How a Woman of Color Maneuvers the Power Structures in Coffee – 25 Magazine: Issue 3

How a Woman of Color Maneuvers the Power Structures in Coffee – 25 Magazine: Issue 3

II am often asked how I, as a business owner who happens to be a woman of color, maneuver an industry where there are few people who look like me. One thing that I have learned through my career in coffee is that progress towards diversity doesn’t often follow a linear path. It is filled with challenges and setbacks. Progress is not always clear and at times doesn’t appear noticeable.

PHYLLIS JOHNSON shares her story in Issue 3 of 25 Magazine.

Patience is one of the greatest assets. As an advocate for diversity I’ve learned that I can never lose sight of the need to help bring about change and that my success alone is not enough.

Why write about my experience as a woman of color? I do it hoping that it will encourage those who represent diversity in our industry to stick around. We need to hear your voices. I also hope to encourage others to become champions and advocates.

Outside the Norm

When you don’t fit into what is considered the norm, you find yourself being encouraged by some, and questioned by others. Although I smile when I look back at my early years as a coffee importer, my experiences were often frustrating. A potential buyer in one small coffee roaster I once visited presumed that I was from outside the US, and asked if I was selling my cousin’s coffee. The assumption was that a person of color could only understand opportunities in coffee if they had a direct relationship on the ground in a producing country. I had to take the time to explain that I was a business owner with a dream of building a coffee company.

Another buyer questioned if I had the financial backing to supply his coffee needs. When I was a little slow sending a contract he surmised that I didn’t operate a credible business and wrote a long email explaining all his concerns in detail. I couldn’t help but wonder, had I not been a woman of color would my ability to deliver or finance my business have been questioned?

Traveling abroad can be difficult, but it is even trickier as a woman of color. Through my career I have been speculated to be everything except a coffee buyer. Once when I attended an African conference a fellow guest at my dinner table overheard me talking about coffee and confessed that he had not realized I was a coffee buyer. He had automatically assumed that I was attending the dinner as “somebody’s wife.”

I could keep going and list countless situations where my ability as a coffee supplier has been doubted. Had this happened once or twice I might not have considered whether the concerns were prompted by my gender or the color of my skin, but it has happened too many times to be a coincidence.

Building Credibility

As I continued to grow my business, I became accustomed to name-dropping, trying to assure potential customers that I was indeed credible. I often dropped the name of a well-known male coffee trainer in conversation to prove that I understood the business. I informed every potential customer I encountered that I had received training from this man. As time went on I found myself explaining that I had earned a rigorous degree in science and forged a successful career before coming to coffee. I would often say, “If I can get through chemistry courses, then I should be able to use my born ability to taste, and apply that skill to coffees.” The constant need to justify my ability was exhausting.

Minority-Owned Companies

There is a misconception that minority-owned businesses have it made when it comes to gaining big business opportunities. While it is true that small and minority- owned companies gain opportunities to bid on contracts based on their status, they are not more advantaged than other businesses, especially when you consider the multitude of challenges they often face, including a lack of resources.

In my work at BD Imports, I have found that many companies who claim to be interested in developing relationships with minority suppliers stand behind fragmented and poorly executed “diversity programs.” These programs often lack content and seldom go beyond a logo or marketing scheme touting a commitment to the cause. Therefore, we decided to focus our time on building relationships with customers who saw our company as a valuable partner to their business.

I have also encountered companies with internal policies that limit the amount of business they offer smaller minority companies based on perceived risk. The time and effort it takes to work with these companies doesn’t always yield a return on investment. Often, we are expected to go much further than non-minority certified coffee companies by offering higher quality coffees and transparent supply chains to gain a very small percentage of the overall business.

Champions of Diversity

While I have encountered challenges, I have also experienced incredible generosity from numerous individuals in this industry.

It was a man who encouraged me to raise the price of my coffee and who purchased it when I was at a point of feeling discouraged. There have been several men who have advocated on my behalf even when I said no to serving on boards that contained few women of color. Many well- respected men have spent countless hours with me, sharing years of knowledge about the global coffee industry.

 We as diverse individuals working in coffee find ourselves taking on the time- consuming task of leading discussions on this topic. While conversations around gender equity have become more common in the coffee industry and we move further along the spectrum of discussing the need to be more inclusive,

“We must remember that those of us who represent diversity don’t have all the answers. Although it is logical to include our voices, it is not up to us entirely to make these changes. What is certain is that these discussions must also come from champions of diversity, understanding that we all have something to gain.”

However, there is a price to pay when certain individuals advocate for diversity. According to Harvard Business Review, women and minorities are penalized for promoting diversity. I have learned not to focus on the individual cost because I understand there is a much greater benefit overall. I encourage everyone to join the conversation, and follow with action. Over time, more voices advancing inclusivity in the coffee supply chain will be heard.

My business experiences as a woman of color have been both rewarding and challenging. I have been fortunate to develop customer relationships that celebrate the diverse perspectives that I bring. I have also experienced customer relationships where diversity is met with less commitment, thereby limiting growth and engagement with minority companies.

Why I Advocate

We must accept that we all have biases, and I too am guilty of questioning what doesn’t follow the norm in my life experiences. Why is increasing diversity in the workplace so difficult for individuals and companies? I don’t have all the answers, but I suspect that it simply comes down to basic misconceptions about diversity. Some are suspicious of diversity programs or think that by championing minorities those minority companies gain greater advantages.

I speak on behalf of diversity not only because I’m an African American woman who has spent most of my life maneuvering spaces where people like me are missing – in universities, science, business, and coffee – but because I have experienced some incredible work and ideas brought to the table in diverse settings. I also know what it is like when there is too much sameness, or when something is missing to overcome a challenge.

I have been fortunate in my career to own a company and serve on close to 10 boards. Each of these boards and organizations struggled with truly representing the community or industry they served. While most of the boards I’ve served on have been male-dominated, two of the boards were composed of only women. Even a fierce group of women advocating specifically for more diversity and equity cannot do it alone.

Diversity makes us more capable of enhancing the way we meet new challenges. It is up to all of us to play our part.

PHYLLIS JOHNSON is President of BD Imports.

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