It is around these concepts — community and a spiritual connection to our world — that Tebabu Assefa officially launched Friday a Takoma Park venture called Blessed Coffee. Assefa’s business was among the first in Maryland to become a sanctioned “benefit corporation,” and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and state Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), who sponsored the legislation last year, offered words of encouragement at a ceremony in downtown Takoma Park.
A “benefit corporation” isn’t all about social responsibility, officials said. Companies that use the law need to make money, to thrive.
The new law is as much about social responsibility as it is about job creation, O’Malley said. “It all comes back to jobs,” he said.
Raskin, who also teaches law at American University, explained that corporations under the law have a “fiduciary duty to maximize profit.” The benefit corporation allows for-profit firms to “build social responsibility back into their DNA.” The law requires them to share profits with causes outlined in their charters. Business practices are reviewed annually by independent auditors to ensure companies are making an impact.
Half of the profits from Blessed Coffee’s future retail shop will go toward area nonprofits.
“The law allows community-minded companies to take the high road rather than the high bid,” Raskin said.
The main benefit of the law, however, is as a branding and marketing tool. The community feels that it’s a part of the business, and people are often willing to pay for products when they know the money goes toward groups and causes they support, Raskin said.
“Seattle has Starbucks and Takoma Park has Blessed Coffee,” Raskin said.
Blessed Coffee has created four jobs with a wholesale business online. Assefa said he is negotiating for a building near downtown Takoma Park where he can open a coffeehouse, and he hopes to build his own African-style coffee shop in the next few years.
Assefa is hosting small dinners to introduce his business and entice Takoma Park residents to buy small “shares” in the company. In the end, he wants half of Blessed Coffee to be owned by residents and farmers, and half of the profits from the wholesale operation will go to Ethiopian farmers.
“People think I’m crazy, people think I’m stupid” for giving up half the profits, Assefa said. He calls his business model “virtuous exchange.”
Assefa, who came to the United States in 1981 and runs a marketing and design business catering to the Ethiopian community, said Blessed Coffee was a way of connecting the financial needs of his homeland with the U.S. market.
“We can create wealth — and we can bring wealth back to the community,” he said.
These days, most Ethiopian coffee farmers don’t earn enough to make ends meet, a situation Assefa calls “the coffee crisis.”
Assefa is working with Tadesse Meskele, who runs the Oromia coffee cooperative in Ethiopia and flew in from the country to be at Friday’s event. His union represents 200,000 farmers, Meskele said, and he is working to persuade them to join Assefa’s effort.
“The average latte [price] is 1,000 percent greater than the farmer will make on the beans,” Meskele said. When many are suffering and dying, he said, “it is unacceptable to allow a fellow human being to suffer such a gross injustice.”
On Friday, Mihrat Bewota poured coffee for anyone who wanted some. She sat in the Takoma Park gazebo and served popcorn (traditionally, it’s sorghum, she explained) and roasted barley.
In Ethiopia, “coffee was everything: life, spirit,” Bewota said. Blessed Coffee means bringing Ethiopian culture to the D.C. area, she said.
“Do you know how proud I am to serve you coffee in Ethiopian dress, in the Ethiopian style?” she asked. “I’m just proud.”