Sustenance: Coffee that fights slavery
Sustenance: Coffee that fights slavery

Sustenance: Coffee that fights slavery

Storyville is the kind of conscientious "B Corporation" that MBAs, PhDs, and MFAs can all rally around.

July 9 th 2010

The connection between enjoying a perfect cup of coffee and arresting human trafficking is not immediately apparent, unless you are familiar with Storyville Coffee, a Seattle-based mail order coffee company that is designed to provide the perfect cup of coffee and to help rescue victims of slavery, trafficking, and other forms of violent oppression. They provide millions of dollars of support each year to International Justice Mission.

The business plan is genius. Storyville offers only two kinds of coffee: Prologue (caffeinated) and Epilogue (decaffeinated), artfully blended in their Bainbridge Island studio, and roasted and shipped the same day as it is ordered online. The coffee arrives with the roast date prominently displayed on the beans in a package that rivals Red Envelope or Tiffany. One is wowed even before tasting the first drop. The care and precision that is encouraged in the making of the first cup of Storyville rivals that of a Japanese tea ceremony. The process is called "The Ritual" for good reason.

Storyville's unique sales proposition is based on a little-known fact. Coffee usually smells better than it tastes. There is a reason for the typical cup of coffee's burnt bitterness: shelf life. The oils in coffee beans will go rancid twelve days after being roasted. So in order to extend shelf life, other coffee companies—"The Man" in Storyville's lexicon—overcook their coffee beans to rid it of the fragile oils. Fresh coffee does not have a bitter taste. Fresh coffee foams up like beer (called its "bloom") when hot water is poured over it. Fresh coffee can be drunk black without the acidic burnt taste we have come to expect. Storyville has brought the mystique of coffee back.

How is Storyville able to give so much profit away to IJM? Well, consider their marketing strategy. It is based solely on word-of-mouth by key influentials in targeted urban areas. They host free (note) in-home concerts with prominent musicians and serve Storyville coffee during the intermission and explain how the company is designed to alleviate human trafficking. No donations are taken. Coffee drinkers are instead immersed in a sensual experience of the good, true, and beautiful. Great music. Exceptional coffee. Social good. I'm a convert to Storyville. Perhaps even a maven.

Storyville is the brainchild of Jon Phelps, founder and co-CEO of Full Sail University ( Jon and I connected over our shared vision for a new form of business, one that is designed to address the needs of all its stakeholders, addressing equally the concerns of profits, people, and planet. We dreamed together of equipping and encouraging a new generation of entrepreneurs to embrace the possibilities of business as an instrument of social good, that fuses the altruism of nonprofits with the economic dynamism of for-profit business.

We are not alone in this conversation. There are many now calling for "conscientious capitalism." Danielle Sacks, an award-winning senior writer for Fast Company, is on a personal mission to reinvent business after its greed and scandal-ridden showing in the past two years. She has started a monthly column in the magazine called "Ethonomics," a self-conscious combining of "ethics" and "economics."

Jeffery Hollender, the co-founder and executive chairperson of Seventh Generation, has launched the American Sustainable Business Council. The mission of ASBC is to "advance public policies that ensure a vibrant, just, and sustainable economy."

B Lab is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to "create a new sector of the economy that harnesses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems." It promotes a new type of corporation—the B Corporation—that creates economic opportunity, builds strong communities, and preserves a healthy environment. B Corporations are held to strict standards of social accountability.

Academics, artists, and social activists are all in need of money. For too long we have been dependent on the largess of patronage and the grants of foundations. These traditional sources of revenue will always play their part, particularly in seeding new ventures and sustaining efforts with intrinsic symbolic value, such as the opera or symphony. But now is the time to establish new types of partnerships, for suits and creatives to join forces in a common vision for what is possible when the power of business is joined in common cause around things that matter. MBAs need to join with PhDs and MFAs to create a new world of sustainable philanthropy. Social entrepreneurs must harness the power of business to serve as catalysts of shalom in the wider world.

When that happens, coffee will taste a little less bitter and a little bit better.

July 15, 2010—Correction: Storyville's in-home concerts are not free; rather, tickets are $35 per person, which allows Storyville to pay artists and offset tour costs. Comment regrets the error.

John Seel
John Seel

Dr. John Seel is the former director of cultural engagement at the John Templeton Foundation. He is currently principal at John Seel Consulting LLC, a cultural impact consulting firm specializing on millennials. He, and his wife Kathryn, attend Cresheim Valley Church and live in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania.


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