We get to know Olga Cuellar Gomez, sustainable sourcing manager of S&D Coffee & Tea.
BY CHRIS RYAN
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Cover photo courtesy of S&D Coffee
For Olga Cuellar Gomez, working in coffee communities isn’t just a passion, it’s in her blood. Growing up in Colombia’s coffee-producing Quindío department, Olga’s father worked in the industry, and her earliest memories involve coffee. As a graduate student she studied the relationship between coffee and gender, and eventually landed her first job in coffee with Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers. Now she serves as sustainable sourcing manager of S&D Coffee & Tea, where she works directly with farming communities in five countries in Central and South America. We talked to Olga about her start in coffee and what drives her to keep working in the field.
Chris Ryan: What are your earliest memories of coffee? What was your relationship with coffee before you started working in the industry?
Olga Cuellar Gomez: My father worked in coffee, so some of my earliest memories involve it. As a kid, I remember my father traveling to visit coffee cooperatives and working with them. At that time of course I did not understand what he was doing, just that he had to travel a lot. Also, I am from Armenia, Quindío, which is a coffee region, so I do remember that I visited so many coffee farms as a kid for fun. My cousins and I would play a game with green coffee bags where we’d hide and play around.
But my most memorable moment of coffee as a kid is from eighth grade. I had to do a social-studies assignment, and with my friends we decided to do a model with Play-Doh of the supply chain from seed to cup: the coffee trees, wet and dry mill, the mule transportation, and delivery to the processing plant. It’s a remarkable memory for me—I had to read a book from my father’s library and get his support on the process.
CR: How did you start working in coffee? What industry did you think you’d work in before coffee?
OCG: When I was in high school I wanted to be a pediatrician—I love kids and I wanted to be surrounded by them. Then in my last year of high school I decided that being a doctor wasn’t what I was looking for in my professional future, but I did want to be involve with people and support vulnerable communities. I decided to study social psychology, not to be a therapist, but to find ways to support groups of people, and more importantly those that are in remote areas.
I started working in coffee in the last semester of college. I applied for a volunteer opportunity on a coffee project in the Huila region, working with youth from a coffee community to develop a life path workshop with the community’s school. I traveled to this small region in Huila called Santa Maria, met with professors and community leaders, and together we developed a workshop for students to explore their professional path—and coffee was one of these opportunities. Then when I was accepted to do my masters at the University of Arizona, I decided from the beginning I wanted to do my thesis project on coffee and gender, and start to do deep research about this. Then through this project I had the opportunity to participate in Let’s Talk Coffee 2007, organized by Sustainable Harvest, as I was trying to better understand the business side of coffee. I discovered I really loved the coffee industry, and after this conference I got my first job at Sustainable Harvest as the Let’s Talk Coffee coordinator in 2008.
CR: Can you share a couple of your favorite memories from your years working in coffee?
OCG: I have loved having the opportunity to travel and to see different parts of the world through coffee. When I had the opportunity to visit Rwanda for a Let’s Talk Coffee event there, that was remarkable. I experienced coffee in a completely different context, and it was eye-opening to see the differences and the similarities. I especially remember dancing with the women coffee producers—even though I did not understand the language, I did understand the kindness and happiness of these women. They wanted me to be part of them and of their dancing moves. I will never forget this.
Other important memories to me are related to participating in shows and presenting at conferences, sharing my learnings and also acquiring knowledge, and making meaningful connections to keep contributing to this industry.
CR: What is your job now? What are your areas of focus and day-to-day life?
OCG: My current position is sustainable sourcing manager at S&D Coffee & Tea. I manage the sustainable sourcing platform, which is a holistic and inclusive approach to delivering maximum impact at the farm level and building a long-term sustainable path. I manage 16 sustainable programs in Central and South America—specifically in Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua—that impact over 4,500 farmers. I am based at origin in Bogotá, Colombia, which allows me to work closely with strategic partners—importers, exporters, and cooperatives among others—to ensure the successful implementation of Raiz (S&D’s sustainable sourcing platform).
CR: What is gratifying to you about working in coffee?
OCG: Working together with communities and knowing that my work is making a small change in coffee producers, their families, and their communities. The smile that I am so grateful to experience when I visit a farm is priceless, as is listening to their stories, their challenges, and their progress and success. I love sharing a meal with these farmers, getting to know better their realities, learning from their experiences, and seeing how that contributes to the well-being of their farm, their family, and in a lot of cases their communities.