November 14, 2018
René Edde, senior business development manager of coffee for Fair Trade USA, initially thought that the Executive Master of Sustainability Leadership might just be a good resume builder. But it turned out to be a transformational experience.
“I grew into my shoes as a leader,” Edde said. “I learned to embrace my authentic self both in my career and in my personal life. I began to believe that I had the power to make a difference with every decision that I make.”
In the following Q&A, Edde explains what she learned from the EMSL, how she balanced classwork with her career, and how the EMSL has given her the knowledge and confidence to pursue her dreams.
What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study sustainability?
Sitting down to a steaming bowl of sopa de pollo in a tiny, dimly-lit Nicaraguan farm home, I listened to Doña Maria tell her story. Doña Maria is a small shareholder coffee farmer with a tiny plot of land supporting a few vibrant specialty coffee trees. She beams with pride while sharing her life and hosting lunch for her foreign visitors who have supported the purchase of her coffees and helped make this life possible. Doña Maria has no husband and no children and lives in a world that all too often does not support women without the convenience of men. Through her participation in the women-run cooperative, Soppexca, she has access to agriculture assistance, health care, community banking and skill-building workshops. She has paved a path for herself through hard work, dedication, and genuine Nicaraguan tenacity.
As I sat at that table consuming my soup and devouring the inspiration of Doña Maria’s story, I found a deeper connection and passion in coffee and knew at that moment that I needed to take steps to further my career in order to make coffee supply chains more sustainable and to drive impact for farmers like Doña Maria. It was a literal “aha” moment for me and it influenced not only my decisions and my goals, but mostly it changed how I looked at the world.
Why did you choose the Executive Master of Sustainability Leadership?
From barista to photojournalist, career coach for at-risk youth to global nomad, bartender to English teacher for Tibetan monks, I’ve built my career through a variety of experiences and roles. Some would look at my path and only recognize that it is questionably non-linear, but I have followed up on opportunities as they have presented themselves. I have never been afraid to say yes and try the next new thing. My life has been filled with unique experiences that have guided me to develop a set of skills and qualities that led me to find the EMSL program at ASU.
The more I learned about the program from professors and graduates, I knew that it was the right fit for me. Not only was I able to integrate the program into my life while continuing in my busy and chaotic career with Allegro Coffee Company and Whole Foods Market, but I was able to make the most of the program’s components and courses to drive value to my career and expand on my skills while diving into understanding what it truly takes to make a great sustainability leader.
Were there any particular classes or nuggets of information that really stuck with you or inspired you?
From the first day with my cohort, our professors kept telling us that we would come out of this program notably different than when we arrived. Throughout my life I’ve embraced change and taken risks, I’ve faced fears and taken leaps of faith. I remember chuckling at the thought that a year of education would do anything more than just provide me some tools, some information, and a piece of paper to show off to prospective employers. Now I laugh at the realization of just how wrong I was and that change was a bit of an understatement. I believe that you get out of anything what you put into it, with EMSL I got so much more. I grew into my shoes as a leader. I learned to embrace my authentic self both in my career and in my personal life. I began to believe that I had the power to make a difference with every decision that I make.
But even more amazing was to see those around me begin to also change with me. At the time of the program I had around 400 employees at Whole Foods Market. Through my growth I embraced the power to encourage their growth. Contrary to what some viewed as good corporate leadership, I encouraged my team members to go back to school, to change careers when they weren’t happy, to take risks and to become their own best advocates.
I learned so much about myself through my participation in the EMSL program. I let go of a drive for perfectionism in favor of just digging in and getting things done. I learned to embrace my failures and to learn from them. I learned that I am not going to be the best at everything that I try to do, but that I am uniquely me and uniquely qualified for making an impact in the world. I’ve learned to take all of this not only into my career, but into my life. I’ve learned to embrace self growth and that I can always work to be a bit better each day.
How did you balance your classes with your job?
It took a lot of dedication and time management to integrate my graduate studies into my life effectively. I made use of all my spare time; from reading articles on the L train on my way to work to diving into projects and studies on all of my days off. I listened to lectures while cleaning my house. I updated presentations on my phone while waiting in line for coffee. Looking back though, it didn’t feel like hard work. The courses were extremely interesting and I was able to cater my projects to topics that I was passionate to explore. There’s a lot of truth to the words of Theodore Roosevelt: “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”
How has the EMSL advanced your career or prepared you for your new role at Fair Trade USA?
I’m amazed every day that my job is now my reality. It doesn’t feel like a job. It feels like I manifested my dream career. I use the skills learned from the EMSL program every day in my work with Fair Trade USA. I comb through data to find impact stories of how producers successfully invest their premium payments. I develop presentations to encourage coffee companies to utilize Fair Trade certification and its inherent traceability to integrate into their sustainability programs.
I went into the EMSL program with a career in coffee, and I left the program understanding the language of corporate sustainability and learning how to influence decision-makers to drive impact into their supply chains. The EMSL program solidified for me the idea that business can and should be used to drive the world to be better and provided me with the skill set to influence others to do better.
What does sustainability mean to you?
I feel that when most people hear the word sustainability they automatically relate it to things like climate change and reduce, reuse, recycle. It conjures up images of solar panels and windmills. But to me sustainability means humanity, compassion, impact and change. I believe that we need to understand where our goods come from, who grows our food, and to do our best to understand the impact that our purchasing decisions have on the global community. We have a responsibility to give to the world a little more than we take from it. Sustainable supply chains with strong initiatives of social impact have the power to do just that. No one wants a handout. Sustainability through the supply chain offers a hand up to producers and has the potential to affect livelihoods throughout multiple levels of the value chain.