A former journalist with the BBC, Oakland Roots SC's Chief Purpose Officer Mike Geddes has guided the club's mission of social change in Oakland and beyond. | Photo courtesy Oakland Roots SC
OAKLAND, Calif. – Every journey through life and work is unique. The experiences we gain shape our course and direction. They may even lead us to the place we believe we need to be.
For Mike Geddes, who serves as Oakland Roots SC’s Chief Purpose Officer, that journey has brought him to a unique position in the North American sports landscape.
“I was originally a journalist,” said Geddes. “I was a soccer reporter for the BBC for about seven years, I got to travel the world a lot, I got exposed to the use of the game in many countries around the world as a platform for social education. I believed – and still believe – that it’s almost unique in its power to change lives and to do good around the world.
“I spent a lot of time working in the non-profit space, spent a few years in Africa working on the legacy campaign of the FIFA 2010 World Cup and was even more convinced that was how I wanted to dedicate my life to using the game that I love to help others, but I was always frustrated by the fact that there wasn’t that direct link between the commercial success of the game – which was extremely wealthy – and the social impact side where no-one seemed to have any resources at all, which seemed wrong.”
Geddes arrived in Oakland four years ago having previously been the managing director of Streetfootballworld USA. He was looking for not only a place for his family to settle which would be nurturing for his son, but to have the opportunity to connect with the start-up community, and in particular the social enterprise community that exists within both Oakland and Northern California.
What he found was a city that faced challenges, but that was aiming to identify unique ways to solve them.
“It’s got a lot of history, a lot of culture, a lot of art,” said Geddes. “It’s really been a wonderful place to live, and it’s also been educational for me to learn from the incredible thinkers that are here, the really creative and gritty and dedicated people fighting for social change. To be able to bring some of my experience internationally into supporting what everyone is doing here locally, it’s really been a pleasure, an education, a privilege for me to live and work here.”
Photo courtesy Oakland Roots SC
Those early connections also introduced Geddes to the people that went on to form Roots SC, which will join the Championship in the 2021 season while continuing the social mission the club was founded on. Alongside Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer Edreece Arghandiwal, Geddes has used his role to facilitate collaboration with other organizations that have been working toward social change in Oakland, with the aim of finding areas where Roots can add value for those on the front lines.
“We were absolutely aware that we were a very young organization and there are a ton of social challenges here in the City of Oakland that people have been working to address for many, many years, a long time before we were here,” said Geddes. “We know that we are a small part in a much bigger fight to create a more equitable society, we have certain unique skill-sets or assets that come with being a pro sports team that can unite people behind this positive community asset, but we’re at the start of our journey, for sure, and we know that what we’re doing is supporting a lot of the work that has been going on for many, many years.
“We can talk about the work we’ve done in the community, and we’ve just launched our justice fund – which is a fund to specifically support causes at the intersection of racial and gender justice – but again, we’re still so young that we don’t seek to make any grand claims about how we’ve addressed this or that issue.”
So, what does being a Chief Purpose Officer for an organization entail? In comparison to more familiar executive roles – for example, Chief Executive Officer of Chief Financial Officer – it’s a newer concept that has changed the outlook and means by which companies are looking to operate. The central idea is the position – which is also employed by companies like Patagonia, Ben and Jerry’s, and Nike – helps ensure that the higher purpose of the organization is being met in the daily decision-making process of the business.
The belief is when a business is driven by a purpose, it will achieve greater success. That’s certainly something that Roots and Geddes think is an essential part of what they’re attempting to accomplish.
“Oakland Roots has always been driven by a purpose which is more than to just win games,” said Geddes. “Of course, we want to win games on the field, we want to be successful and bring the best soccer and championships to Oakland, but from Day 1 the club was founded with a purpose that was beyond that. It was about doing something positive for the City of Oakland, and so being purpose-driven means that purpose is our North Star. It sits above everything we do, and winning games, making money, building a global brand, all of these things are in service of that greater goal.
“So, my job as the Chief Purpose Officer is to align all the functions of the football club behind that overall purpose. That means no matter whether it’s a decision about the type of player we’re going to sign, or the type of football we’re going to play, or the types of vendors we want to work with, or what we do in the community, everything. Every decision is taken with that purpose in mind, and my role is to really work across every single organizational area of the football club to make sure that everyone is pointed is in the same direction.”
It’s a concept that Geddes has seen buy-in from not only within the Oakland community, but from the players the club has brought on board during its first two seasons. In fact, Geddes believes the club’s approach off the field has made it an attractive proposition for players looking to be part of something bigger than just soccer. “Many of the players chose the Oakland Roots specifically for that reason, because they want to be part of an organization that believes in these things,” he said.
From clubs like FC Nordsjælland and Right to Dream in Denmark, Kick for Life in Lesotho – which Geddes cites as a personal inspiration from his time in Africa – or England’s Forest Green Rovers, the idea of a club being a conduit for greater societal change is one that’s quickly arriving. Roots has recently teased a collaboration with German club FC St. Pauli, which has been at the forefront of the movement that has seen soccer clubs lead drives for social change, and Geddes believes there are gains to be made for others looking to take their club a new direction.
“There’s a lot of clubs out there which are believing that there is a different model out there for being successful and contributing to building a better world, and we are very happy to be seen as part of that movement and showing that you can build a brand around that mission and be successful with it, and that your fans will respond to it,” said Geddes. “It’s a privilege, it’s something we’re very excited about and thankful for, and we hope that we can inspire others and also learn from others as well. We’re very young, we’re still growing, we’re still learning.
“We just want to be part of showing a different way forward for society in general. We happen to be doing it through soccer, but I think there’s plenty of people who are thinking about ways of building back a better society and we’re just happy to be a small part of that.”