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Episode 32: Pouring into Sustainability – From Seed to Cup

Natalie Webb, founder and Executive Director of Cafecita Coffee, a specialty coffee roaster that sources all beans from sustainable, women-owned coffee farms and co-ops, joins us for this episode of Change@Work. She and host, Chris Thornton, delve into how Natalie’s unique experience as a human rights lawyer drove her to create a business that prioritizes sustainable practices and empowers gender equality for female coffee producers. 


This transcript was automatically generated with artificial intelligence. It’s in the queue to go through a review with human eyes!

00;00;00;00 – 00;00;38;09

Hello and welcome back to Change@Work. I’m your host, Chris Thornton. This week we welcome Natalie Webb, a human rights lawyer turned coffee enthusiast and entrepreneur. Natalie is the founder of Cafecito Coffee, a specialty coffee roaster based in Los Angeles. Cafecito is unique in that all of their coffee beans come from sustainable women owned coffee farms and co-ops, and a percentage of every sale goes to supporting women’s nonprofits around the world.

00;00;38;11 – 00;00;57;14

And only three years since starting the business, Natalie has been sought out by Patagonia to have her coffee served in their headquarters. I mean, to have one of the most famous companies in sustainability reach out to you. You have to be doing something right between sustainability to managing a startup. There’s so much we can learn from Natalie. So here she is.

00;00;57;17 – 00;01;18;24

Natalie Webb. Hi. Good morning. How are you, sir? I’m great, thank you. How are you? Pretty good. I see a cat in your background. Yes. Can you tell us about the cat? Yeah, the cat is. Her name is Booboo. She adopted her when I was in New York, and she has moved back to Los Angeles with me. Fantastic.

00;01;18;26 – 00;01;53;24

When did you meet Booboo? How long ago? Truly question. I’ve never asked. I live with everybody. I met her in 2015. She was actually found by one of my cat loving workmates, I would say already had two cats and her studio so could adopt another one. And so she actually brought her to the office one day. And I love cats and I had just moved back to New York from India and was in a position to adopt a cat.

00;01;53;24 – 00;02;14;17

And so that was perfect again. And the rest is history. And I love her dearly. And she’s doing well in L.A.. Well, welcome, Booboo. Well, we got to get like, there’s so many interesting things about about you that we’re going to talk about today, but we got to talk about 70 countries. What’s going on? 70 countries. That’s amazing.

00;02;14;20 – 00;02;41;28

Thank you. I love traveling. I found it addicting and has kind of a negative word. I just found it like I just wanted to to travel as much as I can. So my mom is from London, and so I grew up going to visit family in London every year, which was really nice. And I think having that perspective of two cultures to country is kind of seeing what else is in the world, really.

00;02;42;00 – 00;03;01;29

Made me curious about seeing more countries. And so I when I was 18, I took a gap year and went and worked actually as a bartender in London. that’s a good way to get to know a city. 18 year old American. Yeah, yeah, yeah. That was really fun. And then I saved up money to travel around the rest of Europe.

00;03;01;29 – 00;03;36;28

And then, yeah, that’s when I got completely addicted to it. So did to study abroad when I was an undergrad and then ended up taking another semester to continue traveling. And then one of the study abroad was in Singapore and I got really into scuba diving while I was there and so then decided to take another year off before law school to work as a dive master in London and then went to law school in New York and then did all my internships abroad and kept traveling as much as I could when I was in different regions of the world and then worked in New York for a while at the New York bar.

00;03;36;28 – 00;04;02;16

So thought I would settle there, but then got burnt out and took another year and a half off to go live in South Africa, Ethiopia, India, and then move back to New York and then move back to L.A.. Sorry, that was Google Earth, you heard. No, you’re fine. It was fine, but it was fine. It’s I feel like you’ve constructed life perfectly to do the things that you love.

00;04;02;21 – 00;04;27;26

If you weren’t back in L.A., living in L.A., of all the places that you’ve lived, or maybe you haven’t lived there yet, where would you live if it were in L.A.? So prior to moving back to L.A., I was in Oaxaca, Mexico, and I loved it so much. I definitely would like to go back to living there. Maybe not full time, but having kind of the L.A. Oaxaca.

00;04;27;28 – 00;04;50;07

What did you love about Oaxaca? So it’s I don’t know if you’ve been there, but I have. I did in high school. I did. You know, I studied Spanish, so I had to pick a region and do a report on it that I don’t think that’s even close to knowing what a region is all about. Yeah. So it’s it’s a small town, really.

00;04;50;07 – 00;05;11;07

Like it’s walkable. I lived in the center, but it has so much going on. There’s always events. There’s also such a creative energy to the city. I would say. And so there’s a lot of art, there’s a lot of music always going on, a lot of studios and workshops. You can really get involved in any type of art classes or kind of art community that you want.

00;05;11;07 – 00;05;39;23

And then it’s also it’s six indigenous groups that live just in Oaxaca images, and they’re all celebrated like I was in. Mexico City is the capital of the state. Almost every day there’s a calendar, like a parade going with celebrating like dance or music from one of the indigenous groups, which was just so cool to see that and that the advocacy for different people’s identities and celebration of it.

00;05;39;23 – 00;06;10;20

So yes, it was great love and the food, of course, everyone of my gosh, you have the food, obviously. Yeah. Cinematically. Tell me about Cafecito. What is it? Where is that? Why is it so? I launched Café Zita in 2020 and we are a specialty coffee roaster based in Los Angeles. All our coffee is come from sustainable women owned coffee farms and co-ops and a percentage of every sale goes to supporting women’s nonprofits around the world.

00;06;10;23 – 00;06;38;15

Right now we are all e-commerce and wholesale to other cafes and offices, so anyone can order coffee directly from us. We rose every week in small batches. At a coffee is very high quality and freshly roasted. Once it’s delivered to your door. But the original plan was actually to be a café. I was really excited about having that physical location that we could do community events and really focus on that.

00;06;38;17 – 00;07;04;02

But since it was 2020, it wasn’t an ideal time to be opening in an actual location. So that’s why I quickly pivoted to being all e-commerce and wholesale, but very excited to announce that we will actually be opening our first café this October in Los Angeles. fantastic. Yeah, fantastic. Congratulations. Thank you. All right, let’s get into your background in your business.

00;07;04;02 – 00;07;30;23

So your background in human rights law, I’m going to guess it has to give you a pretty unique lens to get into the food and beverage industry. But I got to say, I don’t see the direct connection. There may be one. How did you make that transition and why coffee specifically? So it was definitely a 180. Yeah, but I feel like the the way that Cafecito is set up, the business model is as a social enterprise.

00;07;30;25 – 00;08;00;06

So there are at least I see a lot of parallels between human rights work and capacities, mission and how we conduct our work. Actually, originally I had thought that there would be a nonprofit like a501 C3, but just knowing because that was my entire background, the challenges that non-profits face, I, I didn’t want it to have to be reliant on always writing that reporting, doing what our funders wanted.

00;08;00;06 – 00;08;35;18

And so I decided to do a social enterprise where it’s really self-sustaining so that business I had sustains the nonprofit side, but it’s still, as we’ll speak about it, set up that all the coffee is come from sustainable women owned coffee farms and co-ops and a percentage of resale goes to supporting women’s nonprofits around the world. So it’s still really has that social impact, mission driven focus and coffee ethically was because when I was doing the human rights work, I lived abroad a lot as a very try, try to wrap up briefly in the intro and I would work from cafes most of the time.

00;08;35;18 – 00;09;09;22

And I just I love coffee culture. I love seeing to it is around the world and every culture has their own traditions with coffee. So the similarities and the differences, but it’s also incredibly universally loved, which is nice. I don’t know each that really can even compete with coffee on that level, but the more I looked into it, the more I saw this gender inequality and the fact that, you know, women producers make up the majority of the manual labor on the farms but are far less represented in decision making and position ownership.

00;09;09;22 – 00;09;47;28

And so I really wanted to focus on highlighting and promoting these women who are already doing this incredible work. But because most coffee companies and registries in the U.S. are owned by men, there just wasn’t be an attention put on these incredible women. So that’s what I decided to focus on. So I’m making a connection between what I often hear and and I want to see if it’s true that are making a connection, at least within the U.S. Sometimes employers can complain about there’s not enough diverse candidates, or I would love to go after more diversity, but they just aren’t applying.

00;09;48;01 – 00;10;09;29

And the response has always been, no, they’re there. You’re not looking in the right places and you’re not you’re not actively seeking them out. So you got to do some work to be to be able to find the candidates that you wish were part of your organization. Is there a parallel when it comes to women on coffee producing organizations that, they’re out there, they’re just not getting the attention?

00;10;10;02 – 00;10;33;28

Or maybe you have to do more work to actually go find them. Is that a fair way to think about it, or would you think about it differently? Well, that’s I actually didn’t know that employers had that mindset that they often can. Yeah, I wouldn’t say it’s similar, at least in my experience with coffee, because it was very easy to find these women, as in these women on farms.

00;10;34;00 – 00;10;56;06

And a lot of the coffee imported into the U.S. is actually by importers and they the ones that really set up the relationships with the farms. And there’s a there’s a wide variety, a wide spectrum of these importers. Cafecito works with like the very sustainable city minded ones, I would say. And so that have had these relationships with the women.

00;10;56;06 – 00;11;17;05

And so all that to say is if you look at the easiest level, even if you’re not going out looking for anything, if you contact an importer, they have a list of women on farms, so they’re there. It’s not hard to find, it’s just that there was an attention being put on it. So yeah, I would say for me it was very easy to find them.

00;11;17;08 – 00;11;40;09

It is. Does the attention that you’ve placed on women on farms, does that connect to your mission at all? Can you tell us about your mission? Yes, 100%. So the mission of Cafecito is very much focused on empowering and sustainability. So the empowerment side of it is because my background is also human rights rather than like humanitarian aid.

00;11;40;09 – 00;12;00;24

Humanitarian aid is really kind of handouts and giving it out now, like if there has been a war and, you know, setting up things like that, human rights is really like more focused. And in my view, I’m sure people would disagree. But my view that it’s focused on empowerment. So these women are already doing the work. One of the groups that we work with in Honduras, they’ve been doing this work since the nineties.

00;12;00;26 – 00;12;31;29

They’re amazing and they have incredible success and history and they like this is what they do, this is what they specialize in. So with capacity, I really wanted it to work alongside our producers instead of top down. And so capacities focus on providing a platform, providing market access, making sure that the women are provided or paid fairly for their coffee, and really kind of putting that education out to customers to know about the gender inequality in the coffee industry.

00;12;32;01 – 00;13;05;09

So that’s the empowerment side is putting the women in the driver’s seat, making sure that they’re in the decisions about their businesses. And we’re just working with them. And then the sustainability aspect is, I mean, that’s huge. As you talk about a lot on your show, sustainability is it’s the future and we need to focus on it. So making sure that not just the farms are, but the coffee is being grown in the most organic, regenerative way possible, but also cafecito all our bags are 100% compostable, our shipping materials are recyclable.

00;13;05;11 – 00;13;31;02

We are Roastery is run on 100% renewable energy. Just really trying to make the smallest impact that we can. Well, while providing a very high quality, very good and a healthy product both for the producers and for the customers and for the planet. Incredible. Was it as easy just by looking and asking to find the women on coffee farms?

00;13;31;08 – 00;14;04;05

Was it just as easy to find out if they were using regenerative agriculture practices? Is that information easily available to someone like you? It is, I would say when I was first starting out. So Cafecito was launched in 2020, so it’s still a relatively new it been a whole learning adventure as I go, but starting out looking for these farms, trying to make the connections and writing in different importers in the U.S. The responses I think, said a lot.

00;14;04;05 – 00;14;33;00

Like some some importers have actually gone to the farms. No, no, the women seen how it’s grown, and that’s actually cathartic to have started doing that, too, like visiting the farms now that we’re living for it. But some importers, you ask them about the coffee and they can’t tell you anything. They don’t really know that. Maybe they’ll say, like the elevation is this and you know, it has the certification, but it that’s like as far as their knowledge goes.

00;14;33;00 – 00;14;57;12

And so those are things that I chose not to work with, and I really chose the ones that had these strong relationships and really knew how the coffee was being grown. So right now we work with two women’s farms. One is Honduras, and that comes true. Sustainable Harvest is the name of the importer base based Portland. So they have known, like I said, like these women since the nineties, they’ve been working with them for a long time.

00;14;57;12 – 00;15;14;22

And then the other way that I find the farms is actually it’s amazing with social media now on their Instagram, I always have producers reaching out to me to say, we have this coffee, do you want to sample it? Can we send you these samples? And so that’s been a great way to also connect directly with the farms.

00;15;14;22 – 00;15;33;09

And so our other partnership right now is with a farm in Rwanda, and that’s because they have a family member that lives in the U.S. who imports the coffee. And the family member have reached out to me, sent a sample. It was amazing. I loved it. And so we partner with them and they I mean, it’s their families.

00;15;33;09 – 00;16;06;07

So they have so much information and we’re able to actually really connect with the farm. And we’re actually hoping as our capacity grows to maybe even offer visits for our customers and our clients to go to the farm in Rwanda and see how it’s grown, because that’s a huge experience that I really recommend everyone do just to see all the work that goes into bringing in the coffee from from the seed to the cup, because a lot of people don’t think about really all the work that’s involved with with any of their food, but especially their coffee in the morning as well.

00;16;06;10 – 00;16;36;12

This may be a on question. What’s driving you like what’s driving you to do this and to care So much when a lot of people are like, I got other things that I need to go focus on in my life. And I’m not saying one is more important than the other because we all make choices, but what’s driving you to make these choices and be so committed to these women, to these farms, to the mission, because this is a lot of work.

00;16;36;12 – 00;17;21;18

It’s a lot of work, everything that you’re talking about. Yes, it’s a great question. And I don’t think I have a very straight answer. Okay. Time. You know, my whole life. I’ve got time. Yeah, but I right before this, I always have worked at nonprofits, even when I decided to to go to law school. That’s because I was I was doing a study abroad in Ghana and looking into the gold mining industry and seeing that it was foreign corporations that were destroying the environment, that were completely breaking an environmental labor laws, everything, and taking the gold in its cheapest form back to their own countries to sell them for a lot of money.

00;17;21;18 – 00;17;43;23

And Ghana was just getting the short end of the stick and the only accountability was lawyers, actually nonprofit lawyers in the home countries of the corporations that were able to hold them accountable for these laws that they were breaking. So all that to say is I never wanted to be a corporate lawyer. I never like it. I can’t really answer why I never cared about kind of going that out.

00;17;43;25 – 00;18;11;15

I became a vegetarian when I was ten. I started a nonprofit when I was ten. I was It’s been how I have always been. I am just always felt drawn to like working alongside people for some, like just for something larger than myself. Yeah, something larger than that. And so doing that as a nonprofit lawyer is amazing because they’re really it’s like a set up for you almost.

00;18;11;15 – 00;18;38;17

It’s like it’s been established. The laws have been established, the process has been established. Okay, I’m but starting my own business has been incredibly cool because it’s like building a new community around campus. It’s like a new mindset, really kind of trying to make people think about like, businesses should be focused on this. Businesses don’t have to just be all about making money for their shareholders.

00;18;38;17 – 00;26;57;19

Like they can also do incredible work while.

More in the Series

Chris Thornton is a Senior Principal and member of the global leadership team at Daggerwing Group. In his role, Chris serves as a source of strategic counsel for Senior Executives with client firms, advising them on how to help clients achieve Executive alignment, transform their cultures and equip and enable people managers to lead and embed change. An expert in the people side of change with both client-side and consulting experience, Chris has worked with leading companies including Nestlé, Pfizer, and GE Aviation to do change right and make it stick. He is also an active speaker on business transformation, a driver of innovation in Daggerwing’s breadth of change consulting services, and the host of Daggerwing Group’s podcast, Change@Work. Chris and his wife were featured in the New York Times for their love of pie.