It’s not every day you come across an 18-year-old who has been brewing and cupping coffee since the age of three, but that’s exactly who we have with us today. Keely Thomas is a University of South Carolina student and the co-founder of Grand Strand Coffee. Like many others, Keely’s family is deeply rooted in coffee, but her active involvement from such a young age makes her Next Gen story one that you cannot miss! Bent Dietrich, Next Gen Council Member, and Trader at American Coffee Corp. sat down with Keely to learn more.
Let’s start at the beginning of what is a truly “Next Gen” story! Tell us a little bit about who you are.
My name is Keely Thomas, and I recently turned 18. I was born in Gastonia, NC, but I have lived in Salt Spring Island, BC, Vancouver, BC, Seattle, WA, and Fairfax, VA. I am a co-founder/barista of Grand Strand Coffee in Myrtle Beach, SC, and a full-time student at the University of South Carolina, majoring in International Business and Operations and Supply Chain. I am also heavily involved in the University of South Carolina’s School of Music where I play music in the Bassoon Studio and University band.
Some of us may be familiar with your story due to the Barista Magazine highlight, but for those who are not, how did you get started in coffee? And what are you up to these days?
Due to my parent’s long coffee history, it is practically in my blood. I’ve grown up in coffee shops, coffee roasting plants, and QC labs. I started cupping around age 3, but mostly just tasting the coffee. By age 6, I had learned how to make great coffees on V-60 pour-overs and made my parents coffee in bed for years (that stopped when I became a full-time barista). When I was around 10, my father started teaching me to roast samples on Probat sample roasters, and at that point, I began to learn how to cup for defects and descriptions. This came in handy during the pandemic.
When I was 13, I wanted a job, but I was too young to begin working as a barista, so I decided to open a small cold brew stand at the farmers market with the help of my mother. We ran the cold brew booth for two years before we got the opportunity to have an actual brick-and-mortar store. We opened our first store in March 2020 (right at the beginning of the pandemic). It was a challenge opening in that environment, but we had a significant following already. Plus, we were so specialty-focused that we didn’t have much competition. There were other coffee shops in the area, but no one was focused on specialty coffee like we were. Customers quickly understood that we were a coffee family, and we were focused on high-end specialty and telling the story of the coffee all the way back to the farmers that grew it.
How is the transition going from being in high school and working at Grand Strand Coffee to being a full-time college student? Have you scoped out your favorite coffee spots at the University of South Carolina yet?
Transitioning from high school to college is very different from what I expected. In high school, Covid allowed me to go virtual and work full-time at Grand Strand Coffee. After going back in person for my senior year, I had enough credits to go to school for only half the day, which also allowed me to work at the store. Now that I’m in school three hours away from home, I cannot go in and pick up barista shifts, but I still help with social media and special projects for GSC. During our holidays, I am lucky enough to drive home to work at Grand Strand Coffee! Thankfully, I have found a great coffee shop in Columbia. They are a small, quality-focused, family-owned coffee roastery in Cottontown, Columbia, called Indah Coffee Co., and I enjoy a cortado from them every weekend.
You’ve helped your father out with samples and seen his work at home. As an importer for Intercontinental Coffee Trading, he helps connect roasters to coffee producers all over the world. Despite your young age, you’ve actually had a lot of exposure to various parts of the business. Between the roasting side and importing side, what are your favorite aspects of the industry?
Currently, I enjoy being a barista. I enjoy creating classic and new drink combinations to serve my customers, such as the sweet and spicy latte, a blend of brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cayenne pepper, and allspice. I also enjoy educating people about specialty coffee. These traits are some of which make working at Grand Strand Coffee a lot of fun. Since moving to Columbia for school, I have been attending barista competitions and would eventually like to compete in the US Barista Championship.
As you mentioned, I have spent much time helping my father since he works from home. We have a Probat sample roaster here, so during the pandemic, when the ICT office in San Diego was closed, my father and I had to help with QC. Most of the samples from Origin would come to us to cup and we would then let the team know the results. I would roast the samples, set up the tables, and cup five days a week with my father. As much as I love cupping and roasting, I would still prefer to go into trading at some point.
Are you planning on staying in the coffee industry after you graduate from college?
I definitely plan on staying in the coffee industry after I graduate. I want to become a Specialty Coffee Trader and eventually start my own importing company.
For the industry as a whole, how do you view the future of the industry?
As a whole, I feel that the coffee industry will continue to see a shift toward specialty. We’ve been seeing this trend in the US for a while, and after talking to my father about some of the next-generation coffee producers, I feel origin is moving in that direction. In Myrtle Beach, real specialty coffee is a bit new; most coffee shops are still trying to copy Starbucks by selling sweet and milky drinks. We’ve noticed that at our store, people will drive across town and pass dozens of coffee shops to come to GSC to get classic-style espresso drinks and nice specialty coffee from us. Knowing how far people drive to get a cup of coffee from us is the best compliment we could receive. I genuinely believe this is the future of coffee.
What kind of change or progress do you see the Next Generation of coffee bringing to the industry?
I think technology and social media will play a significant role in the next generation. Social media is already a great way to teach people about coffee and the whole process from seed to cup. You’ve got amazing baristas like Morgan Ekroth (Morgan Drinks Coffee) and next-generation coffee growers like Sara Corrales (Finca Los Pinos) putting out great content. This content shows younger people that coffee is more than just a way to get “cheap energy” to help them study all night; coffee has history and lots of passion behind it.
What advice would you share with your fellow Next Gen-ers or people looking to get involved in the coffee industry?
I want to share some advice with people trying to get into the coffee industry: just go for it! If you enjoy a favorite coffee shop/roastery, submit an application. There are so many opportunities in the coffee industry and so many amazing people and cultures; there is something for everyone to enjoy.
The future is certainly looking bright with passionate coffee lovers like Keely coming up in the industry! On behalf of the Next Gen Council, thank you to Keely for her time and involvement.
With much built-up excitement and anticipation, Sintercafe made its triumphant return from November 9th through November 12th, 2022 at the Los Sueños Marriott in Costa Rica. The first event of its kind since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was welcomed with open arms and boasted record attendance with over 600 attendees! The attendee list included many National Coffee Association members and representatives, including our very own Bill Murray, President and CEO of the National Coffee Association (NCA), who delivered a keynote entitled “Consumers, Coffee, and Change: The Evolving U.S. Market.” He also served on a panel of coffee association executives to discuss global challenges facing coffee and how association are uniquely positioned to help.
In addition to providing a platform for many great lectures and customer/client interaction, the event saw the inaugural launch of a collaboration between NCA Next Gen, SCTA Next Gen, and Sintercafe Next Gen with a beach cleanup and paddle boarding experience. The NCA Next Gen Council is looking forward to building upon this initiative and collaborating more with our Next Gen coffee counterparts around the world!
Hear from some of our NCA Next Gen Council members below regarding their experiences at Sintercafe 2022:
“What a great feeling to be back amongst colleagues and friends at Sintercafe 2022! The dynamic of finally being able to attend an in-person event was truly wonderful. Our very own NCA Next Gen Council members were lucky enough to be invited to participate in a “beach cleanup and paddleboarding” event on Thursday afternoon! This creative and inclusive activity gave us the opportunity to begin to explore the synergies between our Council and other established and blossoming Next Gen groups developing across the globe. Attendance was high, moods were even higher, and we are very much looking forward to seeing even more familiar faces in Tampa!
Further, it seemed that there were more and more new Next-Gen-aged participants. This is great to see, and we look forward to bringing more and more young coffee professionals into the fold of the NCA Next Gen!”
-Janet Colley Morse (NCA Next Gen Chair) & Kyle Bawot (NCA Next Gen Vice Chair)
“The event was very well attended by an extremely diverse group of industry members. Producers, exporters, cooperatives, importers, and roasters all flocked to Sintercafe in droves. To me, this is what makes Sintercafe unique in our industry. Nowhere else can you have almost every member of the coffee supply chain, sitting down together, in a meeting, talking about our lives and experiences, negotiating additional business, or making new friends.
It connects roasters to producers, exporters to warehouse keepers, and CEOs to first-year attendees. This was my first Sintercafe and most certainly will not be my last, particularly for that reason.”
Mike Vilarino, Business Integration Manager with Baronet Coffee, sat down with Wim Abbing, President and CEO of Probat and current NCA Board Member. Probat is an industry-leading coffee plant and machinery equipment manufacturer headquartered in Emmerich, Germany. Because of the length of the conversation with Mike, this will be a two-part interview. Part one will largely focus on Wim’s early years and his initial time at Probat. Part two will focus on his experience in the coffee industry and his advice to the next generation.
Vilarino: To jump right into it, let’s rewind to before you began your career. Tell me a little bit about your education, — did you attend university? If so, what did you major in?
Abbing: For the full story, I went to high school with the youngest daughter of Hans Von Gimborn (then CEO of Probat). We met briefly in kindergarten and were from the same town, Emmerich, Germany. We ended up getting married and having children together!
To answer your question, though, I was drafted into the German military following my high school graduation. I spent about 18 months serving as a soldier prior to enrolling in university.
I attended a university in the northern part of Germany. Unlike the US, German students begin with classes in their major instead of initially focusing on general liberal arts studies. My major was in economics, which had me studying financial markets and learning concepts in monetary policy. Naturally, I set my sights on a career in banking and eventually landed at a German commercial bank, where I worked for the first six years of my career. Near the end of my time at the bank, I found myself unhappy with what I was doing. I felt that I was unfulfilled, and I remember thinking to myself ‘I really don’t want to die in this job.’
Coincidentally, around the same time, I was talking to my father-in-law, Mr. Von Gimborn. He knew that I was unhappy at the bank and said to me ‘Well, Wim, we don’t have any family members at the company’ (Probat). It was now 1999 and Mr. Von Gimborn had retired from his position as CEO of Probat but remained chairman of the board. I remember him going on to say, ‘it would be nice to have a family member at the company again.’
I decided to take my father-in-law up on the not-so-subtle offer and joined Probat in the treasury department in 1999. Because of my background majoring in economics and working at a bank, it was natural for me to start out in an area that focused on the finances of the company. I quickly moved up the ranks in the finance department at Probat, moving from analyst to controller and ultimately rising to CFO within two years.
So, what was your day-to-day like at this point?
Abbing: To be honest, Mike, it was a nice, quiet office job. The year was 2000 and my fourth child was just born. At work, my day-to-day was consistent with any other CFO of a midsized German company. We had just acquired a Brazilian business, which took me on the road quite a bit, but not nearly as much as I would be in the future. What was clear, however, was that I did not want to have any face-to-face time with our customers. I was happy being in the background and enjoying a more back-office role. I had my spreadsheets and numbers and was content giving those numbers and my opinions to someone else to make decisions.
I was now 35 years old and two or so years had gone by. Out of the blue, my then-boss, the CEO of Probat, left the company.
I remember my father-in-law, still chairman of the board, saying to me, ‘This is your chance. Do you want to step up and run the company together with Stephan Lange (then CSO)?’ Before he and the board looked for a replacement as CEO, they decided to offer a Co-CEO position to both me and Stephan, a position which we both accepted.
I started as CEO in 2002 and was 35 years old, which at that time seemed very young. I remember various partners, customers, and vendors commenting about my age – and to be frank, I was very young for a CEO. But, as I said earlier, the business was structured differently than it is today, so leadership was split between myself as CEO in Germany, and Stephan, who ran the United States operations. It was clear from the beginning that I was the introvert, happy to be in the background. And Stephan was the opposite, a man who enjoyed attending shows, visiting customers, and traveling around the world. That type of outward-facing role was a role that I had not even begun to think about as a position that would make me happy.
Stepping into the CEO position, I would have assumed that you would be forced to be much more customer-facing. Is that not a fair assumption?
I still tried to hide a bit in the background. I was happy to concede the client-facing responsibilities to my colleague in the US.
While he continued to drive the sales side, I had quite a bit to do internally back in Germany. Unfortunately, at this time there were some HR issues primarily driven by the generational change taking place within our company. One of the challenges that ultimately arise from family businesses is that people tend to stay forever. Especially where I was from, most people who entered the business never left. And because of that, Probat was unable to offer the next generation the ability to grow, sometimes waiting until lifelong employees either retired or died! When I joined the company, my task was fixing this and figuring out a path forward. We changed a lot of these types of situations, and as a result, many people left.
Several years went by until the financial crisis in 2008-2009 hit. Stephan ended up leaving Probat and the board ultimately gave me full responsibility to not only take over his role but to run the entire global business as the sole CEO, a change from how we had structured the company over the past 7 years. My first thing to do now? Go out and see customers.
So that was a big change for you?
Abbing: Oh yes! The bright lights were now on me. And to tell you the truth, Mike, it was amazingly interesting! Probat’s customers are extremely diverse. Our equipment can be found anywhere from shops with small shop roasters all the way up to big corporations like Nestle. What really makes it fun, however, is the mid-sized companies. I was now traveling the world to see customers big and small and to tell you the truth, it was an eye-opening experience. My travels took me from Japan and South Korea all the way to the US and Africa. Maybe even surprising myself, I was having fun meeting customers, talking to people, and ultimately learning what it took to be CEO and run a company.
So, you started running the company in 2009, and I assume you learned a lot at that point. It was basically a new role for you. What did you learn about yourself? To bring the conversation towards coffee, what did you learn about the coffee industry as the now sole CEO?
Abbing: What I learned about myself was that it is important to try new things. I learned not to be afraid of making mistakes; I’ve made mistakes just like everybody does. As far as I saw it, customers accept mistakes. And adding onto that, the industry itself is one big family. I learned how important it is to talk to people across the industry, from customers to competitors. While talking to competitors, I never talk about prices, customers, etc., I talk to learn, and I talk to understand!
Another thing I learned was that Germans tend to have an issue with their language skills. You always hear a German! Our accents are strong, and Germans sometimes shy away from speaking English or other languages. Traveling across the world and speaking with customers, I learned to not be afraid of that. There’s no need to hide your heritage, language, or nationality. You should be proud and embrace everything that comes along with those parts of you. To summarize, I learned that our market is so amazingly international, diverse, and understanding.
There are many markets that Probat is involved in that are so much narrower than coffee as well. As an example of how expansive the coffee market is, about a month ago we held a symposium in Emmerich, where one of our customers spoke about his coffee business in Mongolia! It was eye-opening! Coffee only began being sold in Mongolia in 1992. Securing green coffee in a landlocked country was just one of many challenges our customers faced. These and other obstacles are overcome daily by members across our industry. It makes our industry so unique.
Thank you again to Wim on behalf of the NCA Next Gen Communications Committee. Please stay tuned for part two with the CEO of Probat, Wim Abbing, to learn more about his experience in the coffee industry and advice to the next generation!
Michael Rosa, Commodities Buyer at Mother Parkers Tea & Coffee and NCA Next Gen Communications Committee member, sat down with Matthew Daks, General Manager of Volcafe Specialty, for a deeper look into his journey throughout the coffee industry. Matt’s unique experiences in many industry roles give him a valuable and noteworthy perspective on the industry that you won’t want to miss!
Tell us about yourself! How did you find your way into coffee?
My coffee career started while I was in school, and I was working as a barista at a small independent shop in northern California, deep within the redwoods. While working in the coffee shop, I would regularly stop into our roastery which was just across the alley to geek out with the roaster; asking as many questions as I could before he began to grow tired of my inquisition. I couldn’t help it; I was so intrigued by the process of turning green coffee brown. There was a sense of magic and alchemy to it, and I needed to understand it more…
Years later, I found myself in the Bay Area and took a job as a barista and shift lead at Peets Coffee & Tea. Peet’s is really where my job as a barista began to transform into a career as a coffee professional. My fervent passion for coffee, and desire to learn more about it put me in a position to grow and take new opportunities to share my passion with others. By the time I left Peet’s in 2008, I was one of two Training Partners, responsible for coffee, tea, and barista training for the company.
From Peet’s, I managed to take a volunteer consulting position with TechnoServe in its burgeoning East African Coffee Initiative. In this role, I worked with a team across Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia to improve quality across the region by training cuppers and providing in-season feedback to cooperatives and their member producers. The team was also out in the field leading cuppings at the wet mills, training producer members how to taste their product and better understand the quality of the coffee they were producing and tie it back to harvesting practices as well as wet milling.
The next step in my coffee journey brought me into the coffee trade, where I spent 2 years as a junior trader with Volcafe’s operation in Kenya, called Taylor Winch. At the time, I was considering a couple of different career moves, some more financially rewarding than others, but ultimately, I chose to begin learning the trade because I felt it really helped to deepen the breadth of my experience and understanding of coffee. The decision still stemmed back to those conversations in the alley, trying to better understand the magical process of turning this hard, green seed into a brew that could instantly bring a smile to people’s faces and brighten their day.
I spent the next 5 years working with Volcafe both in Kenya, and then back in the US at Volcafe Specialty where I am today. This broadened my understanding of the trade by having a working knowledge of the processes it takes to procure and export coffee as well as the factors that impact the cost to the roaster from an importing perspective. As things go, the more I understood about the production and trade of coffee, the more I realized there were so many factors of the industry I still knew fairly little about.
That led to my next move, where I left Volcafe and took a job with the National DCP (Dunkin’s purchasing cooperative), where I was responsible for buying all of the coffee and tea for Dunkin’s 9600+ stores. I remember growing up as a kid in New Jersey, and my dad drank Dunkin’ every day. Other memories as I grew older, working as a lifeguard at the community pool, every morning heading to Dunkin’ before opening the pool, and ordering a large iced French vanilla latte. Don’t judge me 😃 And now, I was going to be responsible for sourcing all of that coffee. Little did I know how much more I would be doing. My first months were spent learning and understanding the various contracts we had with several of the nation’s greatest toll roasting operators. Not only was I learning about the contracts, and developing relationships with our roasting partners, but simultaneously I had to begin negotiating new versions of the contracts. Talk about jumping into the deep end with both feet…
I was part of the Dunkin’ strategic supply chain for three and a half years. My understanding of the process of turning that green bean brown expanded in ways I never would have imagined. Together with the Dunkin’ team, we became one of the largest supporters of coffee genetic research in the world overnight, through our commitment to supporting World Coffee Research. We deepened our connections in the supply chain through annual meetings with all participants, from producers to exporters, importers, roasters, and Dunkin’ Brands in Costa Rica, with the support of Sintercafe. We launched a brewed in-store Cold Brew program that was more successful than we could have imagined.
Then in 2019, Volcafe Specialty reached out to me, asking me if I would be interested in coming back to the green side of the business and helping in developing the team along with the relationships with roasters. Today, I am the General Manager of our business in the US and work with my team to continue to grow and develop the strategic partnerships we have with roasters of all sizes across North America. It’s been a wild ride the last few years, stepping back into the trade months before a global pandemic changed our world forever. Today, as we all know, we continue to deal with the lingering effects of Covid; the global logistics quagmire, imbalanced supply and demand, market inversions, runaway inflation, and the rapidly increasing interest rates imparted as a means to try and slow it down while trying to not trigger a recession. Back into the deep end!
What does a typical day in the life look like for you these days? Or is “typical” itself a misnomer?
Typical may be a stretch, but my days are typically spent supporting my team and our partners. That could mean Teams or Zoom calls with clients looking at implementing responsible sourcing strategies. These could be calls about how to find alternatives to coffees that seem to be stuck in various transshipment ports around the world. Often, I am speaking with our traffic and logistics team, proactively finding solutions to prevent the previously mentioned conversations. I spend more and more time with our Finance team. Not sure many folks outside of the green side of things realize just how much of a financial facilitation role the trade plays, but that tends to be a big part of the day. I try to start my day, every day, with a cup of coffee before I get things going though. Some days it could be me making a pour-over with my Kalita wave, a v-60, or a Chemex. Other days, after dropping my son off at school, I’ll stop by one of the many local coffee shops in my area. Either way, this helps center me back in the passion for coffee…
Being on both sides of the fence – trader and buyer, I feel you have a unique insight into the tools that help to succeed in either capacity. To start, which skillsets helped you as you launched your career in the trade?
By far, I think the skillset which helped me throughout my career has been the unyielding desire to learn. This can come in so many different forms, but I try to remain humble in the fact that there are so many people out there who know more than me about so many different topics. I am always looking to gain others’ perspectives and insight. I am always looking for mentors to learn from. These days I find myself listening to a lot of audiobooks. I never used to like audiobooks, because there is something special about the tactile sensation of reading a paperbound book. I have found though, between life and work commitments my time is limited and audiobooks are just a more convenient way to feed that bug inside me that needs to be learning something. Right now I am listening to Howard Schultz’s book, Onward, and reading Conscious Leadership by John Mackay.
The other skill set that I think is critical to success is empathy. The ability to see things through others’ perspectives is so important. It will help you uncover new solutions, often it will help you prevent issues from arising, and also, having empathy can help clear the path to do new and better business.
Learning from those experiences, which strengths helped you make the transition over to the buy side? Which challenges came along with that move which you weren’t anticipating?
Again, empathy, I think, was a big one. Having been on the trade side, I knew the costs and the pressures that were associated with what I was trying to accomplish in my buying role. Obviously, the understanding of supply and demand constraints or levers, having spent years as both an exporter and an importer helped me develop better strategies as a buyer.
What vision do you have for the longer-term direction you hope to steer Volcafe Specialty towards?
At Volcafe Specialty, we are fortunate to have an extensive network of operations that provide us with amazing access to great coffees, but also to a wealth of coffee knowledge and expertise. Over the last 20-plus years, we have done a great job of connecting that origin network to our strategic partners at destination. I don’t see that aspect of our business changing.
One of the factors we are seeing across the industry is the developing outlook and ideas around sustainable supply chains and responsibly sourced coffee. Our extensive network of exporting operations with agronomists implanting the Volcafe Way program, along with our dedicated teams in destination countries, allows us to be agile and adapt to consumer and client needs. Whether that be understanding, reducing, and mitigating carbon output or regenerative agriculture farmer profitability, I think in the years ahead, Volcafe Specialty will continue to be a leader in this work for the North American market.
Personally, are there industry challenges that you feel a connection towards that you want to address moving forward in your career?
I think as an industry we have a lot of work to do in several areas. Two areas that strike me as of particular importance are helping to improve the viability of the smallholder farmer and increasing access and equity in the industry. Selfishly, I hope that smallholder farmers will not only survive but thrive in the years ahead, so we can ensure that we continue to see the uniqueness of their terroir and keep drinking the amazing coffees the specialty world has grown to love. Coffee farmers are not getting any younger, and we need to find a way to incentivize and inspire the next generation of coffee farmers.
From a less selfish place, I think we also need to find ways to increase access, equity, and participation in the coffee industry. I love seeing the growing communities of underrepresented folks filling space, making their voices heard, and driving influence and innovation in the industry. As a whole, we are better served when there is a greater diversity of thought and perspective in all aspects of our business. I am grateful that there are people out there like the Coffee Coalition for Racial Equity and the IWCA etc. that are moving these issues forward.
Which trends in the coffee space do you have your eye on that maybe aren’t getting the mainstream attention they should be commanding? Looking at consumption trends, market movements, sustainability, etc?
As mentioned before, I think the industry is continuing to develop the way it looks at, talks about, and promotes sustainability. I think this will continue, but I think this is something that we are already seeing and are aware of.
This is a tough one to put into a couple of sentences. One of the areas that I think will see the most movement in the years ahead is how we talk about quality. We are coming from a period of time that has seen exponential growth in the quality of the coffee we are drinking, both from a production side (varietals, fermentation, etc.) and the consumption side (third wave, single serve, e-commerce, etc.). I think the way we talk about coffee quality is ripe for another quantum leap.
For someone trying to break into coffee, or looking to work on some personal development to succeed in the industry – what advice would you have?
I would tell people looking to find a way into the industry to lead with their heart and follow their passion. Be humble, and be ready to take opportunities that present themselves, even if they may be a step backward or sideways in some regards; if it provides a new opportunity to learn something you haven’t had before, go for it. Don’t get caught up in titles or just look for the biggest pay bump. The world of coffee is vast and deep and the path is not always straightforward. Zig. Zag. Try something different. Speak to someone you’ve never spoken to. Take opportunities to volunteer your time. The NCA Day of Service is an amazing way to meet people from different segments of the coffee world. It can be an incredibly bonding experience.
A special thanks to Matt Daks for his generosity and willingness to share his story with the NCA Next Gen community!
Imagine having the chance to take a course dedicated to studying the coffee supply chain while in college. What an opportunity that would be!
Well, RGC Coffee’s very own Stephanie Alcala created that opportunity for students at Whittier College in California. In addition to her role at RGC, Stephanie, a “Next Genner” herself, also works as an adjunct professor. Alongside her former advisor, Dr. Cinzia Fissore, Stephanie worked to create a course dedicated to the study of sustainability across the coffee supply chain.
NCA Next Gen’s Nora Johnson recently had the opportunity to sit with Stephanie and discuss her experience in creating and presenting this course, and the key takeaways from students who we hope to see join us in the industry down the road!
Nora Johnson: Tell us about yourself. Who do you currently work with? what does your role look like on a day-to-day basis?
Stephanie Alcala: I was born in Whittier, California. I have five older siblings and two incredibly kind and supportive parents. I work for RGC Coffee, a family-owned importing company as the Sustainable Sales Director. I work across the sales, trading, communication, and sustainability departments, which means no two days are alike! But ultimately, my main priority is to ensure our clients and customers are receiving the coffee and information they need to best operate their business. And since my role and specialty are in sustainability, my daily efforts are driven by my desire to grow and develop our in-house sustainable sourcing program, RGC 3E. Outside of work, I am also an adjunct professor and industry liaison at Whittier College for the department of Environmental Science, and in my free time, I love to eat, spend time with the people I love, and ride bikes.
NJ: We understand that you are the co-creator of a coffee-centric college course titled, “Sustainable Agricultural Supply Chains: Coffee.” From where did the idea to pursue such a program come? How did you get involved?
SA: The story of how this class came to be really begins and ends with Dr. Cinzia Fissore, Associate Professor of Biology and Environmental Science, Coordinator for the Environmental Science Program, and my former undergraduate advisor at Whittier College.
I first met Dr. Fissore during my freshman year, I had enrolled in her “Intro to Environmental Science,” as my chosen elective course. From day one, I knew I had discovered my passion and soon thereafter Dr. Fissore became my academic advisor. My love for coffee followed a couple of years later when I signed up for a sustainable business class (also co-taught by Dr. Fissore) that included a study-abroad component. As a class, we traveled to the Netherlands and visited various businesses (one of which was Heikkinen!) to learn about their sustainability initiatives and corporate social responsibility practices. It was my first international trip and it was the in-between moments where I first discovered my love for coffee, the cappuccinos, the European café culture, and the free wifi – I was consumed by all of it. After returning home, I immediately got a job as a barista.
Once I graduated from college, I was set on studying sustainable food systems. While I was trying to figure out how I could apply my studies towards a fulfilling career, I found myself back behind the bar, this time at Groundwork Coffee in downtown Los Angeles. It was there, with the support of my colleagues and management team, that I made the realization that coffee is a plant, it is a multibillion-dollar global commodity, and has a world of interdisciplinary social, environmental, and economic challenges and opportunities. I was sold. In 2016, I decided I was going to pursue a career in coffee.
I was then granted an incredible opportunity, to pursue a master’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan with my research to focus on studying the genetic diversity of the Gesha coffee plant variety grown in Panama. Although I had no business trying to become a geneticist, I saw this as a great way to build my vocabulary and knowledge of agricultural sustainability and climate change resiliency. I spent the next two years reading, learning, teaching, and developing a true passion for sustainable coffee production. I graduated from Michigan with an even clearer pathway, to seek a career in agricultural development in coffee supply chains.
Then after a few outstanding career opportunities 1) receiving the Leadership Equity and Diversity Scholarship through the Specialty Coffee Association and 2) working for Tartine Bakery’s Coffee Manufactory as a Sustainability Specialist, I found myself back at Whittier College, sitting in the office of my former advisor, Dr. Cinzia Fissore.
You see, she too had spent the past few years discovering an interest in coffee. Dr. Fissore, a soil scientist whose research specializes in carbon sequestration, had begun to work with a group of farmers in California who were growing coffee plants in their existing avocado orchards. Dr. Fissore wanted to understand how these efforts impacted the health of the soil and its ability to sequester carbon. With positive feedback from preliminary data, Dr. Fissore applied for and received a three-year grant from the Arthur Vining (A.V.) Davis Foundations. With this grant, Dr. Fissore, not only received funding to support her research but also received resources to design and develop an array of academic and professional opportunities for students and the community, all to be centered around coffee studies. It was at this point that Dr. Fissore and I formed a collaborative partnership to advance a coffee studies program at Whittier College.
Since I had prior teaching experience as a graduate student, Dr. Fissore offered me an opportunity to develop and pilot a short 4-week course centered around coffee sustainability. Because I was still green to the industry, I thought, “what am I most interested in and how could I use this opportunity to deepen my knowledge in the subject?” This is ultimately what led me to develop and pilot the course, Sustainable Agricultural Supply Chains: Coffee. After a successful year of piloting and receiving positive feedback from the students, I was invited back to further develop the course and support Fissore in expanding opportunities for students and the broader community.
When it came time to reimagine the course for the second year, I had just joined RGC Coffee as a junior trader and this is what really propelled the course development and material forward. Working for a coffee importer with an impressive sustainable sourcing program granted me the ability to create a more thoughtful and informative experience and ultimately resulted in the course becoming what it is today, a fully developed, semester-long core curriculum course, offering students a unique educational experience to learn how coffee trading has the ability to facilitate sustainable development.
NJ: Can you walk us through the structure of the course? What were the learning goals/outcomes for the students taking the course? What kind of activities were involved?
SA: The most important factor I had to consider when developing this class as a semester course was, how could I best deliver a clear and concise narrative regarding the importance of sustainability in coffee supply chains to a diverse group of students with no prior experience in coffee. With this, I knew I had to create an inclusive and engaging experience so that all students would be able to confidently navigate the semester. This resulted in two noteworthy decisions 1) to organize and deliver the course in 3 modules – The Fundamentals, The Coffee Supply Chain, and Creating Shared Value Chains and 2) to host a Coffee Speaker Series and invite industry and academic leaders to give guest lectures. Thanks to the support of Cinzia and funding from the A.V. Davis Foundation, we were able to host nine speakers last semester. Each of the lectures not only helped reinforce the material being learned but also served as a way to highlight the variety of pathways and careers of those working in the coffee sector. To give a greater glimpse into the class, I have provided a brief overview of each module below.
The first module, The Fundamentals offered students an introduction to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, (SDGs), had them explore various definitions and interpretations of sustainability, we learned about agriculture and trade, and finally, we explored the coffee industry – its size, impact, and importance.
During the second module, The Coffee Supply Chain students learned the numerous steps and people involved in coffee’s journey from farm to cup, emphasizing that not only does coffee physically move from point A to point B, but during its journey, it undergoes a complete biochemical transformation. We concluded this section by emphasizing quality and consumer preferences are the two most important factors that guide and influence the industry.
The final module, Creating Shared Value Chains had students connect the lessons learned from modules 1 and 2 to examine the importance of and the ways in which the coffee sector can contribute to sustainable development. We began the section by first learning about the main challenges and priorities facing the industry, the goal was for students to realize that everything in this world is interconnected and for that reason, real sustainability solutions require a design thinking approach that works in partnership with the communities they aim to support. The module concluded with students putting theory into practice, with each of them using the Global Coffee Platform (GCP) Sustainability Framework to guide them in conducting a scientific investigation to further explore how coffee can positively contribute to a better future for people and the planet. The semester concluded with students presenting their final projects during a scientific poster session, which was held at our on-campus coffee research farm!
NJ: Do you think that any of the students who participated in the course may pursue future careers in the coffee sector or a related industry? I hope that we may have a few new recruits out there!
SA: One of my main goals for the semester was for students to realize that sustainability is a mindset, it is a way of thinking and navigating this world. For that reason, the ideas and concepts of sustainability can be applied towards any career. Therefore, I really encouraged the students (both through conversation and their weekly connection journal assignment) to continuously connect what we were learning about to topics outside of class, towards their interests and passions! So, I’m not sure if any of the students will pursue a career in coffee, but I am confident that many of the students will end up working in the field of sustainability.
NJ: Were there any comments from students throughout the semester that really stuck out in your mind as an interesting takeaway regarding the coffee industry?
SA: One thing I love about teaching is how much you learn from the students. The students always offered such a unique curiosity and insight towards the topics covered. Additionally, since Whittier College is a liberal arts school, I had a range of majors in my class, from Art: Digital Art and Design to Philosophy, to Business Administration. I have included below, 14 of my favorite quotes gathered from the student’s assignments this past semester.
“In this course, despite only talking about coffee, you can also observe different realities between societies. I really like learning about the different lives of farmers and seeing gender equality in agriculture.”
“So far one of the things that have stood out is the community that coffee creates. The idea of community is a major part of what I study in Philosophy how individuals can come together to work towards a common goal. The fact that it’s around coffee proves that any group can prosper if their goal is clear, and their purpose is shared.”
“In a very competitive and crowded industry like coffee, it’s important to have a feature of the product that truly makes it stand out among others.”
“As far as sustainability, if one understands the supply chain process and its players, there is an ability to work towards mitigating climate change, creating a beautiful ecosystem, and helping workers to profit along the way. This is the goal, but within the chain exist a number of inequities that need to be addressed and improved. The best way to start is by understanding the chain as a whole.”
“There are so many people involved throughout the process of the coffee supply chain, it’s crazy to think they all get paid somehow from people buying cups of coffee only.”
“Quality is everything”
“One thing she covered that I found interesting was discussing the roles of a coffee importer. One big aspect importers cover is risk mitigation, encompassing who owns the coffee and when. Importers buy coffee from farmers and are responsible for finance and logistics of that coffee, then sell to the roaster.”
“One thing I’m starting to realize is super essential throughout the coffee supply chain and business as a whole is the relationships between the people in each part of the process.”
“I found it very interesting to learn that when coffee makes its way to a cup it has 1000 chemical compounds. Coming from chemistry last semester to learn something like that was very shocking. You would never think that one coffee bean can have such an impact and chemical change throughout its cooking process.”
“This lecture was very connected to spirituality, and I appreciated this addition to our very interdisciplinary approach to coffee.”
“Finally, I learned that the biggest issues facing women in the agricultural sector are the distribution of wealth, income, ownership, leadership, and decision-making. Even though women make up most of the agricultural sector, they get little to no compensation for the hard work they put in every day.”
“One last concept I learned about was that the wet milling process is one of the leading ways that local water resources are being contaminated. Wet milling creates wastewater that is often not treated meaning that water goes to waste and even more water is needed in these communities”
“Without money to help with coffee solutions in production what do smaller farms do?”
“How long will it actually take for the coffee sector to become sustainable?”
NJ: What segment of or topic covered within the course did the students enjoy most or find most engaging?
SA: There are three aspects the students seemed to like the most. First, spending time in our campus coffee orchard. The students said being able to see and experience coffee as a plant, really changed the way they thought about the drink and helped them gain a greater appreciation and understanding of the supply chain. The second was the Coffee Speaker Series, a student commented, “I think the speaker series was also an incredible aspect of this course because we were able to learn from people directly involved in what we were learning about at the time… This made the material relevant to us and showed us the real-world application of what we were learning.” And third, the final capstone project (which I had previously mentioned) in which each student was able to further explore a topic of sustainability they found most interesting and presented their findings during a community showcase. It was truly incredible to see the diversity of topics students chose to focus on. In case of interest, I have included all of the students’ scientific posters here.
Students with their scientific posters at a community showcase
NJ: Are there plans to continue this course or to potentially expand upon it in the future? (I would have loved to take a class like this in college!)
SA: Absolutely! Dr. Fissore and I are so excited to continue to offer students and the community opportunities to learn, research, and work in the field of coffee. Not only have we spent the past three years developing course material, but Dr. Fissore has been spearheading several other campus-related coffee projects which include a reoccurring coffee speaker series, industry internships, research fellowships, and maintaining an on-campus Coffee Research Farm (which just had its first harvest this year). Since all of these efforts were made possible by the A.V. Davis Foundations grant (which is in its final year of funding), we are now taking time to evaluate the next steps and see how we can continue to build and expand our efforts! We know there are many schools with emerging and expanding coffee programs and are very interested in connecting and sharing knowledge regarding how we can best use academia to foster sustainability in coffee.
For now, I have been inspired to take the lesson learned from my teaching experience and apply them towards my job at RGC. This past summer, we partnered with a Los Angeles-based college preparatory school to provide students an opportunity to learn and explore Climate Action in Coffee Supply Chains. I developed a month-long student internship program and hosted three high school seniors. The main goal for students was to learn (and be able to articulate in conversation) the relevancy and importance of climate action in coffee supply chains and offer an insightful analysis regarding a company’s existing efforts. And this fall, I plan to develop an in-house Educational Training Program so that my colleagues can also participate in learning about and exploring the ways in which coffee can contribute to sustainable development.
NJ: What was your greatest takeaway from this experience?
SA: This experience has shaped and defined my understanding of sustainability. I now realize sustainability is not a goal, it is an ongoing journey toward continuous improvement.
NJ: As a “next gen-er” in coffee yourself, what excites you most about the future of coffee?
SA: Right now, I am most excited about the increasing consumer demand for responsibly sourced products.
NJ: Is there anything else that you would like to share regarding the course and/or your experience? Perhaps anything that wasn’t covered in the questions above but that you found meaningful or interesting?
SA: I just want to say thank you. Thank you, Nora, for providing me with a platform to share my experience and work. And thank you to everyone who made it all possible. It really does take a village and I have been so incredibly lucky for the support and mentorship I have received throughout my academic and professional career. I’d like to especially thank my two current mentors, bosses, and collaborators Dr. Cinzia Fissore at Whittier College and Nathalie Gabbay at RGC Coffee.
On behalf of the Next Gen Council, we extend our sincere thanks to Stephanie Alcala for her time and willingness to share her experience. Stephanie’s work to educate and promote the coffee industry and sustainable coffee supply chains to the current generation of college students is of utmost appreciation as she is truly cultivating and engaging the next generation!
“I consider working for the coffee industry a privilege. Having been part of the industry for as long as I have, it gives you such a deep appreciation for your colleagues, others in the business, and the business as a whole. You appreciate it more and more the longer you work in coffee.”
– Rob Menos
Approaching 30 years in the coffee industry, Rob Menos, Director of Business Development at Sucafina, is no stranger to coffee and all that comes with it. In addition to his role at Sucafina, Rob is the current Chair of the National Coffee Association (NCA) Board of Directors.
Nora Johnson, Commodities Manager at MZB-USA and Next Gen Council Member, had the opportunity to chat with Rob about his background in the industry and his current outlook on the NCA. The statement quoted at the start of the article was made by Rob during his interview, and while it not only reflects Rob’s character and passion for the trade, it truly represents the extraordinary qualities of our industry and the many, many individuals behind it.
Tell us about your background and career development. How did you get your start in coffee?
In 1993, I started my coffee career working for Wechsler Coffee Corporation out of Moonachie, New Jersey in a green coffee procurement role. A very good friend of mine at the time was working for Wechsler in a sales role in the city, and he set me up for the interview. Initially, I interviewed for an accounts receivable job, but the HR manager felt that I was overqualified and suggested that I may be a better fit for a green coffee procurement role that they hadn’t even posted yet! After 7 years with Wechsler, I joined Rothfos Corporation as a trader, and after 7 years with Rothfos, I went to Coex where I spent 13 years. Now I am with Sucafina where I have been for 2 years.
Before this role in coffee, I was going to school and working in collections at a medical office, dealing with insurance companies. Talk about a way to develop thick skin in life! The amount of times that I have had people hang up on me…It prepared me very well to learn how to work with other people; it was truly a life lesson!
What did you think of working for a roaster versus a trade house?
Going from roaster to trade house worked well for me as I had a good appreciation of the challenges that roasters deal with because I lived through those challenges myself. I was able to communicate this internally when needed, and it provided me with a strong foundation.
However, making the transition over to importing opened up a totally different side of the world. Suddenly, you have this direct exposure to origin. Having the ability to connect those dots and developing relationships with exporters, cooperatives, and producers – it completes the picture in a way. Living and breathing manufacturing as a roaster and then working as an importer and in trading gave me an understanding of the whole spectrum, which I appreciated.
What made you want to stay working in coffee as opposed to moving to another commodity or industry?
For me, its two-fold. First off, it’s the complexity of the coffee business itself. Think about all of the work that goes into the supply chain from tree to cup; think about all of the players who are involved and all of the hands who touch it. Secondly, and this was important to me personally, it’s the comradery and the sense of community. I have many friends outside of coffee who have met many of my industry friends over the years, and the one comment that I have consistently heard is how amazing it is that you can have competitors in a room enjoying each other! You don’t see that anywhere else! Early on, I saw the relationships had by others in the industry, and I found it so impressive; it made me want to stay!
Tell us about your current role as Director of Business Development at Sucafina.
Aside from the trading aspect and the day-to-day roaster interaction, I am responsible for coordinating supply chains and trading opportunities for Sucafina’s global network and bringing them to the North American roaster community. For example, let’s say that a roaster has a new customer, and to service them, you will need to develop a new supply chain out of Papua New Guinea (PNG) that meets certain requirements. I will work with our team out of PNG to get the supply chain off the ground and to guarantee that it will fulfill the roaster’s needs as our customer. In doing this, we utilize Sucafina’s global network to see how we can incorporate it into our existing customer base organically or to potentially develop it with new customers.
What is your most memorable coffee experience?
It had to be my first origin trip which was to Guatemala. Once again, it really helped me to connect the dots and develop a better understanding. There is a big difference between what you hear versus what you experience for yourself and visualize. You take that personal experience and later apply it to other origin countries in comparison. It gave me such a high level of appreciation for what we do as an industry and as a business and of course, a great understanding for the high level of work that is done at origin. It really helped me in my career development.
What piece of advice do you wish someone had told you early on in your career? Is there anything that you would do differently if you went back and could do it over again?
I consider myself very fortunate because I had two mentors very early on in my career. Mentorship is such an important point to highlight. In this case, both of my mentors were in coffee, but they help me on so many different levels, not just related to coffee, but to life in general. To have people who are genuinely looking out for you, and who can provide you with that kind of guidance, is priceless.
Looking back, if I were to do it over again, I would spend some time working in origin on the export side to have exposure to that part of the supply chain. I certainly would have benefited from that experience.
What is your favorite origin for coffee-drinking purposes and for travel purposes?
For travel, Guatemala. Guatemala was my first origin trip, so I have always had this emotional connection to it, and I have lots of good relationships there. I also love Colombia – Colombia has so many different producers, yet it is amazing to see the consistency in the quality that they export as a country in addition to the different profiles that they can offer as well.
How did you first get involved in the NCA?
Apart from attending the conventions over the years, I really was more engaged once I joined the NCA Board around 7 years ago. Looking at it now, there are so many great opportunities that the NCA offers today. A perfect example is the Next Gen Council – I wish I had that in my day, to be honest with you! Talk about a great platform for younger professionals to not only meet and network, but to develop for a future role on the NCA Board down the road. It is a huge benefit for a young professional to have that opportunity. The NCA Annual Conventions also provided me with great opportunities in terms of networking and the chance to meet with customers, attend different sessions, and participate in the Day of Service, but my involvement level really changed when I joined the Board.
For anyone who might not know, what is the role of the NCA and can you share some of the benefits of NCA membership for both companies and individuals? Are there any “hidden gems” in terms of benefits?
For companies, the NCA acts as a leading voice for the industry in terms of regulatory and industry matters in addition to providing market research and a platform for coffee education. The NCA keeps the membership well informed of anything important that is occurring at the time and impacting the industry in any way. There is also tremendous work done by the Scientific Leadership Council. This is a group of very smart people – 100 times smarter than me! – but they do such great work to benefit the membership and us as an industry.
From an individual perspective, there are many opportunities on the education side, from webinars to other on demand resources, in addition to great networking. As far as “hidden gems,” I think that in many companies, not all employees have a good understanding of what is available as a member. From webinars to market research to other data, distribution of the availability of information to employees is critical.
If you had to describe the NCA in one word, what would it be and why?
In my mind, the NCA is an advocate in many different ways. The NCA highlights the many positive benefits of coffee, and it tackles all kinds of issues from labeling laws to tariffs and beyond. The NCA takes the lead role in that, acting as the leading voice for the industry and advocating for its members. Frankly, at this stage, because Bill Murray and his staff have done such a great job, they have set the level of expectation so high that the industry automatically looks to the NCA to deal with an issue or for guidance and education.
On behalf of the Next Gen Council, we extend our sincere thanks to Rob for his time and dedication to not only this interview, but to the NCA and the industry at large. Rob emphasized the importance of comradery and relationships in coffee several times throughout the interview, and this environment that we all cherish throughout the industry would not be the case without so many strong, established industry leaders such as himself and many others who are willing to support the industry and the “Next Gen” of coffee leaders.
If you are interested in learning more about the NCA Next Gen Council, check us out here!
Back in February, we launched a new series, “Words of Wisdom,” bringing career development stories and top-notch advice from industry leaders right to your inbox! For this second edition of “Words of Wisdom,” Michelle Dunaway, Sales Executive at Mercon Specialty, spoke with Jonathan White (White Coffee Corporation), John DeMuria (Volcafe USA LLC), and Michael Gaviña (F. Gaviña & Sons, Inc.). White, DeMuria, and Gaviña are all current NCA Board Members and long-time leaders of both the National Coffee Association and the industry overall.
Executive Vice President / White Coffee Corporation
An attorney by trade and lifelong New York resident, Jonathan White, Executive Vice President of White Coffee Corporation, was born into the coffee business. White Coffee Corporation was founded by Jonathan’s grandfather in 1939, and his father carried on the legacy, spending over 40 years in the business, advocating for and developing the specialty coffee trade long before there were a plethora of chain and microroasters.
Jonathan explains, “I grew up with the smell of coffee in my father’s station wagon; there was never a time he would not help a customer with their emergency needs and he would be sure to not only meet but to exceed their expectations. After practicing law and gaining experience in helping to run a variety of organizations, I joined the company in 1990. It is very rewarding to see our company’s growth and to serve our customers for many years – multi-generational in many cases – and to have many of our team members with White Coffee for 10, 15, and 20 years or more. “
“Our business has continued to evolve and grow, from the independent local stores and delis to national chains of club stores, supermarkets, hotel chains, and online retailers. We also have worked with many licensors and private label retailers to develop proprietary brands.” In his role, Jonathan is involved in many aspects of the business, including oversight on commodity purchases, major account sales, financial oversight, team management/building, strategic direction, and day-to-day management.
Career advice for the younger generation in the coffee industry:
Diversify both your business channels and your skill sets.
Embrace change and flexibility as the world will continue to evolve. Expect the unexpected!
Ask lots of questions, and don’t always accept the first answer you get – assume nothing.
Think ahead and consider various scenarios and how you would best respond.
Always be selling! Create a unique selling proposition (for either yourself or for your product).
Aim for constant learning, improvement, and giving back to your community.
Favorite pastimes: Jonathan loves baseball (especially the NY Mets!), all kinds of music, travel, and reading all kinds of non-fiction books (especially those about current events/politics).
Managing Partner / Volcafe USA LLC
Prior to joining the coffee industry, John DeMuria (JD), worked in banking on Wall Street, with a focus on coffee, cocoa, sugar, and grains. Volcafe, formerly known as Volkart Brothers, recruited JD, initially to work in finance, but he later transitioned into trading. In his first two years trading, JD worked to learn and absorb as much information as possible; at this time, differential prices were gaining prominence and the futures contract was evolving. From there, JD went on to manage the Colombia and Central America books.
Reflecting back on the start of his time trading, it brings to light just how much trading has evolved over time. Back when JD started in the business, trading was done by a telex machine and all documentation was done by hand. JD explains, “You had your telephone, telex, and a calculator. The telex operator was probably the best trader on the floor; every offer, every bid, went through their hands!”
Career advice for the younger generation in the coffee industry: “Be determined & dedicated. Hard work always pays off. Live your dream and have a passion for what you do. Getting involved in Next Gen is a great opportunity to engage at an earlier age and early stage in your career.”
Favorite past NCA memory: “Being invited by your boss to the NCA Convention was the highest achievement; you said to yourself, ‘I made the inner circle.’” JD has served on the NCA board since 2007.
Michael was born into the business, meeting and networking with others across the coffee industry since an early age. Previously serving as the Purchasing Director at F. Gaviña & Sons, Inc., his current role is now that of Managing Director of Finance and Accounting. Michael explains that despite the formal titles, in a family business, you wear many hats; his experience ranges from sales to sustainability to equipment servicing.
Career advice for the younger generation in the coffee industry: “Be of service.” [Publisher’s note: As you will observe through his favorite past NCA memory below, Michael certainly exemplifies the phrase, “practice what you preach,” and we are very appreciative of the role that Michael had in the development of the NCA Next Gen Council!]
Favorite past NCA memory: Michael played an integral role in the creation and development of the NCA Next Gen Council with the mission of nurturing, building, and developing the next generation of industry leaders.
Recommended reading: “Start with Why” by Simon Sinek
Many thanks to Jonathan, JD, and Michael for sharing their stories and advice for this edition of “Words of Wisdom!” Their leadership and service to the NCA is admirable and tremendously appreciated!
By Danielle Woods, Manager, ESG (Environmental, Social & Governance) with Inspire Brands, Inc.
In honor of Earth month, we are featuring one of the most prominent organizations in the coffee industry that is using global agricultural R&D to address and mitigate climate change for coffee: World Coffee Research (WCR).
Vern Long is CEO of World Coffee Research, the only industry-driven organization advancing agricultural innovation for coffee, formed to help the industry secure the long-term supply of quality coffee.
Vern, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself?
I started my academic life in plant breeding, with an interest in genetic diversity and how to mobilize that diversity to address challenges. Variety development was always something I was excited about. When I was 16, my family was driving cross-country, and my mom brought a big stack of National Geographic magazines. I began reading a story about genetic diversity and how it can address the world’s biggest challenges, and from that moment I was hooked.
How did you end up in coffee?
I was doing research in Senegal and Zimbabwe, looking at food systems and how we use agricultural systems to deliver on those goals. I wanted to move from direct research to managing partnerships so joined USAID to help launch the Feed the Future Initiative. This was a broad interagency effort where we developed an agricultural research strategy to enable agriculture to drive economic growth and be a lever for reducing poverty. Over 9 years I managed agricultural research collaborations focused on developing new varieties in many crops, trying to better develop collaborative research to enable scientists to accomplish more together rather than going it alone. I realized there was an opportunity in coffee. The countries producing coffee are very competitive with one another, and have insufficient budgets given the challenges they face. I believed I could bring a lot of experience from working on global research collaborations to support coffee. As an avid coffee drinker, when I understood all of the challenges, it seemed even more urgent to get into coffee at a personal level. [HN1]
What are some of the challenges within the coffee sector today?
Varieties are a technology that farmers rely on, whether they are tomato growers or coffee farmers. The last time the world had a truly global collaborative research program to produce real innovation in coffee varieties was in 1967, when the Timor Hybrid was mobilized to create coffee leaf rust resistant arabica varieties that are now growing all over the world. So many other crops continued making progress over the years, while coffee did not at a global scale. Mobilizing diversity is critical to our ability to survive with the climate challenges ahead of us. Plant populations across the world are crossed to create new genetic combinations —they can do things that their parents cannot. There are real gaps in coffee, and it is important to develop greater interaction among scientists and the plants themselves which we will achieve by supporting a global coffee breeding network.
What are some of WCR’s strategic priorities?
We are launching a global breeding network that is aligned with the importance of our crop. Coffee drives economic opportunity in many producing countries; it is important to millions of people for a variety of reasons. We are developing varieties to support that need, while preserving the quality that consumers and coffee companies want and identifying the characteristics for farmers to enable their success.
Breeding is critical but it also takes decades, and farmers are planting trees today that will be in the ground for the next twenty years. We know that if they plant the wrong tree, there are consequences. At scale, this poses tremendous risk in terms of supply. So, in addition to variety development, we need to provide tools to support farmer decision-making with the varieties we have available today. WCR has created technical tools to help farmers determine the right variety for them, to have access to healthier plants, and to feel sure the seeds are using are genetically pure. Farmers need to know going in what type of tree they are producing so they can manage it successfully.
How do you reach farmers with your technologies and tools?
What we do drives change, but research and development happens upstream of farmers. We partner with national coffee institutes and organizations like Technoserve to make the connection between new varieties, nurseries, and farmers. At WCR, we want to make sure we have a relevant portfolio of technologies to share with farmers through our partnerships.
How can organizations get involved with WCR?
We believe that every company in the coffee sector should invest in agricultural research and development for coffee’s long-term existence, whether that’s via WCR or another mechanism. There is a huge gap in the funding of coffee agriculture research and development. If you look at investment levels for other crops with similar economic value as coffee—there is a profound gap. We need to acknowledge the gap and recognize that if we want to have coffee in the years ahead, we need investment. To put it bluntly: the alternative is that our children will all be drinking synthetic coffee – which is more than simply a shift for consumers, it removes an important source of revenue for farmers and producing countries. When you are a member of WCR, you drive the agenda. Companies that are not participating do not get a seat at the table to weigh in on the varieties of the future.
What is something you want the coffee sector to be aware of?
We need to make sure the industry understands the risks facing the coffee industry but recognize the opportunity as well. If you look at the success of other crops, we can bring those tools and technologies into coffee. If we want to continue sourcing coffee from diverse origins, we need to understand we have a choice in the matter and a collective responsibility to drive investment to support our collective goals. But protecting coffee is bigger than just our industry. Coffee produces revenue for lower income countries and contributes significantly to human welfare.
Now it is Earth Month, what does Earth Day mean to you?
Things are pretty grim around the world and there is a lot going on that can make you feel powerless in the face of large planetary challenges. We need to sequester more carbon in biomass on the planet. We need more trees to help reduce emissions. Those of us involved in tree agriculture—i.e., the entire coffee industry—can play a role. There is a unique opportunity for coffee to do something for the entire global community. We are in the tree business, and trees are a technology that if deployed well and thoughtfully can help us sequester a tremendous amount of carbon. Farmers need more productive coffee trees. Young growing trees absorb a lot of carbon dioxide. Renovating coffee farms at scale has the potential to solve two problems at once. If your organization has a priority to reduce emissions or a commitment to net zero, trees are a very promising place to start and investment in agricultural research and development can deliver.
Each year, the National Coffee Association Annual Convention presents a full program, filled with dynamic speakers and sessions covering an array of topics from coffee data trends, to logistics, to coffee and health, and so much more. Among those sessions is one that is so well received that it returns year after year and continues to be a highly anticipated keynote session at the NCA Annual Convention: the economic outlook with Scott Clemons, Chief Investment Strategist at Brown Brothers Harriman & Co.
Michelle Dunaway, Sales Executive at Mercon Specialty and NCA Next Gen Council member, spoke with Scott to learn more about his background and career and to give you a sneak peek at what is to come in his session at #NCA2022. (Scott will be presenting his session, “2022 Vision: The New Normal,” on Wednesday, March 9, from 10:10 – 11:00am EST at the National Coffee Association Virtual Convention.)
Upon graduating from Princeton in 1990 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Classics – a rather unusual degree for Wall Street – Scott joined Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. [BBH], where he still works today, 32 years later, and now holds the position of Chief Investment Strategist.
Early on in his career, Scott earned the CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) designation, to not only learn the skills and practical applications of financial analysis, but to also demonstrate his dedication in investing to both his clients and his firm, BBH.
Scott credits much of his professional success with skills learned on the job. He began his career with BBH in London in the early 1990s as an Analyst & Portfolio Manager. This was an exciting time for European economics; the European rate mechanism had come into play – a precursor of the Euro – and the world saw the fall of the Soviet Union and the iron curtain which led to the introduction of the market-based economy in Eastern Europe.
After five years of working in Europe and traveling all over the world asking questions, he came to a fork in the road: to commit to life in London or to return to the United States. In the late 1990s, Scott made the United States his permanent home, and he switched his attention to domestic markets in the role of Portfolio Manager, U.S. Equities for BBH. Come 2005, Scott took advantage of an opportunity to be on the client-facing side of the business, transitioning to the role of Relationship Manager for the NY office location of BBH.
Along the way, Scott has always been curious about how things work, what motivates and drives decisions, why something is the way it is, and what such things can tell us about the past and the future.
Today, Scott holds the position of Chief Investment Strategist. In his own words, Scott described his role as, “the guy that gets to look around at everything going on in the world and try to make sense of it.” So, what does this mean for his clients? Scott explained that the clients of BBH are running businesses, so they appreciate the guidance and advice on everything they need to know that will benefit their operations.
Scott does not think of himself as an economist – economics is not his academic background – but rather as a curious guy who likes to know how things work, who takes the time to read, analyze, study, and then synthesize information so that he can convey the explanation to an audience allowing them too to make better sense of the world economy.
Question: What is the secret to success in investing… and to life in general?
Scott: “Read voraciously.
There is a rationale for this: success is a question of pattern recognition. For example, if you are a professional athlete, you can recognize the play in front of you. You think, “I’ve been here before and know exactly what to do.” The challenge is how to develop good pattern recognition. Experience is gained a day at a time, but there is an out to that; you can get more than one day’s experience at a time by borrowing from the experiences of others. That, is how reading comes into play.
[Author’s note: Scott reads The Financial Times, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times.]
In order to develop a differentiated insight, you need to read very broadly. Markets are just the intersection of human emotion. Markets, the economy, and businesses are a collision of human emotions – fear, greed, anxiety, lust, excitement, aversion, regret – and these all these get measured by the S&P 500, through GDP, or through corporate profitability terms. At the end of the day, it comes down to understanding people.”
The single best analyst of human emotion was William Shakespeare. Some of the best investors Scott has ever worked with play with uncertainty and doubt; the single best explication of the psychology of doubt is Hamlet – the whole play is about the perils of indecision.
On the other side of the equation, some of the best investors Scott has ever worked with have such courage in their convictions; it’s the opposite extreme. Once again, the single best psychological analysis on the perils of certainty is William Shakespeare’s King Lear.
The challenge is to identify the psychological extremes in our own thinking and to react to that. In short, what makes you a better investor is anything and everything, because it all adds to your ability as a thinker to identify patterns more readily and more originally.
Question: Are there any opportunities that those of us in coffee should be looking for?
Scott: “They way in which consumer behavior has shifted during the pandemic is fascinating. What is the role of coffee outside of the home? Are coffee shops a delivery mechanism for caffeine? Do coffee shops need a mobile app to serve more quickly? Or are coffee shops a gathering place for entrepreneurs and solo workers to come and sit for a long period of time?”
Sneak peek! What can we expect at Scott’s upcoming lecture, “2022 Vision: The New Normal,” during the NCA Virtual Convention?
Scott shared that there are four big transitions underway that will dominate conversation in the United States and in the global economy:
A transition in economic leadership away from government spending and emergency support
Inflation/deflation – inflation is a price we pay for monetary support
Interest rates – history has taught us that the “why” the Fed is raising rates is important. If the Fed is raising interest rates in response to more confidence in economic activity, then markets and businesses see this as necessary for the economy to continue to flourish. If, on the other hand, the markets decides that the Fed has lost their grasp on inflation and they are scrambling to catch up, this can be disruptive. Which narrative wins out?
A surge in productivity – the silver lining as we are doing more with less
Throughout the course of the conversation, Scott mentioned how Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. is renovating their NY office and adding in an upscale coffer bar. As exciting at this already sounds for all of us coffee lovers, Scott made a noteworthy comment. He explained that in the past, they [BBH] have thought of coffee as a caffeine delivery mechanism, but now they have changed their thinking; they recognize that coffee is what brings people together, so now they see coffee as a connector.
Although we will not be sharing coffee with each other in person at NCA this year, don’t miss out on these connections! Be sure to register for #NCA2022 and check out Scott’s session, “2022 Vision: The New Normal,” on Wednesday, March 9, from 10:10 – 11:00am EST at the National Coffee Association Virtual Convention.
As Next Gen-ers in coffee, we are fortunate to be surrounded by so many remarkable industry leaders, many of whom serve the coffee community via their roles on the NCA Board of Directors. Michelle Dunaway, Sales Executive at Mercon Specialty and NCA Next Gen Council member, rounded up some great words of wisdom from several of these leaders. From advice on career advancement to what they’re currently reading, check out these NCA Board Members’ words of wisdom below.
President & CEO of Baronet Coffee, a 4th generation coffee roaster with 100 years of history defined by tradition, family & commitment to exceed expectations.
Bruce has served as Chair of the NCA Board of Directors and is currently an active NCA board member.
He has been in coffee since 1988 when he started doing research into “gourmet” coffee, what we now know as Specialty Coffee.
His advice to the younger generation in coffee: “Get involved, don’t be afraid to ask questions [and] voice your interest, so that when an opportunity arises you are prepared to seize it!
The NCA is a 110-year-old organization and is trying to evolve … so get involved and look for opportunities, meet people — you never know what will come out [of it].”
Favorite radio shows: “How I built this” by NPR
President & CEO / Managing Director at Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA
John has been involved with the NCA for 14 years, 10 years as a board member and has been with MZB for 15+ years.
His advice: love what you do and get involved!
“I think it is very important to enjoy what you do. Certainly, being in the coffee business, it does help to love coffee and to understand the entire supply chain all the way back to origin; the history, where coffee comes from; there is a lot to learn [about] how the whole supply chain works.”
Be passionate, be driven and be aggressive, speak your mind, but always do it with a perspective – [understand] where you can really make an impact and drive change [to] affect the broader industry.”
Career advice: “Work hard and deliver on your commitments.”
Favorite NCA memories: “Seeing how the NCA has evolved and the true leadership position it has taken as the voice of the coffee industry. Prop 65 was a moment when the industry rallied together, focused on an issue, and the outcome benefitted the whole industry. This is the picture of success.”
4th Generation family owner of Community Coffee Company
Matt started his career in coffee at a young age and realized coffee is an industry experiencing constant change. Evolution is inevitable, so he advises to “learn continually, challenge yourself and be open to new ideas. In the coffee industry, your reputation is your most valuable asset.”
Be a lifelong learner
Surround yourself with people with different ideas and perspectives
Matt travels with his AeroPress and brews Community Coffee signature Dark Roast blend – his favorite.
“To the future of coffee, salut!”
Head of Coffee business, Grupo Nutresa
Advice on finding advancing your career in coffee: “Find the right place and person to talk about your career plans — about what you believe you can do and what you can achieve.”
“Ask questions: what do you need to do better and what do you need to do to improve?”
“Go beyond your role, when you are in a meeting have an opinion, be present. Every topic matters, always have an [integrated] view of the information and everything that you have access to.”
Books he recommends:
Think Again – Adam Grant
What works, Gender equality by design – Iris Bohnet
Exponential Organizations – Salim Ismail
Managing Director at Brown Brothers Harriman (Commodity Finance)
“Be curious, there are no bad questions.”
“Make sure you always try as much as you can to be a good listener, but don’t hesitate to challenge — always being respectful.”
Paul never thought or planned he would become a banker. “Don’t plan your career path [based on] where you think it has to go… having a plan is great, [but] recognize the serendipity involved in life. Be ready, if necessary, to have your plan dramatically change or even dissolve over time.”
Executive Vice President-Global Coffee, Tea and Cocoa at Starbucks Coffee Company
Michelle has been in the coffee industry for 30 years. Getting to where she is now required many moves within the company that expanded her knowledge in business development, relationship management, negotiation and operations, store development, and more — all driven by the willingness to lean into opportunities.
She says the essential ingredient for developing relationships is having shared goals. There must be a benefit to everyone in a partnership; gaining mutual understanding and the support that coming together creates.
To grow your career, she advises to be “driven, intentional, purposeful … [and] open.”