Conversation with Christian Kar

The Team






John Terrill: Christian, you've been in the coffee business for 20 years roasting coffee and brokering the acquisitions of espresso carts and drive-thrus. What triggered the shift in your company from a strictly for-profit model to a more-than-profit enterprise?

Christian Kar: Although the shift in our company has been a gradual process culminating in The One Cup Project, it began when I became a Christian in 2001, about 11 years into the coffee business. After my conversion, I started to have questions about business and faith. Am I the rich young ruler who needs to give away all my possessions or am I able to do business in a way that glorifies God? I needed a new measuring stick in order to answer these difficult questions.

I did not want to just write checks; I wanted to participate in helping the local and global community. So the company started to get involved locally with Big Brothers Big Sisters and various homeless shelters. As I got deeper and deeper to where God was taking me, I took part in a mission trip to Kenya. While there, I began to wrestle with the idea of where God was taking the business on a more global level.

JT: Did your trip to Kenya bring clarity to your calling as a business leader?

CK: Yes. God really opened my eyes to the idea that I have business wisdom that can be employed elsewhere; it can change lives and someone's trajectory in an emerging country.

While I was in Kenya, I participated with Kenyans in an asset, self-discovery process, trying to find what their assets were for individual and community development purposes. There were a lot of people farming peas, carrots, cabbage. It was a saturated market. I realized that these farmers could grow pears and plums in their soil. So, I encouraged them to get out of the peas, carrots, and cabbage business, and instead, get into the unique commodity of growing pears and plums (and cut flowers, too).

As we talked, these farmers learned how to maximize business potential with what they already had. My time in Kenya planted the seed in me that Africans are not as destitute as we think they are; they have so many resources and gifts. They are smart and they know how to adapt their business when encouraged to do so.

JT: Was there a shift in the way you saw business because of your trip to Kenya?

CK: Yes! Silver Cup used to do a trade show every year that was an expensive ordeal, but it was fun and exciting. At the last trade show that I did before I stopped going to them, I felt like I was just going through the motions. I realized that the only fun and exciting thing for me was helping somebody else. My role was not to continue what I was doing for another 20 years; instead, the freedom I enjoyed in my business could allow me to participate in helping others in business.

Previously, I shaped my goals and ambitions around the next buck. But, I was discovering that I didn't love business for bottom line results only. I wanted, rather, to help foster other people's business and career paths. I started to notice more acutely the humanity of my employees. People are more than a profit machine; they are physical, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual beings.

JT: How has your changing understanding of business altered internal operations?

CK: We had 18 stores at one time (and over the years, we've had about 2,000 employees). In these stores, there might be half or more employee turnover in a year. Getting burned made me want to not let people into my personal life. For example, I was afraid to let employees see my home. If they saw that I had a big home, they might demand more pay.

Over the course of the last three or four years, however, the company began operating much more like a family than it did in the past. In the past, we had a defined corporate structure and a more formal way of doing business. Now, we are a tight group of people recognizing each other's humanity.

We realize that everybody has a private life and we want our employees to flourish in their lives as a whole. This change is illustrated by the fact that employees are comfortable enough with each other to be willing to share from their personal lives.

Laura Walker: I feel like the company is so different now. I have been at Silver Cup for five years. When I first started, Silver Cup was a corporate environment with a lot of egos and a lot of talking big and acting big; it felt contrived. It's nothing like that anymore.

Christian's leadership made the change happen and it has been very organic. Caring about the whole humanity of each employee has been very important in the shift to the new Silver Cup. Each employee is a whole human being, not a profit-making machine. It's a more holistic view on life.

This new outlook affects the conversations between employees. There are some really important conversations about the lives of employees during the workday. Before we wouldn't talk about it because it's not directly related to business, but now we can say that it's important to take the time to engage in conversation because it's about our whole lives, not just the portion of our lives directly influencing business.

JT: Tell us a little about The One Cup Project.

CK: During a devotional in Kenya, the photographer for the mission to Kenya had a vision of me in which a river was flowing out of me and helping to water Kenya and Africa. After hearing about this vision, which was a bit startling, I encountered an African saying, "If you think you are too small to do something significant, try sleeping in a room with a mosquito."

Hearing this proverb coupled with the photographer's vision, I just knew that I needed to pay attention. This experience was like a seed planted, and after a two-year watering process, my pastor gave me The Hole in Our Gospel, a book by Rich Stearns, the president of World Vision. I was deeply influenced by how the problems in the world are incredibly heinous but also incredibly solvable if given enough money and attention.

For example, 25,000 children who die from preventable causes each day is the equivalent of more than 100 large airplanes going down in the same period. Nine hundred million people live without access to clean water and $9 billion would solve this problem. It sounds like a large number, but there are people who could write a check to solve the clean water problem.

This issue resonated with me and I ran numbers seeing what it would take to raise $9 billion. I concluded that if just 1 percent of America's coffee consumption each year were directed to this issue, it could contribute $1 billion to clean water. The world's clean water problem could be solved in 9 years if the coffee industry donated just 1 percent.

JT: So what did you do next?

CK: After reading Stearns' book, I called World Vision, and asked if there was a way to sell Silver Cup coffee and donate some proceeds to their work. I remember specifically that they told me, "We do not have a program like that, but it's a new day at World Vision." They see business and products as an integral part of generating funds for World Vision in the future. We discussed potential ways World Vision and Silver Cup Coffee could partner under The One Cup Project.

In its simplest terms, The One Cup Project is a unique partnership that allows the consumer to purchase award-winning Silver Cup Coffee for $11 a bag; Silver Cup in turn donates $2 to World Vision, which is multiplied by 5.5 through matching grants. The end result is that $11 goes to the efforts of World Vision in Africa - dollar for dollar. Since this idea has never been done before, Silver Cup Coffee is helping World Vision in their new focus on innovative retail partnerships.

We have this feeling that this is where our company is being led, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. We have been turning ourselves to a holistic view of business. The One Cup Project is a part of this. Silver Cup Coffee and The One Cup Project is a for-profit enterprise; the more people buy, the more sustainable it is.

Donovan Richards: The One Cup Project allows consumers to actively participate in social issues while they purchase coffee. Does The One Cup Project also bring social issues into the supply chain? Are you Fair Trade?

CK: We are direct trade. The term "Fair Trade Organic" is a trademark from an organization called TransFair USA; they promote the fair trade label. Fair trade means that the farmer was given a designated living wage for his or her coffee. However, the means of acquiring the 'Certified Fair Trade' logo from Trans Fair requires fees both from the roaster and from the farmer.

On the other hand, direct trade is a direct relationship between the roaster and the farm or co-op. We are able to counsel them on how to cultivate a better crop over a long period of time and we can choose the farms and co-ops that use the most sustainable practices and have the best working conditions.

With direct trade, the farmer gets the best price for his or her beans and the roaster pays less for the beans because there are fewer hands involved between farmer and roaster. In our view, direct trade is a step above fair trade. (Editor: Learn more about direct trade versus free trade.)

DR: Your The One Cup Project website sells coffee beans co-branded with World Vision. You also sell coffee beans to local coffee shops in more of a wholesale manner. Is all of your coffee sold as part of The One Cup Project or do the donations only apply to coffee sold on your website?

CK: The same proceeds will go to World Vision from all One Cup branded coffee and our goal is for all Silver Cup branded coffee sold at retail to be under The One Cup Project banner. Most consumers, however, will be able to purchase our coffee through the website. It will be a subscription service.

LW: It's kind of like Netflix for coffee.

CK: Exactly. We will deliver coffee to customers every month. The customer or organization calculates how much coffee they think they will consume each month and places an order. At the end of each month, coffee reinforcements will arrive. Of course if too much or too little is ordered, or they want to try something new, they can alter the subscription accordingly.

JT: What is the future of The One Cup Project? Are there other ways in which you might invest?

CK: Another natural component is tea and even possibly cocoa. We want products that come from the regions in which World Vision funding is making a difference. We trade directly with farmers in Zambia and The One Cup Project's donations go straight to World Vision's work in Zambia. We'd love to have business on the ground in Africa, where our work becomes revolving and sustainable.

The more people buy here, the more everyone prospers. The other driving motivation is to be an example of how a company can be transformed from strictly profit to more than profit. The hope is to see other businesses observe The One Cup Project and ask what their One Cup Project is.

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