March is Women’s History Month! It’s the month where we recognize all the wonderful women in our lives. At Baratza we are celebrating by chatting with some spectacular women in our specialty coffee industry! I interviewed these influential women and collected their thoughtful responses below.
I appreciated the opportunity to have this conversation about their experiences working in coffee. I wanted to know what worked for them, what didn’t work, what challenges and experiences helped to shape them into the women they are today. It was great to dive a little deeper into the lives of these women and get to know them a little better. As I was reading all the responses I couldn’t help but get more and more excited to share them with you!
Let’s get to know these women a little better!
All these women work in coffee in many different ways. How did they get started in coffee and what drew them in?
Sarah: Coffee has always brought me to the table around people I love. My earliest memory of coffee was sitting at the dining table with my Dad and what might have been the only quiet moment of the day. […]
Fast forward to 1994, many trips to Pike Place Market and a break from the suburbs with my besties Leah and Paige. […] I bought a French press, ordered a short mocha, and stood beside the line adjacent to the espresso machine. I remember leaning over to Paige saying when I turn 18…I’m going to work here. Before I even got behind the counter, I knew that was the place for me. From the creaky floor, and the Boston high bar service, no seats, wall-to-wall people, and the charm of politely squeezing through a Seattle space…almost like being front row at a grunge concert but not all the sweaty bodies and obviously a different kind of exchange. That space is so special. I don’t really remember much about the coffee, it was sweet and warm but I do remember thinking, “I want everyone to feel like this…I want to give this experience to 300 people a day”.
Anita: I started getting into coffee in 2014, but not until 2015 that I was devoting more time as a barista. I was working half my time as a barista and half the time I was working towards my master’s in music. I was very intrigued but did not really think I would be devoting myself full-time to the industry. I was also traveling trying to perfect my conducting, and I started working as a band director and orchestra conductor more than a decade ago, I never really thought I would be working full time in coffee, not because I did not enjoy it, but more like because I choose this path so earlier on I did not ever expect to switch to anything else.
For a very long time, music was like the only thing I knew. However, the longer I spent working in coffee, the more that I saw the similarities between specialty coffee and music. Both are time-delicate products, sensitive to the environment in which they are produced. They should both call for more appreciation and are often overlooked and under-appreciated (think batch brew and elevator music). I can compare the baristas as the performers/ interpreters of coffee. There are elements of human connection, fine motor skills, multitasking, and objectivity, but also subjectivity that is required of a great musician. I believe that is the same for a great barista.[…]
Michelle: I got started back in 2011 with my first barista job in 2011. I was a barista/shift supervisor and was obsessed with the drinking building aspect of the job. I let myself fall deeper from there and the rest is history!
Kyra: When Kyle and I started Baratza, we chose to focus our attention on the specialty coffee market. From our previous jobs, we had loved both the people in the specialty coffee community and the commitment to quality coffee. We were also interested in learning and supporting the specialty coffee community as they work to address issues such as climate change, sustainability, social justice, and support of the specialty coffee farmers and workers that are not making a livable wage with the low price for green coffee.
I have worked in coffee for ten years and have experienced moments in my coffee career where I am unsure if continuing in the coffee industry was what I was going to do. What motivates you to continue to work in the coffee industry?
Michelle: I know the feeling and have had many moments like that of my own. I think what continues to motivate me is finding new, innovative ways to be a “coffee professional”. I’ve worked in a lot of different positions in coffee: barista, manager, educator, marketing, sales, and also freelanced for a while. In all of those positions, I ran into walls and ceilings that kept me and also the company I worked for from growing. One day I said to myself, “what would it look like to do something different and on my own?” The act of building something from the ground up, but without a ceiling, this time, continues to allow me to constantly feel like there’s something to do, something to create, and that motivates me daily.
Anita: The people! Not just my friends in the industry, but our customers. We have very supportive customers that oftentimes would send us notes, words of encouragement, or emailing us about their coffee endeavors. We love hearing from them and knowing what’s happening in their coffee lives. It helps ground us and reminds us about the things our customers care about and motivates us to be better.
Burnout is real and it is tough! How do you deal with burnout? Have you struggled to find a work/life balance?
Sarah: […] I’m not good at stopping and honestly, I don’t really think that’s always a bad thing. Maybe for me, I see a future time and season for a pace change. My patience is challenged by arrogance, neglect, and false promises eventually leading to burnout and change. It’s important to make your needs known and good practice to annually negotiate for those needs. That exercise helps set expectations and gives you vision too. […]
Kyra: Work/Life balance is difficult. I love the work I do with Baratza and always have more on my plate than capacity. A teacher once told me, when you are over capacity and say “Yes” to something, you need to ask yourself what you are saying “No” to. For me, this usually means that I will not be doing my best on an important commitment or I am not taking care of myself. Not taking care of myself is what causes burnout for me. Learning to say “NO” is hard and important.
We have all had to be an advocate for yourself in some form. For example, asking for a raise or even applying for a job. In what ways have you had to learn how to advocate for yourself? What advice would you pass along to others?
Kyra: Identifying what I care about and what I want to accomplish is an important step as I navigate my career and life. Once I know what is important to me, I can begin to practice and learn the skills I will need to advocate for myself (and others) and the life I want to live.
Anita: Learn to say no. It’s okay to say no. Providing a candid answer to a difficult question even that means “No” is important, and it’s better than putting yourself in a difficult situation where you cannot wholeheartedly fulfill your promise. Learn to say no, but also let the other person know your circumstances.
When have you felt most brave? Was it opening a new cafe? Starting your own business? Was it even coffee-related?
Michelle: I feel brave on a daily basis, to be honest! From the moment I decided to create The Chocolate Barista and every day since, pushing forward to make my voice heard and live in my truth, then to create a business from it—it’s extremely brave and I’m really, really proud of myself.
Anita: I feel most brave when I have a thorough understanding of what’s expected of me and how I’m going to execute it. That’s when I know if anything goes sidetrack I’m able to be creative and flexible to stay on track. It’s an interesting relationship between the knowing and the unknown, the expected and unexpected. I believe most of the time I was on stage when that happened!
Have you ever had a female mentor? If so, how was that experience?
Sarah: I have been blessed to have people take a chance on me and also share their wisdom. It can be hard at times to face a reality in your area of growth but it’s also a process that takes time and if you have a mentor who is willing to be there for the long hall and invest time in you, don’t take it for granted and grow. Grow up, grow in, grow from, grow toward, grow constantly. This voice of wisdom taught me to get over myself a little faster and be honest with yourself, it’s okay to care a lot, be brave and vigilant. Use that to fuel change for others and for you.
Kyra: I started my career in the 1980s, in a power company with no other women engineers or scientists. I joined a small group of successful businesswomen that were talking about how women navigate in business. There was a VP of a Bank, a business consultant, and a medical doctor in the group. We met weekly for an hour to talk about specific problems we were encountering in male-dominated situations. This group gave me the support, advice, and inspiration I needed to survive and thrive in these difficult situations. From these mentors, I became curious about learning how to communicate and work with others to accomplish my goals. Women mentors have supported me to become the leader that I am today.
Anita: Yes. It’s wonderful. Seeing how a path can be possible. I’ve had numerous mentors that I’m thankful for – both in my musical career and in the coffee industry. Especially when someone you look up to becomes a friend. That’s a wonderful thing. Beth Beall is one of my coffee mentors/ friends that I’m fortunate to have.
Michelle: Yes, I consider Tymika Lawrence (Atlas Coffee Importers) a mentor. She’s also one of my best friends and like an older sister to me. It’s an amazing experience. She helps me make sense of the waves of emotions and thought processes I go through as someone trying to build something new from scratch, even though our exact career paths are different. But both of us being Black women in the coffee industry allows for a type of camaraderie and connection that runs deep, and we help each other not feel like we’re alone in our experiences.
What tidbits of wisdom do you have to share with other women? Any last parting gifts?
Kyra: Trust yourself! Begin learning and practicing now, because it takes a lifetime to work through the deeply held stories that have us question our value.
Anita: I guess that applies to everyone: Ask enough questions and the answer will follow.
Michelle: Band together and put each other on! Also, you don’t have to throw other women under the bus or step on them to get where you need to go. There will always be enough room for us and any other belief is the patriarchy. Period.
I am so thankful that these women took some time to answer my questions! I loved reading over their responses. I felt really inspired and Celebrating Women’s History Month gives us a chance to highlight the wonderful women who work in coffee!