I’m part of this dinner group that gets together at my house every month to talk about some of the weightier things in life. The whole point is to inspire and provoke each other to live more meaningfully. In doing so, we’re leaning to become more candid and transparent with one another and last night I opened up a little about some struggles I’m feeling with this whole “coffee thing” I do.
During my product development years, stuff I worked on orbited around coffee appliances and related paraphernalia. Then, I bought a coffee roasting company that I built into a mail order business which I eventually sold. I did this mainly to focus on growing the first high caffeine coffee brand. This was back in the mid-90s before anyone in the USA had even heard of Red Bull.
There’s a point to this back story, so stick with me.
I went on to develop several RTD (ready-to-drink) coffee beverages—for our proprietary brand, as well as some major retail names you’d recognize.
Then everything changed.
I sold that coffee brand and eventually joined a private equity group that invests in social enterprises—companies that seek to earn profit, but do so in a way that gives priority to positive impact on people and the planet as well. It changed my life. Well, my business life. I was all in; committed to doing business this way, no matter what kind of business I leaned into.
And here I am. Back in the coffee business. Wanting desperately to do well and—this time—do good.
But as I was sharing with my friends last night, I’m not sure I feel very good yet about the good I aim to do. In the companies we invested in during my private equity stint, many took innovative approaches to leveraging business to help alleviate particular social problems. Quite directly and deliberately, starting first with the desired social objective. Those all made sense to me: here’s a social or environmental problem. Work, work, work. Here’s a business solution. Bam. Make money and leave the world in a better place. Five stars. Pat on the back.
But I can't lie. I’m back in the coffee business because…I love the coffee business! I love coffee, I love the people, the community, the increasingly knowledgeable and caring consumers. All of it.
And if I’m totally honest with myself, I didn’t really get into the coffee business for the purpose of helping vulnerable communities, even though I’m hell bent on helping vulnerable communities. It’s this odd paradox I’m wrestling with.
I sincerely want to “make a difference” but I don’t yet know what difference I can make. At least, not completely. I want to help farmers, their families and their communities earn more for the coffee they work so hard to cultivate. I want to incentivize them to grow better coffees. I want to reinvest in education in those communities so future generations can improve their businesses and lives. Fair Trade and other NGOs are good, but I want to do more.
But I’m also—really—building a new coffee company because I want to bring the most awesome coffees to consumers who want the best stuff.
And that’s my quandary: am I just a coffee loving entrepreneur who wants to check some nice little trendy box that makes me look like a good person, or am I generally a good person trying to figure out how to be that way in a business that I love?
My friends were very gracious (I love these friends). They believe I am a good person and assured me I will find a way to improve the lives—even in incremental ways—of those we work with as long as I continue to make that a priority. They reminded me most other companies don’t make that a priority, and I don’t need to have it all figured out just yet. They believe in me. It helped me believe in me. It helped me believe in what we really want to do with our little coffee venture: bring some truly exceptional coffees to those who want "exceptional" and do so in a way that leaves the people and parts of the planet we touch in better condition than we found them.
It may take a little while, but I'm feeling more confident today that we will be able to do well and do good. At the same time.
Kinda makes me wonder if we all couldn't do that...