After spending an additional year in Costa Rica working on her award-winning start-up Bean Voyage, SungHee Tark ’16 returned in September to complete her double master’s program in Public Administration and Government at London School of Economics and Peking University.
“For my degree at Peking University, I explored the idea of sustainable development within a Chinese context through case studies of eco-cities,” she says. “At the London School of Economics, I hope to focus more on the intersectionality of gender and income inequality with a specific focus on the coffee industry, and I hope to bring the experiences that I’ve had in the field to the classroom.”
Bean Voyage, co-founded in 2016 with Abhinav Khanal ’16, helps increase incomes of women coffee farmers by eliminating the middleman and giving farmers control over processing and roasting.
In February, Bean Voyage was awarded $55,000 worth of Facebook ad credits as the Grand Prize winner of the Facebook Social Entrepreneurship Award.
Tark, who feels fortunate for the opportunities both at Earlham and the United World College, says her favorite Earlham memories are various late night meetings with friends exploring interests and developing new ideas.
“I’m still very thankful for the diversity of thoughts that my friends had, and their willingness to engage with different views to continually broaden my horizon,” she says. “The uniquely diverse student body has also continuously challenged me in the way I perceive the world.
“We would sit in the Spanish house living room, Lilly Library lobby, coffee shop or at Saga for hours, being the last ones to get kicked out before closing, talking about ideas and thoughts we had,” she says. “While a lot of it was intellectual debate about something that we learned in class or read in the news, many potential business ideas also came about during these conversations.”
While organizing a leadership workshop for smallholder women in Costa Rica in December of 2014, Tark and Khanal learned about the challenges faced by women leaders in the coffee sector: low prices, unreliable prices, a lack of access to financing and gender discrimination.
“As coffee lovers, we were frustrated that even as we paid $3 for a cup of ‘fair trade’ coffee, the people producing the coffee weren’t earning a fair price,” she says. “In the coming years, we deconstructed the value chain and discovered a loophole in the fair trade system which prevented small and independent growers, mostly women, from participating due to massive certification fees.”
Tark and Khanal saw an opportunity to train the women coffee producers to produce sustainable coffee without certifications while creating a transparent marketplace for their coffee.
“The farmers had the curiosity to learn, and we had the skills to facilitate the process,” she says. “Our passion for sustainable development matched the desire of smallholder women for a greater agency, which led to the official launch of Bean Voyage in September 2016.”
The future? Expanding market presence and continued work with small coffee farming communities.
“During this past year, we were able to fully develop the training curriculum for the two communities that we work with, recruited and trained 40 producers in total, and are ready to expand our market presence internationally outside the U.S.,” she says.