Changing the World, Bean by Bean

Celebrating the 2019-2021 LEAD Scholarship Winners

When Sunghee Tark first heard about the Specialty Coffee Association’s (SCA) Leadership Equity and Diversity (LEAD) Scholarship, she felt she “had just met the program [she had] been dreaming of.” Made possible through the generous support of S&D Coffee & Tea®, the two-year LEAD Scholarship program aims to increase diversity of leadership within the global coffee community by professionals from underrepresented communities with invaluable mentorships, education and networking opportunities.

Chosen from over 60 impressive applicants, the second cohort of five LEAD Scholars recently took a trip to the S&D headquarters in Concord, N.C., where they got to learn directly from S&D’s team. “I was amazed with the scale of operations at S&D and how they’re still (very successfully) committed to being a responsible company,” says scholar Karla María Boza Carbonell. It was also a chance for them to connect with each other: “It was so inspiring to see how we share a common vision and desire to make the industry better,” says Karla.

Join us in getting to know the winners of the LEAD Scholarship, who represent the bright future of coffee.

Amara Sao: The Pioneer

 Amara PortraitAmara’s journey through coffee has endowed her with an uncommonly wide worldview and solidified her ambition to bring specialty coffee to groups who don’t often have access to it. Starting as a sales leader at London’s Monmouth Coffee Company, she went on to run the cafe at Victoria’s Bows & Arrows, a roaster-cafe situated in a working class neighborhood where “people were reluctant to spend money on indulgences, especially a drink often considered ‘fancy coffee.’” Hiring and training employees from minority or marginalized community, many of whom had no prior coffee experience, Amara eventually turned over the cafe to one of these budding baristas.

From Canada, Amara followed the scent of specialty coffee to Cambodia, the country her parents had been forced to flee as refugees. Roasting and supplying coffee in small batches, she is helping specialty coffee take root one grind at a time, with the eventual goal of starting a roastery.

Her work in coffee has been informed by her own experiences of feeling like the odd one out—for example, she was the only woman taking part in a roasting course in Singapore. But to Amara, the way forward is clear: “I see education and the sharing of knowledge as the way to improve the industry and ensure we respect the people involved in the specialty coffee value chain.”

Emi-Beth Quantson: The Incubator

Emi-Beth QuantsonIn 2013, Emi-Beth Quantson left a well-paying consulting job at PricewaterhouseCoopers to launch a coffee startup in her native Ghana. The exact reason why is still difficult for her to articulate, but it comes down to a deep and abiding passion for coffee and the people who bring it from farm to cup.

Working through innumerable obstacles, Emi-Beth established coffee startup Kawa Moka. “Working with women farmers in Leklebi in Ghana, I am continually inspired by how income earned by women farmers trickles down into the home,” says Emi-Beth. “Income from coffee allows children (both boys and girls) to be able to go to school, healthy meals to be provided and better fitting clothes to be worn.” She has also made a point of hiring and training women and girls from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, including young mothers and women in the legal aid system.

Despite her accomplishments, Emi-Beth is the first to say that getting there hasn’t been easy. “As a woman, my path is even more challenging: gaining respect in industry and with staff, accessing finance and opportunities, are just a few of the challenges that are made even tougher,” she observes. Despite the setbacks, she has learned the value of resilience, planning and patience. “Building anything great takes time.”

Karla María Boza Carbonell: The Ambassador

Karla María Boza CarbonellThere were two moments that prompted Karla María Boza Carbonell to take over her family’s generations-old coffee farm in El Salvador, and they followed in quick succession at her first Specialty Coffee Expo.

The first was when the Q-grader who had cupped their coffee said she remembered its remarkable taste—a complete surprise for a family who’d been hearing for years that their coffee was not worth selling abroad. “These lies had kept our farm, family, workers, and community from progressing since 1969,” says Karla.

The second was when a male producer commented that it was a shame her father didn’t have any sons, as there would be no one to take over the business. “Instead of being pushed away by this, being as stubborn as I am, I realized that this is exactly where I belong,” says Karla. “Not only because this is an industry I owe everything to, but because I want to make it easier for the young women who follow.”

Pivoting from nonprofit work to a career as a full-time coffee farmer, Karla immersed herself in all aspects of the craft and the business, bringing innovation home to improve the farm’s product and production. She has found roasters in Canada, Australia and the UK, even convincing one importer to visit their farm—culminating in a shipping container’s worth of green coffee being packed with product from five other farms in addition her family’s. Karla’s natural abilities as a connector has thus uplifted an entire community.

So has sticking by her values. “Having other’s backs, not being selfish, and promoting camaraderie across the industry has meant amazing Salvadoran coffee is reaching new corners and producers are getting recognized.”

MJ Engel: The Activist

MJ EngelAs a Fulbright scholar working at a coffee farm in Yunnan, China, MJ Engel noticed that at the farm’s weekly coffee cupping sessions, the farmworkers who had harvested and processed the beans were nowhere to be found. So when it was eventually her responsibility to manage cuppings with English-speaking visitors, she invited farmworkers to join the table. “The collective effect of these cuppings captures the potential of large global commodities to cultivate intimate experiences and real relationships, and it is my personal mission to ensure everyone is included in the power of these gatherings,” she says.

Including farmworkers in cuppings is a small but meaningful part of her greater research goal of improving working conditions for migrant farmers, which received an enthusiastic response from local roasters and producers. In addition to her Fulbright, MJ has developed her experience in all aspects of the industry, from working at New York’s Joe Coffee to interning at Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers and launching her own coffee supply chain cooperative. MJ has since set her sights on education, training as a high school teacher in order to hone her skills as both a leader and a listener, as well as continuing to advocate for equity, diversity and a “coffee supply chain grounded in justice.”

Sunghee Tark: The Bootstrapper

Sunghee TarkIn November of 2017, Sunghee Tark was facing a crisis. Bean Voyage, the Costa Rica-based nonprofit she had co-founded, was at risk of going under. Having sustained itself for two years on sales and donations, the income flow was running dry—just before they were set to pilot their new curriculum to train female, smallholder coffee farmers on financial literacy, organic farming, innovative processing methods and more.

Despite their ambitious goals and concrete achievements, Sunghee and her partner found it difficult to land institutional support. They were rejected by 30 grant applications and more funding requests in the six months leading up to that moment of reckoning. “My status as an immigrant woman of color posed challenges,” says Sunghee. “And my commitment to coffee and gender equity was not taken seriously.”

Instead of giving up, the team doubled down. Hundreds of cold emails and phone calls later, they had secured a modest but crucial donation to support testing their model with 16 female farmers. They have now provided over 80 hours of training to each of 47 participants across two coffee farming communities, graduating the first round of smallholder women producers from their program in August 2018.

Sunghee hopes to use her LEAD Scholarship to deepen her knowledge of global specialty coffee production and then “to transmit the knowledge to smallholder female coffee producers who are often left out of conversations.”

“While the road has been bumpy and our future unpredictable, I am very grateful to have received support from the coffee industry to continue on our journey of empowerment with coffee.”