Most students who drink a cup of coffee in Caldwell’s dining hall do not know they are making a difference in the lives of farmers in Latin America.
Keith Lemnios, president of Sun Coffee Roasters, which supplies the coffee for Caldwell’s provider, Gourmet Dining, is on a mission to educate young people about the role they can play in helping micro-farmers and their families. In an event sponsored by Campus Ministry Dec. 3, he spoke to students about his company’s work in the sustainable fair trade coffee business.
Caldwell students, including those in Professor Helen McGowan’s MBA law and ethics class, learned how Lemnios and his employees make sure that the farmers earn living wages and that their children have an education through twelfth grade. Lemnios said this gives the children the choice after graduation to go home and to work on a higher sustainable crop or to make a living in a different field. “Keith is an inspiration for our aspiring business leaders. We learned so much about corporate social responsibility and business ethics in action,” said McGowan.
In 1990 Lemnios started working in the coffee business after having worked on Wall Street. He was focused on business, profits and “myself,” he said. However, he had “an awakening” in 2002 when his staff found invoices from the late 1940s. To his amazement, the prices were exactly the same then as they were in 2002. The invoices showed coffee from Peru, Colombia, Guatemala and Brazil. Lemnios was purchasing from these same countries and regions in 2002. Farm families two generations later were making the same amount of money as in the 1940’s, he said. “That was just wrong.”
The discovery was a life-changing event for him. He knew the company was “not doing the right thing,” and he wondered, “How can we help farmers and keep business?” He decided to get out of the business and to go to Harvard. Lemnios eventually came up with a business model to help farmers. Today Sun Coffee Roasters makes sure they earn living wages. “Most roasters are not doing it. No one in the coffee supply chain thinks about the farmer’s plight.”
MBA student Brandi-Lee Brochu said the talk was the best one she had attended on campus. “I found it refreshing to see a businessman give up a successful company for the sole purpose of wanting to do more for the people he works with.” Lemnios, she said, “is setting a good example for businesses and college students by keeping his company to one specific market and refusing to fall victim to money-hungry habits like some other companies.”
Senior Allison Johansen attended the talk and said she admired Lemnios’ commitment to educating the children of farmers. “We live in a consumerist culture,” said Johansen, but Lemnios places great value on human beings. He said supporting the farmers makes sense from an ethical perspective and from a practical business standpoint. Johansen, a residence life assistant in the Mother Joseph Rosary Hall dormitory, had university students create Christmas cards for the children who attend one of the schools Sun Coffee Roasters supports. Lemnios appreciates such efforts. “We want to put the farmer’s face and story to your coffee. Purchasing decisions directly affect lives of coffee farmers and their families worldwide,” he said. “We also help educate the micro-farmers on how to grow a better more sustainable crop to get a premium price.”
Lemnios and his team have supported several K-5 schools in Central and South America, most recently in Peru, El Salvador and Nicaragua. They also fund a preschool in Jinotega, Nicaragua, allowing mothers and fathers to work the farms while their children are in the classroom. Lemnios told of a fourth-grader who had to watch a two-year-old sibling but who can now go to school.
The Caldwell students agreed that Lemnios’ company is making a difference for young people in Latin America, and students like Brochu appreciate having the chance to help make change happen. “I respect Caldwell for partnering with Keith because I think his mission for going the extra mile reflects Caldwell’s mission perfectly,” Brochu said.