Convention Networking: A Practical Guide

NCA Networking

By William “Bill” Murray, President & CEO, NCA

This post was originally published on LinkedIn

For over twenty years, I worked for the motion picture industry. Networking has always been the lifeblood of Hollywood – even while it was maddeningly difficult.

Take film industry conventions.

Hollywood has a couple of typical industry conferences, but most gatherings revolve around film festivals – often in glamorous, expensive places. There’s seldom a big exhibit hall with vendors – instead, filmmakers show clips of their work in private rooms, writers “pitch” scripts in one-on-one meetings, and deals are made at unadvertised parties.

There’s a secretive, fluid mystery to everything that’s happening, and always the sense that you are missing something. That uncertainty is complemented by the chaos of autograph seekers, paparazzi, and publicists all jockeying for attention. Unless you know how to “work” a film festival, you might as well stay home.

While networking at film festivals and association conventions may seem to have little in common, there is one key aspect in which they are similar: if you plan to network at either, you’ll need to have a strategy and go prepared.

For association conventions, here’s what’s key:

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Origin Spotlight – Our Coffees (Brazil)

By Alma Likic, Marketing Manager, PLITEK and NCA Next Gen member

Alma Likic, Marketing Manager at PLITEK and NCA Next Gen member, interviewed Nathalia Martins Azzi, a second-generation coffee grower and exporter at Our Coffees, for a discussion about the history of the company and the current coffee growing situation Brazil. 

First, a little history about Brazilian coffee:

Brazil has been the world’s largest coffee grower and producer for more than 150 years. The first coffee bush in Brazil was planted by Lieutenant Francisco de Melo Palheta in 1727. According to the legend, the Portuguese were looking for a cut of the coffee market but could not obtain seeds from bordering French Guiana, due to the governor’s unwillingness to export the seeds. Lieutenant Palheta was sent to French Guiana on a diplomatic mission to resolve a border dispute when he seduced the Guianese’s governor’s wife who secretly gave him a bouquet spiked with seeds which he was able to smuggle across the border. Coffee was then spread from northern Brazil to the mountainous southeastern states where it thrived because of the temperature, heavy rainfall, and a distinctive dry season which provided optimum conditions for its growth.

Brazil’s 7,844,000,000 pounds of coffee grown each year (80% of which is arabica) make up 30% of the world’s supply, but an astounding third stays in the country. This does not come as a surprise as 98% of Brazilian households drink coffee.

A coffee powerhouse with incredibly diverse coffee options from basic commodity coffee to the world-stunning specialty coffee offers different varieties, some natural, some hybrid, some cultivated in a lab—designed for specific climate conditions including Mundo Novo, Yellow Bourbon, Caturra and Catuai.

Brazilian coffee is processed by the wet (washed), dry (natural), semi-washed (pulped natural), and recently emerged re-passed (raisins) methods. Most coffee beans are still processed with dry method since Brazil is one of the few countries in the world that has the appropriate weather to do so successfully.

Our Coffees “Coffee Lab”

Wet (washed): This process is used to remove the four layers surrounding the coffee bean. It is done in small portions. The coffee beans using this method are cleaner, vibrant, and fruitier.

Dry (natural): The coffee cherries are placed in the water, and those floating are removed. The remaining coffee cherries are dried in concrete slabs. The coffee beans in this process are heavy-bodied, sweet, smooth, and complex.

Semi-washed (Pulped natural): This method involves pulping the coffee but skipping the fermentation phase to remove the skin. Thus, the coffee beans in this method gain the characteristics of coffee beans, which had undergone the dry and wet processes.

Re-passed (raisins). In this process, the coffee cherry floaters –(typically coffee beans that have dried on the tree)- float to the surface and are then discarded from the rest. The coffee beans in this method are much sweeter than the traditional pulped coffee.

  • Flavor: Complex, earth, spice, sweet, gentle acidity, lime, wine, floral
  • Processing: Natural, Pulp Natural, Honey, Washed
  • Main Growing Regions: Minas Gerais, Espirito Santo, São Paulo, Bahia
  • Harvest: April to September

Tell us about family history / farm?

José Maria comes from a deep-rooted history of coffee tradition. As a boy, his grandfather had a small coffee farm where his father and uncles used to work. José has many great memories of picking cherries with his family and playing around the coffee trees with his grandfather. In pursuit of a better life, at the age of seventeen, José Maria moved to the city of Belo Horizonte. However, after a few years, Jose decided to carry on family tradition of growing coffee, moved back to Campos Altos, and bought a farm in 2008. The company started exporting coffee in 2013. In order to offer good quality coffee and allow traceability, the business focused on implementing vertically integrated business model. Today, aside from growing coffee, the company offers wet milling process, dry milling process, warehousing, exporting, importing in other countries and wholesalers around the world.  

Our Coffees Farm

– Can you take us through the journey from cup to seed? What makes Brazilian coffee unique/special?

Brazilian Coffee is unique because of its quality. It is a result of continuous technological advances that help producers grow good quality coffee. Post-harvest process plays an essential role. We invest in technology and new methods including experimental fermentations, taking care of the beans in the drying process and then resting it. This ensures good quality and makes all the difference in the process. Having great varieties is important, but a complex post-harvest process takes it to the next level of quality.

Our Coffees Farm

– What is the socio-economic situation in Brazil? How is the coffee growing and exporting affected?

The Brazil socio-economic situation is complex. The country has a big source of economic production such as agriculture, mining, food production, meat production, manufacturing, and industrial goods exporting. Coffee growing has been affected by the higher prices of fuel, cost of farming machinery and supplies, and due to worker equity rules, which we take very seriously. For the past 5 years, Brazil has experienced a trade surplus making it hard to get space and availability on vessels to export.

– What is the impact of Covid on coffee growers and exporters?

Covid 19 greatly impacted the coffee industry and our customers felt completely lost with no expectation of the future. Coffee shops closed, news about lockdowns changed daily, restriction implemented, and economic reopening was unclear. As a result, our customers stopped buying green coffee, causing many coffee growers and exporters cashflow problems.

-Tell us about your experience with NCA.

NCA meetings are always great, we can meet everyone from the industry, and it is very helpful to talk about the market. NCA is a reliable source of information that helps us make better decisions about our business.

-What would be your advice to new Next Gen members?

Participate in the events, participate in seminars, webinars and courses. Knowledge and networking make a great difference in the coffee business. The coffee industry is all about relationship building.

Cause for Celebration: A Review of Coffee Day 2021

By Nora Johnson, NCA Next Gen Communications Committee Chair and Commodities Manager at Massimo Zanetti Beverages USA.

Although every day is “Coffee Day” for those of us working within the coffee supply chain, on September 29th and October 1st, the rest of the population joins in to celebrate National Coffee Day (for the United States) and International Coffee Day, respectively.

If you are like me and wondering who actually declared a given day “International Coffee Day,” wonder no longer! With the inaugural celebration having been held on October 1, 2015, International Coffee Day was officially declared by the International Coffee Organization (ICO) as a day of “celebration of the coffee sector’s diversity, quality, and passion… an opportunity for coffee lovers to share their love of the beverage and support the millions of farmers whose livelihoods depend on the aromatic crop.” Many individual nations had been celebrating their own National Coffee Day for several years prior. Japan even began celebrating as early as 1983! What an exemplary reminder of just how much passion exists within our industry; from the passion of those who produce it, to those who trade, roast, and package it, to those who consume it, coffee is enveloped by a special sense of enthusiasm.

To our fellow coffee colleagues, the NCA Next Gen Council hopes that your cup was full on this year’s National Coffee Day!

NCA Next Gen Interview with Gustavo Cerna of National DCP

By Nora Johnson, NCA Next Gen member and Commodities Manager at Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA

Nora Johnson, NCA Next Gen member, recently spoke with Gustavo Cerna, Senior Manager Coffee & Tea at the National DCP. Check out the interview below to learn more about Gustavo’s experience and his advice for fellow Next Gen members in the coffee industry.

The interview below has been condensed and edited for clarity with approval from the interviewee.

Tell me more about your background. How did you get to where you are today?  

Gustavo Cerna

I was born into coffee. My family started growing coffee in the 1990s after the civil war in Nicaragua. My dad had this idea that coffee would be a good business; he started with one farm, and that grew to 10 farms by the year 2000. It was a rough ride in the year 2000. I was young, a teenager, and that was when the coffee price crisis started. Over that time, coffee hit $0.46 per pound. That was when we [the family] really started getting involved in the business.

I was 15 years old and working on the exporting, doing the paperwork, gathering certificates of origin, going through customs, getting the quality analysis; that was what we had to do – we had to cut costs at $0.46 per pound. This experience allowed me to learn first-hand of the organization and the paperwork that it takes to get a container of coffee out from origin. I truly understand the great amount of work that happens at origin to get a container out, especially in countries where technology isn’t always friendly.

For me, going to a farm is almost like second nature. I know what is going on from the moment I step in – growing coffee, harvesting, fermenting, processing, going to farms every weekend – that was my childhood.

                My coffee journey then took me to other stages in the coffee supply chain. I started at Starbucks, working not on their coffee team, but as a demand planner. Working at Starbucks really gave me the full view of what happens once coffee gets to the roaster: what it takes to serve coffee at scale. All the things that happen in the middle – it’s incredible. From demand planning to supply planning to store development to the creation of the art on the bags; it’s a whole army of people working just to develop the concept and serve the cup of coffee to customers. My jaw dropped – this is what it takes to run a coffee operation. Sometimes, as coffee farmers, we forget that it’s not simple to serve coffee; there is a whole operation to serve coffee to consumers too. Yes, it’s a profitable business, but it also takes a lot of work: distribution, supply chain, roasting.

Gustavo at El Cielo farm.

I learned a lot there, and it was the moment in my coffee career the where I learned the breadth of the coffee industry. That’s where I explored other origins. I grew up drinking Nicaraguan coffee – a lot of farmers only drink their own coffee. Nicaraguan is my go-to, but now I have other coffees that I enjoy as well. It was when I learned to appreciate the coffee world outside of Nicaragua and how Starbucks really tries to deliver that story to the consumer, because at the end of the day, how you tell that story is also really important.

From there, I voluntarily left Starbucks to go to Cornell to get my master’s in Agricultural Economics. I was there for 15 months, but then I took a sabbatical from coffee and went into cocoa. I did cocoa for 2 years, then I saw this opportunity at Dunkin’ and went for it.

The business has changed so much from what is was in 1990, 2000, 2010. Now in the era of COVID, who knows what trends will stick. The business is upside down from what it was back when my dad started. Back then, consumers didn’t understand as much about coffee; now, the new generations have more clarity of where the coffee is coming from and they know what they want. There are more expectations for coffee: cup profile, ethical sourcing, how it is consumed. Cold beverages in coffee are king now.

There are more opportunities and more occasions for coffee, and that is giving consumers more power in today’s world. Origin diversity, sustainability targets – it’s great when consumer expectations and sustainability targets can meet. That’s my goal. At the end of the day, we can all be competitors, but if we all work towards something, it is a better coffee world and industry. All companies need to collaborate and work together to make a better coffee world. That’s why I took this opportunity – to take on this challenge.

Did you feel a pressure to stay in coffee?

I am the youngest out of four; my two older brothers still manage the farm and help my dad manage the whole operation. Generational relief had to be there – my brothers are great at doing that.

Gustavo and his father on a farm visit in 2014.

I didn’t feel that pressure. I am now using my knowledge that I gained there for the greater good in coffee. Someday I can go and apply what I have learned here back in Nicaragua. Coffee farmers need to understand that they live in a globalized world. Sometimes we want the best price for our coffee, but us farmers need to understand that it is going to be impacted by what happens in Vietnam, Peru, Kenya, etc. We need to be able to differentiate and create a product that is unique for consumers.

As the Senior Manager Coffee & Tea at the National DCP, what does your role entail? What does a typical workday look like for you?

I am responsible for working with our roasters to procure the green coffee that is needed for our Dunkin’-approved items. I work directly with five roasters to convert green coffee into the different packaging formats that we have. I also work with them to hedge that green coffee from the physical side and the futures side. Doing this requires having a good rolling hedge and a good strategy, determining how far out we cover for certain origins. I design that strategy and my roasters collaborate with me in taking those positions. It’s a constant work in progress. Outside of coffee, I also manage the tea side, which is a bit more straight forward than coffee as it is less volatile.

Finally, at the end of the day, I am responsible for ensuring that we have a constant supply within our DCs [Distribution Centers] in all formats. I need to guarantee that we have a non-issue supply chain from roaster to DC for roasted coffee from both a price and a supply perspective. 

What other commodities have you managed or traded? How did you best learn and get the skillset to be a successful trader? Have any tips for an eager trader at the front of his/her career?

                After Cornell, I went back to Nicaragua and managed a cocoa nursery. My goal was to start up a high-tech cocoa farm. Efficiency in production starts with having the right plant – in cocoa, by nature, you need to clone plants. It is a very diverse variety, so the seed is never the same as the mother tree. While there, I traded Nicaraguan and Ecuadorian cocoa.

Coffee people tend to only want to be in coffee. It’s always good to have a different perspective. The other non-soft commodities are more efficiently priced – coffee is in a gray area. In the other commodities, you also may have one major entity – like the USDA – regulating and controlling information. The softs are a world of their own – information is not clear, you must rely on on-the-ground information, and sometimes people don’t want to share information for that reason. My recommendation for any coffee person is to go work in another non-soft commodity. It will give you a different view on how risk is managed.

                In graduate school I really focused on derivatives. I also took some other courses with FC Stone [StoneX]. Since I was 12 years old, I’ve been watching the board [futures market] – I have always been interested in futures, how coffee is priced, and what goes into it. School gave me a great foundation; I still use it in my day-to-day work. Take a course on options and derivatives – I learn something new every time I take a course on something like that.

Sustainability is a critical topic in coffee, and there are so many facets to what sustainability looks like. Given your background and experience across the supply chain, if you could unite the industry around one or two main areas in sustainability, what would they be and why?

                We try to focus on all things sustainability, but at scale, we need to focus on one issue and that should be transparency. If we don’t know how our dollars are flowing from destination to consumer, then we don’t know what decisions to make. Transparency will tell us how efficient our supply chain is and where the farmer needs the most help.

We can’t just have data that gets thrown out there either. We need more tangible methods on how to tackle it. Once we know the issue to focus on – what steps do we need to take next? Do we contact a breeder? Is it a better soil management program that is needed by the farmers?

Let’s nail down one category and one subcategory and let’s tackle it one at a time with the category being reestablished on an annual basis. What we identify also needs to be the result of a group consensus in order to do it at scale, or else we are on a hamster wheel, and will revisit the same issue again in 5 years.

You mentioned your graduate degree in agricultural economics. How has what you learned in your graduate program impacted your career or supported you in your various roles?

                I learned a lot, particularly about agricultural optimization and what that means for a farmer in Kenya to a corn producer in Iowa. You evaluate the decision factors that these different people have and what their decision trees look like. Cornell provided me with an opportunity to understand the decisions that different farmers make based on different factors, their location, etc. This was very well suited for coffee – it helped me understand how decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, for instance, how to compare a corn farmer in Iowa with a coffee farmer in Brazil.  Cornell also had a wide range of paths and programs. I chose to go on a deep derivatives path combined with a focus on understanding farmer rationale and resource valuation. These two areas provide great value for both sustainability and futures trading.            

If you could change anything throughout your career path (i.e. timing of an event, more experience in a related area), what would it be? (No regrets, of course!)

                If I had the opportunity, I would not have left Starbucks to do my master’s full-time at Cornell. If there was a way, I would have remained at Starbucks while going to school.

                I also would have traveled more to other origin countries. I still want more experience with Asian coffee production. I would’ve liked to start that process earlier than I did. You don’t want to get too obsessed with the countries you regularly go to – from an origin diversity perspective, it would be great to experience these other origins and get a better understanding for how they make decisions based on their socioeconomics.

Based on your career experience, what skills do you look for in a strong leader or manager?

                Somebody that can listen. Listening skills are key – not just someone that hears you, but someone that absorbs and synthesizes what you said. Overall, the rest of the work will happen, but if you don’t listen to what people say and transmit that to others, it’ll be very hard.

COVID has required that we all adapt to working differently. Are there any changes or adaptations that you have made that you think will remain, even in a post-COVID work world?

                I think it is all connected – work from home is giving consumers more power, particularly when it comes to coffee. Consumers can now say “I like what I tried last time at the store, and now I am going to buy it again.” On top of that, this behavior is coming at a savings to consumers and more profit to farmers.

                Consider Colombia – Colombia has invested significantly in their marketing, name, and reputation. Consumers associate Colombia with good coffee – more people are drawn to buy Colombian coffee. That’s great – Colombia coffee has established this direct relationship and awareness from consumers. It is a differentiating factor in the market. Other origins will also have more direct contact with consumers now that consumers have more options in choosing what to brew at home.

What advice would you give to a fellow Next Gen candidate working in the coffee industry?

                For someone that is just getting started in coffee, be open minded – don’t think that coffee is everything. Be aware of trends that are happening in other categories. Try to explore and knock on the door of other decision makers if you are interested in something. Coffee careers and jobs aren’t often widely publicized – talk to people outside of your company and listen to the problems and opportunities that others are facing. You will definitely learn something new; don’t turn down an opportunity to learn something because you think you know everything.

                For people that have been in the industry, sometimes we need a break from coffee. It’s okay to take a break from coffee – post-COVID, travel, meet people in different parts of the supply chain – it will always benefit you in the long run. In coffee, we are fortunate to have this continuous learning experience. It is grown in so many countries that there is really no excuse not to learn.

                Don’t be afraid to speak up – being the young generation in coffee, it is easy to be intimated, but we have a unique point of view being from another generation, so don’t be afraid.   

NCA Next Generation Interview with Phyllis Johnson, President, BD Imports

Phyllis P. Johnson

The following is an interview between the NCA Next Generation group and Phyllis Johnson, co-founder and president of BD Imports, a roasted coffee importer serving the food service, hospitality, wholesale, and retail markets.

In 2018, Phyllis authored “Strong Black Coffee: Why Aren’t African-Americans More Prominent in the Coffee Industry?” to shine a light on the lack of diversity and representation of Black Americans she saw and experienced in the coffee industry. Phyllis continues to fight for an anti-racist coffee industry today, and recently called on industry leaders to provide resources, tools, and funding to fight racism in the industry.

The following Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

You grew up in a farming family in Arkansas. Did your agricultural background play a role in your choosing a career in coffee?

Initially I didn’t fully understand or see the connection, but it didn’t take long before I realized that I could have a greater connection to coffee based on my background.  I didn’t embrace my upbringings of having to work on the farm as a child.   Ironically, I was 35 years old, educated and well-established into my career when I was comfortable acknowledging parts of my upbringing. Having to work hard on the farm as a child wasn’t something that I was proud of, and it was hard for me to talk about it.  I remember riding on the back of a truck going through dusty fields, callouses on my hands from working so hard. 

I’m not totally sure why I found that part of my life embarrassing — hard work should be respected. I think it reminded me of our position in life.  A Black family working on the land of White farmers, my mom referring to the landowners as Mr. and them calling her by her first name and being paid low wages for incredibly hard physical work.  Growing up I always wanted to be someone different that who I was born to be.  Coffee has allowed me to go back in a weird sort of way and truly appreciate that part of me that I wanted to run away from, I believe that’s why I found comfort working in coffee. 

There were very important lessons I learned in those years of my life of working on the farm — not only hard work, but perseverance — and seeing my mom, a strong leader, who made lots of hard decisions.  I learned the value of humbleness, appreciating the simplicity of farm life.  My past gives me respect and empathy for coffee farmers. 

How did you get started in coffee? Were there any mentors in your past or present who helped you get here?

From day one of starting in coffee I had empowering mentors.  Having a mentor makes all the difference in the world in someone’s life. I have had mentors throughout my entire life both personally and professionally.  Some more significant than others.  Soon after becoming a mom, I realized that I not only wanted to encourage my children to live their dreams, but needed to be an example, so I pursued my dream of being a business owner.  Both me and my husband shared the same dream of being business owners.  A Kenyan man introduced me to coffee, and I became a student of coffee and it’s taken me on a journey around the world, but mostly back to my childhood experiences of working on the farm in Arkansas. 

There was a slightly older couple who lived in our community, and they became mentors.  They’d lived in Africa when they were younger; they taught at the local college and had a background in African American studies.  I believe they were the first to plainly speak to me about the history of coffee as I was trying to find my way.  I can hear them saying now, “You know, coffee is a product that was produced by the enslaved,” and they would go on to tell stories based on their education and life experiences. 

Coffee is a friendly industry, not to be confused with it being relentless when it comes to business and trade. I was fortunate to have several mentors, one in which continues to help guide me today. She’s been my mentor for the past 17 years, she always says, we’re “coffee sisters” and whenever I’m thanking her for her time and effort she says, “It takes a team, we’re a team Phyllis.” Having great mentors have taught me how to be a good mentor to others. I’ve also learned that the best mentors are those who uplift others with no expectations in return other than to see that person do well and go on and give back to others, we call that the ripple effect.  

We’re in the midst of a massive cultural shift in the way people of color are being seen and treated in society today. How do you think this transformation will impact the coffee industry in North America?

Maybe this cultural shift allows us tosee people of color, or should I say, Black people in a different way. The reality for Black people has been consistent throughout our history, racism morphs into a slightly different form with each generation, almost to a point to where it’s not seen by some as racism in society and often just totally denied.

I’m not totally sure how this enlightenment will transform our industry or society. We’ve had hopeful moments throughout history.  Hope and optimism are sometimes all we have in our darkest moments.   There are no quick solutions, and I’m afraid that we may think resolving years of racism all comes down to that one new hire at the company.  While I can appreciate good intentions, change will come from first an examination, then intentional actions to dismantle systemic racism.

Certain words and phrases make us uncomfortable and I believe that our first step is to become comfortable with not only words, but reality.  It’s not personal, and if you’re uncomfortable that means it’s meant for you to do something about it.  That’s how I see it.  We all have a great deal to get out of this shift or enlightenment.  This moment in time isn’t just for Black individuals to feel a sense of empowerment but it’s for everyone to grow and think of ways to build a better and more equitable society. 

Working in coffee affords us even greater opportunities because we have an industry that would benefit from more participation by Black Americans, many of the coffees we touch are from Black and Brown producers so there are opportunities to rid ourselves of centuries of oppressive business practices.  We have some work that will keep us busy for a while.   We need better solutions; more talent from Black Americans can deliver that. We have a track record of delivering something extra to everything we do.  

In 2018 you wrote an award-winning article titled “Strong Black Coffee: Why Aren’t African-Americans More Prominent in the Coffee Industry?” – What, if anything, do you feel has changed since writing that article?

The biggest thing that’s happened since that article was written is that more young professionals have been inspired on their journey in coffee.  I understand that companies are now using the article as a resource. It was such a personal journey to write the article. I believe the writing proved its value with the recent racial unrest that we’ve experienced in this country and the need to examine ourselves to be more inclusive.  I believe more individuals are comfortable speaking up and Blacks in coffee are becoming more visible. That’s what we need.

I don’t think that we can ever really quantify the value and impact of an article that speaks to the heart of an issue.  I realize what was missing for me when I came to coffee and I tried to create that for others so that they could find their way more quickly and become productive contributors for themselves and to the industry.  I gave up trying to quantify the effects of work after working on women’s empowerment in East Africa. Trying to quantify the impact of that work was like counting granules of sand, because women are continuing to run with opportunities far beyond my imagination, and that’s what so cool about empowerment. 

You echoed your calls for racial justice and better representation in coffee in your recent open letter titled “An Open Letter to the US Coffee Industry on Racism”. What has been the response to your letter so far, and what changes or actions have you seen from the coffee industry since it was published?

I am humbled by the response to the open letter.  The enthusiasm and interest in building a racially equitable industry has continued well over a month since the letter was released. When writing the letter, I didn’t think so much about how it would be received, but the need for us to acknowledge racial inequality and we needed a call to action.  Also, I wasn’t looking around for someone else to take the lead on this.  This was a leadership moment for the work that I not only engaged in but the essence of who I am, a Black woman who has been trying to find my way in the US coffee industry for the last 21 years.  I believe that we have started working towards change and it’s my hope that we never stop in generations to come. 

The biggest change that I’m seeing is the examination of where we are and how we got here.  There’s more tolerance around discussions on inclusiveness, we have actions to take and I’m working on the formation of an organization that will address these issues.  

How can the coffee industry turn their calls for racial justice and inclusion into action? What do you feel the industry should be doing that it isn’t?

Let me start by saying, I’ve not been harboring all the answers to this century-long problem in my head and only willing to release the answers in this interview. This is a complex problem, and the complexity isn’t wrapped up in what to do — the complexity rests in a will or desire to act or see a different future. 

One thing the coffee industry must do is to stop normalizing a lack of diversity.  See it as the problem it really is, a systemic problem that we get to help solve as best we can.  See a lack of racial diversity as missing solutions to important problems. See a lack of racial diversity as one of the highest risks to your business going forward.  It must be a priority, not a far-off wish or challenge that you’re trying to figure out with a dwindling budget during a pandemic.

We must rescue ourselves from our own helpless attitude toward racial diversity.   What should we do?  I’m hopeful that we can come together as an industry and work on solutions.  This is a non-competitive initiative that will bring us to new level.  Solutions are unique and meant for each of us to work towards our own best solutions based on our situations. 

We don’t have the option of staying silent on this issue of racial inequality, hoping this all blows over and then move on to something else.  Racial inequality is what built our country, and is what our industry is rooted in.  It’s not up for debate or finding better words to make it sound better, it is what it is, it’s why we are where we are today.

We must not only see ourselves as inheritors of systemic racism, but also architects who can build a better future. We are not without power.

What words of advice do you have for the next generation of coffee professionals who are just entering or considering entering the industry?

This is one of the most dynamic industries you can be involved in.  I would say to this next generation to get everything you can out of coffee, and by that I mean understand your position and power in the industry.  Know that you yourself may have chosen coffee based on your family heritage, or just somehow passionate about the beverage.  Coffee isn’t a choice for everyone — understand the value it holds for others who may never have the opportunities that you have.  Educate yourself on the history of coffee, chose to look beyond what is obvious and you’ll see more. Allow yourself to ask hard questions about coffee, but mostly allow yourself to tackle the hard problems in our industry.

I’d also say good luck, carry the banner forward, bring all of you to this work, if you so desire.  To the young men, make room for the brilliance of others to join in this work. You are the leaders that you’re looking for. 

Finally, as a seasoned coffee professional, how have you been coping during the pandemic? Any tips, tricks, or advice for our readers to help them get through this crisis?

Many of us will be able to proudly say one day that we not only lived through a major pandemic, but an economic recession, and racial strife all at the same time. That’s a lot.  There are really some beautiful moments in all of what we are experiencing.  I’ve had special moments with my family as well as professionally.  I had a video call not long ago with a young Hispanic woman, a new entrepreneur whom I’d never met before.  She started to share her experiences trying to get through the pandemic and it brought tears to our eyes.  I immediately felt connected to her and her struggle.  That would not have happened had we met at a coffee conference.  We put up a strong face most of the time when there’s a lot going on in business and life.  The pandemic has made me unapologetic about my emotions, and I’m enjoying that. 

I’m getting through this time just simply trying to be more human, connected to a purpose that’s bigger than me. I’m focused on using all that I’ve been given to uplift others, be a good mentor, and be part of the solution.  The only way that I know how to survive is to help others.  This time in my life there’s more clarity about who I am and my purpose.  I wish that for everyone, because I know how difficult it can be trying to discover your place in life.  I’m enjoying this time knowing there may be more times of confusion, but the one thing I’ve known for a long while is that it’s not just about me.   

NCA Next Generation Council Meets at SCTA Dinner in Switzerland

NCA Next Gen Council at the SCTA Conference and Dinner, Basel, Switzerland, October 10, 2019

2019 marked the 10th year of the annual SCTA Conference and Dinner located in Basel, Switzerland.  For the second year in a row, the NCA Next Gen Council was invited to participate in the event, a proposal which was once again graciously accepted.  In addition to the elegance of the dinner itself, our Council members were able to attend an information session and networking hour dedicated exclusively to Next Gen members. 

The initiative was led by Guillaume Zbinden, who has been at the forefront of the effort of the SCTA to emulate the NCA’s Next Gen platform.  Guillaume’s keynote speech was followed by a thorough review by Michael von Luehrte of the activities of both the SCTA Next Gen Council, but also those of the contingent of Next Gen Members throughout countries of origin. 

And to round out the conference section of the Next Gen session, attendees were able to see ‘into the future’ with remarks by Dean Sanders and a panel led by Susana Robledo. 

The event was a great success and the growth of the Next Gen “movement” was apparent! 

Photo Recap: NCA 2019 Day of Service

How Coffee Gives Back to the Local Community

The annual Coffee Gives Back Day of Service may have been the most labor-intensive portion for attendees at the NCA 2019 Convention – but it was also the most fun.

Hosted by Jolly Elementary, outside of Atlanta, GA, the (waitlist-only) event was led by the NCA Next Generation Council in partnership with Network Volunteers.

From painting to planting to power-washing, volunteers pitched in to help with much-needed school beautification and maintenance projects. (One overwhelmed teacher shared that she and her husband had been working on weekends and spending their own money to make classroom repairs.)

In one afternoon, the NCA team made the kind of progress only possible when a committed (and well-caffeinated) community comes together for a common cause.

Here are a few highlights from the NCA 2019 Coffee Gives Back Day of Service:

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Meet the NCA Next Generation: Amber Gray, Starbucks


The following Q&A is from the NCA Next Generation Group, a National Coffee Association initiative to engage and support young professionals and emerging leaders across the coffee industry. 

Join the NCA Next Generation Council for young professionals in the coffee industry at the NCA 2019 Convention in Atlanta on Friday, March 8.

Amber Gray
Mgr Sr Coffee Operations, Starbucks
NCA Next Gen Council Member

How and when did you get involved with the coffee industry?

I got involved in coffee in 2013 when I joined Atlas Coffee Importers in north Seattle.

Having a culinary degree, I was trying to find an opportunity that would allow me to stay connected to the food and beverage industry, but still utilized my analytical background.

I worked in their Logistics department, managing and coordinating orders from green coffee warehouses to various customers across the US.

What interested you in joining the NCA Next Generation group, and then becoming part of the council?

I found out about the Next Gen council opportunity while on an origin trip in Costa Rica. Experiencing the first 10 feet of coffee inspired me to find a way to contribute more to the larger conversation.

I hope to help inspire the next generation, especially women, to get involved in coffee and supply chain.

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Meet the Real Bill Murray

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Bill Murray speaking at the 2018 NCA Convention in Atlanta

Behind the scenes with the President & CEO of the National Coffee Association USA

William (Bill) Murray has served as President and CEO of the National Coffee Association (NCA) since 2014, following leadership positions at the Public Relations Society of America and the Motion Picture Association.

And clearly he’s kept caffeinated. In a few short years, the NCA has evolved as an organization to provide enhanced member benefits and educational opportunities, while also serving as a critical advocate on key industry issues like the Prop. 65 labeling case in California.

Here, he talks to Zach Olsen, Regional Sales Manager at Bunn USA and incoming Chair of the NCA Next Generation Council, about his career, the coffee industry, and Caddyshack.

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Meet the NCA Next Generation: Shelby Westfeldt Mills


Mardi Gras World at the NCA 2018 Convention

The following Q&A is from the NCA Next Generation Group, a National Coffee Association initiative to engage and support young professionals and emerging leaders across the coffee industry. 


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Shelby Westfeldt Mills
President, Coffee/Tea Trader
Westfeldt Brothers, Inc.
NCA Next Gen Council

Interviewed by Janet Colley Morse

How and when did you get involved with the coffee industry?

It was right after Katrina in 2005 and I was living in New York City interviewing for jobs in advertising. My dad had to relocate Westfeldt Brothers to North Carolina, and asked if I would work on the New York Board of Trade (now the ICE) as a clerk and assist WBI.

I put everything on hold and started immediately. I fell in love with it!

If you ask how I ended up at Westfeldt Brothers, that was probably because my mom made my dad give me a job.

What interested you in joining the NCA Next Gen group and then becoming part of the council?

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