The founder of City Girl Coffee explains why women still face roadblocks to running their own businesses.
Alyza Bohbot founded the Duluth, Minnesota-based City Girl Coffee in 2015 with women in mind. She wanted to start a “girl-tastic” coffee company, but for Bohbot, that meant more than a pink banner on her website, or a logo that depicts a girl riding her moped. It meant finding a way to make sure her company would monetarily benefit women, too—marginalized women with few opportunities for economic growth, in particular. So she decided to go straight to the source, importing coffee only from farms owned or operated by women.
“The main priority is to make sure that women do have some ownership in the farm,” Bohbot told Food & Wine. “And to make sure they have resources and education, and that they’re paid fair wages.”
Bohbot explains that sourcing her coffee from these farms means that the revenue goes straight back to the women who run the operation, and in her experience, that means the surrounding community reaps the benefits of a boosted economy, too.
“When women have access to education and resources, they take that and put it back into their communities, [and create] more sustainable industries around them,” she says.
Bohbot works with many coffee farms that fall under the jurisdiction of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance—which supports the “participation of women in all aspects of the coffee industry”—but she often encounters women coffee farmers through her already-established contacts in the industry (Bohbot inherited another coffee company, Alakef Coffee Roasters, from her parents, so she has many “long-standing relationships” with coffee importers). In this way, she’s been able to do business with coffee farmers from places like Honduras and El Salvador who aren’t connected with any organization but meet City Girl’s standards.
At the moment, City Girl sources its coffee from eight to ten “origins” (or countries where coffee is produced), primarily in South America. That may not sound like very many, but as Bohbot explains, there are so many roadblocks that women face when it comes to starting their own businesses.
“There are still some areas of the world where it’s illegal for women to own land, where women have to petition to own land,” she explains as one of the first barriers women in particular face. “Women are still expected to produce and raise a family, and that’s that.”
Bohbot also cites the fact that many poor people in the countries where coffee is produced have “very little access to technology,” which makes it even more difficult to find a market for whatever they’re producing, whether it’s coffee, chocolate, or any other farmed commodity.
“There’s just a lack of resources across the board to get farmers’ product to market,” she says. “Women are [even] less likely to have access to the technology and the finances to market their product every year…. In any community and any culture, women often face more barriers than their male counterparts. We have to overcome a bit more. That’s not biased, that’s just true.”
Part of City Girl Coffee’s mission to provide a market for women who have managed to break through. That’s why this year, she’s hoping to launch a new arm of City Girl Coffee: what Bohbot calls a “digital marketplace platform,” that would allow women farmers to have better access to farmers that might want to potentially buy their coffee. The service would work in the other direction, too. In other words, Bohbot would be connecting roasters and farmers through a global online network. A common problem that she faces running City Girl Coffee inspired her to work on bringing the network to life.
“One issue I’m finding is that if we were running low on our Brazil supply, for instance, maybe [our farmer] didn’t have a good producing year so she doesn’t have enough product left. So [then] my general manager has to call all of our importers to ask if anyone has any Brazil coffee from a woman produced farm to help us finish production,” she explains.
Bohbot hopes that an online network of coffee farmers will allow her roastery and other socially conscious companies to find the product they need with ease, even on a time crunch. City Girl will also be expanding to new markets in 2018. Previously, most of their business has been confined to the Twin Cities area (although you can buy the coffee online), but Bohbot says that soon the company will be expanding so that City Girl Coffee will be available in Missouri.
In the midst of this period of expansion, however, Bohbot isn’t changing her original mission for City Girl Coffee in the slightest. It’s a company that is for women, run by a woman, that does more than preach empowerment to consumers—it puts that ideology into action.