On Lotteries and Scholarships with Mansi Chokshi

  
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Every year, the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) hosts a conference called Sensory Summit, where coffee folks come together and explore wild ideas about taste. I went one year, back when I was the online editor for Barista Magazine, and tasted some of the most bizarre, unexpected, and wonderful things I’ve ever had.

For this year’s conference, the SCA announced that it would give out a certain number of scholarships so a handful of people could attend the virtual event for free. And instead of making folks apply for the program, they were entered into a lottery, and scholarships were doled out randomly.

I wanted to learn more—not just about this idea, but about the person behind it. And that’s Mansi Chokshi. She’s the regional community director for the SCA, and has been with the organization since it was known as the Speciality Coffee Association of America, or SCAA—back before the American chapter merged with its European counterpart.

In this episode, we talk about building community within what has become coffee’s biggest trade organization. When Mansi started at the SCA, she had no coffee experience, but was determined to learn what exactly coffee people needed.

And learn she did. One the very first things she did when she joined was to sit down with members and ask, “What do you need from us? What do you need from a trade organization?” She continues to ask these questions, heralding new scholarship programs and sitting on the board of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA). Even this far into her tenure, she’s still always asking questions, and making sure she’s listening to the communities she’s working for.

I recorded this episode just a few days before my conversation with Chris McAuley of getchusomegear, and the two discussions address serendipitously similar topics. Both Chris and Mansi hit on themes of reciprocity—that’s one of the reasons Mansi pushed to eliminate the application process for Sensory Summit scholarships—and both are attuned to the needs of those around them. As Mansi points out, community development doesn’t mean much if the change isn’t driven by and for the communities themselves. What makes so many of the initiatives that Mansi has launched so impactful—like the Leadership Equity and Diversity (LEAD) Scholarship, which gives five coffee professionals two years’ worth of mentoring and paid professional development—is that she’s always ready to adapt.

Just a quick note: We had a few issues with recording this episode, and did so entirely on our phones, so there are some parts that sound a little shuffly. We cleaned up most of the weird sounds, but just a heads up if you hear some background noises. Here’s Mansi.


Ashley: So let's start, Mansi, by having you introduce yourself.

Mansi: Absolutely. So I’m Mansi Chokshi. I am based out of Southern California—I was born and raised here. I’m the daughter of immigrants. Both my parents came from India. My dad came here early on and attended college and then went back and had an arranged marriage. Both my grandfathers knew each other and that's how both my parents met.

They came here and had me and my brother. And I find myself back in the same city where I grew up. Now my husband and I have a daughter and she is going to the same elementary school that I did, which is so bizarre and also amazing at the same time.

Ashley: It's all full-circle.

Mansi: Yeah, and I love it. My parents are close by, so I have a support system, but we still have our separate homes.

I grew up in a very Indian household because of my parents having immigrated from India. But at the same time, I grew up here and took on some of the American culture and values. So I think it's kind of interesting that I'm here in the same city, but it also makes sense because I grew up in that type of environment where we all live together. I had several relatives that came from India at certain points, so it felt like my house was always busy and full of family members. And I absolutely value that. I love that, and I want to keep it going. So my daughter experiences that same type of family feeling.

Ashley: That's really cool. I feel like I come to this movie a lot just because I think it mimics the story of a lot of immigrant families, but I'm imagining that very last scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding when she's like, “Oh, look, I'm in my own house!” But it's right next door to her parents' house.

Mansi: Exactly. And while the cultures are different, it's very much a similar story. Actually that movie was playing on something that I just watched. And I was like, “This is one of those movies that I love because I finally understood like, ‘Oh my God, there's other people like me that come from my type of culture.’” So yeah, I have fond memories of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I even watched the second version of it, even though it wasn't good, just because I felt, “This is familiar to me. This is my life right now.”

Ashley: Right. My mom is a first-generation immigrant—I think that's right. I always get confused because she was born in Cuba, but she was raised in the United States. And I remember watching that movie with her and I felt like I was seen, but at the same time, I feel like she was even more seen. I couldn't quantify exactly how important that was to her, to see an immigrant story being told.

Mansi: Yeah. And then fast-forward to today, I shared this momentous occasion with my daughter of like, “Look at the Vice President,” you know Vice President-elect at this point—but it's amazing. I've never, ever experienced that. This is a reality where immigrant families can actually see themselves in top leadership. You work hard and especially like in Asian culture, Indians and Chinese and Koreans, etc … we all kind of have a similar background where our parents, because they fought to get here, they had such a hard time integrating themselves into the community, the one thing that they could do for their kids was [tell us], “You’ve got to study hard, you’ve got to get into these schools, you’ve got to have a good, successful career.”

But never was it like, “Oh yeah, you should go into politics or you should go into this,” you know? And it’s so cool to see that, I love to see it.

A lot of things have changed for me in the last six years, since my daughter was born, and seeing things differently, making sure that there's enough of my Indian heritage and culture being passed on, but also the right of questioning like, “Why do we do this? How are we doing it? For what purpose?” And making sure that she's getting to see the clear version of what we can show her about what her reality is here. And I love that. That was a momentous occasion for a lot of people with daughters, I think.

Ashley: I know I saw on your Instagram page that you were sharing a lot of moments between you and your daughter of like, “Look, the Vice President looks like you, this is a big deal!”

Mansi: I shared this with one of my colleagues. She was like, “Yeah, I don't want to be president.”

And I was like, “It's fine. I'm not asking you to be president. But the fact that you have this choice and you can see somebody like you, that's huge, because I felt like growing up, I never saw that as an opportunity.” Because it was only white people that can do those types of roles. So it was kind of nice to share that with [my daughter]. And even if she doesn't realize that, because she's six, I think the fact that she's getting to see this as she's growing up is a huge thing—for all girls that are growing up in our country right now. So it’s significant for me.

Ashley: It seems like you think a lot about the idea of representation and who's at the table in your job at the SCA (Specialty Coffee Association). So I want to step back a little bit and talk about how you got there, because as we were talking about earlier, you never had a job in coffee before you started working for the SCA. So how did you get here?

Mansi: So, super interesting! When I was going through college, I spent a lot of time—and we had a very weird major that was called Social Sciences and you can pick whatever discipline you wanted. I picked one of the disciplines that was called “community service,” and that’s what I focused on.

And then I graduated and there was this crazy turn and twist in the economy. You kind of had to take whatever job was available. I think that's the one crash reality for all people that graduate from college, they're like, “Oh, I could do what I wanted to do and what I studied.” And it's like, “No, you've got to do whatever is available to you.”

So I entered this [random] job doing all sorts of random things—I learned about corporations, like inside sales, marketing, packaging design, but I was like, “I want to do that thing that I studied. I want to work on community development and nonprofit structures.”

I had my volunteer work when I was in college at the YMCA. So it was really important for me to find some type of nonprofit structure that I could work for. At that time I had no idea what associations were.

But my friend, my colleague at my work, she started working for the SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America—before it merged to become just the SCA) at that time. And she called me over and she's like, “Hey, this is pretty interesting. I think you'd like it, there's a position open. Maybe you want to apply for it.”

I was interviewed by Ric Rhinehart. I think I was the second person he hired or something like that. So it was very early on when SCAA was getting restarted—there's a lot in the history of the SCAA that I don't know if people have time or interest to kind of look into, but there was a big restart that happened in 2008 when I joined and it had to do with new people being hired in. We were coming up from an embezzlement that happened, and so it was a big task.

Ashley: That’s a Boss Barista investigative series that I want to do.

Mansi: When I started at SCAA I knew nothing about coffee. Never worked in a cafe. My experiences were only from purchasing coffee. I went to a school where there was a cafe on campus and that was kind of it—I had no idea about the industry, about the different professions that are in it, not even how coffee is grown.

So I really did a deep dive into specialty coffee from day one. Yeah, it's just funny—and I will never forget my first trade show. Ric was walking me through the aisles and I picked up, I ran to one of those little stands and they gave me a drink. And I was like, “This is amazing! I've never tried this.”

And it was one of those fruity drinks or something and I’m like, “This is what specialty coffee is!” And he just like looked at me and gave me this shaking-his-head look. And I was just like, “Okay, I have a lot to learn.”

Ashley: That’s so funny. I can just imagine Ric being like, “What? This learning curve might be a little bit steeper than I thought.”

So your first job with the SCA, because you've done a couple of different jobs since you started, your first job was as membership manager—and something that I didn't think about, that you mentioned before we started recording, is that it gave you a really great insight into who is actually a member of the SCA. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that role, and how that helped you see what community looks like within our industry.

Mansi: Absolutely. I started as membership manager and moved up the chain, if you want to call it that—because there were only like, 10 people at SCA at the time. It was a very small crew, skeletal, if you want to say that. But I moved my way up to the membership director and then spent some time there.

Early on, the first event I ever went to was the Roasters Guild Retreat. I got to meet a lot of the Roasters Guild members and that community, and that was my first ever specialty coffee event. Then you kind of work—if you can imagine the life of a staff member, you kind of work all year on this, at that time for me, a nebulous expo—like what the heck is an expo?

My start date was May, and I remember the whole year all I heard about was this immense expo and crazy experience that these nine—we were nine people on staff—were putting together. That was just always this thing that we were leading up to, the biggest event that we did as an association, but in the meantime, my job and my day-to-day thing was to figure out what benefits members would want, who are our members, and figure out how to create a community amongst the different members that we had.

One of the first things that I started researching was, “Who are our members? What do they do? How do they work?” I remember presenting in a staff meeting that I wanted to do member visits, and we started this concept of going and visiting members and just sitting down and talking to them, going to their places of work. As somebody who came from a social science background, this was so right up my alley of like, “We're going to do a research project and I'm going to find out who are the members, and we're going to study them in their habitats.”

Ashley: I was just about to say, “Are you writing an ethnography?”

Mansi: It was right up my alley of the type of work [I wanted to do]. I remember having such great conversations with people. [They’d say], “Nobody's done this with us, nobody's sat down and asked us what do we want, what are we looking for.”

I kinda made that just a little bit more of my [job], even if it didn't have anything to do with my role, it just ingrained something in me. You’ve got to know who you're working with and who that community is that you're trying to serve. Serving is one thing, but if you're not able to relate to people or connect with them, then you have a problem.

And that's when my relationship with being a people person kind of blossomed, I think. I don't have a hard time talking to people, but what I realized was that I'm able to actually listen to people and hear their stories. And that was really important to my work, but also it's important to my memories of starting at the SCAA. And I still draw on those connections that I made, this was now 10, 11 years ago.

So I remember some of those things, and we made it a part of our routine—whenever we would travel for an event, or we were going to a different trade show, we spent a day just doing member visits and going to different areas. And it wasn't just cafes. We went to warehouses, roasters, manufacturers. We went to different members and we just tried to see: Who are these people? What do they do? How are they benefiting?

I always found it curious as to who was displaying the [SCAA] member logo versus who wasn't. It was really, really fun times, but it set my foundation for this industry. And I think after a few years of that, I actually felt like, “Okay, I know this community and enough of them know me where I feel like I belong.” Whereas before I've definitely felt like I was just doing more of the research, ethnographic surveys, you know? But it was good.

Ashley: I think you touched on two big things in that answer. Number one, that things that kind of seem obvious—we're going to go talk to our members, of course we're going to do these visits—are not always obvious.

So you have the SCA—at the time SCAA—serving as this industry trade organization, but really what does that mean and who shapes that? It’s really shaped by the people who work for the SCA. So it's interesting to hear you talk about you stepping into this role of membership manager and being like, “What does this actually look like and how can I shape this based on what I think the industry needs?”

And two, and I love conversations like this—I love when people can identify what they're good at. Because I don't think that that's an inherent skill a lot of people either have or are told. And I think about this a lot. I had a manager at my very first coffee job who would constantly tell me what I was good at. And I was like, “This is great.” And then I started meeting more people and they're like, “Oh, I don't know what I’m good at.”

Mansi: Yeah, that’s the first thing you should figure out for yourself.

Ashley: Right. But it's really hard—I think both of these points kind of point to a level of cognizance that is maybe one step above experiencing the world, but taking a step back and saying, “What's actually happening around me and how can I address it?”

And it seems like you're very good at that. It seems like you're good at taking a situation as a whole and being like, “What do I bring to the table? What can I specifically do?”

Mansi: One other thing I would add to that—I agree with you, and I'm aware of that— but the other thing that I know that I have is some degree of influence on some of this decision-making. And that could be—fast-forward from when I started to 11 years later—I'm working at the SCA and I don't take for granted that I have a level of influence and information that I can share with the community around me, but also make it so that I'm a resource for people.

It's not just that I'm like, “Oh, that's my skillset.” I absolutely work on that. And I want to be that resource for the community. So it's not something that I feel I was natural at from the very get-go.

We talked about this earlier before we recorded, that it took a couple of years, maybe actually three or four years before I felt comfortable as a part of the community—I didn't think of myself as that. I always felt like I'm serving the community because I work here, but I'm not part of them because I never started as a barista.

You hear all these stories of people like, “Oh yeah, I started as a barista…” and I never had that. I jumped into SCAA, you know? But I felt like because of my experiences, because my skillset of being able to connect with people, I absolutely worked on that strength that I wanted to build for myself. That makes me proud that I was able to grow into that position and use that [skill], no matter which title I held in in the SCAA or even SCA now.

I felt like that was the thing that I carried with me. I have to be able to connect with the community. I have to be able to share resources with them. Knowing that, I agree with you, it is hard, but I think being able to set your expectations for yourself of, “This is what I'm good at. And so whatever I do, I'm going to have to keep this in mind.”

Ashley: I want to fast-forward a little bit, because I think most people who are listening to this probably know you as the person responsible for scholarships. So you're the person who's organizing everyone to take the group photo. You're the person who's making sure that all of the LEAD Scholars or the Re:co scholars know what's going on, and you're the main point of contact for people. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about those programs because those aren't new, but you were part of making it happen.

Mansi: I want to share just a little bit, if that's helpful. Growing up here in the States, I definitely felt like, and I mentioned this earlier, but like I wasn't raised to be part of the political structure or leadership, but it was something that I had an interest in.

But the only way I saw myself getting positions of leadership or even getting involved in something—high school, college, you name it—I felt like it had to come through a scholarship lens or some type of lens where they were looking for somebody of a diverse background. I am very familiar with the scholarship territory, because I grew up in that. I felt like it was a way that I could get myself represented. Growing up in an immigrant household, this is one of those things that I could share with my parents, like, “Oh yeah, I'm part of Model United Nations. And because of that, I'm going to go travel to these places.” And that made it okay for my parents. If it was just like, “I'm going to go on a trip with my friends in high school,” it was like, “No, you're not!”

Ashley: But if you're going to go to school…

Mansi: That's fine. And I got involved with a lot of things that taught leadership skills. I went to several different programs throughout high school and college. And so that's why this world of scholarships and programs that focused on leadership qualities was so important for me to kickstart, or be involved in at SCA.

So [Re:co] fellows started with my colleague, Peter Giuliano, but it was something that I felt like after the first year, I was like, “Oh, I like this. I want to be involved in it.” And I just kind of volunteered myself to support the initiative. I wasn't on the initial Re:co team or anything. In fact, I think I was pregnant the first year that they had the program. So I wasn't even there, but as soon as they came back and the next year that we had it, in 2015, I was involved in it—I just raised my hand for it, because I was like, “I'm familiar with this world. I like what it did to shape me. And I want to be involved in that, to shape others in the community, to support them so they see themselves in these positions and they can find the way to…”

Someone mentioned to me that it’s like you're in the carpool lane or the speed track of the highway, you know? And you're just able to get from one place to the other quickly because you have the people in the right places telling you, “Do this, and do that.” “This will get you to where you want to go and helping you shape what it is that you want to do.” And that was important to me because that helped me in growing up. So that's why I'm passionate about the programs. Fellows was the first one. Then we develop the LEAD Scholar program—that actually came as inspiration from one of the other events I went to. Believe it or not, an association of all the associations. [Laughs]

Yeah, it's funny when you talk about the acronym, but it was great for me looking into that world, because I wanted to see what other associations do and how we can bring that to our SCAA world. I had discovered that they have a leadership program and the intent was so that people can go into leadership positions, not just in the companies that they work for, but also at the association itself. I looked at them, and I was like, “We're missing this, we need this.”

And so it took a few years to get it started, but I'm very happy that we were able to do that. And then most recently, we've noticed through all the different events [we host], there is an inaccessibility issue to all of our events—we have to charge for them.

I absolutely understand that, but that makes it so that the people that want to be in the room don’t get a chance to be, because there is a price point and that creates a barrier.

So when we approach this idea of like, “Okay, let's try event-based scholarships,” we'd been trying it out for a long time, but finally, I feel like we got to a space, the most recent one that we did, it was a lottery. I absolutely credit a lot of this development to … I'm interested in it, but I've only been able to progress it recently, because of the work that community is doing in this space. I feel like there's people in the community that have called us in on this information of like, “Hey, we need to do this.” I've gotten some really great feedback from community members that feel comfortable sharing it with me.

Like, “Hey, this wasn't the right way to do this. You vetting makes us feel like, yuck. I don't want to be vetted.” I'm appreciative that people are able to share that with us so that we can grow this together. I've always felt like these programs are only successful if the people we're trying to serve have an opportunity to share their concerns or comments with us, but it takes a lot. You have to also be able to ask for that feedback and then be able to do something with it, which I've been fortunate in the scholarship world. I have been able to mold and shape things. There's other areas that I don't feel as comfortable, but this is one area I feel comfortable, because I'm passionate about it. I feel like I have the influence for it. And community members have been generous in giving feedback.

Ashley: I love that you mentioned this holistic approach to these programs, because I think it's easy to say, “Okay, let's start a program. It's aimed at these people. Why aren't these people applying?” or, “Why isn't this working the way that we want?” and then sort of give up, which is true, and that happens a lot.

And I think it's again, going to that second level of, “I'm going to do a thing,” but then stepping backwards and saying, “But how is this thing actually working? How do I assess if it's successful or not?” which requires a bit of introspection that isn't always natural.

So being able to step back and say, “Is this actually serving the community that I intended to serve? And if it's not, how do I change things?” is a really big deal.

I want to talk a little bit about some of the successes from the scholarship programs that you've started. I was wondering if you could share any specific stories of success or moments where you were like, “This is working,” or maybe even a story that's like, “Maybe this is not working. How can I change this and how can I make it better?” And maybe the practical application of that.

Mansi: Where I think I've seen success in this is the LEAD Scholar program. What it is able to do is really get into the hearts of the folks that have applied and got into this moment of being a LEAD Scholar. And what we're doing is going on this journey with them and supporting them throughout it.

What we're noticing is people change their minds about things, and that's okay. And we're trying to make that completely fine. If you want to start [the scholarship studying] sensory coffee or green coffee, but now you're changing your mind and you want to switch to sustainability—that's fine. What it's doing is giving us insight into how the community operates and what things are more relevant and topical.

What we didn't expect for it to do was—I was hoping this would happen, but I didn't know how it was going to happen—but it actually promoted folks to finding the right context to get jobs.

That's a big deal. We don't have a current recipe for how that works, but being able to connect people to the right mentors or coaches, or even just industry contacts, is valuable. I know that it's valuable, but how do you create that program?

It takes the industry wanting to help each other. And that's not something—like we can want that all we want—but I need the community to support that effort. When it came to the LEAD Scholar program, we did get a lot of support from the community. We approached people and they said, “Yes, I'm up to connecting with this person. I'll definitely help them out where I can.” Our sponsor was amazing in that effort as well in providing leadership and development coaching.

So that program, the LEAD Scholar program, is so much—it has to do with education, it has to do with community events, it has to do with getting access and presence at Re:co, but it wasn't just like, “Great. You have a ticket.” I was actively supporting our LEAD Scholars in meeting people, networking with the right people, that they set their intentions of like, “I want to do this.”

So then I was supporting them and getting connected to those right folks that can help them get there. It was very intentional. It's a lot of work.

And I think where you can say where it's not working, or where it could use some improvement, is it's only for five people and it takes two years. How do we make this program even bigger?

But I think that's one of the things that—you mentioned this just a little bit ago, and I value the design thinking process a lot, because you have to start small, you have to be able to take things through, and then you have to be able to assess if this actually works or not. Because if it didn't work for everybody, then there are flaws to the program. If it worked for some and didn't work for others, there's reasons to explore: Why did it work for this person? Why did she get a job? And if this one person credits the LEAD Scholar program for it, why did this [other] person not even get to finish their education programming? The same accessibility was offered to both, but the person has a lot to do with their own success in this as well.

We have to do this type of assessment before you can scale, and I think that a lot of people want it to expand so quickly and say, “You should be able to support a hundred people through that.” But I think that's part of the design thinking process that I have used in this environment. We’ve got to pilot this, we got to figure it out. We’ve got to make sure it's actually working, then we can scale it. And some of these programs are not going to be ready to scale up to that level. So I think it's a success, yes, but I think there's room for improvement.

I'll mention one other thing—the process in which we started with vetting [for Re:co scholarships], we would get people applying for positions. We would look at their applications.

It's hard, it's hard to say, “How would one person in this random city across the country, why is it that they are more deserving of this opportunity than somebody else that maybe works for a bigger company, but is feeling like they're unable to access the right resources? And they need the scholarship so they can get to it?”

There's a lot of room for unconscious bias to come in. So there was a lot in that process and we finally just said, “You know what? We're just going to have people apply. And we're going to do a random lottery for selection because if they say they need it, they need it.”

Ashley: You don't want to question the need.

Mansi: I listened to a couple of podcasts on this and one of my colleagues actually sent one to me.

There's a great one on the lottery process and how it works. I've been really advocating for this throughout the organization. We're trying to support this for the next version of the elections for the [SCA’s] U.S. chapter. But also in this vetting of the scholarship programs like, “Hey, there's no longer a vetting, you just apply. And it's a random lottery to say who got it and who didn't.”

What doesn't change is the fact that there's so many people that want these opportunities. And so the scale question is a reality that we need to work on. And it's something that I'm very conscious of. I just don't think that the right approach is like, “Okay, the community wants in. So we should figure it out right away.” I think we need to step back and take a look at how this works.

Or maybe the program design is wrong, where so many people are finding that it's inaccessible. There's so much involved in these programs. I don't think it's a solution forever, but I'm so happy to get to work on it. And I feel like the folks that go through it are super happy to give feedback, and they've shared stuff, and I've seen them get involved in other things, which is the point. We want this to be something that helps somebody grow into the next part of their career. Not just because they needed a free ticket to the next event.

Ashley: Absolutely. That totally makes sense.

I love that you talked about this idea of lotteries, because I've been thinking a lot about the idea of selection, and can it ever really be done fairly? How can I assess someone's need? I can't—I can't assess someone's need, especially if they're not given the tools to fully express that need.

So there might be something that I don't know. I had this visualization in my head, when I was a coffee shop manager, of just throwing a bunch of resumes in the air and just grabbing one, and that's the person I'm going to hire—because how can I say if you need this job or not? I can't assess that need, but that's another story for a different time.

I wanna shift a little bit to your work with the IWCA, because that's such an important organization, and I think that it often gets overlooked. I want to talk a little bit about what it is, and what are some of the goals for the IWCA.

Mansi: This has been such an amazing journey for me. When I started at SCAA, one of the first things—I'm just used to always volunteering for something—so one of the first things I volunteered for was IWCA. And I've been volunteering there ever since.

It's an organization that has so much value—the stakeholders are the chapters of the IWCA, and there's a chapter in each country. But the value that the chapter leaders get, the type of education, the type of leadership development, it's right in line with the type of things I enjoy and I'm working on at SCA. It was absolutely the perfect match for me, and I started off as just a volunteer on a committee. And now I'm on the board, I'm the vice president, and it's amazing. The journey for me has been fulfilling.

I think the work that we've been able to do is way beyond. And that's what I've been proud of. What I think people don't know is the IWCA is this global association—I assume they don't know, because I feel like every time I talk to somebody they're like, “What's IWCA, what do they do?” It's the one thing that people struggle to keep in their mind, they know about the breakfast—but this is how I explain IWCA to everyone: “It's a global organization that focuses on empowering women through leadership.” We work on different types of market accessibility, skillsets, and tools for them. Most of them are chapter members through different countries that produce coffee, but that doesn't mean that that's the only type of chapter that exists.

We have chapters in countries that you would say are more consuming countries than producing countries of coffee. So I guess that's a little bit of a MythBuster that people think that only people that grow coffee can be involved in an IWCA chapter. And that's untrue. We have many people that have been members and new chapters that have just been formed that are in countries that don't even produce coffee.

But going back to what the organization does is it empowers people, women especially, in coffee. And what's really important about that is that it is set by the local community. So this is the one fact that I wasn't aware of when I first started volunteering, but I learned through my volunteer experience, the global association of IWCA—their role is to serve the chapter leaders. And so what they do is if somebody comes up and says that they want to create a chapter, that's when the global organization supports them in creating the chapter and creating that community.

But that local organization is the one that decides, “Hey, we're going to focus on health and women. We're going to focus on marketing tips. We're going to focus on financial stability for the women in coffee that are in our region.” They get to decide what it is that they want to focus on. Their organizations are set up to be independent and run on their own.

The IWCA umbrella just connects everybody through the support network, but each of them have very different projects. And that's, I think, unique. And that's why maybe people get overwhelmed by, “Oh, there's so much, each chapter does something different.” But I find the thing that's cool about the organization and the reason that I continue to stay involved is because I know that my work is supporting the global umbrella of marketing the IWCA, and making sure that those women in different countries know that there's an organization that exists to connect them and empower them.

They are the leaders of their own fate for what happens at that local level. And they have all of the access to what they want to do. Nobody's telling them from a global side, “Hey, this is what you must do.” They get to decide that for themselves.

That's what I've found is most special about this organization, because you hear a lot about nonprofits that go in and they say, “Okay, this is how it should be done. We're going to set up the school. We're going to do it this way. We're going to give you the teachers.” And then once they leave, then that school falls apart. There's no infrastructure to keep it going because it didn't come from the community itself, whereas the IWCA was built with the community in mind. They're the ones dictating how it goes, what they want to see, what goals they want to set for themselves. And the global group is just there to support all of that getting done.

Ashley: It seems like that's a big theme in a lot of the work that you do. It's not about saying, “Hey, we're going to do this. And if it falls flat, well, we said that this is how it's going to be done.” It seems like you focus a lot more specifically on how to give a community the tools to figure out solutions that work for them.

And I think that's probably one of the biggest lessons someone can learn from listening to you talk. Because it seems like it's something you think about a lot—how does a group of people come together and actually create something that empowers their community?

So just to start to wrap things up a little bit, I was wondering for people who feel disconnected from the coffee community—maybe they don't see themselves in the SCA, or maybe they don't see themselves in a global coffee community—how can they start to pinpoint their community and start bringing them together?

Mansi: It's hard. I'm not gonna sugarcoat this. If you're looking for that community and you want to build it, I think that you have to be willing to put the work in. This is where, in the type of work that I do, one of the things that happens a lot is people want this ready-made solution for everything like, “Okay, I want this. So I'm expecting somebody else to just have it all ready to go.” And that's hardly been the truth of what I've experienced. Nothing is ready to go. If you don't see yourself in something, then you’ve got to build it, and you’ve got to create that, and it's going to take work.

And what I think is really important is the types of organizations that I've been involved in, the types of projects that I choose to work on—all of it has that general theme of supporting others, finding the right networks, making sure that people can help themselves, but it doesn't have anything to do with the personal gain.

Sometimes people get that confused. “I want this because it's going to help me.” I think when you focus on helping the community, that's when you start seeing that change happen. And I don't know if everybody is in the right space to do that. And that's okay if you just need something that helps you. That's fine. But we also can't keep expecting somebody else to do that work if you're not willing to get involved.

So I don't know—that would be my advice, if someone's looking for that community before they say, “Okay, cool. I need to see a community for myself. I'm just going to go and build one.” Because that's a lot of work. And it's not easy and you can't do it alone. You're going to have to find people to work with on it. Before you do that, you might as well see if there’s a community that connects with some of the things that you want to see—or you're already able to see, and could you just help shape them to get to the next level.

A lot of our charitable organizations that are in our industry—they need support. And a lot of them are very direct to say that they need help with monetary contributions, but if that's not the right way that you can support, I don't think there's any organization that's like, “Nope, we're not looking for any help with volunteers.”

I've seen all of them say that they're open to volunteers. Before we start creating a hundred different organizations for people, what you’ve got to remember when you're trying to look for a community that you belong to, you want a community, you don't want just three people.

This isn't a small exclusive club that you're trying to create, right? You want a big community that you can connect to. So that would be my advice. Look for things that you want to be involved in, try to join something. Even if it doesn't have all the things that you want, that you're maybe feeling—that doesn't matter. Because if you get involved, you're able to influence some of those things to go in the way that you want, or maybe you learn something, maybe you learn why your way of thinking on it wasn't the right way for that organization. That should open up your mind to a lot of different things. That would be my advice.

Ashley: I go back to the idea of what your goal is when you start a community organization, because I think a lot about, what does it mean for me to be personally successful, and what does it mean for the initiative that I want to participate in to be successful?

It reminded me—maybe I'm getting too introspective—but it reminded me of when I was a teacher and I was like, “What's the point in this moment? Is the point in this moment for me to feel like I taught this well, or is the point for the student to understand what's happening?” And those are different sometimes. That is a very hard mental break to make because you ride your success on the success of others.

Mansi: I totally follow.

Ashley: Maybe I’m getting a little bit weird on this, but it was really hard for me as a teacher to get into the classroom and be like, “But I wrote this lesson plan this way.” My idea of success was to deliver it as I had pictured it, and I think the biggest lesson I learned as a teacher is that I had to adapt, because my success in that very linear way, the way that I was picturing it, does not matter.

My success matters when the students are successful. And again, it's part of removing that sense of self and sense of ego and really thinking about what is an actual measure of success in this moment? So I think that you really hit the nail on the head, thinking about how people start community organizations. What is the actual point here?

Mansi: Oh my gosh. I love your teacher reference because I don't think I would have been a lot more clear on these types of things until I had my daughter. Any sense of planning goes out the window.

I still do a lot to prepare. I'm an avid believer that you can't just have a meeting to have a meeting. There has to be an agenda. I led a lot of different community groups, so I value the importance of icebreakers, all of that kind of stuff. But I do know, thankfully because of my experiences with my daughter, that things don't always go the way that you want them to go—that icebreaker sometimes doesn't break the ice. The agenda really doesn't get followed, or we go off on a tangent.

And it’s the same for community groups. I think just because the recipe had worked in a different community, it's not gonna work in every community. And I think that's the thing that I value most about IWCA, is that they support the group and understand what happens when you do community development and that you get to decide what those reasons are and how do you want to do it.

And even in my work at SCA, that's what I get to focus on. LEAD Scholars, for example, they get to decide what they want to focus their education on. If they change their mind, that's fine, too. We're going to figure out how to pivot, how to adapt, how to change from that moment.

That is so important. I think flexibility in anything that you're doing is—especially given this year, gosh! People that had plans for executing different things in 2020, I'm sure that that's turned upside down for everybody. I don't think there's been one person that's like, “Oh yeah, I had imagined this world the way it is this year.”

So it really gives you insight into like, we’ve gotta be more adaptable. We've gotta change things with what [is actually here]. I think it also gives us a little bit more introspection on these buzzwords that we're finding in the community. I would argue “community” has been a buzzword, “culture” has been a buzzword, right? “Workplace ethics.” There's so many different buzzwords and it might be relevant to the time, but what's actually happening for those things right now is something I think about.

That's one of those areas that I would want people to be intentional about what they're doing and what they're saying and what they're working on. Maybe it might help them to feel more satisfied with their day-to-day if they felt like they knew exactly what they were trying to get to.

Ashley: Mansi, thank you so much for joining me. This has been such a fun conversation. And I think a lot of people are going to learn a lot about the work that you do with the SCA.

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