After more than 10 years in corporate America as a scientist and then a buyer, Phyllis Johnson MC/MPA 2015 felt a gnawing emptiness. “I had a nice home, everything I needed,” she says. “Yet I thought there had to be more to life—to work—than generating revenue.” During a business trip, an entrepreneur introduced her to Kenyan coffee beans at a shop that imported items from East Africa. Something clicked: She was immediately drawn to the idea of working in the coffee industry. It felt like “going home,” she says.

Over the past 23 years, Johnson has risen to become a leader in the industry, working to create a sustainable business built on relationships of fairness and equity through BD Imports, the business she founded with her husband, Patrick Johnson MC/MPA 2015. But her quest has continued, and she now aims not only to bring the joy of coffee to consumers while advancing underresourced communities, but also to change the industry.

Portrait of Phyllis Johnson in a kitchen holding a cup of coffee.The youngest of eight children, Johnson grew up working on a cotton farm in rural Arkansas. “Even though my family owned land, we worked on farms owned by white proprietors who came to check on the work,” she says. “What I learned in coffee is that this [segregated structure] exists all over the world.”

Coffee has complex ties to slavery and colonialism and is still marked by systemic inequalities. Although it is among the oldest and largest commodity industries, and the global coffee market is valued at $460 billion as of 2022, some studies point out that a coffee farmer’s share of a $4 latte might be only 3 cents.

From the start, Johnson has focused on helping those most often overlooked in the industry to access information, opportunities, and training—both in her company’s work sourcing beans from local producers in Africa and Latin America and in her leadership roles with the International Women’s Coffee Alliance, an organization that aims to empower women in coffee communities worldwide. Her efforts to establish IWCA chapters in East Africa have been featured in a case study at Oxford University and Harvard Business School.

It was while speaking at HBS that Johnson was encouraged to apply to the Kennedy School. Her experience there has “helped me look at my past as well as the future,” she says. “Why Are So Many Countries Poor, Volatile, and Unstable?” and other courses shifted her thinking from “seeking the right answers to asking the right questions” and taught her how to collaborate effectively with unlikely partners in a common quest.

“Even though my family owned land, we worked on farms owned by white proprietors who came to check on the work … What I learned in coffee is that this [segregated structure] exists all over the world.”

Phyllis Johnson MC/MPA 2015

As one of only a few women of color to serve on the board of the National Coffee Association of America, Johnson often wondered what it would take to bring more diverse perspectives into the room. Diversity initiatives, which she felt called upon to lead, would percolate from time to time and then dissipate. When, after the murder of George Floyd, the racial reckoning of 2020 occurred, she wrote an open letter exhorting the industry to examine its outcomes rather than rest on a few diversity hires.

The extraordinarily positive response compelled Johnson to create the Coffee Coalition for Racial Equity, whose mission is to build pathways for Black Americans to advance in the industry. She has brought together a board of coffee professionals from around the world with diverse backgrounds and speaking multiple languages—all “trying to move the needle” toward greater equity and inclusion. 

When she sips her morning brew, Johnson thinks of the many people who produced it. Every cup connects her—connects all of us—to many lives, to the seeds of countless hopes and dreams. Johnson’s purpose, she has come to realize, is to honor those hopes and help create paths for fulfilling those dreams.

Photo by Joyce Yong