My introduction to coffee occurred at an early age. It was not the taste that drew me in, but, rather, family. Each time I visited my grandparents, I was greeted with this wonderful aroma coming from their kitchen. I never really thought much about the source, but years later I realized it was the smell of a just-brewed pot of coffee. My grandfather would pour coffee into his green thermos each morning before heading to his construction site. Even today, I think of him, and his thermos, before I leave for the office. Despite growing up in a coffee-loving family, I didn’t drink coffee until I was well into adulthood in 2013. Why you may ask, did I decide to take up coffee so late in life? Well, that story involves a great adventure that took me from my home in Arkansas to Virginia, and then my spiritual home, Rwanda.
I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and at the age of eleven, I started my own business to collect cans in the neighborhood to recycle for my neighbors. I learned early on that great feeling one gets when helping others. Remembering the gratitude on the faces of my neighbors, several years later I volunteered, with my youth group, to help install a new roof for a widow who did not have adequate shelter. My college years included serving as a camp counselor each summer. When I was wasn’t working, my summers were spent with my parents as we visited unexplored places in a quest to discover new experiences.
I cherish my family. My mom grew up with humble beginnings and while her family did not have a lot, the bond of family, faith, and a good, old-fashioned hard day’s work held them together. After high school, she went directly into the workforce to earn a living. She did not finish college, but in many ways the lessons and values she taught me could never have been learned in a classroom—show up every day, have a great attitude, and do your job to the best of your ability—this may seem simple, but these lessons are what have guided me each day of life. While I have certainly admired other women who juggle entrepreneurship and smaller businesses, none can ever match my mom who continues to be the biggest inspiration in my life.
I attended and graduated with a degree from the University of Arkansas, and immediately after started an internship at Alltel, a large Fortune 500 company. After learning the ropes for a few years at corporate, I transferred to an office in Charlottesville, Virginia to learn the front lines. Drawing on the memories of summer trips and new experiences I loved as a child, I was thrilled to be moving to an unknown place with my new husband. My husband and I have been together since college, and he is my rock. He is from a small town in Arkansas and was raised with the same values so all these years later we tend to approach things from a similar place.
We immediately fell in love with Virginia and were having the time of our lives. Work-wise, I quickly learned how important it is to understand the differences between a corporate culture and the front lines. What may be a great idea or policy at corporate may not come across that way once it travels 1,000 miles to those in the field.
After a few years at Alltel, the company’s organizational structure changed, and my role was slated to move to another state. We had fallen in love with Virginia, so I instead searched for a new job. I was interested in finding a smaller team and a path to eventually have my own business. After being part of a very large corporation, I joined a small, privately-held consumer products company. While business practices were similar, the budgets, strategies, and required tenacity were different. The culture was also very different—it was a fantastic way to learn about different workplace styles.
The company was a start-up trying to establish store brand infant formula in the United States. At the time, the category was dominated by two billion-dollar companies. It was my first hands-on experience of a David vs. Goliath situation. We had to be innovative, full of grit, willing to fight the “big guys” at every turn, and highly focused as a team to deliver an exceptional product at a value price. We were able, through hard work and determination, to help bring to market an inexpensive, nutritious product to millions of moms that wanted the best for their kids but did not have the financial resources to afford the national brands.
I soon was ready for a change and to own my own business. My dad always encouraged me to believe in myself and fueled my entrepreneurial spirit and desire for adventure and constant learning—now was the time!
“If you wish to move mountains tomorrow, you must start lifting stones today.”
— African proverb
In 2003, I purchased a well known, but tired, consumer research firm. With a business partner, I re-focused and grew the business into a highly respected and sought-after regional consumer marketing research and consulting firm. During this professional season, our son was born, my parents moved to Virginia, and my mom began working the books for our business. She had retired after selling her business, and I was at a point of needing her to help me feel comfortable with our financial risks, as well as, help me balance life as a new mom.
This sense of family is what began the next big chapter of our lives —and where we are today—back in Arkansas. We wanted to get back to our families, SEC football, and old friends so it was a great time to shift professional gears. I reconnected with one of my former mentors at Alltel back when I was a fresh-faced college grad. A few weeks later, I started work at another start-up, this time selling coffee. As such, my first cup of coffee was in Rwanda in 2013 where I immediately went to visit upon joining Westrock Coffee.
I am currently Group President at Westrock Coffee. We are a growing company based in Arkansas and serve customers around the world. One of the founders started Westrock Coffee to first serve the greater purpose of providing fresh drinking water to remote villages in central Africa. The idea was to teach local coffee farmers, many whose entire “farm” consisted of a couple of coffee trees, how they could reap the benefits of their hard work through ethical sourcing. This knowledge would then translate into higher prices for their crops and, in turn, a better living for the farmers and their families. I did not join Westrock because I wanted to work in a coffee company. Coffee is simply the vehicle for creating change for the most vulnerable populations around the world.
If you asked me ten years ago what I thought of when coffee was mentioned, I would have said, my family. When you ask me today I think of the families of the 100,000+ farmers we work with every day. Their hard work allows us to wake up a little easier each day, but more importantly, allows them to sleep a little better each night. For there is no greater feeling for a person than to know they put in a good day of honest, hard work while providing their family with opportunities unknown the day before.
MY 7 LESSONS LEARNED
1. As we all spin around the sun, finding a few people who will cheer you on when the world does not seem to go your way is critical. When you find these people, fight with all you have to protect them and your relationship.
2. Life can get crazy some days, but remember it is okay to be emotional, tired, impatient, overwhelmed, and doubtful—but keep these thoughts among a small group of trusted advisors.
3. A company can have the most carefully-designed programs and policies, but they will not be successful unless one element is the focus: people. Constant, ongoing communications must be the focus of all efforts.
4. To recognize and respect different perspectives and experiences are key to an overall shared sense of team. Healthy competition is always a plus to motivating the best in each other, but pitting colleagues and departments against each other quickly becomes toxic.
5. My desired success with my business was not going to happen if I could not achieve fulfillment at home. Be sure to keep an eye on the “health” of all aspects of life—family, work, friends, community, and yourself!
6. The greatest advice I received when wondering if “now was the time” to join Westrock (it was!) was to find an outlet to allow yourself to be emerged in all aspects of the business while personally learning and feeling challenged.
7. Helping others, showing up and working hard every day, overcommunicating (every day), and asking how I can help others be successful are the cornerstones for success.