Maria Renee Morales talks women and leadership in Guatemala.
Originally published on International Women’s Day 2017 (March 8), this conversation is between Maria Renee Morales and Michelle Maisto, head of content and social media.
Guatemala still has a distance to travel when it comes to gender parity. Women coffee producers still struggle to find equal footing amongst their male peers — which gives Volcafe Way an added benefit. Often, women producers don’t so much arrive in coffee as they are thrust into it by the death or retirement of a father or husband. Many find themselves in the position of needing to learn fast, in an environment with little interest in helping or teaching them.
We’re thrilled to have Maria Renee Morales as a leader in our Guatemala operations. As assistant manager, Maria Renee is part of a team that cups coffees, determines which are right for different clients, and works with producers to settle on a price and get the coffees prepared for export.
Maria Renee Morales: I was working at a bank, enjoying the glamorous life that comes with that. But I just got tired of it. You never really did anything. It was just paper and paper and paper. I finally said, “I need a change!” and I started teaching at a university, teaching economics and math. One day, I was meeting with the dean and he said, “Look, I’ve got a friend who has a coffee mill and he’s interested in hiring a trainee. Would you be up to it?”
Michelle Maisto: Why did he think you’d be a fit?
MRM: He just saw something in me, I don’t know. He said, “He asked me for a boy, but I thought of you. Maybe you can try.” I said, “Ah, me? A lady at a farm, with boots and jeans? Well, I’m going to try.” I sent my CV and I went to my first interview, and they really emphasized: You will have to go to the farms, you will have to go to the mills, you will have to learn from the bottom up. You will have to learn everything. And they said, “This business is complicated, and it’s very expensive to make a mistake, so you have to learn everything, and you are going to be groomed to be one of our managers, a general manager, whatever you want. The opportunities are endless. But are you up to it?”
And I have to tell you, it was so hard. It was. You have to go to the mills. They are 100% boys. They see you and they say that you are so fragile, or you cannot do things. “This is how you turn on the machine.” Okay, can I try it? “No, you’re going to get hurt.” No, I’m not going to get hurt. I just want to try it. “No, no, no. You’re a lady. You cannot do it.” Why? I just kept bumping into this.
Finally, I thought: I have to get into their boy’s club. I need them to be open to me. So I decided to learn everything about futball — about soccer. I spent my whole weekend watching the Spanish League, so when I went in on Monday I knew what happened and I could chat with them. They were like, “Oh!” And that was my way in. And now, of course, I’m a huge fan.
MM: What made you decide to take this on, to fight this fight?
MRM: When they told me about the training, and I realized that for two year I wouldn’t have any responsibility, they were just going to pay me to learn, I started thinking, “Hey, I really want to be part of a company that will invest in me like that.” That was really the pull for me.
MM: So your training was one year in the mills and one year in the office?
MRM: Yes, and of course, the mill year was harder than in the office. I learned to do everything, from picking the coffee, drying the coffee, washing the coffee, storing the coffee, weighing the coffee. Everything.
Then at the office came the buying. Eduardo [Cabrera, the purchase manager at Peter Schoenfeld] said, “Okay, you are going to go on a trip to to try to buy coffee.” And I thought, OK, no problem. But, whoa, Michelle. On my first trip, I called on the producers and, “Hello, my name is Maria Renee. I work for so-and-so. Do you have coffee? Can I get your price?” They just shut me out. “Yeah, thank you. I’m going to talk to your boss. Can you pass me on to the boss?” I said no, I can give you the price. “No, I want to talk to the boss.” I was like, oh, these guys!
And when they came in to the office, they’d say to me, “Can I have coffee, please?” They thought I was the secretary! It was so tough. But eventually, they learned I was tough and that I could buy. But it is still is very hard for me to go to the East and buy coffee there because of the whole culture. In the West, in Huehuetenango, it’s totally different. I can buy, like, so much coffee there. But in the East…
MM: I’m sure women producers are so thrilled to find that they have you to work with. What has it been like for you to work with female producers, like the Mujeres en Café de Guatemala (Women in Coffee of Guatemala)?
MRM: Although this project has just started, working with and getting to know these ladies and their stories and the drive they have to find new and better ways of doing things — it’s been remarkable. •