On Leading, Listening, and Loving Coffee

A conversation with…
Heather Perry, Vice President of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA)
Katherine (Kat) Nolte, Vice Chair of the SCAA Sustainability Council
Laila Willbur, Chair of the Barista Guild of America
Mary Tellie, Chair of the Roaster’s Guild
Tracy Ging, Vice Chair of World Coffee Research (and 2nd Vice President of SCAA)

Tracy, Heather, Mary, Kat, and Laila

We’ve each stepped into new leadership roles within specialty coffee, so what’s ahead for your organization?

Katherine Nolte: The Sustainability Council envisions a world where every cup of coffee has a positive impact on the social well-being, environmental preservation, and economic success for everyone in the supply chain. Of course, that is monumental task so we are creating more and broader platforms to generate a solutions-oriented industry-wide dialogue addressing issues critical to the sustainability of specialty coffee. In 2015 we dedicated our resources to the topic of human equality and in 2016, we identified farmworkers rights, profitability for growers, and climate change as the three critical issues in coffee supply chains that need to be amplified in our conversations this year.

Laila Willbur: The Barista Guild of America has grown exponentially in the value it adds to its members. Our education has advanced leaps and bounds, Barista Camp has become a huge success, and all the events we put on for membership to network have become a highlight. We are excited to continue to grow all those avenues and make them stronger. The big project that I will be focusing on in my Chair term is how we market the BGA and how we connect and communicate with members and potential members. There are so many avenues via social media to get ideas and messages out there. I think the BGA has huge potential to reach more baristas. We have also added a new position to the EC, that Alex Littlejohn will be heading up, which is focused on outreach to potential members.

Heather Perry: The SCAA has so much ahead, with the most obvious being the unification with SCAE that I’m sure most have heard about. By the time this piece is released, SCAA members will be in the middle of voting to determine exactly what is ahead for this organization. In June, we held our annual leadership summit where 15 of our European counterparts attended and their input and voice was an exciting preview of what is possible in the coming years should unification occur. Almost every guild, committee, and council had a European representative and it was incredible to see how much was accomplished in such a short time—what this type of cross-cultural collaboration can yield. Whether or not we unify, our members have made it clear that they want a more global association, and this most recent meeting was a huge step towards that vision.

At the same time, we remain a very grassroots organization that accomplished so much locally this past year. Both Guilds introduced new events for their membership — the Sensory Summit by RG and Bloom by BGA — and together the events reached almost 1000 people. There were also more Member Driven Events and we are continuing to see the expansion of camps and retreats. There are two new guilds starting up, the Technicians Guild and the Producers Guild. The expanding Campus program is creating new opportunities for instructors and students. We’ll continue to expand on this work.

Tracy Ging: At World Coffee Research, we spent the first few years of our existence designing, fundraising and laying the groundwork for research. A number of projects were implemented that are now, or will shortly be, bearing results. As an organization, this raises a host of new considerations about how we disseminate findings, how we protect the intellectual property but maintain the spirit of “open-source” that we were founded on, and how we make decisions. For example, one outcome of our earlier research was discovering there is even less genetic diversity in the arabica species than we thought. So, the question becomes can we re-create diversity using strains from eugenoides, as one possibility, or do we seek other paths? It is quite possible that it will be easier to breed quality cup characteristics into robusta rather than breed climate and pest tolerant characteristics into arabica. Over the next decade, we’ll be focused on solutions to mitigate and adapt to changing weather patterns, increased pests and diseases, and socio-economic strife in coffee producing regions…massive, complex issues so everything has to be on the table.

Mary Tellie: This dynamic organization is broad in its scope but clear in its mission to support the professional coffee roaster and to promote the craft of roasting.  As we move towards unifying the SCAA and SCAE, the Roasters Guild’s vision to be the voice of the global community of coffee roasting professionals is more attainable than ever. We will continue to focus on research to build a solid foundation for quality differentiation and professional development to ensure we execute as a trade.

What do you see as challenges and opportunities for your organization and as it relates to the broader industry?

Heather: Mary referenced research and I think that is the biggest opportunity for SCAA in the coming years. In the most recent member survey our members told us research was important to them and a reason they were a member.  For the past decades tech standards has done a great job of helping to put industry standards in place. Some of those come from research while others have come from best practices. As Tracy mentioned, World Coffee Research is focusing on crop protection at the genetic level and with the seed (which includes agronomy and other pre-harvest research), but there is so much to be done along the rest of the chain. From cold brew to cascara, there is so much yet to be explored and building off the success of the sensory lexicon, by finding research partners like University of California (Davis) and the University of Zurich, we can begin to tackle some of these topics.

Mary: As we talk about unification and global activity, we also have to balance the overall vision of the RG and not leaving any member behind in doing so.  Our anticipated growth trajectory must be commensurate with a specific level of value added benefits.  This poses both a challenge and a great opportunity.

Kat: Sustainability topics are heavy. It is not always easy to make learning about critical issues in coffee supply interesting, engaging, and enjoyable. Solutions also often require behavior change or going against the grain of society. This is a recipe for sometimes frustrating conversations as we all try to see eye to eye. But, I believe that specialty coffee is full of deep thinkers who want to take the right action and the opportunity is to collaborate. There is a lot of reference to unification here, which the Sustainability Council sees as an opportunity to collaborate more formally across the globe.

Tracy: With respect to World Coffee Research, it’s always a challenge to sustain a long-term vision. It isn’t possible to do all the research and work necessary to protect our crop overnight, or in a year, or even five. This is a decades-long strategy. As I look at some of the big acquisitions that have happened in the past few years and all the attention paid to cold brew concepts, I worry coffee is becoming more of a beverage and less a distinctive agricultural crop. The opportunity for WCR is to make sure we don’t lose sight of the fragility inherent within coffee. We literally can’t forget our roots — the seed, the soil, the water resources, and the people that make specialty coffee so special— and keep building and believing in the case for investment.

Laila: Tracy’s point leads right into mine — the barista profession has grown and changed a lot recently. We have the job of protecting and translating everything that happens at the beginning of the value chain through to coffee drinkers. We have to make our origins meaningful to coffee drinkers rushing about the day. Even with the significance of our role, we still battle with the stigma of it being a “just while I’m in college, or figuring things out” job. Being a barista is truly a career path that deserves to be held in high esteem. We want to grow the awareness of the caliber of the barista…the knowledge, skill and dedication that goes into the craft.

How do you think about your leadership in the context of what needs to be done?

Laila: I think I’ve come into this leadership role at just the right time. The BGA EC members of the past have created amazing content for our membership, now is the time to drive that out to the masses and I excel in that space — turning ideas into action and amplifying efforts. I have an incredible team of members on the EC right now, all with their own strengths. Collaborating in ways that allow us to be most effective is something that we are starting the year off with and I know that it is going to reap great benefits to our members.

Mary:  I view one of my roles as the Roasters Guild Chair, as the advocate for the membership constituency of our guild. Likewise, among my RGEC peers. Starting as tiny a roaster retailer, I have a clear understanding of those member’s issues and concerns. As a business owner, I feel it is critical to maximize our membership experience to get continued support, which speaks to all RG members. Lastly, as a former banker I often view the world through a series of spreadsheets. To that end, engaging membership to understand the importance of financial sustainability while supporting the artistic and passionate side of coffee roasting.

Heather: When I think about my leadership and the future of the SCAA, I think more than ever I need to remember there is a reason God gave us two ears and one mouth.  There are so many stakeholders in this association and this industry, and we need to make sure that the moves we make are member-serving. I’m a mother so sometimes I look around and say “I know whats best,” but this is different, and I’m not the mother of the association.  That being said there are some traits you learn in being a mother that I think translate quite well, communication being a big part of that.

My role moving into the future is to be honest with our members, to listen and to have meaningful conversations about where we are and how we continue to move into the future.  I think one of the interesting things about leading a volunteer-driven association is to remember how powerful volunteers are and to stay out of their way. People like Todd Arnette, Laila Ghambari, Spencer Turner, Dorothea Hescock, Laura Sommers and Jess Steffy, just to name a few, are truly the ones making this organization as productive and meaningful as it. One of my favorite quotes is, “Never question the power of volunteers. The Titanic was built by professionals, Noah’s Ark by volunteers.”

Tracy: With WCR, we have some of the best thinkers around on our Board — CEOs, top scientists, and the coffeewoman, Lindsey Bolger — so my leadership there isn’t about strategic vision or drive. In many ways, it’s unremarkable and about process. It’s about knowing our by-laws inside and out, reading all the minutes and materials before meetings, and developing things like succession plans. I don’t want to undersell what I bring to the table or pretend there haven’t been times that required extraordinary amounts of leadership courage, but I also want it to be known that showing up and doing a lot of work go along way.

Kat: Leadership is about inspiring people to achieve their goals; it is about empowering people to do the things they think they cannot do. I’m working with other extraordinary leaders: Miguel Zamora (Chair), Samantha Veide (immediate past chair), Kim Ionescu (Director of Sustainability) and a brilliant council of 30 extraordinary minds from diverse functions across the industry. Our role is to stay optimistic and hopeful in the context of some intimidating issues facing the sustainability of coffee. Our role is to amplify good ideas and create platforms for successful efforts. Our role is to create achievable milestones along the route to a world where every cup of coffee has a positive impact.

One thought on “On Leading, Listening, and Loving Coffee

  1. Linguist Deborah Tannen wrote an excellent book that I recommend for all women in the workplace Talking from 9 to 5, How Women’s and Men’s Conversational Styles Affect Who Gets Heard, Who Gets Credit and What Gets Done at Work. Her approach is brilliant!


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