Jake Elster graduated Northwestern University in 2010 with a master’s degree in Learning and Organizational Change. While enrolled part-time in the evening program, Elster also developed a business plan to connect coffee growers in Uganda to coffee consumers across the world. Inspired by time spent in east Africa and the effects of an internet café he helped build in a rural community, Elster used the lessons and resources at Northwestern to inform his business model. Juggling the Global Engagement Summit, Entrepreneurs on the Verge and academics on campus, Elster simultaneously founded his traceable coffee company on. Elster now serves as CEO of the information technology-driven Crop to Cup, a position he called “a dream job.”
Why did you choose Northwestern for graduate school?
I chose the program—learning and organizational change. I was very interested in the soft side of the business degree, and it was a nice extension of my undergrad, which basically was people watching—humanities and anthropology and international studies. I was interested in learning some of the best practices associated with how to work in teams, and how to work with people and organizations. I had just come off of a tenure of doing some field work and experience in Africa, where I was building an organization to practice building training programs and otherwise. I was very interested in getting at the best practices associated with that. Directly prior to joining the program, I was working at the Illinois Institute of Technology, their entrepreneurship center, providing advice to start-up organizations and entrepreneurs. Again, that had to do with some of this learning and organizational change, learning and performance, knowledge management, cognitive design, things like this. That really spoke to me. That, plus Northwestern’s reputation, are what had me go to Northwestern.
What else were you doing between undergrad and your time at Northwestern?
I run a company called Crop to Cup. It’s a company I founded at the same time I joined the program at Northwestern. It’s a coffee importer. You can check out the website at croptocup.com. My experience at Annenberg was sort of a laboratory or incubator for the initial setup and design of this company. It was the first years I was getting the company going that I was going through classes in the night program part-time. I try to apply a lot of the lessons and models associated with change management or other lessons from the field, and from the classes in the field.
Describe your company, Crop to Cup, its mission, and what that means for you as founder and CEO.
The company’s mission is based off the belief that farmers can be their own best advocates. There’s a lack of transparency for farmers and for coffee lovers, and the people at the end of the day want the same thing. With modern technology and new business models, it’s possible to change the way we relate to our coffee and to our coffee farmers. What we’ve been trying to do is promote traceable coffee—that’s coffee where you know who grew that coffee. That enables a couple of different things: it enables farmers to get recognition and financial reward for a good crop instead of having it be traded by the kilogram as a commodity. It enables customers to have that extra connection with their coffee, and with the food they put in their bodies. We’ve been doing a lot of awareness raising and a lot of work on the best ways to connect coffee farmers and coffee lovers through technology, through postcard campaigns, through videos and Skype conferencing, and things like that.
How did you develop the model for Crop to Cup?
Through experience. A series of lessons. I came down to east Africa with my now business partner, Taylor Mork, to work on water development projects, and ended up doing capacity-building projects. There were already a lot of organizations down there doing good things, they just needed help to do it better and be more effective.
One of the capacity-building projects we put into place for a local form of community-based organizations was an internet café—the first internet in this rural district. The first early adopters of the café were farmers—people that normally had to deliver their papayas, or beans, or bananas to market every Wednesday, and compete with their neighbors and bring home whatever they didn’t sell at the end of the day. Economically, it limited them. We created a program to help farmers kind of group up and get a better price for their beans or for their bananas, or otherwise. Long story short, we found out that they were very real logistical barriers keeping people poor and in poverty. From information technology, you know what prices are, you can coordinate a van to come pick them up, you can overcome some of those barriers. It was an interesting lesson we took with us over to the coffee region in Uganda, where we were at the time.
We were asked to do an audit, basically put in place financial controls and quality controls, and we just traced coffee. We found out what coffee was coming from what farm, and we were able to keep that separate, the result of which was traceable coffee, which is just not how coffee is normally bought. Right now, even exporters don’t know where coffee comes from because it’s all grouped together by the time it gets to them. By doing this, we were able to not only help start up an exporter that specialized in specialty coffee from that region—so really reinvigorating the specialty program in Uganda—but as well we were able to build some community programs on top of that, and tie in that lesson from earlier on that these farmers are really far from paved roads even, and their very isolated and fragmented. These are not large farmers; they’re small, family farms that have many different people they sell to before they even get to the export market. So, simply using information technology can connect them to the customers, allow them to get better prices for their coffee.
We took that lesson back to Chicago. While I was working at the Illinois Institute of Technology, I was sort of keeping up my support for these community projects by helping to broker some of the import, some of these green beans, these unmixed beans into the U.S. I developed these profile cards, they looked like baseball cards, to introduce these different farmers. I realized that there was value on the customer side—that there was market value for knowing who your coffee came from. That started a couple years of exploration of what that value was and the best way to express that value.
What factors made your plan plausible?
There was an old cooperative union—these community groups that had not been used in a long time. Simply by throwing some information, throwing some attention, and throwing some funding through those groups and that network, we were able to, with some community partners, help reinvigorate this producer organization network. It’s community-level networks of farmers that can share best practices, who can help each other with logistics and transport, and can, in essence, look out for each other and for us, make it administratively possible to do traceable coffee. It’s really impossible to trace 2,000-5,000 small farmers, but you can do 180—250 organizations. That’s more doable. The other big things are the overall trends. Every year that goes by Africa becomes more connected to the international world, and luckily markets are becoming more interested in where their food comes from. There’s a lot enabling what we’re doing.
What resources did Northwestern provide you while you built this business while simultaneously learning here?
The program staff and faculty have just been amazing. I was able to select Crop to Cup as a project for a lot of the class projects, and engage my classmates in the working out of different marketing surveys and other sorts of things using [Crop to Cup] as a case study. I’ve also gotten some press from one or two articles that have come out. It’s always helpful to get press or some sort of recognition and credibility. The staff, like Terri Cramer, Kimberly Scott and professors, were simply phenomenal for me as far as being a soundboard for advice. My capstone was on learning and entrepreneurial organizations, so something that was directly applicable to what I was doing, to what I am doing. Some of the experience extends from classmates I met. I was actually able to do some consulting work for a local organization called SR4 partners, and through that I’ve been able to do a lot of learning design cultural work for major corporations. That helps to supplement my entrepreneurial income and enabling me to, for example, get married this July, which I would not be able to afford otherwise. There’s a lot of nice little things that came out of it.
When you founded Crop to Cup, what were your main goals? How have they changed?
My goals haven’t changed, my strategy has. My main goal has always been to prove that this business model works. By that I mean prove that coffee where people matter has value, and that there is a possible business model that engages farmers in the marketing of their own coffees. That they can add and capture that value through the private sector. That this is not an aid, this is a trade thing. For us, it’s always been important just to prove that.
That’s, in short, what we call traceable coffee. Some people call it direct trade or partnership coffee or otherwise. We believe that it’s possible to have some farmer-driven coffee out there, and that if you can change the way that you relate to your commodity farmers, your coffee, but then potentially for your other value-added commodities, like cotton or chocolate or otherwise. Our goal has never been to scale that in commodities, but rather to prove that this works, that there is value to this. And we chose coffee as a way to do so because the more that this happens… ya know, it’s a big market out there, and we cannot possibly affect every farmer, but if we can help just segment the market—right now there’s not really a market out there—you have organic, you have specialty, you have sustainable, you have fair trade coffees; there’s no such market out there for traceable coffees, or coffees that maybe don’t have the certification the farmer’s can’t pay for, but you can talk to them by email or on the phone. That’s just a new way of trading commodities that we really believe in, that we want to prove out.
So we want other people to copycat us, which changed. We started out as a very educational approach, and through my experience at LOC, we decided to really change the altitude of our messaging a lot. So, for example, our tagline now is, ‘Don’t take coffee from strangers.’ It doesn’t tell you any of the content or why behind it, but it’s more effective in engaging people and really recognizing that coffee comes from people, and that’s a first step. Our second tagline is, ‘Good coffee comes from good people,’ and so that again orients it toward the people. That’s how the tactics have changed.
What advice would you give students interested in social entrepreneurship?
Do it! You can only benefit from doing it, especially when you’re young. But take some sophistication to it. It’s very tempting to do it because you get a lot of positive feedback, because you’re working towards a good thing. But it becomes a lifestyle business, and I think that too often people don’t take a level of sophistication to the social venture or to their impact businesses. It’s a disservice to that business or to the idea the idea that they have if they don’t take the proper amount of sophistication in doing it the right way. A good thing to point out is it’s a multi-multi-year marathon, and that’s just something people need to be comfortable with—to take baby steps toward a big picture. It’s frustrating, but it’s necessary to do it right.
What is your take on networking?
Well, I’m not very good at it. I subscribe to the 1980s Kid ‘n Play model, which is the answer to every problem is to throw one big party, so I’m better at hosting than I am at networking. I like to organize events where I am able to host as opposed to network. But it’s something I get more comfortable with, year after year.
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