Erna Knutsen announced her retirement at age 93 this year, and spoke at the Specialty Coffee Association of America‘s Opening Ceremonies in April. The SCAA, an organization she helped organize (it’s named after a term she coined), honored Knutsen with their very first Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991.
She founded Knutsen Coffees in 1985, after years of working as the executive secretary of a coffee and spice company in the Bay Area. As a secretary, she was constantly pushed out of the cupping room for being a woman. In a must-read interview with Womenetics, she explained the atmosphere of having a woman-owned coffee company in the 80s:
She explains that there are still very few women in the coffee industry, and none that she could think of who are actually importing coffee on their own.
But Knutsen never paid much attention to the men who tried to stand in her way and instead sought out the few who were willing to help her, such as her boss at the coffee company who let her make that first buy. And it wasn’t long before she was accepted and respected by brokers from New York to San Francisco.
Erna Knutsen spoke on stage and touched on a few anecdotes from her career. Knutsen was accompanied by Knutsen’s Coffees CFO John Rapinchuk.
Speech begins at 7:49:
Speech transcribed below:
John Rapinchuk: Yeah, take a little time to travel!
EK: Yeah, up the Yangtze. Do they have coffee in China yet?
EK: (laughs) What a wonderful life, thank you very much. It’s been a thrill. Even though I was kept out of the cupping room and the roaster because I was a woman, and they didn’t call me a woman either. They were all men and they didn’t think women deserved the break. But I fooled them. I bought the company and fired them all.
(loud whoops and applause)
EK: No! Did I? Oh! (laughs) Oh, no. Yeah. Imagine try to keep a woman out? Anyway, I learned a lot from them. One of the highlights was a young fellow dropped by the office and I said, “Hi, there!” And I remembered him. He was a kid from Stanford, the son of the people who brought Mandheling, Sumatra to the USA. Oh, God, what a thrill! He said, “I’m taking this to New York, it’s in my baggage and I’m flying to New York to tell them about it.” And I said, “Oh, come on, let’s take it to the cupping room and roast it.” And he said, “Okay, I’ll go get it!” What a sweetheart!
So there was four men, and I was sitting in the back because I was a female, and they roasted it, made the coffee, and the guy who roasted it said, “Erna, stay in your cubicle, we’ll bring you a cup.” Oh, that took a lot of - I don’t know what you’d call it, but anyway. Well, it was the beginning with my love affair with Mandheling, Sumatra, oh God. It’s still my favorite coffee. So I looked at my boss, Wilmer, and said, “Well, can I buy a container?”
He said, “If you can sell it, sweetheart, it’s yours.”
I said, “I can sell it!” And I started the next day selling it and we sold out in about a month. A container! 250 bags. And to this day, it’s my favorite coffee. I know most of you have tasted it, haven’t you? Mandheling, Sumatra, oh, God, it’s creamy! (laughs)
But what a joy ride it’s been, going to all the producing countries and telling them about how wonderful their coffees are. Where was the wonderful…?
EK: Nicaragua! Oh! The women’s group in coffee [International Women's Coffee Alliance] said we’re going to Nicaragua and I said “ok” and we got there and we walked in, all the men were put away somewhere, (laughs) and big gold and blue banners that said in Spanish…
JR: Las damas de cafe verde. [The Ladies of Green Coffee]
EK: (laughs) Wasn’t that wonderful? We ended up dancing and crying with the women, they were so happy they finally had their hour in the sun. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
I don’t know what else to tell you, but here I am! Am I retiring?
EK: Yes, joyfully. I’m going to miss though. But thank you, thank you, who ever thought of this. Thank you.
Find out more about Knutsen’s Coffees here.