2018 Student-Faculty Fellows Program: Seattle University

Sustainable Coffee:
Building a Coffee Community with a Global Mindset for Environmental and Social Justice

Mentors: Quan Le, Associate Professor of Economics; Le X. Hy, Associate Professor of Psychology
Students: Braden Wild, Samantha Henry, Grace Jovanovic, Linh Bui, Don-Thuan Le, and Danielle Alday

Vietnam is the world’s second-largest producer of coffee, with an estimated 30 million, 60-kilogram bags, mostly robusta coffee harvested in 2016. Due to its favorable climate, the central highlands of Vietnam are the fastest growing areas of Arabica coffee. The objective of this project is for students from Seattle University to work directly with an estimated 50 coffee farmers, especially from the ethnic minority K’ho, in cooperatives that grow high quality Arabica coffee around the Dalat region. With a collaboration of Dalat University, students from both institutions will develop a community-based project on the impact of introducing specialty grade Arabica coffee involving the following stakeholders: coffee producers, the coffee startup community, young entrepreneurs/students, and community organizers. The students involved in this project have different disciplines including economics, international business, marketing, management, psychology, environmental studies, and engineering.

The K’ho coffee farming region has one of the most fascinating historical and cultural contexts in the world. For over a millennium, matriarchy dominated central Vietnam. In the 18th century, the French colonized Vietnam and exploited laborers, thus various local tribes withdrew up to the mountains. Among the group that withdrew to the central highlands was the K’ho. This retreat had multiple consequences. The higher the K’ho went, the more isolated they became, and thus they kept more of the old traditions. In addition, the high altitude allows them to grow Arabica coffee, which brings more profit than robusta coffee.

In this project, Café Ambiental, a Seattle University-based social enterprise created by the students will collaborate with The Married Beans Specialty Coffee and students in Dalat to work with the K’ho farmers to understand their farming practices and the environment. The project, which integrates lessons on the cultural context and background of the K’ho farmers, will translate directly into hands-on business experience. The project will provide students the opportunity to build a brand with a global mindset, create a marketing portfolio with an environmental consciousness, tell a story through a culturally sensitive lens, and create a viable and successful social enterprise with students of all backgrounds. Through a joint community-based project, students at both universities will engage with the farmers to provide capacity building from seed to cup. Students from Seattle University will develop professional skills such as teamwork in diverse settings, and cross-cultural communication through working with students from Dalat University.

Our experience at Seattle University has shown the effectiveness of experiential learning in making students not only aware, but also sensitive to poverty in a developing country. As a result, students will approach decisions with a greater understanding of their impact on poverty and society. This unique project, which combines an educational focus with fulfilling a community need through a partnership with the K’ho farmers and students in Dalat, will lead to student deliverables on how to create a replicable, sustainable social business model.
Professor Quan Le is the expert on the subjects of coffee supply chain and international trade. Professor Le Xuan Hy, on the other hand, is the expert on Asia, particularly the K’ho community with their traditional values and the global influences. Together, we will provide an experiential learning opportunity to our students in Dalat and will continue to work with them on their professional development.

The MotMot team (from left to right) – Don Le, Linh Bui, Grace Jovanovic, Dani Alday, Braden Wild and Sam Henry collaborated with The Married Beans Specialty Coffee to organize a cupping event introducing specialty coffee brands from around the world to local coffee farmers and roasters. The central highland of Vietnam is the coffee growing region and Da Lat is one of the fastest growing areas of Arabica coffee beans due to its favorable climate.

Danielle Alday

Since September 15, 2018, we have engaged in a number of activities that take a global perspective. The incorporation of the Vietnamese brand required us to look into the experience of the Vietnamese Americans. In establishing the brand, we wanted to create a logo and a name that was both appropriate and creative. To do so, we had to interact and collaborate with the people of Asia. The MotMot team decided to host focus groups with the Vietnamese Student Association in order to gain a broader perspective of our brand. This experience not only demonstrated a care for the input people of Vietnam but also provided members of the team a greater awareness of the actions and impacts of a business. The end product that I spoke of in my essay back in September is coming to fruition. In three days, we are launching Tam Coffee for the Seattle community so that they can experience the joy of coffee just as we did in Vietnam. The SFF core idea of practical and professional skill development has also been achieved. The trip to Vietnam provided me with numerous networking events. At first, the events were quite stressful and almost difficult due to the language barrier and adjustment to the country. However, because of the exposure, I gained a newfound confidence to navigate networking and cross- cultural communication. This has developed me professionally. Networking does not seem like such a daunting task as it did a year ago. Through developing my professional skills, I am now able to better work in diverse teams. While we were in Vietnam, we had set up coffee exhibitions for the business community there. In order to create successful events, we needed to have a team. I truly enjoyed collaborating with the volunteers in Vietnam and this enjoyment has not yet faded.

Coffee Exhibition. Thirty samples of specialty coffee from around the world were displayed and introduced to the coffee community in Da Lat.

Linh Bui

The trip to Da Lat, Vietnam, has fostered more understanding of the differences that each minority group faces within a broader community. While I was born in Vietnam, I was oblivious with my surroundings, ignoring many aspects that define my country. As I gain more exposure to the issues in Vietnam, I become more aware of how those issues affect various groups of people as well as learn more about the culture and values of my own country. By hearing the people’s stories and understanding their interactions with the world and cultural values, I learn in-depth about the parts of the culture that I previously thought I knew. “Do ethnic minorities encounter discrimination in Vietnam?” a thought-provocative question from a professor at the University of Washington, has me pondered for weeks. Intensive research on past literature reveals no hard evidence of discrimination, but other concepts translate to the disparity of living qualities between the minorities and the majority. While the previous literature provides insights into this matter, most of them rely on data obtaining from surveys and census. Future research should take into consideration of interviewing these ethnic minorities to learn and understand their hardship from their point of views, obtaining rich and meaningful insights from these people who are directly affected by the differences in living standards. Living in this fast-paced century, where everything is within the touch of a finger, children learn to find their passion and work toward something big, to connect people from around the world. While these connections are meaningful and significant, we sometimes forget to look at something smaller but also can make a significant impact. When my other group members who are from the United States, trying to expand their connection with the international network in Vietnam, I am reconnecting with my roots. Thanks to that, I become more aware of my people, their tradition, their cultural values, as well as their hardships.

MotMot member, Linh Bui, conducts an interview with coffee farmers who have partnered with K’ho Coffee. K’ho coffee is a cooperative striving to sustainably grow high-quality Arabica coffee on Lang Biang Mountain, Da Lat. K’ho Coffee was founded in 2012 by 4th generation coffee farmer Rolan Co Lieng and husband Joshua Guikema. Through direct trade, they make the coffee available to create more value at origin, creating employment and supporting the local farming economy.  Due to years of using chemical fertilizer, the soil has been stripped of nutrients and sustainable green farming has become progressively more difficult. By working with K’ho Coffee, farmers guarantee that they will not use harmful
pesticides and strive for production of high quality green beans.

Samantha Henry

The ASIANetwork Student-Faculty Fellows program illuminated global issues in an Asian context. In regards to supply chains and sustainable farming methods, the issues facing coffee farmers remain similar across the globe but their methods of addressing these issues was surprisingly different. For example, differences regarding the cultural and ethnic minority identities influence farming practices and thus how the coffee is marketed in the international markets. After the trip, taking lush and involved stories and synthesizing the information to communicate with the Seattle market has been a fun challenge as a marketer.

After months of reflection, I feel the ASIANetwork core values of strong faculty mentoring and interactions with the people of Asia were some of the highlights of my experience. Dr. Le and Dr. Hy’s influence on reflection helped engage and cement memories. Their goal of engagement with all walks of society, to give us a larger perspective of Vietnam as a whole, was impactful. Volunteering at the SOS Children’s Village and Soup Kitchen not only challenged our preconceived notions of life in Vietnam but also gave the opportunity to leverage our privilege for good within the community. I will be forever grateful for those experiences.

The friendships and professional connections with contacts in Vietnam have persisted after our return. One woman in particular was pivotal in the success of our coffee shipment and has remained a close personal friend. I look forward to visiting her again in the future. The bonding the student fellows experienced on the trip also offers a lasting impact. I was lucky to travel with friends, but the full breadth of experiences we shared will bond us for beyond our graduation from Seattle University. I am infinitely grateful for the opportunity with ASIANetwork. This experience, both in Vietnam and in the months after, has been a highlight of my college career. I connected strongly with the core values of ASIANetwork and feel like it has further catapulted the trajectory of my career.

Entrepreneurship Workshop at Da Lat University. Motmot team member, Sam Henry delivered a business model canvas to students at the Entrepreneurship Facilitator Center.

Grace Jovanovic

All five of the SFF Core values were clearly achieved by this project and below I have outlined some key aspects of each core idea that I was able to take away from this experience.

1. Current Global issues in an Asian context

I have studied how the sustainability of the coffee industry, especially in SE Asia, is at risk to changing weather patterns and global climate change, but it wasn’t until I was immersed in the country, engaging with farmers and their communities, that I was able to understand the reality of the complex nature of coffee production in the region.

2. Interaction and collaboration with people of Asia

The people I met and the friends I made was by far the most valuable and unexpected result of this experience. I figured I would meet nice people, but the genuine joy and welcoming presence of all the individuals I worked with was unbelievable. I made friends that I still regularly talk to and have made plans to visit again.

3. Practical and professional skill development

This experience greatly developed hard skills such as project management, development of research methods, and interviewing methods. However, the most important skills I will take away from this experience are the soft skills I developed such as cross-cultural communication, navigating a new country, and the new perspectives on how to approach a problem.

4. Student career and professional development

The ability to connect those ideas with the reality of sustainable coffee development was incredibly impactful for understanding this field and brainstorming ideas for how I can be impactful at inducing positive change in the future.

5. Strong faculty mentoring

My mentor, Dr. Quan Le, was incredibly impactful on this project. He helped me develop my research methodology as well as conduct a literature review and write my first paper, which is now under review for publication.

Professor Le Xuan Hy interviewed coffee farmers.

Don-Thuan Le

The ASIANetwork Student-Faculty Fellows program has created many opportunities for me. The trip to Vietnam expanded my network as well as introduced a new side of Vietnamese culture that I have had little interaction with although I have been back to Vietnam many times. The experience gained from participating in the trip to Vietnam to learn and connect with coffee farmers as well as young Vietnamese professionals created a steppingstone for me in developing my own network and professional skills. The trip to Vietnam created a story and purpose that put things into context and tangibility rather than an abstract idea of a country on the other side of the world. After returning from the trip, I have been able to connect with many others who are also interested in not only the coffee scene, but also specifically Vietnamese coffee. Learning about the farmers and their ways of farming also made me want to learn more about sustainable power in rural areas. With this new curiosity and interest of power as well as the networking skills that I had acquired, I applied and was accepted for an internship at Snohomish County PUD #1 for energy distribution. I chose this to apply after visiting their worksite and learning that Snohomish County PUD focuses heavily on sustainable power such as hydro and solar. In the future, I plan to maintain the relationships that I have established with the professionals and new friends in Vietnam. I am also registered for the Microsoft Imagine Cup 2020 and potentially plan on entering the contest with an innovation geared towards agriculture. The SFF experience has definitely affected my plans for the future as it has given me a first-hand experience, which has given me a new perspective on the way technology can be applied throughout society.

Starbucks Headquarters in Ho Chi Minh City. Starbucks opened its first store in Vietnam in 2013. Today, there are 28 stores in Ho Chi Minh City, Ha Noi, Hai Phong, and Da Nang.

Braden Wild

Beginning in September 2018 I had fully transitioned out of Seattle University and began work at Starbucks Corporation as a financial analyst. Given the nature of MotMot Coffee and our research in Vietnam, I was no longer allowed to work with it as it created a direct conflict of interest. I have since left Starbucks three months ago and began serving as the inaugural Chairman of the Board of MotMot Coffee. The SFF grant has allowed us to successfully transition from a founder-led business operated internally within the Albers School of Business and Economics at Seattle University to an independent non-profit in the State of Washington with a fully formed board and partnership with Seattle University and other local coffee shops. The Vietnam trip has allowed us to complete academic research on the ethics and supply chain organization, inspiring subsequent research trips and projects creating academic inquiry in a unique, culturally appropriate Asian context. I have personally seen the growth students have gone through over the last 8 months creating a new brand of coffee that stays true to the culture and spirit of the coffee farmers we worked with in Vietnam, integrated it with the brand we had already established with MotMot and preparing that work to be passed between generations of students.

Service-learning project at SOS Children’s Village in Da Lat. SOS Children’s Village housed 140 children in 14 families.  Each family is headed by a mother.  SOS Children’s Village in Da Lat was opened in 1969.  It was the first village operated by SOS Children’s Village, an international NGO.  Today, there are 16 villages throughout Vietnam.

As I continue my professional journey working as an entrepreneur and in the non-profit sector, this experience teaching me how to work with culturally diverse groups of people in professional and business setting will be a valuable experience I can apply as I move forward. While I am not as involved as a graduated alumnus, I am still able to work with students in MotMot Coffee and the faculty advisors to provide similar opportunities to other students. I look forward to future opportunities to deepen my involvement with Seattle University, MotMot Coffee, and work with small businesses in Seattle because of my engaging and wonderful experience with the ASIANetwork Student-Faculty Fellows program.