According to the International Coffee Organization, Vietnam is the second-largest exporter of coffee in the world. Despite that, many Vietnamese farmers’ livelihoods remain precarious. About 97 per cent of the country’s production output is robusta, a varietal known for its high caffeine level and intense bitterness – defining characters of the Vietnamese coffee experience. However, robusta often ends up in mass-produced instant coffee or nondescript blends, perpetuating a misconception that it is inferior to the specialty arabica varietal. This suppresses the prices the farmers can command and in turn their earnings.
Sahra Nguyen, 34, founder of Nguyen Coffee Supply, is changing that narrative and bringing more visibility to Vietnamese farmers. Nguyen Coffee Supply imports its beans from a plantation in Đà Lạt and roasts them in Brooklyn. The company has three options (robusta, arabica, and a blend of both) that showcase the diversity of Vietnamese coffee and remove the hierarchy between beans.
Over a video call from her home in Brooklyn, Nguyen spoke with Culture Magazin about her career motivation and vision for Vietnamese coffee.
Before launching Nguyen Coffee Supply in 2018, Nguyen was an independent journalist, artist and filmmaker whose work focused on uplifting marginalized communities. Her first self-produced documentary web series, Maker’s Lane, featured under-represented young entrepreneurs from minority backgrounds in New York City. In 2016, when she was on her way to Cambodia to shoot Deported, her second documentary for NBC News, Nguyen stopped by a coffee farm in Đà Lạt. The idea of a coffee venture started to take shape.
Nguyen’s drive to promote social justice was rooted in her childhood. She grew up as a daughter of Vietnamese refugees in Boston in the 1990s. “I didn’t have any connection to Asian Americans in the media, through TV or magazines. Invisible is a feeling that stands out a lot in my memory,” she recalled.
She started learning from a young age that she was different from her neighbours, from how she looked to the food her mother packed for her lunch. Most of her peers in the neighborhood were Puerto Rican and Haitian immigrants, and she attended the public education system which was majority white at the time.
“The Vietnamese refugee community was brand new to America, so growing up in the 90s, most people around me didn’t have exposure to the Vietnamese American experience. I felt like they really didn’t know how to understand someone like me and what my family had just gone through,” Nguyen said. As a kid, Vietnamese culture was a source of shame and embarrassment to her. “It made me feel alienated, foreign. I didn’t fit in.”
Once Nguyen entered high school, she found her voice with the Coalition for Asian Pacific American Youth, an activist group that empowered Asian American youth in the United States. Through the group, she met mentors and connected with other like-minded students, learned about civil rights movements, as well as organized workshops and conferences on race and identity.
“That suddenly gave context to how I was feeling. I realized it wasn’t my fault, or my culture’s fault. It was because of the systems of oppression that have been designed to make us invisible and powerless,” Nguyen recalled.
After graduating from the University of California Los Angeles with a major in Asian-American studies, Nguyen directed the school’s writing success program, while also pursuing creative endeavours on the side. In 2013, she quit her nine-to-five job and moved to New York to become a full-time freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker.
Her determination to increase representation for Asian Americans has driven the energy behind Nguyen Coffee Supply. It all started because she noticed most advertised “Vietnamese iced coffees” weren’t made from Vietnamese beans.
“I found this to be really unfair to the actual producers of the coffee beans, as they were pretty much being ignored in this promotion,” she said in an interview with Forbes.
To bring coffee growers to the front, she took charge of the entire supply chain, from sourcing the beans to roasting them in Brooklyn, and educating consumers about the process. Nguyen was a casual coffee drinker with no professional training in this industry, but that didn’t stop her from achieving her vision.
“I want to change the negative perception about Vietnamese beans being cheap, or bad, and elevate their image. We can then invest in the land for better agricultural practices and higher wages for the farmers, as well as environmental and cultural sustainability for the country,” she explained.
The beginning was tough. “There was nobody offering me a blueprint or showing me the ropes, so I had to find my own way,” Nguyen said. She did a lot of research on the Internet, connected with experts in the field and asked them as many questions as she could.
The second challenge was to deal with limited capital. Nguyen didn’t raise any outside funds when she started. She used her own life savings and was still working on her freelance gigs at the time to pay herself.
Her resourcefulness helped. Leveraging her experience as an artist and filmmaker, Nguyen created videos, shot product photos and designed the brand assets (logo, bags, stickers and other merchandise) on her own. For the first year, she ran a one-woman show – advertising, marketing, logistics, legal arrangements – she did it all.
“I just focused on telling my story and why I wanted to elevate Vietnamese coffee,” Nguyen recalled. “I guess you would call it a brand identity or brand voice. To me, it is just storytelling, which comes very naturally.”
As a business owner with a daily packed schedule, Nguyen’s tips to deal with stress is to acknowledge it and talk it out with people that she trusts. “I need to get it out of my head and get some new energy in,” she said.
To build a productive workday, she takes a pragmatic approach. She sleeps at least eight hours every night and sets clear boundaries for herself and other people. “I have no problem saying ‘no.’ I structure my day in a way that works for me. I don’t schedule any meetings before a certain time, because I want to start with my best brain.”
Her main advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is to know their “why.” This, she believes, serves as their North Star in the face of uncertainty. “Ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ That goes back to your values and mission. Once you are clear with your ‘why,’ you can make tactical decisions.”
The North Star that has guided Nguyen, whether as a documentary filmmaker or a coffee business owner, is her commitment to raising awareness about marginalized communities. On Nguyen Coffee Supply’s social channels, you can find tidbits of Vietnamese culture and coffee recipes, but also educational posts on anti-racism and the unsung heroes of the food and drink industry.
From March to June last year, the company donated five per cent of its sales (about $US 10,000) to various COVID relief efforts and Black-led organizations, while Nguyen joined forces with New York-based grassroots group Revolutionizing Asian American Immigrant Stories to raise more than US$90,000 for undocumented restaurant workers.
Nguyen Coffee Supply turned two last November and the team has expanded to include five full-time staff members now. Even though the brand continues to grow, it still reflects what Nguyen stands for.
“I’m building this company in the direction where it can support many people, create jobs here and abroad without me,” she said. For Nguyen, that’s the ultimate testament of sustainability.
This content is also available in: Tiếng Việt