Ready to LEAD: Connection, Inspiration, and Motivation at the S&D Coffee and Tea LEAD Scholar Retreat

Ready to LEAD: Connection, Inspiration, and Motivation at the S&D Coffee and Tea LEAD Scholar Retreat

AAfter months patiently waiting, we – myself and four other scholars – finally find ourselves at S&D Coffee and Tea in Charlotte, North Carolina for the LEAD Scholar retreat.

LISETTE BARBERA reflects on her retreat experience this past October as one of the 2018-2020 LEAD Scholars.

Our passions for coffee quality, sustainability, producers, farmers, and more bring us together in the late October chill, very different to the dry Arizona heat from which I have just escaped. Some of the scholars fly in from places I can only one day dream of visiting (Puerto Rico! Rwanda!), but we all face a time adjustment, leading us all to lean on the familiar, strong arm of caffeine.

We traversed these distances to congregate proudly in the name of coffee, to share our passions with those who mirror our drive to shape the specialty coffee industry into what we need it to be – for us. We are brought here, together, because we are all recipients of the Leadership Equity and Diversity scholarship, developed and supported by the Specialty Coffee Association and S&D Coffee and Tea.

My Story

Sent to me months before the due date, the scholarship application sat on the back burner of my mind. I discouraged myself from applying. I was exhausted.

As a six-year floor barista, I felt like I had so much potential to grow but that the potential wasn’t leading anywhere: after attempting to branch into the “boy only” production side of my café, I was politely denied the position. My potential to grow – a glow before that seemed to shine brighter with every year on the floor – dimmed. I felt like specialty coffee just wasn’t built for a person like me.

I have never been a “yes man” – although I know that is how one “plays the game” – and I saw my peers advance utilizing this method, receiving higher paid positions with more responsibility, more support, more visibility. Here I was: trying to impress a room of empty chairs with a monologue I had rehearsed one hundred times.

I sat and read the LEAD Scholarship application page repeatedly, looking at all the benefits of this amazing opportunity: sponsored trips to an origin of your choosing, completing up to the professional level of any CSP module your heart desires, travel to coffee events where you could make essential connections with industry leaders and so much more. Finally, I decided to throw my name into the running with the coffee industry’s best (and motivated!).

I worked my way slowly through the essays, hunting down my recommendations, writing out my volunteer experiences. I shrunk myself down into attachments, hoping that someone would see me through my words.

Later, in August, I would receive an email asking me to confirm my scholarship. I was at work, on bar. I remember holding a portafilter, twisting and turning it in one hand as my eyes scanned the email. I turned my co-worker. “I won!!”

My Fellow LEAD Scholars

I share this victory with impressive, impassioned, innovative individuals, who shrunk their aspirations into attachments and submitted themselves for review. We were all on our own paths as coffee professionals, but now we are connected.

When all of the recipients were announced, I recognized a face immediately: Karla Ly Quinones. Karla wears many hats – coffee shop owner, educator, journalist, goddess. (And that is just to name a few!)

Smayah Uwajeneza, a senior barista in Rwanda and accomplished roaster, aeropress competitor, skillful orator (and, of course, queen of my heart). She has a mission in her heart to inspire the women in her town to aspire for more. To be next to Smayah and not be inspired is near impossible.

The incredible and inspirational Stephanie Alcala, who started her coffee career in a barista position but whose curiosity led her first to a Masters in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. She supports Coffee Manufactory as their Sustainability Specialist.

Last but not least, Taya Brown: amazing, hard-working. Co-founder of the Del Fuego Project in Yepocapa, Guatemala, born of her research while working on her doctorate in Horticultural Sciences at Texas A&M. With her research drawing to a close, she is acting on her passions to work with smallholder farms directly, introducing technological innovations that could bring much needed financial stability.

We’d all had the pleasure of connecting – over the phone, over email – but I could not wait to spend time with them all in person.

Together at S&D Coffee and Tea

At last, we are all enjoying each other’s presence at Suffolk Punch, a Brewery, Culinary Café & Taphouse in Charlotte. Together, we drink and – while the beer fills our bellies – we warm each other with our stories. We speak of our humble beginnings in coffee, our lives, our disappointments, our victories. To have a seat at the table, surrounded by the beautiful individuals from the SCA, S&D, and scholars from all points of the world, is almost unreal.

Together, we receive a tour of the Willy Wonka like factory that is S&D’s coffee production plant. Every turn opens a world of wonder that moves tons of green coffee to the roaster to consumers everywhere. We all are amazed by the sheer scale of this operation – and we take many photos to prove it!

Individually, we work with SCA’s Mansi Chokshi and Ellie Hudson to set our goals for the program. We are introduced to our individual mentors, who will help us achieve these goals and bring us closer to the industry. We spend at least two hours with our new mentors, one of the most precious moments of the entire retreat.

Carlos Palacios – my mentor – is the Director of Green Coffee Purchasing and Sustainability Sourcing at S&D. Carlos, who is as kind as he is knowledgeable, gives me an intangible treasure: a spark, the catalyst that will drive my next chapter in coffee.

Carlos demonstrates saint-like patience as I ask question after question about his role at the company, how he found himself in his position, and his feelings about the coffee industry. Though we try our best to fit all we could in the time allocated for our one-on-one Q&A, I know that the sand in the hourglass will eventually run empty.

Carlos tells me how important it is that women are involved in every aspect of the supply chain, citing examples of the women who inspire him daily who use empathy and their positions to shine light on issues that were previously overlooked. “I am making your shoulders heavier by telling you these stories, but you are no longer invisible now.”

Carlos is right: through LEAD, I am seen.

The spotlight has shifted to our group of five, and we are so excited to reflect that light back into the industry during our time as scholars.

LISETTE BARBERA is the Assistant Manager of Cartel Coffee Lab in Phoenix, US. Read more about Lisette and the other LEAD Scholars here.