helping others help themselves has always been one of DeJoria’s key objectives. In 2010, when he discovered how dire the unemployment rates were in Appalachia and how many people were going hungry, he launched Grow Appalachia, an organization dedicated to self-sustainability through farming.

He bought the seeds, fertilizer and equipment and hired agricultural experts to educate communities in Kentucky, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia how to till their own gardens and harvest their own vegetables, sell their own produce, eggs and honey and profit from their crops.

“Today, we have some 40,000 people eating off those gardens,” says DeJoria.

In a world currently divided by partisanship and political unrest, he doesn’t prescribe to the notion of pitting rich people against poor. It doesn’t work, he says, and it’s detrimental to our country’s collective societal and economic health. He prefers to view the world as place where everyone is equal, where everybody is capable of achieving happiness and prosperity in whatever form that might manifest itself.

“I am the 99% and I am the 1%,” he says. “It’s not a split. It’s we the people. The minute you start separating people, you’re now separating the country. It’s wrong. After all, wouldn’t everybody like to have a home, or even become a millionaire? Isn’t that the American dream, and then you give back along the way?”

But if you ask DeJoria why he gives away so much of his money, he balks at the idea that he’s simply throwing excess cash at people.

“People say you give away all these millions, but I don’t give them away. I invest it, in people,” he says. “I don’t mean I get the money back, but our planet will. We have to take care of one another. And that’s what we do.”

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