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Vikram Patel JD'13: Social entrepreneur

“Being able to put one foot in front of the other and figure things out along the way is, at a fundamental level, probably the crux of making a vision a reality.”

Benchmark Coffee Traders is a two-year-old company that sources coffee internationally and imports and distributes it in America. Vikram Patel JD’13, director and founder, focuses on coffee growing regions of the world that produce top specialty coffees, but are particularly challenging to source from and bring to market in the United States.

Vikram recently took the time to answer some of the Alumni Office's questions about his work, motivations, and experiences at Vermont Law School.

Describe your work in more detail.

The primary region we work with is Papua New Guinea (PNG), but we also have established relationships with producers in Yemen and, most recently, Peru. PNG is an extremely underdeveloped country and the farthest coffee growing region from America. It is a tribal culture with 90 percent of coffee processed rudimentarily. We have direct relationships with some great producers in the 10 percent who are producing top quality coffees. We travel to PNG regularly to maintain and further develop our relationships, check harvesting and processing, and monitor the social improvement projects Benchmark helps support.

Once we choose our types of coffees, they get packed in shipping containers and sent to port. We then work with an export team in PNG and an import team in America to bring the container in. PNG is a minor shipping lane for most shipping companies so transportation has its own set of challenges. Sourcing and logistics is one side of the work, and finding buyers is another.

We continue to build our customer base here, which started from ground zero. I spent the bulk of my first year teaching myself about the coffee business in America and traveling the country from roaster to roaster, establishing relationships before I brought my first container in. I think I put 75,000 miles on my car that year! Breaking into an established market with coffee from a relatively minor and unknown region wasn’t easy. The challenge, however, was also an opportunity because we are able to give people beautiful flavors that they don’t find in coffees from this part of the world. Also, most roasters don’t have direct relationships or experience with PNG (or Yemen), so having someone that can transparently and traceably source great coffee from these parts of the world fills a gap in many roasters’ coffee programs. Once a roaster decides to work with Benchmark, we put great effort towards a service that educates the roaster about the coffee, the region, and the social improvements that their dollars help support.

What is a typical day like for you?

There really isn’t a typical day and there is no schedule set for me. I really have to map out my year, month, week, etc. based on particular goals I have set for myself. I spend a good deal of time planning out my goals for myself and the company and setting a strategy of how to achieve them. At any given time, a task for Benchmark will fall into one of three main categories: sourcing, logistics, or sales. Sourcing is done either when I’m at origin or with a group of well-respected roasters in Chicago that make up my quality control team at home. I taste all coffees that I purchase with this team. Logistics is managed by the export and import teams. This part usually ruins my sleep for a while because PNG’s time zone is 15 hours ahead of Chicago. Logistics is about contracts, obtaining and comparing quotes from various companies, and filing particular documents with Customs and the FDA. If the filings are not correct, fines can be severe and the government can even seize your cargo. Paying attention to the details is critical. For sales, I travel almost every other week. We place an emphasis on expanding our customer base while fostering the relationships that we have. It can be a grind, in that I force myself to travel quite often and have to remain resilient, but it is also really fun. I love connecting with new people. To me, this is about going from a “salesman” to becoming a trusted partner. With the great relationships that we have, both my buyer and I are on the same side of the table. We both support the relationship and want to see each other succeed.

What motivated you to start Benchmark?

The social and environmental impact surrounding coffee production sparked my initial interest in being involved with coffee. During the summer of my second year in law school, I had the opportunity to travel to PNG for the first time. I toured several parts of the country and during my tours of the coffee farms, I discovered the social programs that some farms run. Thousands of coffee pickers get free housing on the farms, their children have access to education in free schools that are farm run, and there are free healthcare clinics. The producers we work with also make real efforts to limit their environmental impact. The coffee we source is shade-grown and sun-dried. They have also installed water re-circulators to conserve water. Everything that I saw made me want to be involved. The idea of “doing well while doing good,” coupled with an entrepreneurial interest, started conversations that eventually led me to start Benchmark.

What are some of the daily challenges you face in maintaining the “strong social agenda” that the company embraces?

When you work directly with the producer, as opposed to working through a coop or exporter as many importers traditionally do, you take on the role of dealing with issues at a farm level. I don’t really consider this a daily challenge so much as I consider it an opportunity to have direct impact on farmers, pickers, and other parts of the production chain. It’s rare, almost unheard of in PNG and Yemen, to have a direct impact like this and it’s great to be able to pass that impact on to the roasters I work with. Still, supporting a farm directly means supporting many fixed costs that remain regardless of where the international price of coffee goes. Sustainable pricing is a challenge that goes both ways: we have to keep costs down in order to meet a price the market can bear, but we must also show buyers how a premium price supports a better quality coffee with a huge social impact. This can be a tough sell, but the trend and culture of specialty coffee in America supports environmentalism and fair farm wages. The core philosophy of Benchmark aligns with and continues to promote this trend.

How does your law school education prepare or assist you in your work?

I think a law school education applies in many different ways, directly and indirectly. My work requires some knowledge of shipping law, contracts, employment law, negotiation, and a good deal of public speaking which law school, at one point or another, will require. It is not so much recalling every aspect of employment law or international law, for example, but I am primed to review and understand the materials when necessary to take the proper steps. This really introduces the indirect applications of my law school education: critical thinking that helps me figure out things. I had no background in coffee and had never started a company prior to Benchmark. Being able to put one foot in front of the other and figure things out along the way is, at a fundamental level, probably the crux of making a vision a reality. Some graduate school “train” people to develop specific skills. I feel that law school is a true “education” in the most sincere sense of the word. It helps develop curiosity and a way to think through issues when you have no background in the details. It is truly a multidimensional education with an expansive application.

Was there a particular professor or course that stands out as especially memorable or influential during your time at VLS?

Yes! I had several professors and school administrators that were incredibly supportive and went out of their way to help me. I have never experienced such a level of caretaking from teachers before VLS. Appellate Advocacy with Professor Greg Johnson is an experience that remains with me. Professor Johnson was one of the few teachers I have had that effectively separated his personal opinions or potential biases from his challenging of students’ opinions in a productive and respectful manner. He fostered healthy debate in such a great way. I really respected that at the time, and I still do. He also made a point to compliment students when praise was deserved. This was one of my favorite classes in law school. It was an encouraging experience that helped me gain confidence in my own abilities.


Visit the Benchmark Coffee Traders website to learn more about Vikram's company.

Vikram Patel JD'13

Vikram Patel JD'13

 

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