Neichelle Guidry Brings the Light

The founder of Black Girl Black Coffee wants you to give yourself joy.

  
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My guest on today’s podcast episode is Neichelle Guidry, a college administrator and the founder of Black Girl Black Coffee. The brand began as an Instagram account, as a way for Neichelle to document her journey through coffee, and her passion for the subject, during the upheaval of the pandemic. Since then, it’s evolved into a coffee brand that reclaims the Black history of coffee.

I was drawn to Neichelle because she’s a storyteller. As she describes her journey in coffee, she reflects on the meaningful experiences that have shaped her, and administers important life lessons she’s learned along the way. That means there’s no way to reduce this conversation down to a few bullet points or a singular theme—Neichelle shares so much of her personal relationship to coffee that it’d be a disservice to boil it all down to a few talking points.

In that specificity are universal ideas that I hope you can take to heart—about staying inspired, filling your cup, and giving yourself permission to seek joy in the things you love—that will hopefully leave you feeling uplifted and inspired after listening. Here’s Neichelle:


Ashley: Just to start, could you introduce yourself by saying your full name and what you do?

Neichelle: Sure. My name is Neichelle Guidry. I am a college administrator and I'm also the creator of Black Girl Black Coffee.

Ashley: What are some of your earliest memories of coffee growing up?

Neichelle: My earliest memories … generally speaking, my father would have coffee most mornings. We had a white Mr. Coffee automatic coffee pot in our kitchen that he would fill with Folgers from a blue can religiously.

That was kind of a daily memory, but my most formative coffee memories happened in my grandmother's house, my paternal grandmother's house. And I shared this story in my Glitter Cat video last year about how my grandmother would brew her coffee on her stove.

She would always put PET Evaporated Milk in her coffee, and she would serve her coffee in the most beautiful, very dainty, floral cup-and-saucer sets. Coffee in her house in Beaumont, Texas was a very communal activity. She would always have people coming by from her neighborhood for her coffee. And hers, I guess, was kind of like an unofficial gossip and coffee spot. Hearing the way grown Black women talk around coffee tables was such a fascinating thing for me as a child.

Ashley: What did that evoke for you as a child? What did you think as you saw people sitting around and drinking coffee?

Neichelle: Mostly that I wanted to be a part of the conversation. I think of myself as a child, sometimes my memory of myself is very deeply curious, always wanting to be a part of things, but also very shy. If I ever had a chance to meet my younger self again, I would tell her, “Just go, just get in there. Get in that grown woman talk and ask the question you want to know.”

Yeah. So just the feeling of wanting to be a part of it. I drank her coffee and at the time of course I could not have imagined it without that PET evaporated milk because it made it creamy. It gave it sort of a medium, heavy-like body, and it made it sweet. It was like a dessert, the way she prepared her coffee, and just wonderful.

Ashley: What was your relationship to coffee as you grew up, or as you started to maybe be part of those conversations at the table as you grew up?

Neichelle: I don't think that coffee became a part of my life until later. I think like many college students, when you're trying to pummel your way through an all-nighter, you think, “Let's go get coffee.”

We had a little French press that we would use in my college dorm. You know, making some grocery store coffee to help us get through the night. So it really wasn't until my adulthood, like young adulthood, late 20s, that coffee started to factor pretty prominently into my life. That is when I took my first trip to Ethiopia.

Actually—let me go back a little bit further than that. The first trip was in 2016 and in 2010, 2008, I used to live in Berkeley, California. This is when I was in graduate school, and I was working at a church in downtown Berkeley, and the church sexton was a first-generation immigrant from Ethiopia—and he and his family took me in for that summer that I lived there.

In between meetings at the church and in the evenings, if I was done working late, they would have me in their home and they would feed me the most delicious meals and we'd watch movies, we'd hang out on the couch. We would just talk, just experiencing really, really deep community.

They introduced me to the Ethiopian buna ceremony because it was a sign, first and foremost, of hospitality—anytime they had a guest, coffee was going to happen. His wife would prepare coffee, from the rinsing of the green coffee to the roasting over the open flame to the grinding with the mortar and pestle to the preparation, the brewing and the jebena. And I had never had anything so delicious in my life.

That summer, it is safe to say, I spent probably about 80% of my time just buzzed and coffee drunk from the delicious coffee that Ahmada and his wife would prepare in their home for me. Their introduction of Habesha food cultures and coffee cultures was exactly what inspired me to take my first trip to Ethiopia several years later.

Ashley: I love that you explained the ritual of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony because I think that's something that probably a lot of people have heard of, but maybe haven't experienced for themselves, which is incredible that that was, I guess, your second introduction to coffee in a way—later in your adulthood. So you had this experience, you lived with this family for a while. What inspired you to go to Ethiopia later?

Neichelle: It was actually a big life change that inspired me to go to Ethiopia. I had just gotten divorced and I was in this space of like, “Why wait?” You know?

It was something that I wanted to do ever since that time, ever since being in their home. At that time—it was 2016, so what is that? Like, eight years later? Eight years and a world apart from that experience. I just was in a mindset of, “Everything that I want to do, I'm doing it. And I'm going to give myself all the joy that I have not experienced for so long.”

That was at the top of the list, of the list of things I wanted to do. So I saved my money. I invited my two best friends. We went for my birthday, which coincided with the Ethiopian Orthodox church celebration of Timkat. So we went and did the whole festivities around that, had some great foods, some great coffee, made some great friends. It was an incredible time.

Ashley: I wrote down the phrase, “Give yourself all the joy,” which I think might be a theme that comes up throughout this conversation.

I also want to make sure that we're telling the story linearly so we can follow along, which I love that you're giving me years—I’m even writing it down on a timeline like, “Okay, 2008, this happened. 2016, this happens.”

So you come back from Ethiopia: How do you take the experiences that you had in Ethiopia and start to explore coffee more?

Neichelle: Around that time I was still in graduate school. I think, again, coffee was just sort of this thing that I am turning to help me power through things. I remember I did find a place in Chicago, which is where I was living at the time, where I could experience buna. But that became a very rare experience when I got back because I just got back to my life—you know, school and work and everything.

But I was always very captivated by the memory of the way that it tasted. I came back home from that trip with three or four bags of coffee from a pretty, I guess, prominent coffee roastery in Ethiopia called Tomoca Cafe. I came home with a jebena as well.

I went and got a blade grinder to grind up my Tomoca beans and would play around with the jebena on my stove. That was how I brewed my coffee for at least a year or so afterwards. I was making my coffee with the jebena on my stove in Chicago. My next step in the coffee journey, though, was buying a Nespresso machine.

Ashley: I love it. You laugh about it now.

Neichelle: And I love the Nespresso machine! I actually still have that machine because sometimes I just need something to go. I need to make something quickly. That was the next step.

I bought the set that had the espresso machine and the frother that stood up right next to it and brought all the capsules and did all of that. I bought this mini machine to where I could actually take it places with me. So when I got to the point in school where I was writing my dissertation, that espresso machine actually made it into the room where I was writing my dissertation. When I was up all night, all day researching, writing, I was also drinking a lot of espresso from that Nespresso machine.

I would say the journey would have to fast forward at that point to quarantine, which really shifted things coffee-wise.

Ashley: You mentioned that your coffee story—even though you have all these experiences beforehand—that your coffee story is really a story of quarantine. So I was wondering if you could talk about what happened to you during quarantine that inspired you to think more about how coffee factors into your life?

Neichelle: Just practically speaking, as the story goes, I was on Zoom one day for work and I was on my second cup of coffee for the day and I had just finished brewing this cup of coffee on a Bodum wire filter and little carafe set that I got. But I had had the same coffee earlier that day on the French press. And I was just so captivated.

I remember sitting on Zoom and I was like, “How does this taste so different? Literally, this is the same coffee.” I think it was just that moment that I was like something, you know, there's probably something to this.

That night I was on YouTube watching James Hoffmann all night and definitely developed a little coffee crush on James Hoffmann. Oh my God.

Ashley: This is a James Hoffmann safe space.

Neichelle: Thank you.

I was just literally like, “This man is brilliant. His accent, his little red glasses, his haircut…” Ah! Thank you.

It was just a rabbit hole from there—tasting a singular coffee with such flavor nuances on two different brewing devices or brewing methods. It was just really intriguing to me.

From there, the next thing you know, I'm ordering V60s and paper filters and I'm ordering a food-grade scale for my kitchen and I'm just watching all these YouTube videos. That's when I decided to start the Instagram account because I wanted to document it. I obviously had time on my hands, like many of us did, and I just thought this would be really cool, to remember this as a part of this pandemic. I didn't know what was going to unfold that year, but I knew I wanted to document how I took in that experience of living through a global pandemic. And that is how that Instagram account was born.

Ashley: I think that's really important that you mentioned the importance of documentation, because I think when you look at something like Instagram or social media, there's this pressure to just create content, but I think it can be as simple as taking a moment to take a photo of what you're doing to remember that moment. It seems like that was a big driver for you—trying to remember these experiences that you were having.

Neichelle: Yeah. I mean, I was scared, you know, scared AF, right? Of what was happening in the world. When we’ve never seen anything like this and it was really scary and I felt like my survival in that season, emotionally, was really going to depend on how I framed that time. And that's kind of what I wanted to do with that account.

I want to document something fascinating. I want to document something beautiful. I want to document a moment in my life where I'm a novice again and make it something that I can remember. I didn't start intending for it to become a coffee brand. I just wanted to document how I was getting through a pandemic through coffee.

Ashley: I didn't have this context when I first looked at your website and your social media account and knowing this—now I'm going to have to go backwards and look through that lens, because there's something so wildly positive about that answer, but at the same time, contending with a very potentially negative time where we're all at home, we're all not sure what's happening. It's scary. So like, how do we find meaning in the spaces around us?

Neichelle: Yes.

Ashley: It seems like that's something that you're naturally inclined to do. You're naturally inclined to tell stories and find meaning in the experiences that you have.

One of the big experiences that you had, one of the reasons that our paths have crossed, is that you did a competition called Glitter Cat, which the year that you were part of it, it was all online because of the pandemic. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about this coffee competition that you did and how you even decided to do it?

Neichelle: I think that was a really pivotal moment for me. And you know more than you're putting on because you helped us select my application [laughs].

Ashley: I did, that’s true.

Neichelle: But you know, I just remember kind of thinking, “Well, why not? Why not?”

I believe at the time, I made a connection with Erica Jackson, who's like my coffee bestie, the most amazing person ever. I feel like she was instrumental in me deciding to submit an application for it, and she's just very encouraging, like, “You can do it.”

Ashley: Because at this point you're making coffee at home, but you're not necessarily working in coffee.

Neichelle: I’m not a coffee professional, exactly! That was actually my static. My static was like, “Shouldn't this be reserved for people who know what they're doing? Or who have invested all this time, gaining all this coffee proficiency?” But again, I just feel like one of the things I never want to do is I don't want to foreclose on any opportunity for me.

I'm going to always leave the “no” to someone else to tell me. I don't want to eliminate myself from things. And so in that spirit, I just submitted an application and yes, I guess the rest is history.

I will never forget that experience because, here I am, a lifelong coffee drinker, someone who is at this really important juncture of embracing this lifelong passion and interest of mine, and finally exploring it deeper. This opportunity met me with workshops and with mentoring and—oh, gosh, I'll just never forget Chelsey [Walker-Watson] from Atlas [Coffee Importers] spending an hour or two on Zoom, coaching me on my brewing.

I just felt so floored that Eric and Veronica [founders of Glitter Cat] created such a generous thing. There was just so much generosity involved, there's all this equipment that was just donated to us, and all this training and all this mentorship.

I just felt like if this was so freely given, I just am going to embrace it, everything that I can learn, I'm gonna learn it and I'm going to dive really deeply into it. And in the end…

Ashley: In the end, you won!

Neichelle: Yeah. I won. Winning was really amazing, and I thought that was a really cool experience, but more importantly, I feel like it introduced me to an amazing coffee community through Glitter Cat, but also broader than Glitter Cat. In some sense, like I said to you earlier, it was a green light, like, “Do this, do this, do coffee, do something in coffee, bring your passion to life.”

Ashley: Was that always intuitive? Or do you think that winning the competition and the response that you got afterwards helped interpret that green light?

Neichelle: Yeah. I think winning and the response was certainly affirmation and I want to just also say—I've been sitting with this question of like, “And if you didn't win, what would that have meant to you, Neichelle?” And I think that it probably would have still meant “do it,” because I enjoyed it.

I think part of what this is helping me to undo is that everything that we do in life has to a) Be monetized, b) Has to lead to some accolade. There are some things that at least for me, there are things I want to do just for the sake of, I just like it. I enjoy it. I love it so much. And I want to share it with whoever will share it with me and coffee is that for me.

Ashley: I like that distinction that you made: That we as a society sometimes tend to get caught up in winning something or being named something or maybe just even producing things for the sake of producing things. But it's okay to just like something for the sake of liking it.

It's okay to pursue coffee just because you like it. You're right—you totally didn't have to win. And I like that you asked that question, because I like imagining the hundred different ways my life could go—like if this didn't happen or that didn't happen, then there are certain things that I wonder if I would have done or wouldn't have done if certain things hadn't happened. I like that you answered that question for yourself.

Neichelle: Yeah. I think my coffee story is a story of being multi-vocational. I think another part of the reason why I gravitated to coffee is because my work life is intense and it's a lot. It's a lot of pressure, and I just really needed a creative outlet. I needed an outlet where I cannot just be under the same microscopes and under the same pressure where I could just bring my heart in a different kind of way, and do it in a way that is deeply just artful and lovingly curated and crafted.

Coffee is also that for me, so there's a story behind everything in Black Girl Black Coffee. I do really feel like there's a little bit of me in all of it.

Ashley: How do you stay inspired?

Neichelle: I love to read, I love listening to music. I'm very, very big on African-American art forms. So Black literature, Black music, Black visual arts, Black poetry—there's something very inspiring about all of it for me. So at least once daily I'm reading something, even if it's just a poem, I get poems into my inbox in the morning. I'm subscribed to several Substack publications where amazing, beautiful writers are laying their hearts bare and it's coming directly to my inbox.

I have all kinds of Spotify playlists for whatever mood I'm in. I try to immerse myself at least in small ways daily in things that don't have anything to do with my job. It’s really important to me.

Ashley: It does seem like you're the type of person who acknowledges the importance of staying inspired and finding ways to connect to community. Like trying lots of coffees or staying engaged and seeing what other people are doing. It seems like you're someone who's really good at kind of replenishing your pot.

Neichelle: Yeah. I am, and I feel like part of me has learned that it's just not possible to do anything if you're running on empty. I know what it feels like to be burned out and I've experienced that. And I still experience that, and I think just doing little things daily to try to stay inspired is just a great way to navigate that.

Ashley: Something that I think is really important for Black Girl Black Coffee is that it is very much about you. It's very personal, but it's also very universal.

I wonder if that's a parallel that you see in your coffee brand or your Instagram Stories or the way that you share information. How do you create an identity that feels like, “This is true to me, and this is something that I want to share with myself, but at the same time, as a way for me to connect with other people and find the universalities that connect all of us?” I know that's a big question, but…

Neichelle: It is big. I love the question though. I feel like I want to answer it, but I want to ask you a question first, because I really appreciate this insight. I've never asked—how does this come across? And so it's really interesting to me to hear that it comes across with some universalism. Can you say a little bit more about that?

Ashley: Yeah. When I first decide I want to interview someone, I try to, not necessarily learn about them by reading articles, even though I do that, but try to evoke, “What does their work make me feel?”

And there's something about your Instagram presence that makes me feel like this is so much about you, because you're so present in it. It's usually you sharing something that you really love. It isn't just about like, “This is coffee and I'm trying to sell coffee. I feel really passionate [about this].” The passion really comes across in this really authentic way.

Then, as I was going through your website, it felt like you were able to identify parts of your story that were clearly demonstrative of where you are in your coffee journey now. It feels like you reflect a lot backwards.

Like you said, “I took this trip to Ethiopia and this changed me. I lived with a family who introduced me to the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, and this changed me.” And that's not always intuitive. I don't think that we always are taught to look backwards and make connections. And that's the most exciting thing for me.

I think that's maybe where I see your presence kind of speaking to me. So maybe the way that I'm interpreting it is a very personal one for myself, because I find the power of connection and tracing back where an origin story starts for me. Like, “How did I get into this?” Or like, “Why is this important to me?” So I think that that's where I see that for you.

Neichelle: That’s so encouraging. I really appreciate that because I think, for all intents and purposes, Black Girl Black Coffee is, at least the Instagram page, I'm still documenting a journey.

I don't feel like it's just a brand and I don't feel like it's just me trying to sell you my coffee now. I feel like in many ways, I'm still sharing how I'm growing as a coffee person. And so it is very personal. I follow a lot of coffee accounts and there's some coffee accounts that I really, really love that do things very differently, but there's a handful of coffee accounts that I don't follow because I feel they're devoid of a story.

Coffee has already been stripped away from its home, it's already been colonized. I think that there's just some, some spaces, some brands that are just further reiterating the disparities in the coffee supply chain, in the coffee industry. And I'm really, really interested in coffee as a personal thing.

I love following coffee accounts where you can see people's faces and where everything is not so pristine and so perfect and it's like not highly produced Instagram Reels, because it reminds me that there's a person behind this account that loves coffee. I feel like that's the category that I want to fall in.

So yeah, it is personal and I feel grateful that that comes across. And even now, with the coffee, with Be The Light, and the brand Black Girl Black Coffee, I want to show how people—like, I repost customer photos of their coffee or customers with their coffee. I love things like that because it reminds me that, while it's about me as the person that started it, it's also bigger than me, right? Brewing a new community. It's also bigger than me. And so I really appreciate that.

Ashley: Right. I'm glad that you were able to identify both of those ends, because I think that sometimes it can seem like it's mutually exclusive, like it's either about you or it's about your customers and the people you connect with. But I actually think that the more you center yourself—and I don't mean this in a selfish way, but more like the passion comes from me, the ideas come from me, I have to listen to them and I have to think like, “What do I like that I think others will love too?”—is really, I think the impetus for really authentic coffee brands.

Like you were saying, there are some coffee brands, and maybe just a symptom of capitalism, where it feels like the message is, “Buy this coffee.” But when I look at what you're doing, it's like, “I am excited about this thing and I want you to have it. I want you to experience this too.”

Neichelle: I think that's definitely the sentiment at the heart of it all. So I'm really happy it comes across.

Ashley: You've mentioned the coffee blend Be The Light that you formulated. I was wondering if you could tell me the story behind that.

Neichelle: Yeah. So Be The Light is actually a single origin. It's from Burundi. I wanted to start with Burundi for Black Girl Black Coffee because it's my favorite origin. Anytime I've had coffee from Burundi, I'm just like, “Oh, give me more, give me more, give me more.”

The story behind it is Phyllis Johnson from BD Imports has been sort of mentoring me through the establishment of my brand. I worked with her to source this coffee that was produced by an amazing Black woman who's no stranger, and her name's very familiar in the specialty coffee world—Angele Ciza in Burundi, who has such a fascinating story: grew up in Burundi on a coffee farm, and as she grew up, got educated, got a job working in exporting goods in Burundi, and came to a crossroads where she decided to bring all of that expertise to bear on her roots in coffee and acquired a farm and now owns the coffee, owns the washing station, and also exports.

And she's the only woman in Burundi that has all of this ownership and power over her goods and has utilized her position and her power to empower more women in Burundi in coffee. And I just love her story. So when we purchased the green coffee from Phyllis, she sent all this material back—videos about Angele and biographies. And this woman is just absolutely incredible. I mean, she's a force.

And I think she also walks in a profound sense of her forcefulness and moves with a keen sense of, “How can I help bring some other women with me?”

That's a story I wanted to share. And that's a story that I feel I can really get behind. I named the coffee Be The Light because it's full of citrusy notes that are balanced by the chocolatey notes. When I first sampled it, I said, “It tastes like a sunrise.” It reminded me of this trope of being the light, being the light in whatever situation, in whatever space—you're bringing the light, being the light. So yeah, that's the story of Be The Light.

Ashley: It feels like, just at the end, just when you were explaining Be The Light and bringing the light, it feels like that's a metaphor for your coffee journey.

Neichelle: It can be, it can be, there's definitely resonance.

Ashley: Even writing down some of the things that you've said. Some of this was said obviously during the podcast, some of this was said off-air before we started recording. But one of the things that you've mentioned is constantly being inspired and replenishing your cup, how you're trained as a womanist to not erase yourself …and it just seems like if I had to think of a visual metaphor for you—I don't know why this is coming into my head—but I'm thinking of you walking into a room and it being not necessarily dark, but I can just see like light radiating off of you.

Which is funny—I often mix metaphors in my head sometimes. I don't know. You kind of saying that sometimes you have to bring the light and be the light … just reminded me of the way that you seem to approach coffee.

Neichelle: Yeah. I actually do struggle sometimes now with continuing to do specifically the Instagram page just from a space of total authenticity, because I think there is some there's some pressure of like, “Oh, it's a brand now, should I change how I do social media?” It's tempting, but yeah, no, I don't think so.

Because when I start to make that switch, I start overthinking it, I start overthinking what I put on my page when I'm like, “You have something in your life every single day that has to do with coffee. You don't have to overthink this, Neichelle. Just show your journey the same way you always have.” I just think I'm attracted to authentic people. I'm attracted to brands that lead and tell stories from the heart.

There's some people on Instagram where I'm just like, “Thank you for reminding me of how basic this really is.” It doesn't have to be complicated. Steve from The Coffee Enthusiast, he's one of my closest coffee friends and his Instagram page, it's just got heart, he's showing himself roasting coffee and traveling and having coffee with his family.

And Erica has pages full of coffee reviews because she has an incredible palate and people pay Erica to taste their coffee. And I'm like, “You better do your thing.” I love, love, love, just following people who are documenting the dailiness of their coffee lives. And I want it. That's the kind of person, that's the kind of space I want mine to be as well.

Ashley: I know that we've talked a lot about this throughout the podcast, but one of the most exciting things about talking to you, for me, is how much of a storyteller you are and how much stories seem to factor into your life. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the role of storytelling for you?

Neichelle: I feel like stories are just such a common denominator across so many different lines of distinction and difference—who doesn't love a good story?

I feel stories are such powerful vehicles for values, for beliefs, for truths, whether they're personal truths or communal truths or universal truths. You can do so much more with a story than you can with a law, you know? Stories are just very powerful for speaking to the heart.

One of the first stories that I shared on Black Girl Black Coffee has actually been the impetus for what I'm doing now, and that's the story of Rose Nicaud who was the formerly enslaved woman who purchased her freedom from her slave owner by selling coffee in New Orleans. And if you're in New Orleans and you're Black and you love coffee, maybe you've heard her name.

When I told that story on my page, there was this massive response because, like many Black women across industries and across time, her name and her significance have been erased. But what an incredible story that this woman utilized the law of manumission to sell coffee in front of a cathedral on Sundays. And by doing that, she gained so much economic strength, personal economic strength, that she was able to purchase her freedom and be a free Black woman in the antebellum South, and went on to start the first permanent coffee cart in the French market and went on to establish her cart in the same place where Café du Monde now stands.

Café du Monde has global name recognition, but this woman, this Black woman whose concept is at the heart of it, at the root of it, you scarcely hear her name.

That is a huge driver for me, that's a powerful story. In fact there's a Reel coming out today or tomorrow about the Black Girl Black Coffee logo and the rose in the axis of the logo is an homage to Rose Nicaud. Because here's this Black woman who created this incredible coffee recipe that made her so famous that she made so much money that she bought her freedom. Now that's amazing—and then went on to empower more les vendeuses—free Black women—to establish their own food and hospitality businesses in order to buy their freedom in New Orleans.

Ashley: That's incredible.

Neichelle: And coffee is a way to share these stories.

Ashley: Is there anything that you'd want people listening to this to know about you?

Neichelle: To know about me? Yeah, I just—I'm real. I'm a real one. Whenever I post anything, whenever I'm thinking of the next coffee that I'm going to sell, my heart is in it. If there's a season where I'm not posting as much, it's because I'm working on something and I don't want my content to feel automated. I'm real. I feel like I want to bring my heart to what I do.

Ashley: I think you absolutely do. I am so honored and touched that you took time to talk to me because I feel like you brought so much to this conversation. So thank you for taking this time to chat with me.

Neichelle: Thanks for the invitation to be on your podcast, Ashley. I really appreciate it.

Photo by @ericajsimmons


This Boss Barista episode is brought to you by Urnex.

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