Surabhi Agrawal Strives to Empower Coffee Farmers through Traceability and Transparency

As an immigrant to the United States at the age of 8, Surabhi Agrawal has been shaped by her experiences in and the differences in opportunity that exist between the U.S. and her home country of India.

Both her role as a “global citizen,” as she has called herself, and her parents’ professions — her father works for a nonprofit, and her mother is a school teacher — sparked in her a desire to provide access to opportunities to others globally. With this as her vision and a sense of responsibility to give back, Agrawal decided to study international relations in college, with a focus on political science and a minor in religion.

After graduating from Emory University in 2010, Agrawal moved to Scotland to complete a master’s degree in peace and conflict studies. The program took her to Rwanda, where she began her thesis fieldwork assessing the role of agriculture cooperatives as a tool for reconciliation post-conflict.

Having loved this experience connecting with farmers and community leaders, Agrawal says she decided to focus on “evidence-based impact evaluation research within international development.” For two years, she worked in India with MIT Poverty Action Lab’s sister organization, the Institute for Financial Management and Research, leading an agriculture insurance study for farmers and a microfinance management study.

“That’s where I really saw the impact that supply chain could have on the lives of farmers,” says Agrawal. “I was working in the Rice Belt in India and was traveling to villages for research work, and I saw that, even in the most remote areas, you could buy a bottle of Coca-Cola even if you couldn’t access some of the basic goods or commodities there. I began to think about supply chain as a real business tool and wanted to come back to the U.S. and look at how supply chain and access to markets could impact international development.”

Upon returning to the U.S., Agrawal was unsure of what direction to go in with her newfound passion and was considering graduate school when she discovered The Consortium. “For me, it provided an opportunity to get an MBA. I don’t know if I would have thought about an MBA without The Consortium,” she says.

After speaking with as many business professionals as she could to learn more about their journey and the work they were doing, Agrawal says she decided on an MBA, knowing that she wanted to eventually focus on “the agricultural value chain in emerging markets.”

Shortly after being accepted as a fellow in the inaugural Consortium class at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, she connected with Starbucks at The Consortium’s annual conference, the OP. A summer internship focused on ingredient sourcing for the company’s U.S. supply chain solidified her desire to do this work. Agrawal was asked to come back full time the following year, working in Starbucks’ global supply chain division, focused on sourcing.

About a year ago, she joined the global coffee division as a traceability manager and now concentrates on tracing Starbucks’ coffee from bean to cup. “With our two-year pilot underway, I have the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica, Colombia and Rwanda as I aim to understand how traceability will ultimately help the small-holder farmers at origin,” says Agrawal.

She recently spoke with us about her efforts to make a difference in the lives of coffee farmers, the importance of ethically sourcing ingredients and what motivates her to do this work.

What attracted you to Georgetown and The Consortium?

Georgetown is a school that cultivates global leaders. There’s a significant ethical component to how they have structured the program, and that’s kind of the atmosphere I wanted coming from the international development space and intersecting into business.

For me, it was clear that the graduate programs that are part of The Consortium place a priority on having a diversity of opinion in their classrooms and in society and business overall. It fuels an environment of creative learning and [consideration for] different perspectives and [emphasizes] exposure to a variety of cultures and languages as a key component of doing business today.

Was Starbucks a company that you had been interested in prior to being admitted to The Consortium or attending the OP? How did your internship with the company come about?

Leading up to OP, I had learned about the companies that would be recruiting, and I was focused on those that had a connection to supply chain specifically. That is how I found Starbucks.

When I received a call to visit Seattle for the final round of interviews, they connected me with two past Consortium interns who had worked in supply-chain sourcing and logistics and had accepted full-time offers with the company. Just speaking with them and hearing about their backgrounds and experiences, it was something I felt like I could relate to. They were moving their families all the way to Seattle. I don’t think anybody just does that; you have to be convinced of the work and the company, and that was very helpful for me. That’s how I came into the internship, and I saw this firsthand.

Tell me about your current role with Starbucks.

It’s a really unique role. It was created a year ago, when, at the Annual Meeting of Shareholders, our CEO Kevin Jackson announced that Starbucks was going to launch a two-year pilot focused on traceability so that, as a consumer, you know the journey of your coffee from bean to cup. The [hope] … was that access to information would help empower coffee farmers.

Starbucks has full traceability in its coffee supply chain. Knowing the names of all of the coffee farmers we buy from is part of our C.A.F.E. Practices ethical sourcing program; this is 380,000 farmers across 30 countries, so it’s a pretty large supply chain. We are now connecting all of this data to have full, real-time visibility all the way from the farmers at origin to the final consumers.

Right now, we’re in a discovery phase to understand how traceability and access to information will result in social and financial empowerment [for farmers].

I think Starbucks is far ahead in terms of the traceability of its coffee supply chain, but we are on a journey and there’s still much to unravel.

Do you think that companies have a responsibility to ensure that they’re not negatively impacting the communities from which they’re sourcing and, conversely, that they’re having a positive impact on those communities?

Absolutely. Companies have a responsibility to the communities in which they work, and this is a core value at Starbucks. We always say there are many people in the room we have to think about when making a decision. There’s the partner, which is what we call all of our employees; the customer; and the farmer. These are all very valuable stakeholders, [and we have to] ensure we make decisions that consider all those communities.

In your work, have you noticed that consumers are increasingly holding companies more accountable and are seeking out those that act in socially responsible ways?

I think there is a growing trend, especially among millennials, to support companies that are acting ethically and to support efforts in which they believe. In general, there is a call to action from consumers.

I think there’s been an increased focus on traceability, especially in agriculture. For example, consumers want to know where their food comes from, [which has led to] a move toward more local, sustainable and ethical practices.

While consumers are supporting companies that align with their values, I think companies are also rising to the challenge — if it’s not already a part of their mission.

What do you like best about your job?

I love the fact that I get to meet with farmers and hear their stories as part of my work. Going to the origin countries and connecting with the people who are doing the hardest work to bring us a cup of coffee brings an incredible feeling when I hold a cup of coffee in the morning.

I have so much appreciation, knowing that I wanted to work in emerging markets with agriculture and value chains, and I’ve figured out how to do it — and within the context of a business setting at Starbucks. That’s really invigorating.

What motivates you most to do this work?

I am driven by what I believe and by my passion for this work. That’s the foundation I have as an immigrant — to make sure I contribute and live my life working toward something which has meaning to others. That is really what motivates me.

What advice would you give to current or prospective MBA students or recent graduates who are looking to have a positive impact through their careers?

I think, traditionally, people think of corporate social responsibility as the way for corporations to do good, and somebody once said to me, “That’s usually a small division in a company. If you can be part of the core business and understand how the business runs, what it values, and within that realm learn how to make a difference, that will have a big impact.” That was probably the best piece of advice I was given when I started.

Business and impact don’t have to mean corporate social responsibility. There are things that we all can do in our roles and functions in the core business around making ethical choices, decisions which will have a positive impact on the community. I think it’s important to keep that lens on whatever your role is.