What do we think of when we hear the story of “David Vs. Goliath”? It is the story of the victory of good over evil, the small versus the behemoth, and the weak over the powerful. However, it is also a story of courage versus control. Goliath is hungry for control of power, and David has the courage to stand up when no one else will. However, something that has kept me up late is the question, “when does one transition from being a David to a Goliath?”
I am a 29-year old social entrepreneur, originally from Kathmandu, Nepal, but raised and brought in many countries. When I was in university, I co-founded a social venture called Bean Voyage, with a mission to ensure thriving income for smallholder women coffee farmers. Through a bundle of services consisting of training, financing, and market access, we take smallholder women coffee farmers through a “Voyage” that spans three years, and at the end of the program, farmers generally fetch 200% higher prices for their coffee than the commodity market. They go from being subsistence farmers to micro-business owners, and sometimes, even commercial farmers.
We started Bean Voyage with one producer partner, Ericka Mora, whose story inspired a person from Nepal and South Korea to drop everything out of college and move to Costa Rica to build an organization from scratch. Ericka and her family were third generation farmers, but lacked the market linkages to make their coffee business sustainable. In fact, when asked “what does coffee mean to you”, farmers like Ericka would often say “form of life” meaning that is was part of their lives, but never seen as something that could break the vicious cycle of poverty that farmers often face. Sunghee (my co-founder) and I didn’t have the coffee know how to support Ericka’s farm, but had the inspiration to learn, and test out different solutions. We co-developed various ideas: from an initial market platform that sourced roasted coffee directly from Ericka, to developing a 12-week training program focused on improvising yield and qualify, we tested various ideas, and eventually scaled the ideas that worked to reach 534 farmers (in 2021).
Reading my story, you must be imagining the David vs. Goliath story, and this story could be an ideal case of a couple of passionate social entrepreneurs tackling a massive industry, and building a sustainable value chain — one farmer at a time. From living off of $50 a month “salary” in our Year 1, to now employing a dozen community based youth as local field officers, we have had to take courages steps to get this farm, and we are very proud of this journey.
However, as we enter our fifth year of operation, we are also reminded of the journey that social entrepreneurs tend to make from being the “David” to the “Goliath.” What do I mean? Just like the overconfidence and the desire for control led to the eventual downfall of Goliath, social entrepreneurs can fall prey to the celebrity that often surrounds this work. Ever since social entrepreneurship became a term that was widely known, thanks to organizations like Ashoka, and Echoing Green, and a number of college-based accelerator/incubator programs, there is a rising tide of good intentioned people wanting to become social entrepreneurs, and often times, in the excitement of becoming an entrepreneur, one can fall prey to also wanting more control, and eventually being the Goliath of their own story.
As a result, our team started a process in 2022 to design a succession plan for the founders. We have led the organizations for the first five years of operation, and going forward, we will put our energy and passion to propel the organization towards greater impact. However, we also recognize the urgent need to seed power to the communities that is at the heart of this organization: coffee farming communities. As a result, we are building out a playbook, operational documents, and knowledge transfer documents so that when the time is right (and we are committed to publishing a deadline by which this will happen), we have already prepared and trained a new generation of proximate leaders to lead Bean Voyage and its programs towards greater impact.
When we started the succession planning process, we felt very uncomfortable. The sudden loss of control can feel frustrating, and often the idea that we will not be operating the organization at some point in the future, can feel scary. What if all goes to waste, and the organization ceases to operate? Indeed these are real fears that we are still working with, and perhaps it is the same courage that led us to start Bean Voyage can help us usher it towards a new, more sustainable future.