On International Women’s Day, meet 5 women crucial to the coffee business
By Michael Ko
On this International Woman’s Day, Starbucks is proud to celebrate the stories of five women from around the world who are part of the coffee supply chain. From “the first 10 feet” on the farm to “the last 10 feet” at the store, and at key points in between, women like these – a farmer, an agronomist, a buyer, a master roaster and a district manager – are crucial to the coffee business.
Walquiria Peixoto Correa, coffee farmer, Brazil
Walquiria Peixoto Correa didn’t plan on being a coffee farmer.
When she left home, she attended university, earned degrees in chemistry and education and intended to be a teacher. But when her father, José Clemente, became sick, she left an internship and returned home to help the family coffee farm he’d started in the 1980s.
What she found back on the farm was her destiny – but first she had to prove herself. Coffee is traditionally an industry run by men, and very few farms in Brazil are owned and operated by women. Six years ago, after her father died and she took over the farm full-time to continue the work he started, it took several years to find workers willing to take orders from a woman.
“Yes, we have many challenges, many obstacles, prejudice,” Peixoto Correa says. “The workers had trouble accepting my ideas because I’m a woman and an academic from the city, so it was difficult.” She overcame that, she says, “with great care and many teachings… talking to them, making them see that we all have our opinions, treating them with kindness.”
Today, Peixoto Correa is considered a pioneer in her community for the high-quality coffee she produces and the way she runs her farm – decreasing her reliance on pesticides and chemicals, using organic fertilizers, incorporating solar power, reducing and reusing water and materials in the coffee washing and drying process, reforesting native plants, protecting the natural waterways on her land and managing her workers with the utmost respect.
She runs the farm with her mother, Dagmar, 73, who still operates much of the equipment. Together, they care for approximately 76,000 coffee trees.
Her coffee is just a few points from some of the highest scores possible, according to a quality grading scale used by Cooxupé, a regional cooperative and exporter representing more than 13,000 small to medium-sized family farms in the state of Minas Gerais. Cooxupé sells her coffee, which is Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices certified, to Starbucks. Brazil is Starbucks largest supplier of coffee.
“When I was studying, I couldn’t stand being indoors,” she recalls. “(When my father became ill), that’s when I realized that wasn’t what I wanted, that my life had to be here, close to nature, freedom, fresh pure air. So, I decided to come back and stay here on the farm, taking care of my little coffee plants.
“I chose coffee because it’s fantastic to see it grow, the aroma of the coffee blossoms, the yellow and red fruits. It’s heartwarming. We have a lot of love for the crop.”
On a warm day several months ago, she drives her work truck to the edge of a large open field, where neat rows of bushy coffee trees overlook a hillside drenched in sunlight. She squats down next to one and examines a handful of dried coffee skins she uses for fertilizer, crushing them with her hand. A toucan flies out of a nearby tree. Cows meander in the distance. She explains that she aspires to sell specialty-grade coffees one day.
“This is my open-air office,” she says, looking around. “I prefer this office to the four-walled one. Look at how beautiful nature is. So, here is my life… My hope for this farm is to protect the springs, the waterways, to teach other producers by example to take care of nature. “I don’t have any children, but I want to teach future generations to take care, to protect, for a better world. And I hope my mother and I live for a long time, and we can enjoy it, and see this better world.”
Bahati Mlwilo, agronomist, Tanzania
Bahati Mlwilo lives by a simple motto: “I want to die empty.”
“When I was a young kid, my dream was one day, I need to be someone that is teaching others,” she says. “I love to train farmers. I love to offer knowledge. I’ve learned a lot in coffee, but I’m still learning. I don’t want to die with this knowledge.”
As an agronomist with the Starbucks Farmer Support Center in Tanzania – one of 10 Starbucks operates in key coffee-producing regions – Mlwilo lives out her mission of sharing everything she can in a region with between 4,000-5,000 mostly smallholder farms, usually supporting a single family with a mixture of cash crops and subsistence farming. She holds workshops and makes personal visits, helping farmers understand how to implement C.A.F.E practices and improve their coffee quality and production, while also pushing them to work with a long-term sustainability mindset.
“We are making progress,” she says. “The issue of social responsibility, for example, farmers are realizing it’s important in our society to pay your workers a correct wage to improve their lives, improve their farms. More and more are using manure and organic fertilizers. We are helping them do soil analysis and understand the makeup of the soil conditions. And you see the farms improving.”
The daughter of two teachers, Mlwilo has always been curious to know more. It drove her to study food science and technology at a top agricultural university, then to earn two master’s degrees, one locally in business administration and another in Italy in coffee economics and science.
About 11 years ago, she started working in coffee as a quality advisor for an international nonprofit, which led her to eventually becoming the first woman coffee quality grader in Tanzania. She joined Starbucks six years ago as an agronomist, seeing an opportunity to help people in a region where many lack formal education and operate with a short-term mindset.
For example, she says, farming vegetables can mean quick cash: a crop of maize, bananas or beans can be produced in just a few months. A coffee tree, by comparison, takes three to four years to fully mature.
“Coffee pays if you do it as a business,” she says, but that requires a greater investment of resources and more technical and business training in topics such as reducing water consumption and operational costs, along with the patience to withstand fluctuating market prices or a bad weather season.
More farmers are embracing the business mindset and taking a longer-term view, Mlwilo says, and she’s hoping they can be an example to others. “The thing I enjoy the most is when I see the impact on the ground, when you do something and it creates a positive impact to farmers,” she says. “When they see the results, they change.”
“We want to inspire them to do jobs that are traditionally men’s jobs. We want to inspire women to know they can do it.”
A more personal goal for Mlwilo is to help recognize the work of women in coffee, which in Tanzania is still mostly in the background, and to help them get a foothold in farm and land ownership and in jobs usually taken by men, such as quality control, exporting and buying. She leads the Tanzania chapter of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance and sets up regular virtual and in-person coffee trainings, and meetings with coffee-producing women in other countries.
“We want these women to see other opportunities in the coffee value chain, we want them to connect and be empowered and learn from each other,” Mlwilo says. “Some of them have never seen some of these things. We want to inspire them to do jobs that are traditionally men’s jobs. We want to inspire women to know they can do it.”
Ann Traumann, coffee buyer, Switzerland
When Ann Traumann oversaw the Reserve coffee-buying program for Starbucks, she met a woman named Moanti Ise, who grew delicious high-quality coffee in Papua New Guinea. Traumann not only made sure to pay her C.A.F.E. Practices premiums for her product, but during the ensuing relationship, also helped Ise’s community secure a grant to build a clean-water system, eliminating hours of work once required just to fetch and transport fresh water.
For Traumann, the project confirmed some thoughts at the heart of her work: “Nowadays, the coffee trader has bigger responsibilities – ethical, social and environmental. We have responsibilities to help all these communities who provide great coffees.”
Traumann is a coffee buyer with the Starbucks Coffee Trading Company in Switzerland, helping source high-quality coffee to meet Starbucks needs. She works with the people who make and process the coffee – farmers, exporters, dealers and agronomists – as well as the Starbucks teams in charge of coffee development, logistics and planning, to meet delivery goals and forecast supply-chain disruption issues while also helping ensure Starbucks sustainability and ethical sourcing goals.
Coffee already faces unique challenges as both an agricultural product dependent on the weather and a globally traded commodity influenced by market forces. Traumann’s role is further complicated by politics, geography and lack of infrastructure. One of the countries she buys from currently, Ethiopia, is in the midst of a civil war. And although the region produces some of the best coffees in the world, getting it out is challenging due to poorly developed roads.
Traumann says, “as a child, I fell into a cup of coffee.” She grew up in France, in a family of coffee buyers, listening to stories of their travel and work. That, while coming of age during the increasing awareness of the Fair Trade movement, helped her dream big as a child and convinced her that she could make an impact on the world through coffee.
She studied international business, worked abroad in Spain, the U.S. and China, interned at a coffee cooperative in Costa Rica and joined a large trading company in Nicaragua, for whom she oversaw sustainable and specialty coffees.
“It was important for me to be close to the product, to understand how coffee grows, what the producers’ issues were, how the harvest works, how to trade and export coffee, I learned so much, realized the chance I had, how complicated it is. I understood the idea that farmers received the least.”
She joined Starbucks seven years ago, as the main buyer for the Reserve coffee program, securing some of the rarest beans in the world. Last year, she moved over to the core business trading team.
Always finding the best solutions for both the business and for coffee-producing communities is difficult, she says, but “if a company the size of Starbucks doesn’t do and doesn’t try, then who will do it?”
“The road is not easy, it is not straight,” she says. “But we can do things that are big. We need to believe in our dreams, that we can have impact.”
Bonnie Li, master roaster, China
After graduating high school in Beijing, Bonnie Li took a gap year to figure out what she wanted next. She became a barista at a local Starbucks, thinking it would help to get some experience working with people.
Ten years later, she’s a master coffee roaster, the only woman to hold that title at Starbucks globally, the only company where she’s ever worked. She oversees roasting operations at the Shanghai Starbucks Reserve Roastery, and will help lead coffee and roasting training at the new Starbucks China Coffee Innovation Park.
“I am very grateful that I have had this opportunity to become a roaster and a master roaster,” she says. “I just want to say: Don’t care about others’ opinions. If you want it, you got to do it.”
Li describes the best elements of her job as a combination of play, science and technical expertise: how she can help a green coffee bean transform into something new – surprising tastes of strawberry, hazelnuts or rosemary; how each batch requires its own calculation of heat, air flow and timing; and how that changes from coffee to coffee, depending on the unique location on Earth it came from.
She loves the machinery too. She operates a Probat Neptune 500 coffee roaster now, but got her start with a hand-roasting pan in her kitchen, inspired by a friend who experimented at home with something similar and a store manager who always brought back interesting coffees from her travels.
“After a certain point, you play with coffee, you play with the brewing equipment, you kind of naturally think about what else impacts the coffee flavors, and I thought about roasting,” she remembers. “I started roasting at home, and I loved to bring those coffees to my partners (employees) to see what they think.
“Sometimes they like it, sometimes they don’t. I still remember the first batch of coffee, I roasted it like charcoal.”
Li’s career path became clear as her passion for coffee grew. She became a certified coffee master, won a national coffee pour-over competition and represented Starbucks as a district coffee ambassador, sharing her passion for coffee with inquisitive customers coming from a tea-first culture.
“I’m very glad I’ve found something I feel passionate about. I’m very excited about it.”
When she learned about the Starbucks Reserve Roasteries, the desire to work in “this kind of coffee pantheon … seized my heart,” she says. Naturally, when the Shanghai team had an opening for a roaster position, she was ready. Since then, she and her team have roasted more than 150 different Reserve coffees, among the most unique in the world.
In 2021, she was promoted to master roaster, one of just 11 people to hold that title at Starbucks – high-level leaders, teachers and problem solvers who not only understand the art and science of making coffee but are also charged with trying to improve the process. “I haven’t really thought about my next goals, but I Iove my journey so far,” Li says. “I’m very glad I’ve found something I feel passionate about. I’m very excited about it.”
Vicky Martinez, retail district manager, Colombia
How far would you travel to get an interview at Starbucks?
For Vicky Martinez, the answer was hundreds of kilometers, through a military blockade and a frightening search at the border between her native Venezuela and Colombia, and then a farmers strike where protesters had shut the roads. She eventually made it through and caught a plane to Bogotá, where she interviewed for and got a position as an assistant store manager. The trip took almost two days.
“The situation in my country was so difficult,” Martinez remembers. “I said to myself: this is the right time to make a big decision.”
In Venezuela, political and economic instability and the ensuing shortage of basic resources have caused millions to flee their country in recent years. Though born into a large, happy family with means, Martinez is part of that exodus.
Since moving to Colombia in 2013 to work, she’s moved from the retail side to training new partners (employees), implementing country-wide retail innovations and helping open stores. For the last two-and-a-half years, she’s been a district manager, trying to help Starbucks expand in a crowded, competitive, coffee-proud market. Her dream is to be a business operations manager for Latin America.
“I think that difficult situations make people stronger, because they allow them to grow and show them that even when they don’t see it at the time, better things lie ahead,” Martinez says. “Resilience is the most valuable asset I’ve developed over these years – believing in myself, knowing that I have the power to turn a difficult situation into an opportunity.”
The opportunities have been memorable, she says – traveling to Mexico to receive training on how to open a brand-new market, telling her story personally to former Starbucks chief executive officer Howard Schultz in Seattle and recently, bringing her parents and younger sister to live with her in Colombia.
She remembers another important moment. When she led the learning and development team, she worked with the Starbucks Farmer Support Center in Colombia to bring 20 farmers who supply coffee to Starbucks to a retail store in the big city. The group included an elderly female farmer who saw, for the first time, where her coffee was ending up. Starbucks has purchased coffee from Colombian farmers since 1971.
“I think that experience left a mark on her life and mine, because I saw her tears, her hands, the love in her words.”
It was another reminder of the contributions that women have made, and can make.
“I think as this point in history, we women must persist,” she says. “We must believe in all those values instilled in us from a very young age, regardless of where we were born, and keep on going. We have a role, a transcendental mission, to continue telling stories, to continue inspiring other people.
“Everything we do in our daily lives – as daughters, moms, workers – must have a strong commitment to continue believing in what we are and what we are capable of doing.”