Brianna is the founder of Coffee Connections. She is currently working with the Ethiopian government, among others, as an advocate for sustainable supply chains (both environmental and personal for the farmers). She talked about all things coffee, sustainability, and the color red with Holdette.
Harper: So just to kind of like kick-off and get started. Can you tell me, I know you're a founder, but your LinkedIn shows to different companies?
Brianna: Sure! Coffee Conex and Coffee Connections Consulting stem from the same origin. You see, my background is in the tech industry here in San Francisco but a few years ago I hit a point where I wanted to do something that had a slightly more global reach. The tech industry here in San Francisco is exciting. It's fast-paced. There's a lot of energy and I loved the people I was working with. But I wanted to do something that broadened my capacity for impact or my potential to do something outside of the community that I found myself in. So I started looking into what opportunities I could explore that are internationally focused on emerging and developing economies. Coffee happened to be a common thread amongst the countries that I was interested in working with.
When I made the switch from tech into coffee, I knew that I had to enter with the mindset of a learner. So I went on a mission to work on as many projects and in as many different areas of the industry as I possibly could to gain the experience, knowledge, and understanding of how this industry operates. Where are the needs? Where are the gaps? I wanted to make sure that if I was going to invest in trying to create something, it would have a measurable impact.
First, I formed Coffee Connections Consulting, which gave me the flexibility to jump into a number of different segments of the coffee community. I worked with everyone from NGOs (non-governmental organizations), to farmers, exporters, importers, roasters and cafes, on projects ranging from educational programs, to quality analysis, to infrastructure development. I was then able to step back and analyze where the greatest needs are and how I can help fill those gaps and bridge resources across the supply chain. That is where Coffee Conex was born. Although Coffee Conex was only recently introduced to the world, it's been brewing with me for a while as I've been exploring the industry.
Harper: I've read so much about sustainability and kind of buying ethically and coffee because it is a global Consumer wide bought product, does your business I contribute to that process at all? Or did you become more knowledgeable about that process at all through what you do?
Brianna: There are so many different layers of sustainability. Is it sustainable for the environment? Is it sustainable for the community? Does it sustainably support the livelihoods of the people creating the product? Are the economic impacts sustainable? Sustainability has so many different inputs into it.
Sometimes, as consumers, we may try to look for a label or certification for proof that the product is a ‘sustainable’ product, and then call it a day. But as we begin to peel back the layers of the labels and the certifications, there is this whole other level of complexity in knowing where your products come from, understanding both the environments producers are working in and the circumstances they are working under. It’s always a good practice to go beyond just "are they applying sustainable practices to the land?"
For example, you may ask “are they adding to deforestation or are they replanting trees?” or “are they adding nutrients back to the soil or leaving it depleted?” which assesses the environmental implications. But digging deeper, we should also be looking at the impact on producers and their families and ask “is this enough to create a livelihood, to send their children to school, to put food on the table?” We should look to support environments where we're empowering these individuals, families, and communities.
For me, I started to see that the idea of sustainability means shifting the conversation from what is “enough” to what would help people “thrive”? That kind of flipped the switch to me and really thinking about sustainability and conscious consumerism on a different scope. Seeing it with a critical eye: which supply chains are creating spaces where their suppliers are actually able to reinvest in their community, schools, or into their family.
So for my product, Coffee Conex, I wanted to create something that would apply this idea of sustainability and make sure farmers are getting enough to be able to invest in the future, their business, as they desire it as they see fit. Coffee Conex helps connect coffee farmers to a competitive market so they can increase their participation in international trade. I’m helping connect coffee farmers, buyers, and everyone in between through an online platform and mobile app to create sustainable, smart supply chains.
Harper: I have at least a cup of coffee every single day. So it's really interesting to kind of learn just a space where farmers can be like, like someone's advocating for that and it's so cool to like learn about that and just like because sometimes you buy like coffee grounds and you don't actually think about the person that grew it and all that stuff. So it's a really important thing that you're doing because it impacts people.
Brianna: At first, I didn’t realize there was more to the coffee industry. I just used it for the caffeine hit and never thought about what went into that cup of coffee. Then to actually meet the individuals behind my coffee... it opened my mind to realize that “Oh, yeah, this isn't just a product”. We are constantly consuming globally traded products, coffee and otherwise. It’s important to remember that there’s always more to the store. There are always people at the other end of the supply chain creating these products.
Harper: I'm sure like people would love to like read those stories and just hear about the farmers that put their coffee on their table every single day because it's months of work. What is a normal working day for you? Do you work from home? Do you work in a co-working space where you have an office? What does that look like?
Brianna: Right now I work from home. I actually just moved back to the Bay. I was living in Ethiopia for four months this past year. Since moving back, I’ve set up shop in my apartment as a home office.
Harper: And then so like, what does your day from like eight-to-five or nine-to-five kind of look like when you're running your business?
Brianna: Well, honestly, being a solo-founder means that there's a never-ending list of to-dos and the only person who is responsible for doing them is yourself. Typically, I get up at 5:30 am and start working at 8:00 am and work until about lunch. I live right next to Lake Merritt, which is a lovely walk to take for a little break from my desk, and then come back and often grind it out until 8:00 pm. I would say though, in precaution, that isn't necessarily the healthiest work ethic for most people. But the beautiful thing is I absolutely love what I'm doing and I couldn't imagine doing anything else with my time. So although I work long hours, it's actually incredibly enjoyable.
Harper: You said you went to Ethiopia and you lived there for four months. Was that for Coffee Connections or was that for just like a personal trip?
Brianna: That was for Coffee Connections with USAID, the United States government’s branch of international funding. With international aid funding, they look for projects around the world that focus on how to invest in different countries that are considered “emerging or developing economies”. I think it's actually less than 1% of our GDP budget here in the United States, but it ends up being quite a bit of money that they are able to distribute to different projects around the world. Coffee is a really big portion of agricultural exports and because coffee is such a big economic driver for many of the countries that grow it, USAID looks to invest in the coffee value chain. For Ethiopia, they had some funding that they allocated with the Ethiopian government, and I consulted on some infrastructural development for the coffee sector.
Harper: That's awesome. That's amazing. And then, kind of because it's very new, but also because you just got back to the states in five or so years where can you see Coffee Connex kind of going?
Brianna: Well, in five years, Coffee Connex should really be spreading around the world. I have a pilot program starting in Ethiopia this quarter, but I want to see it spread and used internationally within all major coffee-growing regions. Coffee grows in Africa, Central and South America, and parts of Asia, so it’s kind of around the world. I'd like to see Coffee Conex spread and service all regions.
My number one mission is to see Coffee Conex actually make a difference in the livelihood of producers and increase the profits that farmers capture for their coffee. So, in five years, I'd like to see my product fully up and running around the world and affecting lives.
Harper: You are a founder and you do work, sometimes 12 hour days. Is there anything that you do to kind of decompress at the end or beginning of the day, that's like separate from work?
Brianna: I would say two things. One is reading... but to be fair, Audible is my form of reading. It’s really important for me to consume as much enriching content as I can. I believe that in order to evolve and learn, we have to be open to hearing other people's opinions, hear what the world has to say, see what other people are doing in the world. In turn, this creates more space within us to be more creative, to expand, and to grow ourselves. I really enjoy some sort of movement; yoga or running are my favorites.
Harper: Our last question is, of course, clothing related but what's your daily workwear, or if you're going to a big meeting, what would you think to wear?
Brianna: The two main aspects of clothing that I optimize for are functional and comfortable. If I want to go into a meeting feeling powerful, however, I’ll wear a pop of red.
Thanks, Brianna for chatting with us!