Women in Coffee Leadership, Costa Rica

Trish R. Skeie, Director of Coffee Writes...

Early last summer, I got a phone call out of the blue. It was from Margaret Swallow, Executive Director of The Coffee Quality Institute(R) or "CQI". CQI is a nonprofit organization working internationally to improve coffee quality and the lives of the people who produce it.

Having spent the last few years up to my ears in specialty coffee industry events and projects, I knew that the call was not going to be just a touching-base sort of thing. Margaret, from what I knew of her, did not have a lot of time for small talk. At CQI, she orchestrates multiple cutting-edge programs that benefit the coffee industry, including the Q Auction- the largest online alternative auction for quality coffee, and Coffee Corps- a group of coffee professionals dedicated to educating others at origin. And now she had another one in the works; the Women in Coffee Leadership Program (WICL)...she asked if I would be interested in participating...

I offered a professional and cheery response, "Of course. It sounds really great. Thanks for thinking of me." But inside, I was overjoyed! As she mapped out the future of the program for me, it was all I could do to hold in my excitement. Margaret explained that, with the help of USAID, ten women from "consuming countries" (USA and Canada) would pair up with ten from Latin America. We would meet four times a year to undergo leadership seminars courtesy of The Aspen Institute and INCAE, the Central American branch of Harvard Business School. During the course of the program I would meet women from every sector of the coffee world. From North America I'd meet, business owners, importers, leaders and trailblazers of the specialty coffee industry. From the growing regions I'd rub shoulders with fourth-generation coffee farmers, marketing specialists, exporters, community leaders, and even war heroines. I was thrilled to be included, and after assembling her class of 2005/2006, Margaret began planning our first meeting in Costa Rica. We all convened at the INCAE campus on the outskirts of San Jose, Costa Rica mid- August, eager to meet the group, our instructors, Aspen Institute's senior moderator Lee Bycel, and of course, our learning partners. I had been matched with Helga Schweinfurth, a coffee commercialization specialist from IHCAFE, the Honduran Coffee Institute. She and I couldn't be more different when it came to our careers. While I had spent most of my coffee life in front of a roasting machine, she had been working with rules, regulations, issuance of exporting documents, and publishing national coffee statistics annually.

In the four days that followed, we all got to know one another and our instructors well. The program had us reading and discussing pieces from Plato's Republic, Aristotle, Martin Luther King Jr., and Gabriel Garcia Marquez among others. Lee led the group in discussions, and Dr. Maria Elena Carballo, a professor at INCAE, had related material for us. All of it revolved around the theme of what it means to be a leader. The conversations about doing the right thing in the face of adversity seem to be the most active and the most memorable. During our coffee breaks, as we sat together in the surrounding gardens or dodged tropical showers, we continued to exchange ideas. We found that some of our stories were similar, and some were wholly unique and compelling. One woman described fighting her brothers for control of her family farm, while another told of fighting in her country's war for independence as a teenager then returning home to rebuild the family farm. A North American woman recounted the climate of the 1970's, where she would have been fired if she had revealed she was pregnant. Another was told at every turn that she could never be successful in the coffee importing business and that to pursue it would be foolish. Of course, all of these women went on to experience great success. Perhaps for the first time, they were able to discuss issues with others who would both understand, and benefit from their stories.

You may be asking yourself, "why a special and separate program for women?" It's true that women in the coffee sector have risen to higher levels in recent years. Surely the "glass ceiling" is a thing of the past. Surprisingly, we found out differently from Dr. Susan Clancy of INCAE. She reports that more and more talented and qualified women are opting out of the management track. While we are almost 50% of the management force in America, we hold down only 8% senior management positions. The record is not promising if you consider that 35% of MBA's are women. What are the obstacles? Lack of mentors? The priorities of family life vs. career? If any of us were considering the improbable nature of networking with other women in coffee, we no longer had to worry. After this meeting, we were set for life. We ended the week with a bus trip to Turrialba, a coffee growing region, to visit a retirement home for coffee farm workers. The three-hour trip took us through small villages, lush mountainsides, and yes, past acres and acres of coffee farms. As we approached the home, we saw a group of young girls returning from school. What was the impact, I wonder, for those girls to see so many professional looking, strong ladies spilling out of a bus into their world all at one time? They latched onto us right away and followed us through the tour. At the retirement home we saw the fruits of CQI's hard work. A new roof had been built, examining rooms updated and shower facilities improved all because a mere 2% of the Costa Rica Q Auction's proceeds goes back to the community. Margaret had taken us there to make a point. She had big plans for the WICL program, and we needed to get busy. On the way home we discussed a legacy project and our individual partnerships. Helga and I talked about what was important to us and how we could effect positive change. The discussion continues. Next steps: another meeting for WICL in Nicaragua in February, and maybe a trip for Helga to Seattle. I'll keep you posted! -Trish R. Skeie