I had the pleasure of interviewing Victoria Lynden. Victoria is the CEO of Kohana Coffee and Alliance Abroad Group. In 2014, Inc Magazine named Kohana the sixth fastest-growing food and beverage company in the US. In 2020, Kohana will be the first company to source 100% of its coffee from women growers — a mission that will boost gender equality and raise living standards for women and their families in the world’s impoverished coffee-growing regions.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
Ten years ago, I took a trip to Hawaii as a burned-out executive eager to take a few days to exhale and rejuvenate my mind. One morning I was on a moped ride around Oahu with my partner Piper, and we got stuck in a torrential tropical rainstorm. We found shelter in a beaten down coffee shack on the side of the road. The moment I stepped inside I was hit by the incredible aroma of absolutely perfect coffee that took me right back to my childhood spent at my mother’s kitchen table. That first sip did more than just warm me; it healed me, and at that moment time finally stood still. How ironic that it took a cup of coffee to finally slow me down!
The original intention was just to bring this incredible Hawaiian coffee to my store and cafe, Cissi’s Market, in Austin so I could share it with my customers. The idea was somewhat of a whim because it seemed pretty low-commitment. I soon realized that it wasn’t that simple, and it turned into this whole process of coffee education, of coming to understand the art and science of it all, and that turned into a bit of an obsession. At some point, I realized I was in too deep as it had sort of accidentally grown into more than a sideline. You reach a certain point with any obsession where you stop driving it and it starts driving you — and I guess that’s how Kohana started in 2008.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
One of the funniest stories happened at the very beginning of the Kohana journey. We started out as roasters. At the time, our sole client was Cissi’s Market which I opened in honor of my recently deceased mother. Eventually, luck gave us our big break. We moved onto the shelves of Whole Foods, and suddenly there I was in a hairnet, standing on black pavement on a 102-degree summer afternoon in Austin, offering samples of blazing hot coffee to understandably reluctant passers-by. Not exactly what one would call smart marketing!
What I should be passing out, I thought, was the iced sun tea my mother used to make, a liquid gold brewed in the sun on our back step that was so smooth and refreshing you’d thought it the manna of heaven itself. But mine wasn’t a tea company. It was a coffee company. Still, you know… why let that stop me?
So at the end of that rather sad, hot day, I packed up the car, went back to the warehouse, gathered a plumber’s bucket and a cheese cloth that looked rather discomfortingly like granny panties, and tried to create sun-coffee. Five-gallon buckets soon were replaced by trash cans, filled with a bone-crushing weight of wet, soggy coffee grinds that was almost impossible for mortal humans to lift. Production runs were limited to whatever brute strength we could gather among our staff on a given day to separate fresh cold-brewed coffee from old-brewed grounds.
That day spent in the scorching hot parking lot began our foray into the cold-brew coffee world. Although that day seemed like a disaster at the time, I now look back on it with gratitude (and a good laugh!).
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
After our memorable day in the parking lot, we eventually figured out a sustainable system to create cold brewed coffee that tasted great, required no refrigeration, and didn’t need a team of body-builders to separate its grounds from the end result. We now have a proprietary formula, thanks to a unique water filtration system, that makes shelf-stable cold brew.
I took a risk and went from roaster to cold-brewer, from bagger to bottler, despite the paradigm shift it represented, and with that our whole business model changed.
Kohana has successfully cornered the market on shelf-stable coffee concentrates and organic ready-to-drink cold brew coffee. Besides these products, which are the first of its kind in the US, what really stands Kohana apart is our commitment to women. There’s a significant gender divide in the coffee industry that we are laser focused on addressing and changing at Kohana.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
Since we’re all about supporting women, we’re extremely proud of our efforts to source all of our cold brew coffee from female growers and farmers around the world. By 2020, Kohana will be the first company to exclusively source ALL of our coffee from women — a mission that I’m particularly proud and passionate about. Our direct-trade coffee will be produced by women growers, processed by women millers, and exported and imported by women players.
When it comes to sourcing, we look for organic and fairly traded coffee sources and demand transparency from all of our partners. We also pay a premium on the front end that goes to support various women’s groups that we work with — including Las Capucas’, AMPROCAL and Manos de Mujer in Honduras. In addition to these relationships, we just announced a sustaining partnership with International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA) to help deepen our network of female-run coffee operations.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
I think it’s important to lead on values. So establishing company-wide initiatives that manifest those values externally is always a good idea. People like to know they’re working for something bigger than a bottom line. Anything that carries that ideal into the larger community is great. Another big one is to establish a management culture of kindness and empathy, one that respects a healthy world-life balance. That’s a huge differentiator. Then there are the little things like free snacks or a ping-pong table, company events, staff massages, guest speakers…you name it. Offer enough of these and you’ll create something substantial.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am grateful to so many people, but I have to say that my mother Cissi shaped who I am today. She was a single mother who raised me and my siblings in the outskirts of Chicago. Our upbringing was a somewhat threadbare existence — we didn’t have much and my mother worked several jobs to provide just enough to get by on. Even with our own family’s struggles, she still found time to volunteer and help those in need — a value she instilled in me at a very young age.
I have vivid memories of her inviting people off the streets, some homeless and others just down on their luck, for a warm cup of coffee that always seemed to be percolating on our kitchen stove. Ever since, coffee has always represented a magical elixir that brings people together — something that had the power to help those on the edge of struggle get through another day.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Kohana supports sustainable practices, and we make donations to lots of organizations working on gender equity, health care, education, and housing. We just try to walk our talk at every opportunity and let our actions speak for themselves. We put a lot into our organic growing efforts and creating true sustainability on all levels. When it comes to Kohana’s future, we’re incredibly excited to be working with the IWCA to continue empowering women in the industry,
The bottom line is that I want to be of service. I feel I’ve been successful if truly my legacy enables other to be of service.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1.) It can be very lonely. I found out early the importance of having healthy boundaries as the CEO. Even though I was the same age as the majority of my team, when I started in my late 20’s, I was not included in their social events as they saw me as the “boss” and did not want to cross that line into their personal lives.
2.) The importance of a good contract/business attorney. Our retail partners have very complex agreements. There may be 10 documents, which each take more than a week to fill out and respond to the various requests. One sentence out of the aggregate will define terms, conditions, as well as penalties, so it is essential that an attorney understands the impact of the terms and the realities of being able to comply with them. We had an agreement where we were fined by the hour for late deliveries as well as sending the product (truckload) back to our warehouse. However, we were not able to control when their distribution center would allow the truck in to unload. Although we were on time, their distribution center could not meet our appointment time and the truck was turned away and returned, and we had to write it off to spoilage. We tried to negotiate with the retailer, but we were told that they were in compliance with the agreement. After that, we sought out an experienced attorney in our field, and he wrote in the clause that if it was not due to fault of our own, the retailer would have to pay for the goods.
3.) The value of an advisory board. There is tremendous value in having informal, outside perspectives of experienced individuals with diverse backgrounds. When we were looking at expanding into a new area of our business, bringing in house retort and canning into our manufacturing facility, I believe we looked at it as more of an “opportunistic” strategy rather than understanding all of the tactical and financial requirements it would take to execute. By having more objective viewpoints, I strongly believe it allows an organization to look at implementing new lines of business through filters that are not inherently internal.
4.) The challenge of raising money as a female. In 2017, Private Equity firms funded 2% of female-led companies. As the VC world is primarily male, it is very difficult to raise money. When I was looking for investors, during an 18-month period of time, there was never one individual that I met who was female. Rather, the women who were present always deferred to the males in the room even though I was the CEO and Founder.
5.) Slowing down is the only way to find your passion. And finding your passion is the only way to live the life you want for not only yourself but those around you. Make moments for yourself in which you can truly breathe free and use those precious times to see what life has been trying to show you. The trip to Hawaii over ten years ago was that moment for me, and I’m so grateful to have had it as it led me to my dream that is Kohana.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
You never know what your idea can trigger. :-) One of my mentors, Angela Jia Kim, taught me the mantra of GiveGiveGet. My movement would be to find a way to be of service daily. I often question what is the greatest way to give back, and it can be overwhelming with “the asks” from organizations, events and charitable needs. What I have found is that every day I can find simple ways to be available to those looking for help or guidance — I can help them directly or through my network of supports who are always willing to lend a hand. The willingness to give of myself ultimately comes back full circle with the others supporting my endeavors.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
C.S. Lewis “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are now and change the ending.”
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
It is very difficult to come up with just one! If I had to choose, it would be Oprah…although she probably makes everyone’s top list! Oprah is relatable as an accidental entrepreneur. To survive the vicissitudes of her life, as a black woman, and to take those challenges and be extremely successful in all of her business endeavors, is awe-inspiring. As one of the greatest philanthropists, which is truly something that I have tremendous respect and gratitude for, she truly lives her life by the GiveGiveGet mantra. She is a constant reminder to keep dreaming and most importantly, to keep giving.