Learning Through (Coffee) Grounds for Empowerment
One of the largest attractions to business school (outside of new networks and career opportunities) is the ability to see how business is conducted in other countries through study abroad programs or Emory’s Global Experiential Modules (GEMS). Neither of those was an option for me as I’d started my MBA during the fall of 2020. As I entered my first semester at Emory University, a second-year MBA student mentioned that there was a “Central American coffee program” offered through the Business and Society Institute. I enrolled in Grounds for Empowerment, directed by Dr. Peter Roberts and Giselle Barrera 15MBA, in the spring of 2021. I have remained involved with the program through its growth as a Teaching Assistant, which has pushed me in a number of ways.
1. Socially Conscious. I appreciated the program’s intentionality behind working solely with female coffee producers in Central America. Each student is paired with a female coffee producer to work on storytelling, financial tracking, and goal setting. This is a large step in the right direction as many of the challenges in the male-dominated coffee industry, like unequal sharing of profit, are addressed from a female perspective. Our task as students was to help each producer own her story and numbers. The program also helped to build a network of female producers. When I joined the program, we worked with producers in Guatemala. A year later, we are working with producers from Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras!
2. International Classmates. The course was offered as a virtual directed study, so student participants were from various schools in the U.S. and Central America. Not only did this encourage language and cultural exchange between the students, but a number of the students were very close to the coffee industry, either through their own family farms or through collegiate studies. The program was open to both undergraduate and graduate students, and I often found myself learning from the younger students!
3. Listening is a Skill. I entered the program with very little knowledge of coffee but quickly realized that there’s so much behind a cup of coffee. Coming into the program, I thought of myself as a “mini consultant.” I was going to learn as much as I could about coffee before meeting my assigned producer and make sure she “got the story, numbers, and photography right.” That’s not exactly how the workshops played out. I met the producer I was assigned to, Dina from Guatemala, and quickly realized that my role was to listen. One moment that will always stick with me is when I asked Dina for pictures to feature on the Grounds for Empowerment website. One of the pictures she sent was of a beautiful white flower, and I wondered, “what does this have to do with coffee?” She said, “I’m the first woman in my family to manage this land, and I think it’s important that I add touches of femininity.” And I thought, “OK, Breanna, time to listen.”
Grounds for Empowerment is a directed study course offered each semester through Goizueta’s Business & Society Institute. Educating and empowering the strong network of female coffee producers in Central America, the 10-week program focuses on sharing the bean to cup process from start to finish and culminates with five live workshops (storytelling, financial planning, live coffee cupping/scoring, and goal setting). During the workshops, coffee experts from around the world share advice with students and coffee producers as they create and own the stories and numbers of their farms. Pre-COVID-19, the workshops took place over a week in Central America.