Launched: Pier Coffee in 2014 and Engender International in 2017
Seattle-based entrepreneur Erin Williamson believes in supporting women workers, and she absolutely puts her money where her mouth is. As the owner of Pier Coffee, a cold-brew coffee company, she sources her beans from woman-owned or operated farms. And as the co-founder of a nonprofit called Engender International, Erin works to protect and promote women at every stage of the supply chain.
We spoke with Erin about both her businesses, operating a mission-driven company and why economic stability is so very important for single moms and women in developing countries.
Erin, what did you do before you worked for yourself?
I have worked for myself for years, but previously I worked for nonprofit arts organizations. In college I studied Central Asian art history. Although I loved what I studied with a fierce passion, you won't be surprised to learn the job pool for Mongolian-focused art historians is rather limited!
After college, I worked for galleries, museums and an orchestra. Eventually, I focused on small arts organizations because I loved the opportunity small nonprofits have to make an impact quickly and creatively. I had no idea at the time, but small arts groups are wonderfully entrepreneurial, often by necessity. I learned a ton about flexibility and recovering from failure doing that work.
Tell me about how you got started in the coffee business?
I was the executive director of an arts organization in Burien, a town just south of Seattle. Burien, at the time, didn't have an independent coffee shop, so I thought, "Why not open a coffee shop?" It seemed like such a simple idea!
At first, I had no idea what I was doing, and the coffee shop took over my whole life. The shop still exists and is owned by an amazing couple who decidedly do know what they are doing. Starting the shop and running it for a few years gave me the business bug, and I left the shop to launch Pier Coffee, a packaged cold-brew coffee company.
How did you get up and running, and what challenges did you face?
I started Pier Coffee in my basement laundry room as a single mom with two little kids. The financial pressures of being a single mom were a driving force behind Pier Coffee. Single parents are often juggling on a high-wire with no room for error. In my experience, small start-up businesses are not error free, so a lot of acrobatics were required to keep the whole circus from collapsing.
As Pier Coffee grew out of my basement and became more stable, my role shifted from a "maker-hustler" to a business owner and leader. As the owner of a company, I began noticing in many meetings, I was the only women in the room. It became such a regular occurrence I began to wonder why this was the case. Business ownership rates are significantly lower for women, and women are still underrepresented in many corporate positions. It seems crazy.
l also work with another local nonprofit called Ventures that empowers low income entrepreneurs to start and grow businesses. I teach business classes, and they have an incubation store in Pike Place Market where the students can sell their products. Over 60% of the entrepreneurs I work with at Ventures are women.
You’ve co-founded a non-profit, Engender International, that aims to certify products made in a woman-friendly supply chain. Was this idea born from operating Pier Coffee?
The conversation about starting Engender came out of learning the number of women who do the majority of work end up with little money in their pockets. In some regions, women do up to 90% of the field work growing, harvesting and processing coffee. Yet they own less than 10% of the finished product they sell and less than 15% of the land on which it is grown.
One of the great things about owning a business is if you see a problem, you know it is your job to fix it. You don't wait for a suggestion from you boss or co-worker -- the very nature of ownership means it is up to you. The nonprofit sector encourages that same sort of drive forward. If you see a problem, nonprofits are a way to leap in and try to make change.
As a single mother, I know all about the importance of money. Economic stability is power. All over the world, it’s a type of power that is often kept from women. Women have less access to economic stability through both individual circumstances, such as domestic violence, and though systemic barriers.
Our goal at Engender is, quite simply, to change this. We see a world where women have economic equality and that world is healthier, more vibrant and more profitable for all. It is a lofty goal, I realize, But I believe it is vitally important and achievable.
How does Engender aim to address that goal?
We have several programs we’re working on. One that’s easy to visualize is a product stamp we’re creating that will signify to consumers the women working along the global food- or textile supply chain to produce this product were paid fairly. It’s the same concept as a “fair trade” or “organic” stamp. Imagine seeing this stamp on coffee or on clothing and knowing the products were made by women who were treated fairly.
How do you certify these global supply chains?
We work with external certification companies already on the ground throughout the world. They check things off according to the standards we’ve set. This is a super new endeavor, but we already have a coffee product we hope to certify this year.
Back to Pier Coffee. I understand you’re at a crossroads right now. What’s on your mind?
Pier Coffee is at the point where, in order to scale and keep the mission of our company at the forefront, we need to work with outside stakeholders. Our mission is to source high-quality coffee from woman-owned farms and cooperatives and use that coffee to offer our customers excellent cold brew.
Finding the right people to join our mission driven-company, building those relationships and managing growth is a whole new set of skills. I don't necessarily value growth for only growth's sake, so it is time for me to reflect on our path to this point and make a decision about the direction and future of Pier Coffee.
Moving a cold brew tank at the brewing facility
Why is it difficult to scale a mission-driven businesses?
For my product, the hard part is scaling the engineering, the facilities and the equipment to mass-produce a handcrafted product without compromising quality.
Is there an alternative to scaling up?
Right now, I’m looking at the landscape and asking how I can solve the scalability problem. If not, how do I stay rooted in my mission? Maybe it becomes a hyper-local product, or maybe I reimagine what the product actually is. I’m very much in that “visioning” process right now.
Figuring out what success looks like for you is an extremely interesting part of being an entrepreneur. We often equate success with a certain set of numbers --growing according to projections or being in business for a certain number of years. Sometimes success is just diving in and doing something in the first place. The value is in the learning, and then reinvesting that knowledge in another product. Sadly, we don’t really have a good way to talk about or measure that sort of success.
Why is it important for women-owned businesses to support other working women?
I hope at some point the playing field is so level that you support businesses based just on their quality and how you want to spend your dollars. But right now, the playing field isn’t level. I think it’s up to us women who have the economic flexibility to tip the scales -- it’s our responsibility to support women entrepreneurs in order to level the playing field.
What insights can you share with any budding entrepreneurs?
If a new entrepreneur has a mix of blind faith, enthusiasm and a little bit of doubt all at the same time they will succeed. The drive and excitement to do something regardless of its potential to fail gets everything started, but the thing I never have enough of is the devil on my shoulder saying, “What are you doing?!”
I have enthusiasm and faith in spades, but I don’t have enough of the naysayer. If I started all over again as an entrepreneur, I would figure out how to build some naysayer into the process from the get go.
QB Community members, how do you balance a mission-driven venture with making money?
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