Feb 7 • 41M

Keith Hawkins and the Zoom Call That Never Happened

The 20+ year industry pro and founder of Color of Coffee Collective talks about the start-stop pace of progress—and following through on attempts to do better.

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My guest today is Keith Hawkins, the founder of Color of Coffee Collective, an organization that challenges the coffee industry to be more equitable across the supply chain. The Color of Coffee Collective does this through direct support, education, and its annual symposium held in Houston.

Keith has been in coffee for over 20 years, and speaks frankly and passionately about moving the needle of change. What I love about this conversation is that it zooms in and pans out: We talk about change from a broad perspective and how meaningful action can evolve slowly, but we also talk about the minute moments—the small interactions and one-on-one discussions that fuel new behaviors and inspire new perspectives.

The Color of Coffee Symposium is happening in just a couple of weeks, in early March (you can register for tickets here). I hope listening to this conversation, which is both fun and lighthearted but also emotional and deep—there are tears towards the end of the episode—inspires you to go to this event if you can. If you can’t, maybe it will inspire you to have a hard conversation with someone instead. Change happens in moments of honesty, and it’s okay to admit when you’re wrong—I think Keith provides a perfect template for how to do work that might feel tough and come out better on the other side. Here’s Keith:

Ashley: Keith, I was hoping you could start by introducing yourself.

Keith: Absolutely. So, I’m Keith Hawkins—born and raised in Houston, Texas. Went away to the military for 10 years and got into military police and drill sergeant's school. And while it was fun and exciting, it was also unfulfilling for me in the sense that I was looking for something, I don't know, a little bit more challenging because I had kind of reached a point of, “Okay I'm at this point where I think I've reached success.”

I came home and didn't want to [be in the] military and didn't want to do police work anymore. And a friend of mine invited me to come to work at a coffee place on the OCS, which is office coffee service. And I was like, “What? Like, what is that?”

That was early or mid ‘90s, and I was like, “Yeah, I don't even drink coffee,” but I went anyway. And it was fun! It was fun because I got a chance to get into coffee from a perspective of just basically delivering coffee and talking about coffee without actually drinking coffee. It was really unique, it was different, and at that point I didn't realize that I would start liking coffee. I was actually hoping, “Okay, this is just a gateway job. I'm looking for something more down—kind of what I love to do.”

Yeah, I went and got stuck, and so here I am 24 years later.

Ashley: I was about to say, when you said the mid to late ‘90s, I was like, oh, you’ve been in this for almost two decades—over two!

Keith: Yeah, 24 years. It's been, it's been an interesting journey. When I look back and I think about this whole process, I always ask myself, “How did I get here?” The initial part of me getting into coffee was just finding a job.

But the more I became—and I’m not gonna even try to sugarcoat this: I didn't care about learning the ins and outs of coffee because I just wanted a job. About six years into it someone told me, “If you take this serious, you can probably go places in this.”

And I thought, “Go places? I mean, I talk to customers all day long about coffee, but you really want me to learn more about coffee? I don't know if I wanna do that.”

That conversation propelled me to get a little deeper and it fast-forwarded my quest to, I would say move up in the coffee ranks, but again, still on the office coffee side of things.

Ashley: Right. And you're talking about a period of, like you said, six years into it. So you're saying like 2003, 2004, 2005. So specialty coffee was still not as accessible. Also, we didn't have the internet in the way that we do now. I have to imagine at that period of time, you're like, “Wait, coffee can actually be a thing?”

I remember when I first learned that coffee could be a career in 2012 by going to a barista camp and people telling me what their jobs were, and I was like, “This isn't real. This is fake.” So I have to imagine at that point too, for you, it must have been like, “Seriously, can I actually do this?”

At what point did you [think] not just that you could do this, but that you wanted to do this?

Keith: The point that pivoted things for me was—so clearly, I came from the military. I was a drill sergeant, so I had leadership experience and I've always had leadership at the core of who I've been, even from high school.

I've always had this element in me that wanted to see the best in people. I've always wanted to try to pull out the best in people and lead them in a path that would kind of grow them in the space in which they were in. And so I remember the pivoting point for me in coffee, especially in the OCS, is when one of my supervisors said, “You really can make some[thing] of this.”

And then I had a friend of mine who—the same guy who invited me into this—somehow the roles were reversed and he ended up working directly for me, I was more of a supervisor than I was a manager. I shared with him what I was discovering in coffee and he was like, “You sure you wanna stay here because you like people?”

And I go, “Not just because I like people, but I really wanna learn more about the packaging and the roasting and the story behind where this coffee has come from. Like we just get it and we consume it.”

He was like, “But that's kind of your deal.” And I was like, “Yeah, that's kind of where I wanna stay, but I wanna move from this to something different.”

But I didn't know how to move from this to something different, right? There was none of these elements in place, as you just mentioned—these barista training schools. From the office coffee service side of things, you're either delivering the coffee or you're selling the coffee or you're supervising one of the two. But there's no real plan in place to talk about, “Let's get you connected to how green buyers—how we buy our coffees.”

These are things that I was more interested in, but I never got a chance to [explore]. What ended up happening was I just said, “Listen, I wanna be a manager and I wanna be able to learn—I wanna be able to train people more, but I also wanna be able to learn more.”

My job at that time was—they would always have these managers meetings at these remote locations once a year. And if you were a manager, you got a chance to go. I aspired to do that, be it the military in me just wanting to be competitive. But I wanted to be in those manager's meetings and one day I got my wish, I was promoted to a manager and I went to the first manager's meeting, and I was blown away. For so many different reasons.

I was blown away one, because of the amount of information that was shared there about coffee was nothing I ever knew of in the role that I was in, right? So there was this gap that I immediately saw, but then secondly, probably most importantly, when I walked into that room—and I can give you exact date, this was 2006.

I walked into the room and there was absolutely no person of color in the room and there were no women in the room. And I was like, “Whoa. So these are the managers’ meetings,” and there was over 200 managers within the company that was at this meeting. And it was a whole weekend event. We had a great time. We discussed a lot of things. We learned a lot. But I was really confused as to why it was that the representation then didn't represent the people who were delivering the coffee. So that was a pivoting moment for me. I think that that probably was the moment when I said, “Okay, I want to get to know more.”

Ashley: I think that kind of leads into—I mean, maybe this is a little bit of a jump, but it kind of leads into some of the work that you're doing now with Color of Coffee Collective, and I was wondering if you could tell people a little bit about what that organization is and why you founded it.

Keith: Yeah, absolutely. So I founded Color of Coffee Collective in 2021—August, to be exact, of 2021. And this was after that self realization in 2006, but then it just kind of built and built and built. So you would say, “14, 15 years later you decided to do something?” Well, actually, I was doing something in between, but what I was hoping for was, [if] there was an opportunity for some change within the industry that I thought, “Okay, well maybe if I stay at this level, I can make an impact.” And certainly that never happened. So fast forward to 2021. I am hanging out at—actually it was 2020 during the pandemic.

I'm hanging out at a coffee shop as I'm prone to do when I go visit cities. I was hanging out at a coffee shop in Dallas and I remember very, very vividly. I go to their Instagram page—I get a cup of coffee, I'm sitting outside on the patio and I go to their Instagram page and I'm checking out their Instagram and there was this post that happened just a couple days before I arrived.

They said, “Hey, we are wanting to have some real honest discussions about”—this was post-George Floyd—”We want to have a Zoom call or a video call or live when we discuss equity and representation in coffee and we'd love to get you guys’ input. Would you be interested?” It was something to that effect on the post.

I immediately responded like on the post, like, “Absolutely man. Let me know when you guys are gonna do this. I'd love to have this conversation.” That was in 2020. So in 2021, I followed up, things were opening up, and I took a screenshot of the post and [of] my response and their response to my response, and I just saved it, not knowing anything about it—it was just kind of my way of reminding myself.

So I followed up in 2021, almost a year later to the date, and there was no answers.

Ashley: So they didn't have that Zoom?

Keith: No, they did not. They did not. So it was at that moment that I realized that there were so many companies post-George Floyd who were really doing performative work, right? There was a lot of advertisement about change, but there was very little movement about change and representation.

I have felt this all along, but yet didn't have a platform to say we need change. And then there wasn't a whole lot of, “Hey, we want to see change within coffee,” because as W.E.B. DuBois once said: “There's nothing wrong with the system that is not built to include folks of color.” They feel that the system is okay.

So I addressed that, and I went back and I was like, “Hey, are you ever gonna have this discussion?” And I got crickets—no response, no nothing. And it was at that moment that I realized if I want change, I'm gonna have to be the change that I want to see in this world.

With a leap of faith, I just jumped out and said, “This is what I want to do.” I had been talking to some folks, I was hosting a coffee talk show on a local radio station here at Houston, and I would get guests on every weekend and folks that I knew through the industry, both Black and Brown. One day I decided to email 'em and say, “Listen, this is a conversation that I'm thinking about having and I'd love to have you guys a part of it.”

And, you know, one thing led to another and we kicked off the company and a bunch of people who just believed in the vision, who felt some sense of disenfranchisement as well—and here we are, just over a year [later].

And the momentum has continued to grow. We had our first symposium in May of 2022 and we had just over a hundred people there and it was a phenomenal. More important than the turnout was the energy and the excitement within the building about having something where people didn't feel like I felt when I walked into that room of managers in 2006, of people who looked like them and who were doing the same work.

Ashley: It's interesting that you mentioned this Dallas coffee company not following through on their promise to have this conversation because, as I was hearing this story, I was like, “Coffee shops should be having these conversations.”

If we look historically at what coffee shops are to communities—not to say that hasn't been corrupted by gentrification and by other forces—but coffee shops are meant to be gathering spaces. If there's any space to do a tough conversation, it's a coffee shop. And then to go backwards on it, like you were saying, it was performative. It was just like, “We're gonna signal these things, but we're not actually going to do them.”

Coffee is primed to have these tough conversations and we should be having them, it should be a space for us to really analyze, not just what's happening within the coffee industry, but what's happening within coffees in general—or not coffees in general, but communities in general.

Keith: So in the 2006 managers’ meeting, I walked into that space and then a couple of years later we go because the managers get a chance to go to—at that time it was another coffee event. It wasn't the popular ones, but it was another coffee event that they sent us all to in New Orleans.

And I walk into this space, and again, it's almost like our managers’ meeting, right? I'm one, if not only a few of African Americans that are in the room. No women or very few women—actually, I’ll take that back: There were women who were representatives as salespeople but then there was also very few Latinos, if any.

And so at this point, I am starting to understand a little bit more about coffee. The portrayal of the industry was—there's this huge dominant factor of white men who have a grasp on the industry and it’s almost seeming as though there is just this transference of power to the next white male to continue to run the industry.

And every now and again, they'll sprinkle in a few faces of color and/or women to kind of keep this movement going. Well, when I walked into the space in Seattle just recently for Coffee Fest, or walk into the space in Los Angeles for Coffee Fest, it was no different from 2006 to 2022 which said to me that while coffee has been growing, I mean numerically and financially and economically for years, yet the conversations around—and more importantly, the lack of conversations around—how do you show up in places where other communities feel as though they belong in these spaces.

I'm not sure again, in 2022, how many manufacturers and or coffee giants really want to have these discussions. I think it's a lot of, “Let's put it out there,” but we really don't want to set a date nor set a time nor set, more importantly, actions around…viable—

Ashley: About doing anything.

Keith: Right. And so we come along now and thankfully, one of the things that I always tell my team is that we're not going to create this change in a matter of a year or two years because it's like running a 100-yard dash, or 100 meters.

If I give you a 75-yard head start, the chances of me catching you is—they're impossible, right? But as long as we continue to run the race with the long goal in mind, then that change is gonna happen. We just gotta continue to have these conversations, but not just have conversations, but have conversations that are surrounded around, “Okay, so what do we do about it? Around sustainable action?”

Ashley: Yeah. That's a good point. What are sustainable actions that we can take?

Because I imagine, I don't know, maybe I'm making a jump here, but still thinking back to that example, that you said about the coffee shop in Dallas saying they're gonna do a thing then not doing that thing.

I wonder if it's partially from what you said, the W.E.B. DuBois quote that if you're not oppressed by the system and the system is working just fine for you, but also partially because there's not—I don't know if I'm making a weird jump here, but because people who are benefiting from a system of oppression don't have answers to how to change it either.

So it’s like, “Well, we don't need to think about it. We have no answers, so we're just gonna keep moving along.”

Keith: Yeah, and to that point, the collective as a whole was birthed at a time, not because I am genius or I have these—my grandfather has always taught me when I was a kid before he passed away, is always surround yourself with people who look better than you and who are smarter than you.

Ashley: That's the whole point of Boss Barista, so I understand.

Keith: And so I have done just that and I've got a team of brilliant young minds who understand and listen. And they're not all people of color. We have people who are in this fight and they're all not in coffee, but they understand the fight and more importantly, they understand if we're gonna make an impact and change, we first have to educate communities, right? We can all identify that there is a problem.

We begin that education piece with our four pillars of education that we have at Color of Coffee Collective; one is we talk about the history of coffee. Where did coffee come from? We talk about equity and representation—so knowing where coffee comes from.

Second, what does equity and representation looks like in regards to where that coffee comes from?

Thirdly, we talk about cultivating community. So once you identify these wounds and it stings a little bit and people are like, “Oh wow, that really hurts to know that we're having to have these conversations even though I may not have been a part of this disenfranchisement of these communities, I still understand there's a role I have to play in this, right?” We develop relationships with people that we really want to help them to grow their business. Or more importantly—how do we involve people in a system, as you mentioned, that you don't know where to begin, and that's where we come alongside you and we work with you.

We don't come in being the know-it-all, fix-it-all, have all the answers, because we don't have all the answers. In 24 years of being in coffee, I promise you I learn something new every day. You learn more about people when you're open to learning and growing and being, and being developed.

And then the last part of our four pillars is sustainability. Our goal is to literally come in again and work alongside people who—for as many coffee shops there are popping up and that are around and are existing, a lot of them don't have the tools or the resources to remain sustainable. And some of them are drowning and throwing up a white flag of surrender.

They're hoping someone will come along and say, “Look, how can we fix what we have that’s clearly a problem? Because if we don't make revenue today, there's a chance that we can close the doors.” And that's not just coffee shops. I've talked to roasters with the same concerns. For the most part what we're trying to do is build relationships with these folks to say, “Look, we want to create relationships that will help you remain relevant, remain sustainable within the industry, while also creating some equity and representation.

I think we can do that if everyone loses their pride and learns to work together.

Ashley: That last thing you just said—if everybody loses their pride—because I go back to that idea of coffee shops closing and roasters struggling, and there are very real things that are happening that are affecting coffee shops, that are affecting roasters. Obviously the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the coffee industry substantially…

I'm gonna keep going back to that Dallas coffee shop example—I can't stop thinking about it, but it seems like there's a point in some coffee shops—I'm not gonna say everybody because I obviously don't know that, but there seems to be a point where a lot of owners or managers kind of throw their hands up and say, “I don't know what to do.”

But [they] don't necessarily look to someone like you or look to somebody in the community and say, “How do I engage with my community?” I think sometimes, and maybe this is just what capitalism has taught us to do, there's this expectation that I'll open a business or I'll open a thing or I'll open a roastery and the customers will just come.

But there's no sense of actually cultivating your community. That’s where I feel like Color of Coffee Collective could really come in and be like, “What’s here? What’s around you? What are you doing for these groups of people?”

Keith: I'm so glad that you raised that point, especially about the Dallas coffee shop and maybe the managers not knowing—and also, I'm so thankful for this time to speak with you about this, because oftentimes I walk into a space and more than likely—and this is not just in white spaces, this is also in Black coffee spaces as well—I walk into a space and I'm having to literally read a resume for them to better understand what qualifies me to have this conversation.

Whereas, I have seen it with my own eyes, where my white counterpart can walk in and have the same conversation and immediately their thoughts and their feedback is received without question.

To be brutally honest with you, I used to say, “I get it,” right? But no longer do I say I get it because then I am only dismissing my real genuine feelings, and it's hurtful to know that the experiences that I have cultivated in this industry are still overlooked or they're not seen because they see my skin first.

I wanna be clear to the listeners: This is not a moment of sorrow or self-pity. These are just facts for me.

That being said, for that coffee shop in Dallas who did not adhere to or wanted to do this performative work, the thing I'll say to anyone who literally wants to make change but don't know where to begin: First thing, reach out to us. We'd love to help.

But then secondly, I think you have to be genuine in your actions. And if you don't feel like, “Hey, this is something that I'm ready to take on,” or maybe you felt it in that moment, but then you realize, “I can't, I don't even know where to begin.” I think at that moment you have to be just as honest in your response as you was in the initial post, right?

Ashley: Right. Be honest about it and like, what happens next? Like, I think oftentimes what hampers progress is an inability to accept when you are wrong.

Keith: Hmm. That's so good.

Ashley: Yeah, and it's okay to be like, “Wow, we didn't have that Zoom call. You're right. We were wrong. What do we do next?”

Today's election day, the day we're recording, so I could say this about like everything happening in the world around us. But it seems like, and especially in coffee, going back to this idea that you've had these conversations before, you're continuing to have these conversations, the room you walked into in 2006 looks markedly the same as the room that you walked into in 2021.

It feels like we are continuing to have the same conversations in coffee, but we're not accepting our culpability and why these things are still the same.

Keith: One of the most freeing moments, and I'm getting chills just even getting ready to say this, one of the most freeing moments—I had a conversation with a gentleman who is the VP of a large manufacturing company, whose name I would not say at this moment.

And we were very honest. And as I walked around Coffee Fest and people were kind of observing who I was because—it's weird. People when you look different than them, it's weird. They first glance at your badge before they look you in the eyes. And I always thought like, “That would be offensive anywhere else.”

But they look at your badge and they've gotta find out who you are and where you're from before they shake your hand and say hello. But one of the conversations I had was with a gentleman who genuinely stopped me and said, “Listen, I want to talk to you about this.” And he says, “I don't know what we can do or how we can do it and don't know what this would look like, but we've had conversations before and we really want to see impact happen and we want to see change happen at the level of where our products and our equipment goes and we know our equipment is within these communities. However, we haven't had an opportunity to reach them because, and they can't come here. They can't afford to come here.”

And he was very honest about that because one of the things that he realized was most of his customers, at whatever level they are, can't always make it to the big events because they're too busy trying to keep their shops open. And so for them, what we are doing is a great way for them to connect with their consumer or their customers, and then more importantly, get within communities that don't always see them in that fashion.

It was at that moment that I realized, “Okay, we have kind of made some breakthrough.” And there's some other conversations that we've been having that I feel have been very instrumental, kind of the direction that we're going and I'm thankful for that. And I do think that there's gonna be more along the way.

But as I mentioned, I think the old saying is, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” And that's what we're doing at the Color of Coffee Collective. Our goal is to literally change. Change this narrative about coffee and, more importantly, change the community of coffee just one cup at a time.

And we're gonna love people like we love coffee.

Ashley: I've never heard that phrase about the elephant, but I think it's really appropriate here. So when you're talking about these incremental changes, these one moments or one person or one instance, can you think of a time that that change was reflected back to you? Like a time where someone maybe came up to you and was like, “Something you did impacted the way that I now do something else?”

Keith: Wow, Ashley. So I didn't pre-warn you but I'm an emotional guy and I cry very easy. So let me just try to tell this story without doing that.

Our first symposium of ‘21—or I'm sorry, of ‘22, May 14th, 2022. Immediately after the symposium I had some folks who came, ironically from out of town to Houston, and they had heard about it last minute and and said to me, “We didn't know if we were gonna make it in this industry. We've been struggling a long time. We didn't have this type of community. We've had people to put us in our shop and put things together, but we didn't have this type of community.”

They were very thankful to be a part of a community that sees them for where they are and that can help them connect with people that will keep their doors open. I think where specialty coffee misses the moments are there are some amazing people in coffee that, given the opportunity in the right space, it would change the industry in such a way, and it burdens my heart that we continue to move in these silos as if we're gonna make all the money and we're never gonna share it.

There are people who literally put their lives in there, and their family's on the line for coffee and they just want to be impactful in their little corner of the world. But yet we don't hear those voices. We don't, and it's frustrating, but I'm thankful that God has given me a platform and I get a chance to have those conversations, those real raw conversations with people who really just want to be in coffee for the love of coffee, for the love of community, and for the love of change.

And I love that. And that's the moment for me.

Ashley: Thank you for sharing that story. That was such a big, impactful moment, and I think it's really easy to get really big-picture sometimes. Like it's really easy, especially with the writing that I do, sometimes I feel like I'm looking at these big-picture trends.

I'm looking at these big-picture ideas about how coffee moves and stuff, and this is all really big-picture stuff. But at the same time, it's also very personal. It is really about these one-on-one moments, about that one group of people that came up to you and said like, we needed this. We needed this to exist.

And I have to imagine in a way—I know I feel this sometimes when someone tells me that a conversation is impactful—99% of the time, sometimes it feels like I have no idea what I'm doing, but 1% of the time it feels like everything makes sense.

Keith: Right. Yeah.

Ashley: I have to imagine that, that you feel that same way too.

Keith: Yeah. Every day.

Ashley: Yeah, it’s those glimpses of moments where you're like, “Oh, this does matter. Somebody needed this.” That makes everything else worth it.

Keith: Yeah, 100%. Literally since that day in August of 2021, I questioned whether or not this was the right move, right? Not because I was scared of failing but I was more concerned with how many people would believe that this was a viable thing.

How many people would actually be okay with coming out and saying, “Yeah, I feel abandoned by specialty coffee and I am within the community of specialty coffee.” How many people would actually support that idea and that narrative—and it's not a false narrative. It's a realistic everyday experience that people deal with.

But every single—I'm not even kidding, Ashley, every single day, the journey that we're taking is confirmed and affirmed by an email, a phone call, a conversation or an event that says, “I'm glad you're here.” Not that I look for justification or validation in these spaces because as a leader, sometimes you make decisions or you cast out a vision based off what you see, feel, and understand and—through a lot of prayer for me—you have to be consistent with that.

But it certainly feels great every now and again to get the affirmation to say, “Yeah, you've reached me in a spot that no one else has ever done, and I thank you for that.”

Ashley: Is there anything you want people listening to know about you or about Color of Coffee Collective?

Keith: Man. Nothing about me other than I'm passionate about making an impact on this industry in such a way that blesses everyone. The Color of Coffee Collective has a wonderful and amazing group of people who—

Ashley: Two who have been on the show!

Keith: Oh, yes, there you go. So you've had Niki and you've had KP, and there you go.

That explains it. Again, I surround myself with brilliant people. We are all passionate about this coffee industry and we're passionate about not just—because we're a nonprofit organization, so we don't boast about—because we don't have a product to sell.

All we have are big hearts who really want to have some very open and honest conversations with some shops or roasters who feel disenfranchised and who want to have some impact. We've created some networks of folks who are some players within the industry who we feel like we're trying to connect some of our shops and some of our roaster friends with to help further these conversations.

And you know, we're really excited about some things that are proposed. We just can't announce 'em yet, but hopefully here in the near future we'll be able to announce some things and and make some more impacts and make some changes.

Ashley: Keith, thank you so much for taking time to chat with me and for being just so open and vulnerable. I really appreciate your time.

Keith: No, thank you. I appreciate you and this has been an honor to be here with you and your listening audience. So thank you so much, Ashley. I appreciate you.

Remember, the Color of Coffee Symposium is taking place from March 10-12, and you can get your tickets here.