How Phyllis Johnson Is Championing a Way Forward for the Coffee Industry - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

How Phyllis Johnson Is Championing a Way Forward for the Coffee Industry

Phyllis Johnson, owner of specialty coffee company BD Imports since 1999, has a long memory when it comes to drinking coffee and relishing its aroma wafting up from a mug. “I was a child, and my mom would drink Sanka with milk and sugar,” she says. “I just remember that it tasted really good, and it was a treat when I got a chance to drink it.”

Now a coffee industry veteran with more than two decades of experience, Johnson grew up in rural Arkansas. Although she had an entire other career in corporate America as a science researcher—she studied microbiology in college—and later in sales, she found that her Arkansas roots somehow connected her to what would be her future: working with those who farm and work the land.

“I often say that I chose coffee because in so many countries in Latin America as well as in Africa, people are born into coffee—and not so much, many times, in a good way,” she says. “They’re born into having to work in an industry, work in coffee, to try to make a living. Sometimes that’s a very, very tough life. I worked in cotton growing up. I didn’t choose cotton. But after I became educated, I chose coffee. And I enjoy it.”

Since choosing coffee, Johnson has made her mark in an industry not exactly populated with those who look like her. The coffee world, in many respects, is exceedingly white and male. Johnson, despite that, is forthright and honest about what the industry needs to do to confront true equity and inclusion for those who are marginalized—especially Black people.

In 2018, she wrote “Strong Black Coffee: Why Aren’t African-Americans More Prominent in the Coffee Industry?” for Roast Magazine. In the piece, Johnson mused on her own personal experiences throughout her tenure. “In close to 20 years of working in coffee, I have met too few African-Americans employed in the industry, whether in international development, trade, retail, roasting, equipment manufacturing, training/education, marketing or other areas,” she wrote.

Two years later, that sentiment still rings true. Although as Johnson remarks, social media has become a powerful avenue for Black people within coffee to find their way in through creating deeper community with one another. Johnson does this in her own way in sharing her travels to coffee farms around the world, and relating tidbits of the stories of the people she encounters. “People have come and gone throughout the time I’ve been in coffee, and obviously well before me,” she says. “But we haven’t had the social media tools. Those tools and voices have allowed those who enter greater staying power. There’s still opportunity for us to create a stronger force in moving forward. Because it’s going to take more than social media to sustain us.”

Moving forward and equipping herself with the tools needed to be a part of that change within the coffee industry was partially what motivated Johnson to return to school in 2014. Both she and her husband attended the Harvard Kennedy School’s Mid-Career Master in Public Administration program. While enrolled there, she took a variety of classes—some on economics, others on leadership. Her favorite course was one she found hugely applicable to her work within coffee—a class taught by renowned economist Ricardo Hausmann called, “Why Are So Many Countries Poor, Volatile, and Unequal?”

“When you work in coffee, you see a lot, and you try to make sense of it,” she says. “People try to tell you what the solutions are. [In that class I learned] there are no solid, straight answers to any problem. Problems are complex. And as a student in the world, which is how I kind of view myself, you have to ask the right questions. Then you have a better chance of being able to find some solutions.”

Johnson has tried to work for, and to find, these kinds of solutions over the years, through her various roles in her coffee career—with her own company, through her involvement with the International Women’s Coffee Alliance, and through the countless talks she’s given sharing her expertise, insights, and wisdom.

Travel is another route to that discovery and guides the leadership she embodies. Johnson has traveled extensively: El Salvador, Rwanda, and Burundi are some of the places she shares fond memories about. Through traveling for coffee- related reasons, versus simply for leisure, it emboldened her to see things with fresh eyes. Through the movement inherent in travel, she was able to discover similarities that she’d been familiar with all of her life. Especially to the end of Black and brown people globally nourishing a connection to the land, and tending to the harvest—whether of plums, grapes, or coffee beans—from its soil.

Johnson’s company started sourcing coffee beans from Kenya in 2000, and her focus has been primarily on making these kinds of connections with coffee farmers, particularly women. Johnson found that women are typically left out in decision-making and ownership roles, something she wanted to have a small part in changing. “I always felt when you invest in women, you really get more than you would typically,” she says. “Especially women who haven’t had the chance. BD Imports has served as the opportunity.”

BD Imports chiefly works with coffee roasters in the middle market—taking the consumer into account, and getting them to care about the ethics of their coffee- purchasing decisions, isn’t usually where her emphasis nor the bulk of her work lies. Instead, it’s in fostering relationships with the coffee farmers she meets. She was reminded of this recently while working with coffee producers in Brazil, and the context of the industry there. “In a country like Brazil, where Blacks were enslaved to produce the first crops, you have to be curious about understanding the history of coffee and be willing to understand how that history plays a role in what we see today,” she says. “As a business owner, as a woman who grew up in the cotton fields of Arkansas in the United States, that matters to me. It has to matter to somebody.”

But it’s Johnson’s generosity, empathy, and sense of vision for how the coffee industry at large could be more inclusive that her colleagues particularly appreciate. Kellem Emanuele, executive director of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance—an organization with which Johnson has been deeply involved—has a profound respect and admiration for her. Johnson was an integral part of IWCA leadership and development programs for Ugandan women in 2009, and later throughout East Africa in 2012.

“I began my involvement in IWCA about three years ago,” Emanuele says. “As someone who is relatively new to coffee—and is especially relatively new to issues of equity in coffee—to meet Phyllis and to spend time with her is to just be in awe. She speaks with such depth of knowledge coupled with a depth of empathy. She helps me to understand not only the known unknowns, but the unknown unknowns. Especially when it comes to making a real difference in people’s lives.”

Connie Blumhardt, the founder and publisher of Roast Magazine, also values the working relationship she’s had with Johnson, and the subsequent friendship they’ve cultivated. “Phyllis makes me want to be a better person,” Blumhardt says. “She’s a true champion of coffee farmers and equality for everyone. Always ready to take on a tough conversation, she helps me and the entire coffee industry tackle the tough questions. She recently said, ‘Talking about race is hard, and change isn’t going to come quick or easy, but if we don’t talk about it, we can’t change’.”

Enjoy This Article?

Sign up for our newsletter and get biweekly recipes and articles delivered to your inbox.

Send this to a friend