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Q&A: Phyllis Johnson on building a more equitable coffee industry

Entrepreneur, author and activist Phyllis Johnson founded green coffee trader BD Imports in 1999 with the aim of empowering women in coffee growing communities. In 2020 she founded the Coffee Coalition for Racial Equity against the backdrop of significant racial injustice and unrest in the US. She speaks to 5THWAVE about her remarkable journey in coffee and why diversity is the industry’s greatest untapped resource

We’re missing out on opportunities to build more robust, creative and successful programmes if we don’t have diverse ideas at the table | Phyllis Johnson


Tell us about your vision for founding BD Imports in 1999.

Our vision at BD Imports was to build a company that held to a social mission of ensuring relationships of fairness and opportunity. Our goal was to provide opportunities to those who were often overlooked or discounted. I saw myself in those individuals who we were engaged with in our supply chain. When provided with an opportunity, those who are often overlooked rise to the occasion in more meaningful ways – offering great value. We were out to prove what we knew to be true from our own personal life experiences and we were successful.

What have been some of BD Imports’ key achievements in this time?

I’m proud of the success of BD Imports. It’s a company that has served as a pathway for new discoveries and enlightenments, not just for myself and my family but for many others. BD Imports is often the first company to engage with women coffee entrepreneurs and producers in various countries or to inspire entrepreneurs in our own country.
Sometimes the best thing that one can be is a good representation or inspiration for others. As a Black woman in the green coffee trade, I’ve stood out and been noticed by others who also stood out in their own way.

I’m proud of the achievements of those we’ve engaged over the years, I see their success as our success, and many have been able to go even further and build their communities. I’m also grateful that we lend our voices to causes that matter. I have often been asked if I am afraid of being known as the woman that is always talking about gender equality. We all are known for something, and I knew women needed more opportunities to advance and that’s what mattered most.
Today, it has become more comfortable to discuss the need for greater racial and gender equity, but I’m glad that I didn’t let anything hold me back before now.

“We’re missing out on opportunities to build more robust, creative and successful programmes if we don’t have diverse ideas at the table”

On a personal level, BD Imports has allowed me to understand myself more fully. When you believe in something, you stick with it even when it’s hard. Over more than two decades we’ve achieved a lot. I don’t really think about what we’ve achieved and I feel incredibly blessed to have had the opportunity to own and operate a business for so long. In following my desire to see women in coffee advance and through work with the International Women’s Coffee Alliance, I ended up being the protagonist in a case study taught at Oxford University and Harvard Business School. It’s because of my volunteer work and business practices on gender equity that I was able to study at Harvard myself.
I’m amazed and grateful that I’m still here to see this time. I’m grateful for the business relationships that we’ve developed with all sorts of companies. We’ve received awards from major companies for our commitment to responsible business practices. I’m happy that I’ve always found a way to give back while growing a business. A fulfilled life is more than taking care of one’s own needs. As an entrepreneur, you work so hard for so long, you learn to bounce back often and one day you look up and you’ve built a legacy.

What are some of the biggest hurdles Black, Indigenous People of Colour (BIPOC) entrepreneurs face in the US coffee industry today?

In the US there’s been few BIPOC engaged in the coffee industry as entrepreneurs and the lack of visibility, especially in decision making roles, impacts our success. The coffee industry is very old and developed, which can make entry points to higher level opportunities hidden or inaccessible.
Coffee is an industry where information is often shared informally through networks and relationships. If you’re blessed to be part of a family-owned business, then valuable information is passed down. If coffee is an industry that’s new to you, there’s so much to learn and it can be intimidating.
For the first six years of building BD Imports we were laser focused on importing coffee from Kenya. Having such a narrow focus gave us the ability to study the internal market, visit the producers, sit with the roasters, our customers, and understand the coffee and how it can be used and how we can offer the best service. It gave us so much information and that was our competitive advantage.
Often, I find that newcomers want to do so much without fully respecting or understanding that sometimes even the smallest things are huge in coffee. There’s a lot to learn and it can be overwhelming. While our challenges can be summed up as being like other entrepreneurs, lack of resources, access to financing, and information, when you compound this with generations of disenfranchisement and lack of opportunity it becomes more difficult to overcome. Throughout history Black Americans have spent time fighting for basic human rights and working outside systems that allowed for building generational wealth in industries such as coffee.

Phyllis Johnson with her daughter Maya, a recent graduate from Clark Atlanta University in Marketing. Maya has taken over marketing responsibilities for BD Imports and represents the second generation of the family-owned coffee business


What is needed from government, businesses and individuals to break down these barriers?

I believe that government, businesses, and we as individuals, should start to re-think our work. We all struggle with biases and continuing to operate within the systems that’ve already been developed without seeing how it doesn’t work for everyone.
Building equity isn’t easy; it takes patience. We must realise how long we’ve gone without the consideration of building more equitable societies and understand that it will take a while to get there. Now is the time to start. Equity means that everyone is provided with what’s needed to excel and often that doesn’t feel good to everyone.
Equity requires one to take the time to understand the landscape, history and current situations that continue to disadvantage some over others. While we may be able to see the effects of an inequitable society, lack of participation by everyone, often it’s harder for us to see the systems in place that continue to perpetuate such societies; nor can we envision a different way of operating. While the infrastructure needs to change for us to excel and become successful, there’s nothing stopping us from working towards the ideals that we believe in before the systems around us are willing to change. I believe in the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

What questions should hospitality businesses ask themselves when seeking to foster an inclusivity?

I always think about the marble test my husband shared with me in a discussion about race: if we were to drop 100 marbles of various colours on the floor the marbles wouldn’t separate based on colour. Why are we comfortable with our decision-making teams being of one race and gender?
We’re missing out on opportunities to build more robust, creative and successful programmes if we don’t have diverse ideas at the table – diversity is creativity. I believe many companies are trying to understand how to become more diverse for the purpose of building a more equitable society.

Access to information for better decision making and growth is being left out when there’s no diversity

Companies must be committed to understanding the value that diversity brings to an organisation and willing to take the time and effort needed to achieve diversity. It’s not about a strong marketing program that promotes diversity, it’s about doing the hard work and digging into the nuances of how decisions are made that will provide the best outcomes. Until we are willing to do the hard work, we will not gain the benefits of more inclusive decision making in building competitive products, ideas and services.

What tangible steps can coffee businesses take to help improve racial equality at origin?

That’s a good question. I’m going to ask that we hold on before running off to fix the world. When I came to coffee, I too jumped on the idea of fixing others, meaning the producers. I love the work that I’ve been able to do in gender equity across the globe, but there is enough gender and racial equity work to keep us busy in our own countries, companies, communities and homes.
I would first ask those in consuming countries to confront the biases that exist in their own environments. As we start to confront our own challenges, then I think it’ll be easier to see how it plays out in other parts of the world. I always enjoy being a good example for our suppliers to follow. Our team is diverse and when we meet with producers, and there is no gender or racial diversity on their side, it feels a little uncomfortable for everyone.

How effective are corporate board diversity targets deployed by major companies in the coffee industry in your view?

I think about how difficult it can be for the few individuals who are at the forefront of diversifying corporate boards. Some companies have been at this for a while, so I’m certain it’s not so uncomfortable – Starbucks current Board Chair is a Black woman, for example.
There are a lot of good work and opportunities that exist beyond the top brands that should be considered. Access to information for better decision making and growth is being left out when there’s no diversity. I’ve been the single Black woman on many boards in the industry and I know how uncomfortable it can be for me.
I also feel that I’ve possibly made others uncomfortable as a representation of what the future holds. I’ve too often made the mistake of believing that it’s my job to lead the discussion and actions on building diversity in these settings. I’ve learned that this is far from the truth. The work belongs to all of us. I was the least capable of helping to build diversity in these settings.

Africa Women in Coffee Leadership Training Program, held in Nairobi, Kenya in 2012


How has the industry responded to the Coffee Coalition for Racial Equity (CCRE) you founded in 2020?

The coffee industry responded in such an amazing way to my Open Letter to the US Coffee Industry on Racism back in June 2020. Following the letter, we launched the Coffee Coalition for Racial Equity (CCRE), a non-profit based in the US focused on increasing the participation of Black Americans in coffee. There’s such strong interest in this work that it’s hard to manage the growth and expectations the programme has generated. I’ve truly been amazed and humbled by how the industry has stepped forward to engage with this work. We’ve had over 35 volunteers who’ve shown up for this work to help in building our programmes. We’ve had numerous individual and corporate sponsors who’ve supported this work of advancing equity. Our board of directors are 16 individuals representing six different countries, representing all parts of the coffee supply chain. We speak 13 different languages. Our volunteers are from North America, Europe, Africa and South America. We’re hopeful that our work will be replicated throughout the world in time.

As a long-standing figure in the coffee world, what have been some of your most profound realisations about the industry you work in?

My most recent realisation about coffee was when I had the pleasure of hearing an indigenous Colombian woman speak with passion about coffee growing in her valley. I realised that our biggest challenge as buyers and consumers is acceptance that the full level of appreciation is simply not meant for us.
It is not achievable through award-winning photography, visits, or even story telling. I realised that the greatest appreciation for coffee rests where it is cultivated and with those who till the soil. The farmers are connected to the environment, the struggles, the land and its people.
As the buyers, preparers and consumers our appreciation and manipulations, although great, remain limited. The farmer’s appreciation is rooted in a deep and rich culture of love for land and ancestors. Its full appreciation isn’t transferable, impossible, and incapable of being translated into an institution built strictly for economic gain or even those with a level focus on society. Our appreciation as the buyers, preparers and consumers can come simply through our love and respect for producers and their contributions.

Phyllis Johnson is President of BD Imports and Founder of the Coffee Coalition for Racial Equity. She is the author of The Triumph: Black Brazilians in Coffee – available at bdimports.com


This article was first published in Issue 10 of 5THWAVE magazine.
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