Entrepreneur's Perspective: Margaret Nyamumbo, Founder of Kahawa 1893

Margaret Nyamumbo showcases her product at an alumna-organized meetup for Smithies in Tech, hosted by Checkr in San Francisco. Alumni communities can be a source of inspiration and support for entrepreneurs, offering them four key things every entrepreneur needs: networking, visibility, recruiting, and special experiences.

Margaret Nyamumbo showcases her product at an alumna-organized meetup for Smithies in Tech, hosted by Checkr in San Francisco. Alumni communities can be a source of inspiration and support for entrepreneurs, offering them four key things every entrepreneur needs: networking, visibility, recruiting, and special experiences.

We do our best work as fundraising and alumni relations professionals when we deeply understand the constituents we serve — on both sides of the philanthropic relationship. Alumni entrepreneurs have a path and a perspective that’s distinct. There’s no better way to learn than to ask about their journeys as founders and leaders.

Margaret Nyamumbo founded Kahawa 1893 Coffee following a career in finance and a Harvard MBA. We both have undergraduate degrees from Smith College, so I was especially interested in hearing about what she’s building, and how her time at our alma mater may have informed her journey. Turns out, her education and career have helped her to draw entrepreneurial fuel from her earliest experiences.

When you started college at Smith, did you know you wanted to take an entrepreneurial path? 

Not at all. When I arrived at Smith, my goal was to go medical school and become a doctor. My desire was to have a professional job and the stability that came with that, especially as an immigrant. Entrepreneurship and particularly coffee, were probably the last thing I expected to do. 

Growing up in a coffee family, coffee is considered a ‘poverty’ crop and the goal is to get educated so that you can go as far away from coffee as possible. So my choice of a career in coffee was a surprise to both my family and I.

My time at Smith introduced me to Economics and the business world. It prepared me for a career in entrepreneurship indirectly by developing my leadership skills. I was surrounded by strong women who showed me that my gender was a source of strength, not a limitation. I went on to pursue an MBA, but even in business school, I was not inclined towards building a company.

So what changed and sparked your turn toward founding and building a business?

It was while working in finance that I developed an interest in the trading side of coffee. As I learned more about the industry, I felt a strong desire to build a business that could solve a problem that was personal to me and change millions of lives.

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And what problem does Kahawa 1893 solve?

I founded Kahawa 1893 Coffee to develop a better supply chain that benefits farmers and to ensure female producers are compensated. There is glaring gender inequality in the coffee industry and with global prices below the cost of production, the burden of providing unpaid labor to support these low prices has fallen on women. 

The little compensation available goes to men who are the land-owners, leaving women to find other ways to support their families. One of those ways is through micro-businesses, and because these women lack access to credit, they are organized into small groups that aggregate savings and lend to each other. 

When I thought about the best way to support the women, without upsetting the family structure, I created a women’s fund supported by a portion of Kahawa 1893’s profits. The fund provides credit to women farmers to support their micro-enterprises.

You mentioned that the coffee business is personal for you. Did that personal experience inspire you to tackle this particular issue?

I grew up on a coffee farm in Kenya and my family still grows coffee. My grandfather was among the first Kenyan natives to be allowed to grow coffee by British settlers, so my coffee roots run deep. Growing up, I witnessed first hand the how women performed the lion’s share of work in coffee cultivation, but went uncompensated. 

I never intended to go back into coffee, but when I decided to go into the industry, closing this gender gap was of utmost importance to me.

On your website, you note that the way coffee’s traded hasn’t changed in 200 years. Are you using new technologies to disrupt and modernize this pattern?

Yes. We leverage blockchain technology to increase transparency along the value chain, which is currently long and opaque. By sharing information about who produced the coffee and the journey from farm-to-cup, consumers can make more informed choices on what practices they support with a purchase. 

We are particularly excited about the potential of the technology to connect consumers and producers directly, where for instance you can tip the coffee farmer directly when you buy coffee. This improves upon current fair trade mechanisms that involve an intermediary. Consumers, particularly millennials, want transparency around where their money is going.

As an early stage entrepreneur, you have probably made some sacrifices in terms of your income-earning potential while you build the company. How do you think about philanthropy now?

Before I founded Kahawa 1893, I was working on Wall Street, building a career in Finance. When I graduated with an MBA from Harvard Business School my plan was to follow a traditional career path. When I decided to become an entrepreneur, I sacrificed that but I am very content with the new path. 

As a social enterprise, philanthropy is core to our business model. If we achieve meaningful financial success, philanthropy is top of mind for me, and I am specifically excited to give others the opportunities I benefited from like the scholarships I received at both Smith and Harvard. 

Without the support of other’s philanthropy, I would not have been able to receive a quality education and have the freedom to forge my own path. I want to do the same for others that are in the situation I was only a couple years ago.

I’m curious about how we in Higher Ed are doing when it comes to showing what philanthropy makes possible on our campuses. Do you feel like you saw the impact of others’ philanthropy during your own time at your alma maters?

Yes, definitely. I was on scholarship, and philanthropy made my presence on campus possible. Both Smith and Harvard Business School did a wonderful job of connecting beneficiaries with the sponsors, and I remember writing thank you notes and having a chance to communicate directly. After graduation, I receive email and print media that highlights the positive impact of philanthropy on campus, which I find informative and uplifting. It does seem that discussions around philanthropy are reserved mostly for alumni, so there is an opportunity to introduce them sooner, although I am not sure exactly how, but that is some food for thought.

Have you stayed involved with entrepreneurial or other activities on campus in any way? How’s that experience been?

Yes. Smith has a new entrepreneurship program that was set up after I had graduated and I have been able to provide mentorship to current students, share my startup journey and judge entrepreneurship competitions. I have really enjoyed connecting with Smith in this way, and being able to provide a diverse perspective to current students and support them in any way, gives me a great deal of satisfaction.

It’s great to hear about what you’re building, Margaret, and the opportunity you’re creating with your company. Where can people learn more about Kahawa 1893 coffee and the women you support?

On our website: https://kahawa1893.com/!

Philanthropy is core to our business model. If we achieve meaningful financial success, philanthropy is top of mind for me.