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Refuge Coffee with Kitti Murray

By March 19, 2020 No Comments

Refuge Coffee

The most diverse square mile in the country, according to TIME Magazine, is a little town outside of Atlanta called Clarkston, GA. Since the 1980s, roughly 2,500 refugees from over 145 countries resettle here annually. It’s a big deal — so big that Kitty Murray, a Clarkston local and CEO of Refuge Coffee, couldn’t ignore it. 

Refugee Coffee was an idea in 2015 — a “notes on a napkin” plan to radically transform how refugees are welcomed into American communities. Today, they’re a thriving business making a mark on their community through coffee. Acuity’s Kai Moon sat with Murray to talk about growth, social justice, and financing a dream with the Acuity team. 

Refuge Coffee is a radical company that’s really seeking to transform how we welcome refugees into our communities. How have you navigated growth in that process?

“It’s so simple: We’ve remained people focused. We were going over numbers from last year and we exceeded our goals. My co-founder Walt says, did you ever dream that refuge would have financial numbers like this? I honestly didn’t dream in numbers which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. I totally embrace the kind of numbers charge that we’ve had, and of course we want to be good stewards of everything. So that makes numbers important.

“But I think if we can keep people top of mind, and I think we have because of my second point: to remain accountable to really good people.”

Interestingly, Kitti had a counterpoint to her initial comment on growth.

“Growth scares me because growth can sometimes mean you lose something, you know, and you do have to lose some things. Like, the first year we made these really cool homemade medals for our 5k because it looked like us. We did them two years in a row. They took a long time to make. We had to have a bunch of volunteers help us make them. They were super fun. But it was untenable the last two years because we had a thousand people running and we just had to do it differently. You know what I mean? We still had to figure out how to do those things with the same heart and the same feel.”

Kitti then went back to her initial thought on accountability.

“I think being accountable to people and listening to the community and making sure that the people we are accountable to aren’t just a bunch of people like us, but it’s a mix of voices. And then I think this final thing is really important. I think that momentum is a function of privilege. The privileged can move fast because we have a smooth road and good tires, and so sometimes it’s very appropriate to move fast. Sometimes you just need to, and that’s okay. But, I think that ability to pause and consider — and that’s really linked to this thing of accountability, to really hear from other people and hear their voices — is an important thing to do.

“Entrepreneurial people don’t tend to do that super well. I’m just saying that because I’m a freight train and I would like to pass. Mark Zuckerberg said, “move fast and break things.” When you break things you break people, often.

“So that’s a long answer. But I think keeping people first, accountability and then learning the skill of pausing when necessary to think things through really well.

“That pausing piece, that’s the most challenging for me.”

Yeah, I definitely relate to that. The whole entrepreneurial spirit of go-go-go, and all of these projects, and you know, kind of this buzz of life that’s sort of just constant. I think the people that get a lot of value out of those experiences in life are the ones who do take the time to stop and analyze them, and you know, figure out how to learn from them and take that into their future life.

Refuge Coffee

After her reflection, Kai went into her next set of questions about getting more information from Kitti on her insights into creating this incredible company.

A really insightful, great piece, where you had mentioned that there were certain welcoming things that people can do, that say, 8,000 screaming people can’t. What I thought was interesting about that was the three things you listed and how those could also apply. Not just like in our communities of social justice or anything like that, but even in business and interpersonal relationships. And those three things, it was we can start conversations, we can affirm our neighbors and we can create opportunities. So I just wanted to hear from you about what you think that might look like in a business context for people?

“I have existed most of my life outside of a business context. So, the obvious is that businesses are made up of people, and people talk to each other. Even with all our automation, you still have to make decisions and you have to often talk to somebody about them.

“But, for me, the kind of simple, irreducible minimum of what refuge does is this word welcome. It’s a capacity everybody has. It’s a need everybody has. And so, if I can import that into conversations, and learn how welcoming and conversations and the way I’m welcoming as I learn to pause and listen more. That’s a big killer of a conversation is I’m assuming I know what you are thinking. And, learning the art of asking better questions, even problem solving.

“Even buying a truck instead of opening just a coffee shop at the beginning. We didn’t want to do that. And thankfully, because I am not a good listener, but listen to the people who told me that was the better idea.

“I think conversations like learning how you come to somebody with an idea, and then forge that idea into a thing that requires action.”

So often I think conversation can end up going the opposite way of conversation breakdown, versus, you know, how do we engage and keep these conversations going. And, see that as an opportunity to learn about each other in really cool ways. Like you were saying, problem solving can’t be done without conversation and connection with peers and other people that can help you.

The more we connect in, the more we talk, the more we affirm our neighbors, the more opportunities that we see and can maybe grow into.

“We’re a small nonprofit still, and it’s so easy to just put my head down and work at this. And I don’t look at what other people are doing and then when I do, it doesn’t always work really well. Like, we came up with this great idea that we would go to the restaurants on our block and ask to see if we could sell one thing from their menu at our truck. And we would include some kind of communication to drive people to their restaurant. All the restaurants around us are run by refugees who come from other countries, and they said no because they didn’t feel any value from it.

“It’s not that she was upset, but that she thought it was a good idea. And so we had to go back to her and remind her that it wasn’t a failure. That was just the first try, and we’re still trying to figure it out.

“There’s a coffee shop in Stone Mountain that’s not far from us run by a woman from Sudan. And one of our attorneys took me there and said “I want to help her.” And so we posted a bunch of things about her because we went to her shop. She saw it and loved it! Sometimes it takes work to figure out how to do it, and you have to take some time you might not have to do it too.”

Yeah, it’s not just words, it’s actions. And it sounds like too, that there’s a level of persistence or endurance as well that’s going to happen the first time around. You know, it only comes through when you stick to the process and keep trying.

“Exactly. For example, the business closest to us has the biggest parking lot, and our parking lot is abysmal. People park there because there’s plenty of space, but that guy puts a sign up saying “no parking”. So, I just go over and introduce myself to the guy and said, “hey, can we have a meeting and can I invite the city manager so that he can help us figure out parking”, and “hey, we want to do everything we can to be good neighbors”. We were trying to meet in the middle and he didn’t want anything to do with it. It would be easy to say he’s such a jerk, but he’s protecting the businesses that are there, and I get that.”

Something I think is really interesting you do at Refuge Coffee is you put a lot into training the people that you hire and really empowering them to empower themselves in their own life. I know you guys might focus on certain coffee-related things first, but then some of it goes into more career development and helping people figure out what they would want to do long term or study.

“That is the core mission here. But it’s also the thing we know very little about. But we ended up using a job training curriculum that we could use for free. And ironically it was a Christian program, and we’re not a Christian based organization. But then we eventually wrote our own curriculum and realized the way we wanted to do it was to go deep rather than wide. And after much work, it became something I’m proud of. It’s beautiful!

“We talk about dreams. We talk about our mission of welcome and we really hammer that in. We talk about goals and how to set those goals. So our goal is to just walk them through finding their next steps. Overall, it’s a broad smattering of things.

“I would say the coaching aspect of what we do with every trainee looks different.”

It looks like a lot of intentional goes into this process.

“Yeah. But also a lot of intentionality, married with a lot of serendipity. When our trainees leave, they leave us with a vast network of American friends and that’s kind of how life works, right? You turn in your connections and they have those connections, and I think that’s proven to be a really valuable thing.”

I like how that ties back into starting conversations and connections. It all really boils down to just people being people.

“It does, it does!”

Looking forward, now that we’re in 2020, is there anything you’re really inspired to do? And maybe, if you have that, then how do you think that might happen?

“It’s so funny. I even told Walt today because of his role and the way he’s developed leaders under him, I feel like I’m able to dream some personal things in a new way. I don’t know what’s going to happen with some of that, but there’s some personal things which relate to Refuge but don’t at the same time.

“I wish I knew what it was going to look like when we had these two locations and how are we going to manage that with the people? For me the dream has always been to employ more people, to train more people, and to give voice to more people. We don’t do what we do in an echo chamber, but we’re not out there preaching about what we do. So, there’s a middle space that we’re in where just because we’re encouraging people to drink coffee with each other, there’s a message in that.”

In talking about partnerships and connecting with people, we have our own network and when we share this spotlight video, we’ll be able to say, “hey, there’s this great company refuge and they’re going to be doing this in 2020 and you know, we might be able to connect you with someone that can help.”

“We don’t want to drift away from our main mission. But one of the things I’ve thought a lot about recently is, when we first started we were like “we’re the welcoming community and we’re going to beloved community”, and just all the richness that means. And I’ve almost wanted to hijack that. But then I realized, I don’t know if that’s a good idea. And it’s really okay for us to be 30 trainees from 12 different countries and to really end-to-end trumpet the beauty of a community like Clarkston.

“I don’t think we’re veering off course, we’re just growing and doing what we’re doing, which is exciting. But, 2020 is going to be about figuring out what it means to be two places at once. And expanding leadership opportunities for our staff who are former refugee trainees. We’re working on making our space in Clarkston even more welcoming. We’ve got operational changes, nothing drastic. But our hope is to increase our refuge payroll by 35% over here. And with another space hopefully we’ll be able to do close to that. And a lot of them are interested in going back to their countries one day and serving in some way. So yeah, that was kind of a vague answer.”

No it’s totally fine! I’ve definitely come away with even more than I knew before.

“My husband and I both see the world in a real kind of way, you know? I have to work at that realizing people want to hear the truth. And the truth for us is, we’re a nonprofit that sells a product that’s around $5 or less. So, it’s the fact that we’re able to do it is a testament to people’s generosity. And it really is, and I don’t talk about this a lot, but it’s a generosity that generates work and dignity, not just, oh let me give you stuff.

“And so the fact that you all have given us a CFO for a year, that’s like our trainees who are more embedded in our business are like, “wait what?” And I tend to give this happy picture and everybody thinks “Oh they’re good”. Like I have donors who call and will say, “you all are doing so great, so I’m moving my money over to this other organization because they need it more.” And I’m like, “whoa, hold up.”

It’s definitely a balance. It’s a lot like your vision of Refuge Coffee. I think from this whole conversation you can see that it’s this huge impact over so many people. You probably couldn’t count how many people have come through your doors or your training and all of that stuff, and how they’ve impacted someone else in their own life. And opening a second location and just continuing to see that grow.

And speaking of the Acuity stuff, and the CFO, I’m excited to see how hopefully they can really partner with you guys.

“Yeah, I love it. It’s been good as I try to keep my eyes on things, but not wired to be a micromanager. I just trust Walt. He’s so thankful to have a trustworthy person who gets this big picture. It’s been really great.”

Is there any specific wisdom or advice you might want to share with us as we leave?

“Something that’s been rattling around in my brain lately, but Seth Godin said, “the people at the top get hurt last.” And, I sort of feel like I’ve lived a lot of my life at the top. Like not at the top financially and could even appear to be at the bottom by some standards. I have a lot of unearned advantages, which is a good definition of privilege. So the thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is if the people at the top get hurt last, I think what that also means is the real hurts in the world — caused by injustices and things we care about — the pain of that feels like a whisper to us, compared to those that actually experience it.

“The big danger is to assume I know what a person in that kind of pain needs. It doesn’t mean “oh I can’t help you because I don’t know,” it’s “oh I’m going to lean in and get to know you and have a relationship with you so that I can be there and I can feel it. I want to prioritize not just the idea I have of what the refugee crisis is, but with the real pain, not that I can understand it. But I want to love a few people well enough that I know.

“Create an empty slot for a friendship or empty time on your calendar to lean into them. But I think that creating some space in my social calendar so that I can act and not make assumptions, is something I’d challenge anybody to do.”

It reminds me of the word holistic and holistic relationships. And that you can’t assume that you know what someone is going through, or maybe where their problems really are until you take a holistic approach.

“Right. It takes a little bit of extra work to push outside of my own network to say “how do I push outside of my own network and discover some people whom this opportunity would be a game changer.”

Well, thank you again so much for taking the time to share everything with me. I’m very excited to see where Refuge Coffee is going.

You can find more information about Refuge Coffee on the website