By Jessica Shambora
July 8, 2009

Last week, Rica Rwigamba attended a meeting with Starbucks (SBUX) CEO Howard Schultz at the U.S. embassy in Rwanda. Rica lives in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, where she is co-owner and director of New Dawn Associates, a “responsible tourism” and event management company. Rica is also a participant in the 2009 Fortune
-U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership
, an extension of the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit. Through this mentoring program, Rica spent three weeks in May shadowing her assigned mentor, Mary Wittenberg, who is the CEO of the New York Road Runners (which puts on the New York Marathon each November). We asked Rica to share her observations of the Starbucks event with Postcards readers, and she offered this captivating account.

It was a gathering of more than 50 Rwandan business people and staff from the U.S. embassy, Howard and members of his team, and fair trade guys. It felt great to be part of it, and I realized the power of being part of a network. Lots of the people in the room were directors and experts in their fields. Some have undergone trainings or U.S. sponsored programs like me, and that is how they got invited.

I had read about Howard, so I knew his remarkable achievements and his picture. It was funny to see that the woman I sat next to didn’t have a clue about him and didn’t even know what he looked like until I pointed him out. I can’t bet $1 million USD that she wasn’t the only one who didn’t know about him, because I don’t have that kind of money. But it was interesting to witness that!

His message wasn’t what was expected. Everyone waited to hear how he had climbed the ladder and made so much money. He didn’t really talk about that. Instead he talked about how special Rwanda was and how he felt he wanted to contribute to the development of the country. He praised the people of Rwanda for their efforts and constant struggles. He shared his memories of the meeting he had with a woman member of a coffee cooperative whose dream was to own a cow. He compared his life as a young man who came from a humble background and how it’s not money that really makes a person, but values — which many forget about because of riches.

The highlight of the event was the interaction with the crowd. One man pointed out an initiative started in eastern Rwanda to sell coffee made by women once a week. This was done to encourage men to let women make money from their work. Women often work the hardest in the field but they never get to sell their crops. So this guy said that they convinced the men to let women sell their products on Thursday at local markets and brand them “coffee made by women.” And what is selling the best?  The man then asked Starbucks to encourage this culture within cooperatives that they participate in and one day sell “Coffee made by Rwandan women” in their stores.

The crowd really applauded that. And a woman from the fair trade group later said that something similar was happening in Latin America, and that Femina was sold as “coffee made by women.” It will be interesting to see if this initiative is actually implemented! Howard invited this guy to attend a meeting in Seattle that will take place this year.

It was great to witness the active discussion and to know that Starbucks has now opened an office in Rwanda, and that we are the first African country where they have an office. If nothing else, I hope our coffee gets a permanent market and that the culture of drinking coffee is spread in Kigali and around the country. Did I say that I am drinking delicious Rwandan coffee while writing this?

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