You don’t want my job. My job has me holed up in a dingy hotel in Bonga, Keffa, while teenaged protesters march into the guns of the federal soldiers tasked to clear the road and, I have a sneaking suspicion, I’m the American backup hostage plan for the organizers. My job has me making tough decisions not every week, but every day—decisions that affect not just myself and my family, but the people who trust me. My job fires life into every vein; I wake eager and terrified at once to move forward into the future that I’m convinced I’m changing.
What’s this crazy job? I run coffee businesses. Yep, I’m cofounder of an international coffee importing business that specializes in Ethiopian coffee, and founder of Crema.co, an online coffee subscription that connects coffee drinkers like you with the producers who grow and the roasters who produce their favorite coffees.
I didn’t set out to work in coffee. I was a piano teacher and harpist who spent years in the Midwest trying to find a way to support myself with music. Coffee just… happened, like all the best things in life do—you know, falling in love, having children, discovering new worlds—and I started working as a barista in North Kansas City almost exactly ten years ago. At the time I had no idea that I’d found my true career; I just needed a job and somebody said I had a great personality for coffee.
I made a decent barista, quite good on the customer service side, but it wasn’t until I took my writing skills and applied them to coffee that my career took off. At the time, I was just struggling. I’d had a child and had undiagnosed postpartum depression, was stranded in the middle of Missouri’s farmlands, and had no idea how to move forward. Jason Burton, owner of The LAB, a boutique artisan beverage marketing company, saw some spark of potential in me and offered me a 3-month unpaid internship. During this time I finished an Associate’s degree, learned what ‘copywriting’ meant, and began organizing Caffeine Crawl events all over the US. Jason hired me after the internship and I moved to LA, then to Portland. During this time I worked with my first clients—and they were awesome!—in copywriting, social media management, event sponsorships, and PR.
About five years ago, I cofounded Catalyst Coffee Consulting with my life partner, Michael, who is also a coffee professional. Together we worked in a number of countries, with a variety of partners including international nonprofits, small importers, producers and cooperatives, and a huge number of roasters around the country. Two things happened in quick succession: Michael went to Ethiopia, and I cofounded Crema.co. Ethiopia began to exert a stronger and stronger pull on us until we focused our entire business on working with Ethiopian coffee, even moving with our then four-year-old daughter to live in Addis Ababa for around five months to oversee the 2016-17 coffee harvest. Crema.co grew, was funded by 500 Startups, and sold to a coffee entrepreneur; I stayed on as General Manager.
Which brings me to the present, sitting at a table under a tree near a pavilion roof that is soaked and sprouting little beanlike shoots, and wondering if I’ll start hearing gunshots anytime soon. Like I said, you don’t want my job.
Careers grow if nourished by relationships, hard work, and creativity. A thriving career is a simple byproduct of being an integrated human being who strives to do a fantastic job at everything you do and who chooses to take risks and ask questions.
Do you want to be a coffee professional? Here’s what you should know: first, it’s not a lucrative field. If you want to make money, don’t start working in coffee. Profit margins are incredibly tight and skilled work will be unlikely to bring in the kind of income it deserves—passion drives most coffee professionals, passion for the magical drink that we all love and that pulls us all together. Second, don’t expect there to be any prescribed path you can take. While there are certifications for coffee professionals, they don’t guarantee jobs. Coffee jobs are gained by proving yourself as a coffee person and a human being. If you want to work as a barista in a high end, specialty shop, it’s unlikely you’d be hired unless you’re already a regular customer there. If you want to work in green coffee, you’ll need not just the qualifications, but also the connections to make it happen. This is tough to enter—can feel like an insider’s club—but also drives home the truth, which is that we can only trust the people we know, and to be in coffee is to be known, on a deeper level than most industries.
Here’s what I recommend if you want my job: don’t try for my job. Make your own. Do the hard work to figure out what you’re good at, and how you can benefit others, and start offering to help. Gain skill doing exactly what you think you might want to do; if you are a designer and want to specialize in coffee, do some projects for coffee folks gratis and build up a portfolio. If you want to own a coffeeshop, become a barista and outperform everybody. Look closely at the unique intersection of your skills, interests, and passions, and see if there’s anything unique you can try.
Me, for example—I have a way with words. I’m a good photographer, good at systems and management, good at people. I’m good at all that, but I’m splendid with words. Words hold everything together and define my unique offering to the industry. I found my niche, and it’s bigger than a job; it’s bigger than a career—it’s a natural expression of who I am and I will be using these skills for the rest of my life.
If you want my job, go get your own.
Emily McIntyre is a professional badass in Portland: she runs coffee companies Crema.co & Catalyst Coffee Consulting + performs marketing magic for companies that actually give a shit. Learn more at www.emilymcintyre.com